John Archer: black pioneer of labour politics

Submitted by AWL on 5 October, 2021 - 11:31 Author: Sacha Ismail
Painting of John Archer

Painting of John Archer which hangs in Liverpool Town Hall. It contains many important details about Archer. The paper is The Crisis, edited by W E B Du Bois


“My election tonight marks a new era. You have made history tonight. For the first time in the history of the English nation, a man of colour has been elected as mayor of an English borough… That news will go forth to all the coloured nations of the world and they will look at Battersea, and say it is the greatest thing you have done”

– John Archer, 1913

In January, Workers' Liberty published a pamphlet on Shapurji Saklatvala, the revolutionary socialist and Indian nationalist who became the first Labour MP of colour – in the South London borough of Battersea, in 1922. Saklatvala entered Parliament in large part due to the support of another pioneer of ethnic minority representation in the British labour movement.

Saklatvala’s selection to stand in Battersea North and his two successful election campaigns were driven by John Archer, who in 1913-14 had been Battersea’s mayor (council leader, not just ceremonial mayor).

Archer’s election caused a sensation, because of the colour of his skin. Of half-Barbadian and half-Irish descent, he has often been described as Britain’s first black mayor. In fact that was Allan Glaisyer Minns, a Tory elected mayor of the small Norfolk town of Thetford in 1904.

Archer’s emergence as the first black leader of a London borough, the first black leader of a Labour-run council, and the most prominent black representative in Britain’s pre-war labour movement was highly significant. Like Saklatvala’s election, it was not a fluke, but rooted in the distinctive internationalist political culture of Battersea’s labour movement and left.

Liverpool to Battersea

John Richard Archer was born in Liverpool in 1863, in a predominantly Irish and Jewish working-class area. His father was a ship’s steward from Barbados, his mother from Ireland. (He was brought up a Catholic and remained personally observant – while refusing to attend religious ceremonies in his official capacity.)

Liverpool, built on the slave trade, was a centre of organising to win UK support for the Southern slave-owners during the American Civil War; but it also had working-class protests against such support, though on a smaller scale than Manchester and elsewhere in the North West. As a child, not long after the war, Archer saw a black stage-adaptation of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; in 1918 he said that “from that moment the seeds of resentment were planted within me that have resulted in making me the race-man I am”. In 1913 he expressed pride at being mayor of Battersea during the 50th anniversary of the US Emancipation Proclamation.

After travelling the world as a seaman, Archer settled in Battersea with his wife Margaret, a black Canadian, in the early 1890s. Plausibly the borough’s very large Irish population was a factor.

One of many remarkable facets of Archer’s story is the woman who lived with him and Margaret in Battersea for a number of years: Jane Roberts, a former American slave who had later married the first president of Liberia.

There are indications that Archer studied medicine and was a professional singer. He eventually set up a photography studio: there is a plaque on the building where it was on Battersea Park Road.

Black activism

Around the turn of the century, Archer became involved in local left-wing politics, and wider black activism. He attended the Pan-African Conference held at Westminster Hall in 1900, which called for an end to racial discrimination and for Britain to grant self-government to black colonies in Africa and the West Indies “as soon as practicable” (that cautiousness was common among colonial rights movements at this point).

He was elected to the executive of the short-lived Pan-African Association set up at the conference, one of two representatives for Great Britain. The other was black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Archer’s friend as well as political associate until his early death in 1912.

At the conference Archer also met US black leader W E B Du Bois, with whom he established an ongoing connection.

In 1906 he was elected as a Battersea councillor on the ticket of the labour movement-Liberal “Progressive” alliance which had run the council since 1894. Another black activist, Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams, who had taken the initiative to organise the Pan-African Conference, was elected as a Progressive candidate in Marylebone.

Archer and Sylvester Williams were encouraged and supported to stand by Dadabhai Naoroji, the Indian nationalist leader who was radical Liberal MP for Finsbury Central in 1892-5 and gravitated towards the socialist left. Naoroji actively supported the 1900 conference.

So Archer was a link between Naoroji and his more radical successor as “MP for India”, Saklatvala.

The Battersea labour movement and the Liberals

Battersea was an early centre of distinct labour movement politics. It was a stronghold of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation. A founding Battersea SDF activist, John Burns – who played a key role in the 1889 London docks strike – was elected Battersea's representative on the London County Council in 1889 and as its "Independent Labour" MP in 1892.

The Battersea labour movement was, however, intertwined with the left wing of the Liberal Party. Burns the MP quickly went over to the Liberals; he was re-elected five times as a “Lib-Lab” candidate and in 1905 became the first working-class cabinet minister, in the Campbell-Bannerman Liberal government.

The Progressive alliance which took control of Battersea council in 1894 was dominated by the Trades and Labour Council, but that body included local “radical” Liberal organisations and the alliance included Liberal candidates too.

Despite these Liberal connections, the Progressive administrations carried out reforms which put today’s Labour councils to shame, including London’s first health visiting service, free school milk, a council house building program, and extensive directly employed council labour for construction projects. Moreover, they developed a policy of mobilising the electorate in meetings, demonstrations and protests, helping to develop widespread political awareness and left-wing sentiment.

Battersea Labour did not permanently break away from the alliance until 1915, then sweeping the 1919 elections.

Archer’s political journey reflected this. He joined the semi-labour, semi-Liberal Battersea Labour League set up by John Burns to elect workers to political office. After the national Labour Representation Committee expelled Battersea Trades and Labour council for its Liberal links in 1906, and a good chunk of the local labour movement left to establish a Labour Party-affiliated body in 1908, Archer remained with the League and the Progressive alliance. However, by 1918 he was in the Labour Party.

By the end of 1906 he was already prominent enough to speak for Battersea Labour League at a large public meeting in Battersea Park celebrating the council’s work over the previous decade. From then his rise was steady, despite temporarily losing his council seat when the Tories took control in 1909-12 (he continued as a member of the local Board of Guardians, overseeing welfare provision).

Archer and Charlotte Despard depicted at a meeting invaded by right-wing medical students during the remarkable "Brown Dog affair" (1903-10)

Trailblazing

How did the Battersea labour movement come to elect London’s first BAME council leader and the first BAME Labour MP?

Battersea's trailblazing was not limited to Archer and Saklatvala. In 1912-13, Archer’s immediate predecessor as mayor was Thomas Brogan, a radical Liberal and trade unionist who was prominent as an Irish nationalist. In the 1918 general election, when Labour and the Liberals stood against each other in Battersea for the first time, the Labour candidates were Arthur Lynch and Charlotte Despard, both Irish nationalists. Lynch had previously been elected as an Irish nationalist MP while under sentence of death for fighting against the British empire in South Africa!

Despard, a pioneering socialist feminist and builder of the Battersea left, was chosen for the first election in which women could stand. She was one of only 17 women candidates in 1918, out of thousands, and one of only four Labour women (not counting socialist Republican Constance Markievicz in Dublin, the only one elected).

A large section of Battersea’s working class, and labour movement activist base, was Irish. Campaigning for Irish rights, equal rights here and self-determination in Ireland, was a central strand in the left and labour movement politics which became dominant in the borough.

Battersea was a centre of opposition to the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Many local organisations campaigned against the war, as did the council. Battersea Stop the War Committee included the SDF, the Labour League and the Liberal and Radical Association. George Lansbury addressed a demonstration of five thousand in Battersea Park. (John Burns’ opposition to the war combined anti-imperialism with virulent antisemitism.)

In 1902 Battersea was the only council that refused to celebrate Edward VII’s coronation, reported by one newspaper with the headline “Battersea versus the British Empire”. It refused to fly the Union Jack on Empire Day or give school children time off to celebrate.

During the 1905 revolution the council passed a resolution protesting the massacre of Russian workers. In 1919 it passed resolutions calling for an end to the blockade of Bolshevik Russia by the UK and other states and for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland – both seconded by Archer.

In 1913, once Archer’s nomination for mayor by the Progressive alliance became known, there was a press frenzy, some of it very ill-informed. The Daily Telegraph reported that he was born in Burma…

Press speculation pushed Archer to declare he was “prepared to meet any man on a public platform on the question of colour prejudice”. The Daily Mail quoted a Progressive councillor saying “we are united in supporting the election of Mr Archer… we do not recognise any colour prejudice in Battersea”.

Despite that and despite Archer’s elated speech when he was elected (quoted at the start above), it seems Battersea was not completely united in its anti-racism. He complained publicly that as mayor he had received abusive letters, calling his “mother some of the foulest names… because she married a coloured man”.

But Archer's response to racist abuse was militant: "It is a great victory such as never gained before… I am the proud victor. I am a man of colour."

Archer’s political stance on the First World War is hard to make out. The council itself maintained unity by neither explicitly opposing or supporting the war. As mayor in 1914 and then as a councillor and Board of Guardians member, Archer focused on energetically defending local working-class living standards. Like Minnie Lansbury in East London, he became known as a fighter for the rights of ex-servicemen and the unemployed.

The APU

His prestige in London black circles were strong enough to be chosen as the president of the African Progress Union (APU) set up in Autumn 1918. The APU was a network of black people from various parts of Africa, the Caribbean and the US, mostly students or recent ex-students. Its aims were to “promote the general welfare of Africans and Afro-Peoples”; to spread “knowledge of the history and achievements of Africans and Afro-Peoples past and present”; and to create “a public sentiment in favour of brotherhood in the broadest sense”. In 1919 it set up a residential and social club for black activists to stay and meet up in London.

Archer was a propagandist for those African “achievements”, regularly speaking about about the stories of prominent black people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and particularly African Americans.

The APU lobbied in 1918 against Germany’s African colonies being returned to its control after the war, and for an African delegate to the Peace Conference.

In June 1919 Archer led an APU delegation to his home town of Liverpool to discuss the “race riots” that had convulsed the city that month. This was part of a wave of violence against ethnic minorities and migrants that swept many British seaports in 1919 – in addition to Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull, South Shields, East London and several parts of South Wales. A noxious tradition of working-class and even trade union agitation against ethnic minority and foreign workers interacted with post-war unemployment and housing shortages to produce a nationwide chain of racist explosions.

As well as meeting the Liverpool authorities, the APU partly paid the fees of Afro-Guyanese lawyer Edward Nelson, who defended black men arrested in the Liverpool clashes.

As APU president Archer struck a militant tone, telling its 1918 conference that “it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your president. I am not asking for anything, I am demanding.” However, although he was clearly moving leftwards, the wider message was still ambiguous. He sharply attacked the British empire but also implied it could be supported if it changed its attitude to the black peoples within it.

Saklatvala

However, he seems to have shifted further. As a delegate to the second post-war Pan-African Congress organised by W E B Du Bois in London, in July 1921, he chaired a session on colonial freedom – and introduced Shapurji Saklatvala, an intransigent Indian revolutionary, to speak.

Saklatvala had just been selected as the Labour candidate for Battersea North, with Archer’s strong support. In the jingoism-dominated election of 1918, Battersea stayed Liberal, but there was a good chance of it going Labour this time. Given Archer’s politics, it makes sense that he wanted a dark-skinned member of one of the empire’s subject peoples as the candidate. It provided a channel to link his wider internationalist and anti-racist politics with Battersea labour movement work.

Given Battersea labour’s politics, Saklatvala’s selection was in a sense unremarkable. It was however a striking stand in a labour movement some of whose rank and file had participated in the 1919 riots – and whose national leadership were abandoning their criticisms of the British empire as they prepared to administer it (the first Labour government came to office in January 1924).

In conditions of post-war instability, as Labour replaced the Liberals as Britain's second party, there were three elections in two years. Saklatvala was elected Labour MP for Battersea North in 1922; narrowly lost the seat in 1923; and narrowly regained it in 1924 as a Communist Part of Great Britain candidate with local Labour support.

Archer ran all three campaigns. In 1924 he helped negotiate Labour support for Saklatvala, despite the recent ban on Communists standing as Labour candidates; and chaired the final mass rally of Saklatvala’s campaign.

The split

Despite the growing persecution of Communists in the Labour Party, the Battersea labour movement remained fairly united through the May 1926 General Strike. After the strike's defeat, a drive from the national party to split Battersea Labour pushed leaders and activists to choose a side. After the publication of a letter from Saklatvala to the CPGB leadership, seized by the police when it raided the party’s headquarters, urging “merciless measures to fight the Labour Party” and attempts to get direct trade union affiliations to the CP, many on the Battersea left felt obliged to side with the Labour right.

In 1929 Archer would run the campaign which ousted Saklatvala from Parliament, replacing him with a Labour right-winger.

The CP’s new "Third Period" policy (not backing Labour even against the Tories and where the CP had no candidate) and the general political recklessness that came with it clearly did not help. Some also suggest that, for Archer and others, a desire to remain in local political leadership through the Labour-run council was a factor. That are different sides to that.

A sort of careerism might have been involved. Equally, Battersea’s council was miles from the wretched Labour councils of today. It did nothing comparable to the Poplar rates rebellion of 1921, but it did actively support Poplar. And it did over many years help mobilise Battersea's working class to demand and carry through major improvements in their lives and their community, as well as for wider struggles.

In a sort of mirror image of Saklatvala, who became less and less interested in local issues and more and more focused on the CP nationally and on global anti-imperialism, the last years of Archer’s life were spent heavily focused on Battersea Labour and council politics. He held positions in the council and in municipal life right up to his death in 1932. His distinctively black political connections seem to have faded from the early 1920s.

John Archer was, at least for a period, clearly part of the radical left of Britain’s then very powerful labour movement. Oddly, however, he does not seem to have talked very much at all about socialism. He was not a Marxist or a revolutionary. His story still has plenty of positive things to teach today's left and labour movement and inspiration to provide.

Sean Creighton, a South London labour movement historian and expert on Archer, summed up neatly: “He knew which side of the political argument he was on: against injustice whether on racial or class grounds, and the importance of local government in the creating of a fairer society that could help meet a wide range of needs that capitalism was not providing for the majority of people.”

• Sean Creighton's pamphlet on John Archer, on which much of this article is based, is highly recommended. It can be purchased here. For an illustrated talk on Archer by Sean, see here.

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