About John Archer – London’s first Black mayor
The story of John Archer, London’s first Black mayor gives some insight into race and politics in Edwardian England. He is remembered for an outstanding record of service to his local community and his career in politics and his role in the struggle against racial discrimination.
John Archer was born in Liverpool on 8th June, 1863. He lived in Blake Street, which is now demolished, with his father Richard Archer, a ship’s steward, originally from Barbados, and his mother, Mary Archer (nee. Theresa Burns), an Irish Catholic immigrant, she was thought to be illiterate as she signed her son’s birth certificate with an ‘x’, and his brother, Albert. Blake street, was in the heart of the city, home to sailors, and workers in the shipping industry.
Much of his early life is unknown, it is thought he worked as a seaman taking him to the Caribbean and the United States, when questioned he would answer "in a little obscure village in England probably never heard of until now – the city of Liverpool, I am a Lancastrian bred and born".
During the 1890’s, Archer returned to England, he had fallen in love and his new wife, a black Canadian called Bertha, set up home moving to Battersea, in London. He started a photographic business with a studio on Battersea Park road, winning a number of awards for his work. He took group photographic portraits of local dignitaries who would go on to become his colleagues and friends
He began to take an interest in local politics, in addition to establishing himself as black activist, concerned with political and social rights. Battersea was poor, overcrowded area, and a hotbed for left-wing political activity.
An Alliance was formed between local labour and liberal organisations, in 1894, which looked after Battersea’s municipal affairs. Archer, a member of the leading organisation within the Alliance, the Battersea Labour League, quickly gained a reputation for his wit and as a leading public speaker.
Archer attended the 1900 Pan-African Conference held at Westminster Town Hall. Organised by Sylvester Williams, there were delegates from Europe, Africa and the United States, including Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Alcindor, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 1906, Archer was elected to the borough council for the Latchmere ward, Battersea, he was one of six councillors, and served on many of the Council’s committees. He lost his seat in 1909, but won it again three years later.
He made headlines on 10th November 1913, at fifty years old, he was elected mayor of Battersea.
"You have made history tonight. Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done is to show that it has no racial prejudice, and that it recognises a man for the work he has done."
Over the years he had made friends with local ‘radicals’ including John Burns, Tom Mann and Charlotte Despard. In 1918 Archer became election agent for Charlotte Despard, an Irish socialist and suffragette, in her bid for parliamentary candidate in North Battersea.
The First World War had just finished and Archer’s political Archer’s political stance shifted to the left. In 1919 he was elected to the council as a member of the Labour Party, but was unsuccessful in his attempt to get himself elected into the House of Commons in the 1919 General Election
That same year, Archer went to Paris as a British representative of the Pan African Congress, organised by W.E.B. Du Bois. He went on to chair the Pan African Congress in London in 1921, where he introduced the Indian left-winger Shapurji Saklatvala, (who was to become the first Black MP), in a session on colonial freedom. He became the election agent for Saklatvala, the Communist Party candidate for North Battersea during the early 20’s.
He joined the Board of Guardians, supervising public health and welfare, then became Chair of the Baths Committee. He kept close ties maintained with the Nine Elms Swimming Club for the remainder of his life. In 1929, Archer moved away from the Communist Party and in the General Election of that year, he became election agent to the successful Labour Party candidate. He held a variety of political posts being president of the African Progress Union, a member of the Wandsworth Board of Guardians and governor of Battersea Polytechnic. Archer was active in the formation of the new Battersea Labour Party and was elected Deputy Leader of Labour Group in 1931.
It was later that year that his health began to fail, and after missing a number of important meetings, he was admitted to St James Hospital, in July, where he died on Thursday 14 July 1932, just a few weeks after his 69th birthday.
His funeral was held at the Church of Our Lady of Carmel in Battersea Park Road on Tuesday 19 July, and was buried in the Council’s cemetery at Morden.
In 2011 John Archer was commemorated with a Blue Plaque in Battersea Park Road.
In April 2013 Archer was honoured by Royal Mail in the UK, as one of six people selected as subjects for the ‘Great Britons’ commemorative postage stamp issue.