It’s surprising how little we talk about John Archer. Born in Liverpool, he and his Canadian wife moved to Battersea in 1890 when he was about 30. He was clearly an industrious gentleman, with myriad jobs over the years including professional singer, and a successful photographer (running a studio in Battersea Park Road), while also at one stage being a medical student. He travelled extensively – making it around the world at least three times – and it’s easy to see why he was attracted to Battersea, which in 1890 was a fairly newly built and fast evolving part of London. But the political scene in Battersea is where he would become famous.
John first got in to local politics after attending the Pan-African Conference, an unusual event in 1900 designed to unify influential figures from across Africa to draw attention to the injustices going on under colonial rule. At the conference he met many leaders of the African diaspora, and this clearly awakened him to some of the impact he could make in politics.
Because while John’s mother Mary Theresa was Irish, his father Richard was from Barbados – and this was at a time where being black was a pretty serious obstacle to political success. But that didn’t put him off, and in 1906, he was elected as a councillor for Latchmere Ward on Battersea Borough Council. He was later re-elected for several more terms – in 1912, 1919 and 1931.
But his biggest moment was in 1913 when he was elected to a one-year term as Mayor of Battersea by his fellow councillors. This was a major post (not a ceremonial role like some ‘mayors’ are now), and the election battle was fierce – he had to deal with racist campaigns against him and allegations that he did not have British nationality… in the end he won by a single vote (40 to 39). Battersea was known for fairly radical politics at the time, but this was a ‘landmark’ moment even in Battersea – a sit was was the first time a black man held a senior public office in London.
It got lots of press coverage, and John was well aware that this was quite a moment, not just for London:
“My election tonight means 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 will go forth to the coloured nations of the world and they will look to Battersea and say Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done has been to show that it has no racial prejudice and that it recognises a man for the work he has done.“
Race issues ran deep in Britain, and John’s election was far from universally welcomed. Soon after the election, reflecting on the hate mail he was receiving from around the country, he said “Do you know that I have had letters since I have been Mayor calling my [Irish] mother some of the foulest names that it is possible for a mother to be called. I have been made to feel my position more than any man who has ever occupied this chair, not because I am a member of the council, but because I am a man of colour. Am I not a man, the same as any other man? Have I not got feelings the same as any other?”
But John was a tough cookie who wasn’t easily deterred. He was an active politician with a determination to drive action on civil rights issues – fighting cuts in unemployment relief, and the practice of sending young residents of Battersea to a workhouse.
He later stepped down so he could act as the election agent for one of Britain’s first Indian MPs, Shapurji Saklatvala – and clearly did a good job as Shapurji won over 2,000 votes more than the nearest rival and became MP for North Battersea. John died at 69, while still deputy leader of the Battersea Labour Party.
For over twenty years John lived in a terraced house at 55 Brynmaer Road, just off Battersea Park Road, that escaped the redevelopment of the 1960s and is still standing. The then-new Archer House flats near Battersea Square were named after him soon after his death, and more recently High View school has been renamed John Archer Academy in his honour. In 2013 (100 years after his election as mayor) English Heritage installed a blue plaque at his former house in his memory, and the same year he featured on a Royal Mail commemorative stamp series of Great Britons – which showed him wearing the Mayoral chains of office in front of Battersea Town Hall.
But John was a real pioneer, and frankly deserves more. And that’s probably why Wandsworth Council are taking forward plans for a statue in his honour – pledging £10,000 in October to get things going, and looking for donations to cover the rest of the cost. Current Council leader Ravi Govindia commented that “many people in Battersea and Wandsworth are very proud of John Archer’s contribution to Battersea and London; he was a true pioneer and in time has become one of the earliest role models of black achievement in London”.
The precise location of the statue is yet to be confirmed (“a high profile location”) – it could be in Battersea Park (not too far from John’s house of twenty years), though for visibility and accessibility a more promising option is the junction of Falcon Road and Lavender Hill. Possibly best of all is the newly upgraded area by the front of Battersea Arts Centre – because this of course used to be Battersea Town Hall where John was elected, and where he managed to make such a landmark impact on British politics. This would be Lavender Hill’s first statue, and a fitting way to remember both John’s legacy, and how radical Battersea’s politics were at the beginning of the last century.
For more on John Archer, this article in the South London Press is worth a look, as is his Wikipedia article. The campaign for the status has seen national coverage – for example this article in the Daily Mail.