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John Archer (1863-1932)
John Archer can only marginally be considered in a collection of Communist biographies by virtue of his brief association with Saklatvala, in the context of the early concept of Labour Communism. Nonetheless, as an individual he is sufficiently interesting in the larger picture to be considered worthy of inclusion.
He was born on 8 June 1863 in Liverpool, his father being a ship’s steward from Barbados and his mother an Irish Catholic. The evidence suggests that John Archer was a merchant seaman In his youth; his wife Bertha was a black Canadian, but it is not clear how they met, or where Archer had travelled before he settled in Battersea, which was certainly by 1901.
He was by this stage a professional singer but appears later to have been a medical student at some point. Archer began to become involved in left-wing circles about this time. He was linked to the work of the Battersea Trades and Labour Council and its alliance with the local electoral political group, the Progressives, which sought to control local municipal affairs, such as fair wages, social and leisure services, from 1894.
He attended the first Pan-African Conference in July 1900, held at WestminsterTown Hall and was elected to the Executive Committee of the short-lived Pan-African Association established at the Conference.
In November 1906, standing as a Progressive candidate, Archer was elected to Battersea Borough Council as one of six councillors for the Latchmere ward and he also opened a photographic studio in Battersea Park Road. Some photographs taken by him have survived in Annual Reports of the local Trades Council. He was appointed to the Baths, Health and Works Committees. Later on, he joined the Board of Guardians, which supervised public health and welfare, then became Chair of the Baths Committee. He maintained an interest in the Nine Elms Swimming Club for the rest of his life.
The following year he was being attacked in local journals for too close an interest in the writings of the SDF leader, H.M. Hyndman.
In the November 1909 Council elections the Progressive Alliance, the Labour Party and the socialist organisations fielded separate lists of candidates and Archer failed to get re-elected.
In 1909, he was re-elected for Latchmere Ward, and shortly afterwards re-elected to the Board of Guardians. Following re-election of the Progressive group as a majority, Archer was Mayor from November 1913 to November 1914.
Only the second black mayor in Britain (the first was a Bahamian doctor elected in Norfolk in 1904) but, being the first to be elected in a major city, he attracted much attention, receiving many messages from well-wishers throughout the world.
Archer increasingly threw himself into local politics, becoming identified with the struggle to improve local conditions through the Borough Council and the Board of Guardians.
By 1919, Archer had become election agent for Charlotte Despard, celebrated suffragette, Irish nationalist and socialist parliamentary candidate in North Battersea.
In February 1919, he attended the first post-war Pan-African Congress in Paris and, in June, as President of the African Progress Union, he led a deputation to Liverpool to discuss the recent race riots in the city. The APU also financially aided the Guyanese lawyer who defended black men arrested in the disturbances.
In July 1921 Archer introduced the Indian left-winger Shapurji Saklatvala in a session on colonial freedom at the second Pan-African Congress and was to be election agent for Saklatvala in 1922, 1923 and 1924, brokering a deal by which his candidate was uniquely unopposed by Labour. When the Labour Party imposed a ban on Communists holding office, Battersea Labour Party opposed the move, especially as it affected its MP. Saklatvala.
The local Labour Party was disaffiliated and Saklatvala had the whip withdrawn in 1924 and from then on sat as a Communist MP. When the police, raiding the Communist Party HQ in Battersea, discovered a letter from Saklatvala outlining plans to undermine the Labour Party. Archer set up a new affiliated North Battersea Labour branch in his shop, and organised the campaign of a new candidate, William Sanders, who fought and defeated Saklatvala in 1929.
His health continued to deteriorate and he was admitted to St James Hospital, where he died on Thursday 14 July 1932, a few weeks after his 69th birthday. His death certificate states the cause of death as cardio-renal failure.
British Library Board Online Gallery feature by Mike Phillips