Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Black and Red in Battersea

John Archer,
Battersea's black
mayor(left) and (right),
Shapurji Saklatvala, Communist MP

BATTERSEA, in south-west London, has several claims to fame, but two of which it can be proud in this, Black History Month, are that it was the first London borough, perhaps the first place in Britain, to have a black mayor, and one of the first places in the country to elect an Asian MP.

In recent decades much of this riverside borough became gentrified and trendy ("South Chelsea" as a 1980s yuppie told the cab driver), but when John Richard Archer arrived in the 1890s, Battersea was a centre of industry and railway yards, and home to those who had come to work in them.
When he was elected Mayor in 1913, replying to newspapers speculation that he was from India or Burma, or anywhere else, John Archer declared that he had been born - "in a little obscure village in England probably never heard of until now - the city of Liverpool". He added - "I am a Lancastrian bred and born".

He had been born near the foot of Mount Pleasant in Liverpool in 1863, the son of a ship's steward from Barbados and a poor Irish woman. As a young man John too became a seafarer, travelling the world, and married Bertha, a black Canadian woman. In 1898 the couple settled at 55 Brynmaer Road near Battersea Park, and by 1908 he had set up a photography business.

He had also been elected a Progressive (Liberal) Councillor for the Latchmere ward in 1906. Taking up health and welfare issues he served on Council committees and the Wandsworth Board of Guardians. But Archer did not confine himself to local issues or ignore the "race" question. In 1900 he had attended the first Pan African conference, in Westminster, and with composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor he was elected to the executive of the Pan-African Association.

John Burns had set up a Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation in 1885, and been elected to parliament in 1892. Within the alliance of liberal and labour that came to dominate the borough's politics, John Archer became prominent in the Battersea Labour League, and known as a witty public speaker, as well s a champion of the poor..

On November 10, 1913, at fifty years old, elected mayor of Battersea, he declared: "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."

Friendly with John Burns, Tom Mann and the Irish socialist and suffragette Charlotte Despard, John Archer became election agent for Charlotte Despard when she stood as parliamentary candidate in North Battersea. The following year he was elected to the council as a Labour Party member, but failed to get elected to parliament. He went to Paris for the Pan African Congress, organised by W.E.B. Du Bois, and in 1921 he chaired the Pan African Congress in London.

This was where he introduced an Indian left-winger Shapurji Saklatvala, to speak on colonial freedom. The following year he was Saklatvala's election agent when he stood for Battersea North. Born in Bombay (Mumbai), a Parsee, Saklatvala had come to Britain for health treatment and to work for Westinghouse. He joined the Communist Party in 1921. Although its attempt to affilate had been rejected the new party was not yet effectively banned by Labour, and John Archer saw they did not stand against him. With support from the Battersea Trades Council, Saklatvala was elected. Thus Battersea not only had one of the first Asian MPs but one of the first Communists.

Though Saklatvala lost the seat to a Liberal the following year, he regained it in 1924, still with Labour support. In 1926 the Battersea MP was arrested on "subversion" charges for a speech he made supporting the miners, and he was jailed for two months. In 1929 he lost his seat to an official Labour candidate who was supported this time by John Archer.

John Archer's health was declining, and he died in 1931, the same year that Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald was joined by Tories in a National government so he could cut the dole. It was not the kind of vision John Archer had fought for.

Besides his fight in Britain, Saklatvala played a part in links with the developing Indian Communist Party. He died in 1936. Some of the British militants who went out to fight fascism in Spain initially called themselves the "Saklatvala Battalion".

Communist Party of India(Marxist) article on Saklatvala:

British Library online gallery feature on John Archer, by Mike Philips:

SE Region TUC presents a talk on Saklatvala
Historian and black cab driver Mike Squires has done his 'Knowledge' on
the labour movement in South West London and on Friday November 2 he will be giving a talk about Shapurji Saklatvala at a Black History event hosted by the South East Region TUC, at Congress House, Great Russel Street WC1.

Mike grew up in Battersea, and it was after joining the Young Communist League there in 1960 that he became interested in the area's famous Communist MP. He was able to make Shapurji Saklatvala the subject of his university PhD, and in 1991 he had a book published -'Saklatval - A Political Biography' (Lawrence and Wishart). The same year, Sehri Saklatvala's own book about her father was published in Manchester, where he worked before moving to Battersea.

A linchpin of the Wandsworth History Workshop and secretary of the Socialist History Society, Mike Squires also published a book on 'The Aid to Spain Movement in Battersea 1936-9' , including recollections by Noreen Branson, in 1994.

Earlier this year Mike was the centre of a surprising controversy over, of all things, the Marx Memorial Library, leading to a story in the Independent (May 11) headlined Karl Marx library fights Communist 'take-over' bid. It started when he had a letter in the Morning Star on April 18 urging trades unionists to join the library.That might not seem too controversial, but the next day Mike received a letter by recorded delivery from Mary Rosser of the library, telling him he was expelled from membership.

Supporters of the library have been told that Mike Squires imperilled the library's charity status, and lost it a £20,000 grant. (I heard this from a leading member of my union, though unfortunately as we were parting after a branch meeting I did not get details of the allegation). The story in the Independent quotes a memo claiming plotters "have formed a group - entitled the Mike Squires Group - which has used the medium of a political party, the CPGB, to attempt to mobilise members to join the charity and vote ... in line with the agenda of the CPGB."

This is odd, as though Mike was a member of the old Communist Party of Great Britain before it dissolved ("I didn't leave my party, my party left me", as he said), he only recently joined the Communist Party of Britain, with which the Morning Star is associated. That might seem a Life of Brian-type distinction to outsiders, but it is not a mistake we'd expect from anyone at the Marx Memorial Library. Least of all Mary Rosser, who was a leading Communist Party of Britain member before losing a faction fight over control of the People's Press Publishing Society - the Morning Star publishers. Has the Marx Memorial Library become the unlikely last redoubt for these old stagers? What on earth is it all about?

If any would-be donors were really under the impression that a Marx Memorial Library was non-political, I don't know what they'd make of this row. Nor what mysterious "agenda" Mike Squires was supposed to be pursuing. I visited the Marx Memorial Libary last year when we were researching material for the Grunwick commemoration, and staff were friendly and helpful. I've been for an occasional pint with Mike Squires and friends (we used to live near each other in south London) but I was not invited to join in any conspiracy (just in case anyone who saw us in the Oak thinks this was a meeting of the "Mike Squires Group"!)

Being expelled from a library must be a rare distinction for a historian, although I hear the MML has also banned Maggie Bowden, the general secretary of Liberation (which used to be the Movement for Colonial Freedom). I don't know how Shapurji Saklatvala would have got on.

Fortunately the South East Region TUC does not appear to have detected anything wrong with Mike Squires work, and I'll be looking forward to hearing him on November 2.

Mike Squires: Saklatvala and Racism.
Friday November 2 Congress House, Great Russel Street, WC1
(nearest tube Tottenham Court Road)

Tea and coffee available from 5.30pm, lecture at 6pm,
followed by discussion, and drinks reception.

To register contact Darren Lewis,

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At 4:21 PM, Blogger Mick Hall said...

Really interesting post, am I misunderstanding this? The MML banned Mike because they thought he belonged to the cpgb Weekly Worker outfit. [Sorry to the cpgb comrades but I just cannot bring myself to see them as the heirs of the CPGB., no offense but as a former member of that party I still believe they pulled a fast one with the name.]

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

I doubt whether the old timers at Marx Memorial Library would have made such a mistake. But reading the Independent story I got the impression the reporter knew very little and they were not going to help her. For instance the house has a history - Eleanor Marx once lectured there, William Morris was a benefactor, and Lenin came there to print Iskra with help from the British Socialist, Harry Quelch. You can get this from a brochure published by the MML called "The House on the Green ... a Radical History of Clerkenwell. But either the reporter did not bother with this interesting stuff, or her papercut it out, because all she talks about is the property value.
Oddly though the mistake about the party name also occurs in the document quoted. So maybe the confusion was deliberate.
Did the reporter not think of asking Mike Squires for his side? He could have correeted the mistake, if she was interested.
Exactly why the MML people were so anxious to oust Mike I'm not sure. What would be donors would be shocked if they thought communists had anything to do with a Marx Memorial Library? I'd haee thought donors might be more nervous after the publicity revealing that the place was being fought over between factions.
As it is, the clique in charge have reputedly been turning away members and affiliates whose sympathies they suspect - thereby losing the Library funds as well.
What dastardly red plot was Mike hatching -would he and his friends jumble up all the books or hoist the red flag? I went to a couple of Socialist History society events there at Mike's invitation but if anything sinister was afoot I missed it.
I don't know Maery Rosser and co. and I can't speak from experience. The might be very nice people for all I know...But the sight of a former CPB -Morning Star faction clinging tightly on to control and banning people because they say there is a "communist plot" does appear ridiculous.


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