Under the microscope: John Archer and 1913 history


In a pub quiz on what year the first mixed-raced with black mayor was appointed, (although I’m unsure how many pubs will have this on their Christmas offerings) how likely do you think you are to guess correctly?

Okay, let’s say they decide to make it easier.

If the question was the name of the first mixed-raced with black mayor, how likely do you think you would be then?

It might not be common knowledge, but if either of your answers included 1913 or John Archer, you’ll have done better than most. Although you’d likely win points too for Allan Glaisyer Minns and 1904. It has long been suggested that he was, in fact, the first mixed-raced man to hold the position nine years earlier in Thetford, Norfolk.

Archer’s claim to being an important historical figure has never been questioned, however. He was born in 1863 in Liverpool and his adherence to the Catholic faith is well known. Having spent part of his youth in the merchant navy, he would return to England in the 1890s and settle in London with his wife Bertha at the turn of the 20th century.

The history of the Archer’s political journey takes on a more formal composition here. First through his exposure to left-wing circles, then through his attendance at the first Pan-African convention in July 1900, and in 1906, when he was elected as a Progressive (Liberal) in Latchmere ward and earned a seat on Battersea Borough Council alongside five others. As a result, Archer is remembered as much for his politics as he is for what his election symbolised in modern left-wing circles.

“Archer’s role and influence in emancipatory left-wing politics – not just in the UK but in the United States by way of the Civil Rights Movement – was unmistakable.”

Vanessa Peterson

He would lose his seat in 1909 and be re-elected again in 1912. This was the precursor to his election as Mayor in 1913, but his victory, while earned, was held by a majority of one, a fact that signalled the absence of overwhelming support for his victory.

Archer dubbed the election victory as the start of ‘a new era’ and hailed the election as proof that the borough had ‘no racial prejudice’. Naturally, if you are reading this, you know that this is unlikely to have been the case. Archer’s claim was questionable for sure, but perhaps more than being a definitive statement on the dynamics of 1913 Battersea, Archer had been hoping that his declaration could jumpstart a version of Battersea which he hoped to see? Ultimately, we don’t know. Archer proclaimed:

“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.”

In any case, the decision was not universally welcomed. Archer faced speculation about the true nature of his racial identity (Chamion Caballero explains the Daily Express speculation and claims of Burmese and Hindu appearance in greater detail here), and for those who were convinced, the implications of a “man of colour” serving in leadership were predictably frowned upon.

“It is not meet that the white man should be governed and controlled by a man of colour. It has always been that the white man ruled and it must always be so. lf not, goodbye to the prestige of Great Britain.”

Following his brief tenure as mayor, Archer resigned from Battersea Borough Council in order to help Shapurji Saklatvala in his successful bid to become the Progressive MP for North Battersea in 1922 and 1924. While still on the council, his interest in Pan-African ideals was still apparent as he served as the British delegate to the Pan-African Congress in 1919.

Mayowa Ayodele


How many mixed-raced with black mayors are there today? You can find out by clicking here