July marks the anniversary of the death of John Richard Archer, the first Black mayor in London; a Lancashire-born photographer, seaman, singer, political activist and pioneer who died on 14 July 1932. Archer was involved in local politics from the early 1900s until his death and became Mayor of Battersea in 1913. We explored Archer’s fascinating life in parish records, census enumerations, directories and newspapers, shedding light on his diverse employment and political work.
Archer’s mother Mary was Irish, and his father Richard, a ship’s steward, was born in Barbados. According to the 1861 census; the family were living in Liverpool at the time, which is where Archer was born two years later, according to his baptism record.
In 1881 Archer, still living with his family in Liverpool, was recorded in the census as an apprentice photographer, a line of work he would later return to.
After working at sea and travelling the world Archer later settled in Battersea, south London with his Canadian wife Margaret. In 1901 he was recorded as a professional singer, and it is later claimed he even began studying medicine. By 1911 he returned to the trade he apprenticed in as a young man, finding work as a photographer under his ‘own acc[ount]’, i.e. working for himself. An entry in the Post Office London Directory indicates that Archer was still working as a photographer and living in Battersea in 1925.
Archer’s involvement in local politics took off in 1906 when he was elected to Battersea Borough Council’s Latchmere ward, a position he would re-gain in 1912. The following year Archer made headlines when he became Mayor of Battersea.
Archer’s momentous election as Mayor of Battersea was widely reported in the British and world press. The London newspaper The Globe reported on Archer’s election victory of 10 November 1913, reproducing his acceptance speech in an article the following day. Under the headline ‘London’s Black Mayor. Dramatic Speech After Election’, Archer’s words ring out on the page:
“My election to-night marks a new era. You have made history. For the first time in the history of the English nation a man of colour has been elected mayor of an English borough.”*
A proponent of Pan-Africanism, a movement encouraging the common bond and shared values amongst people of African descent, Archer was the inaugural president of the African Progress Union and continued to work in politics until his death on 14 July 1932 at the age of 69 years old. Archer is buried in Morden Cemetery, London and his grave contains a permanent reminder of his great achievement: ‘Mayor of Battersea 1913-1914.’
*It should be noted that Allan Glaisyer Minns, born in The Bahamas, was the first Black man to be elected a mayor in Britain when he became the Mayor of Thetford, Norfolk, in 1904.