Why Black British labour movement heroes must be remembered

William Cuffay

Black Victorian tailor William Cuffay was “black listed” for helping to found the Metropolitan Tailors’ Association trade union way back in 1839.

Prior to that, Cuffay was a leader of the Chartists, Britain’s first working class labour movement. His father was born on St Kitts island, in the Caribbean, and mother was an English woman from Gillingham in Kent. Cuffay’s Chartists aimed to gain political rights and influence for the working class long before the Labour Party was founded in 1900.

William Cuffay

Standing four feet eleven inches tall, he was sacked for going on strike in 1834 with his fellow tailors, to demand a 10-hour work day and better pay. Cuffay was put on a list of those people banned from working in his craft after organising a trade union five years later.

By 1842, he had been elected to the National Executive of the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council. He was one of the organisers of the historic mass Chartist rally on Kennington Common, south London, on 10 April 1848. But, dismayed by the weakness of his fellow leaders, who rejected the idea of making it a show of force by the working class, Cuffay formed a more radical faction of the organisation. He was accused of being involved in a proposed armed uprising against Britain’s rulers, convicted and then sentenced to be transported to Tasmania, off the coast of Australia, where he died in 1870.  

Cuffay is among the forgotten black heroes from history who are featured in a my new book. Others include London’s first African Caribbean mayor John Archer, who was elected leader of Battersea council, south London, in 1913.  Archer was a stalwart of the Battersea Trades Council and Labour Party and an influential member of the local Board of Guardians, the organisation responsible for looking after poor people before Labour created the welfare state.

John Archer

In his victory speech, after becoming mayor, Archer said: “‘My election tonight 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. That will go forth to all the coloured nations of the world. They will look to Battersea and say ‘It is the greatest thing you have done. You have shown that you have no racial prejudice, but recognise a man for what you think he has done’.’’  

Archer introduced Indian-born communist Shapurji Saklatvala, the subject of my book, Comrade Sak, to Battersea politics in 1919. At the second Pan-Africanist Congress in London, in 1921, to which Archer invited him to speak, Saklatvala brought greetings “from the coloured world”.

Saklatvala, a charismatic fighter for Indian independence, socialism and anti-colonialism, went on to become North Battersea’s Labour MP a year later, with Archer as his staunchest supporter. He was re-elected to parliament in 1924 but defeated in 1929. As we celebrate Black History Month, our labour movement heroes, such as Cuffay, Archer and Saklatvala must not be forgotten. 

  • Marc Wadsworth’s Comrade Sak, Shapurji Saklatval MP, a political biography, is published by Peepal Tress Press, Leeds. The book is available here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.