Archie Potts (1932 – 2021)

Archie Potts, who was one of the founding members of the North East Labour History Society in 1966, has died after a short illness. His long life was marked by a lasting commitment to his community, to working class politics and to the field of labour history.

Archie was born in Sunderland on 27 January 1932. His family were hard working, proud trade unionists. In a short biographical portrait he penned for the NELHS Bulletin in 2014 (‘A Labour Boyhood’, vol. 45) he offered a fascinating glimpse into his political apprenticeship. He fondly recalled the regular family suppers at his maternal grandmother’s house where he ‘listened to my elders holding forth on the issues of the day’. Although none of his family were Labour Party members, an uncle took him along to some of the big election meetings in 1945 where he heard Hugh Dalton and Emmanuel Shinwell ‘on top form’. The family were all elated when the Attlee government was elected to power. A few years later, in 1949, Archie joined the Labour League of Youth and remained a stalwart member of the Labour Party for several decades. A committed co-operator, Archie stood as a Labour and Co-operative Party candidate in a parliamentary election. Although he was unsuccessful he went on to have a distinguished career in local politics, serving as a Town Councillor for Tyne and Wear for many years.

Like many other Sunderland families, his parents struggled to make ends meet in the inter war years. Archie left school early without any formal qualifications but quickly found work as a railway clerk, before taking up national service. Typically, he made the most of the educational opportunities available to RAF recruits and acquired the equivalent of seven ‘O’ levels. Alongside other labour activists of his generation, Archie studied and forged lasting friendships at Ruskin College between 1956-58 and this enabled him to secure employment in tertiary and then higher education. He joined the Society for the Study of Labour History and contributed entries to some of the earliest volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography, but he struggled to attend the meetings which were mostly held in London. In 1965 he was appointed as an economics lecturer at Rutherford College (later Newcastle Polytechnic) and the following year, together with a handful of like-minded colleagues, Ted Allen, Joe Clarke and Terry McDermott, he helped to establish the North East Group for the Study of Labour History Society. This was the very first regional labour history society in Britain and still flourishes today.

On 3 February 1967, John Saville got the society off to a good start with a lecture on ‘The present and future prospects for labour history’ and a summary of his paper was published in the first issue of the Society’s annual Bulletin (October,1967). Archie gave his all to the Society, serving twice as Vice Chair in 1966-68 and 1986-91, Joint secretary 1968-72, Chair 1991-96, Vice President 1996-2011 and, following the death of his old comrade Ray Challinor, President 2011- 2021. There was scarcely a role he did not give his hand to, at various times he served as Bulletin editor, books review editor, archives editor and programme convenor. He penned a short history of the Society in 1996 and contributed many articles to the Bulletin. Many reflected his commitment to conserving labour records. In 1982, he and Elaine Jones compiled A Bibliography of Northern Labour History which was published by the Library Association and remains a significant source of information on northern labour archives.

Archie was an assiduous researcher of north-east labour history who embraced Saville’s call for labour historians to learn from sociologists and social anthropologists as well as social and cultural historians. He became a recognised expert on the regional history of boxing and wrestling. In partnership with Ray and Mabel Challinor he helped to set up the Bewick Press which offered new opportunities to publish in the field. Archie’s study of the unbeaten Sunderland boxer Jack Casey, The Sunderland Assassin, appeared in 1991 and this was followed two years later by a wider history, The Wearside Champions. His Headlocks and Handbags. Wrestling at St James’s Hall (2005) completed this trio of sporting works, but this was by no means all he published. He continued to contribute to the Dictionary of Labour Biography and to journals such as Socialist History. In 2002 Merlin Press published his most significant work, Zilliacus: A Life for Peace and Socialism which explored the remarkable life and career of Konni Zilliacus MP, an official with the League of Nations between the wars and a life-long campaigner for disarmament and international pacifism. 

His close friend and NELHS colleague Brian Bennison paid warm tribute to Archie as ‘an old school labour man [who] will be missed by many’. He was a genial, modest and gentle man, pugnacious in his fight for working class equality but always courteous and respectful in his dealings with others, not least to me when I served as Society secretary and co-editor of the Bulletin. His belief in the power of cooperation and democracy underpinned his approach to life and politics. He was ever quick to recognise the efforts of others, generous with his time and unstinting in his appreciation. He epitomised the collective endeavour of the Society in its ambition to produce ‘a more analytical and interpretive history’, and to preserve and document labour records, especially those which told the story of ‘local movements and local struggles’. His legacy will live on and linger long in the memory of those who were privileged to call him friend.

Joan Allen

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