See also Joan Allen’s appreciation on the Society for the Study of Labour History website.
From Brian Bennison
Archie Potts; an Appreciation
Today’s thriving North East Labour History Society (NELHS) owes its existence to the pioneering work of Archie Potts fifty-five years ago. In 1966, along with Joe Clarke, a colleague in Rutherford College’s General Studies department, he set about contacting potential members for a North East Group for the Study of Labour History. A steering committee was formed in September of that year, and the rest is labour history.
Archie was born in Sunderland into a Labour-supporting family. Although his father was a staunch member of the Boilermakers’ Union, his parents were never members of the Labour Party but Archie remembered them as highly-politicised. For over three decades from the 1930s his uncle would come to the Potts’ home every Sunday morning for a couple of hours of conversation dominated by current affairs. In the 1945 election campaign Archie was taken to Labour meetings in the Co-operative Hall and to hear Manny Shinwell at Roker Park.
Archie had what he called ‘a peripatetic childhood’ which took in five different primary schools, including a year at one in Bedford after his unemployed father had found a job in a brickworks. The family moved back to Sunderland in 1938, when the shipyards re-opened and his father could work again as a riveter. Evacuation meant Archie also spent time at village schools in Durham and Yorkshire. Back in Sunderland in 1941 he failed the examination for Bede Grammar School but was offered a place at Monkwearmouth Central School.
Leaving school without any formal qualifications, Archie became a railway clerk and went to night classes to study accounts and something called railway administration. He joined the Labour League of Youth in 1949. For his National Service, Archie spent three years in the Royal Air Force Police at a base near Hamburg, from where he was occasionally called upon to raid brothels. He used the educational facilities provided by the RAF and gained the equivalent of seven ‘O’ levels. His time in Germany sparked an interest in that country’s history and culture, and in later years the advent of budget flights prompted Archie to take trips to explore Berlin.
On his return to the railways Archie took a familiar route within the labour movement. He became involved with the Labour Party and his trade union, and attended Workers Education Association (WEA) classes and weekend schools. At the age of twenty-four, he took the path taken by many a serious and inquisitive activist of his generation and went to Ruskin College. He entered Ruskin in 1956, a year of some significance for him both personally and politically. It is the subject of his last contribution to North East History (see his article 1956: a year remembered in this issue). Archie spoke fondly of his time at Ruskin, not only about his exposure to the academic world but about extra-curricula experiences, such as the film club’s screening of The Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis and a student trip in 1957 to Czechoslovakia.
As he came to the end of his course at Ruskin, Archie thought about becoming a WEA tutor and was advised by the college principal to go on to university and obtain a degree. So it was that in 1960 he graduated with an honours degree in PPE from Oriel College, Oxford. Afterwards, Archie took an assistant lectureship at North Oxfordshire Technical College, then moved on up through the ranks to York Technical College and in 1965 to Rutherford College of Technology. He regarded the Rutherford post as a lucky break, as the college became part of the expanding Newcastle Polytechnic within a few years. He stayed at the Poly until retirement in 1988.
The relaxed atmosphere of the Poly in the late 1960s afforded Archie and the Society’s founders both the time and the facilities to recruit members and set up meetings and talks. The first half-dozen editions of the Society’s Bulletin were printed using an old Gestetner in a staff room. Cranking the handle of a duplicating machine was probably the height of Archie’s engagement with what we now call information technology.
It was in those optimistic, ground-breaking days at the Poly that Archie embarked upon a career of research and writing on labour and social history. He went on to produce profiles for the Dictionary of Labour Biography, and contributed numerous articles to the NELHS Bulletin, now North East History. He published articles on a variety of topics in, for instance, the Durham University Journal and Socialist History. In 1975 he co-authored a centennial history of the Northumberland Colliery Mechanics Association for the Northumberland NUM. In the late 1970s, he was awarded funds to recruit a research assistant, Elaine Jones, and in 1982 the Library Association published their Bibliography of Northern Labour History. He also edited Shipbuilders and Engineers (1987), one of four collections of essays produced by the NELHS.
Aware of the need to create greater publishing opportunities for researchers and historians, Archie joined Ray and Mabel Challinor in the establishment of the Bewick Press. Among its titles was Maureen Callcott’s book on the diaries of Ruth Dodds. The Bewick Press was also the medium through which Archie displayed his expertise in an unlikely area of the region’s social history. This quietly spoken, scholarly man had a passion for boxing and wrestling, and wrote Jack Casey: the Sunderland Assassin (1991), The Wearside Champions (1993) and Jack London: The Forgotten Champion (1997). One fruitful piece of research that gave Archie particular pleasure came in his Headlocks and Handbags: Wrestling at St James’s Hall (2005) where he was able to reveal the identity of, and interview, the ‘Blue Mask’.
I got to know Archie in 1974 when I joined the Poly and discovered that behind the mild-mannered exterior was a determined man who stuck unfalteringly to the ideals and principles he had adopted as a young man. He hankered for a chance to improve working people’s lives and promote the cause of equality and social justice through elected office. This he achieved when he won the Blakelaw seat for Labour at a Tyne and Wear County Council by-election in 1979. A few weeks later he was standing as Labour and Cooperative candidate in the parliamentary constituency of Westmoreland. He picked up 6497 votes in a seat where the Conservatives traditionally collected almost 60 per cent of the vote and Labour came third. Archie, however, was in his element in municipal politics and served as Chairman of Tyne and Wear County Council in 1984. The position came with a chain of office and an official vehicle and driver. Teaching colleagues making their way to work were sometimes startled to find a chauffeur-driven car pull alongside and offer them a lift.
Of all of Archie’s publications, the most important was Zilliacus: A Life for Peace and Socialism (2002), which dealt with the intriguing life of Konni Zilliacus, one-time MP for Gateshead. It was, said Tony Benn, ‘a brilliant biography of a brilliant man’ and the book’s launch at Gateshead library acted as a shot in the arm for the NELHS. One amusing by-product of Archie’s preparatory work on Zilliacus was a name check amongst some very illustrious company in the Guardian. When Zilliacus’s widow Jan died in 1999, her brief obituary told of her meeting and dining with Charlie Chaplin, Marshall Tito, Rudolph Valentino, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and added that she was working with Archie Potts on a biography of her husband.
When Zilliacus appeared Archie was in the middle of a fifteen-year stint as Vice President of the NELHS. Over the years he filled many other roles: Joint Secretary, Programme Convenor, Vice Chair, Chair and from 2011-2021 President. For the Bulletin he acted as Editor, Reviews Editor and Archives Editor. But this bald recitation does not do justice to Archie’s service to the NELHS and to his fellow members. He was always willing to offer help and encouragement. Joan Allen, who worked alongside him in the NELHS and is now Chair of the Society for the Study of Labour History, paid tribute to ‘a genial, modest and gentle man…ever quick to recognise the efforts of others, generous with his time. He epitomised the collective endeavour of the Society’.
Archie had to overcome setbacks in his life with the early, sudden deaths of his wife and son, but he soldiered on, beavering away at his research and writing to the end. To go to his flat during the last decade was like visiting a diligent, octogenarian student. Indifferent to his surroundings or creature comforts, he was content amongst his books and seemingly random piles of papers and multi-recycled envelopes from which he always managed to retrieve what he wanted. It was enough for him to have somewhere where he could read and write, and writing meant pen or pencil on lined paper.
Archie was a life-long researcher whose modus operandi was stubbornly old-school. He had little time for technology, although when I once asked him what he missed most about the Poly he said, after some thought, that it was ‘access to a photocopier’. When I tentatively suggested we go to Gosforth library and I show him how to search the internet, he winced. I knew that raising the possibility of a laptop would have been pointless, since I had never been able to persuade him to acquire an answerphone. Even in his late 80s Archie remained bang up-to-date with political and social developments both at home and abroad. He was equally well- informed about another of his enthusiasms; the day-to-day travails of Sunderland Football Club. After discussions with him about labour history or political issues, Archie would always say ‘Now to more important matters’, which was the prelude to a lengthy debate about the fortunes of the region’s football teams. A chance meeting outside Sainsbury’s could lead to an hour’s worth of chat about football. Archie Potts was a throwback, and none the worse for that. He was born into the deprivation of the 1930s and became politically aware in the heady days of 1945. He stayed true to his roots. He was guided by old ideas about the power of democracy and the potency of mutuality and co- operation. Archie lived a full life on his own terms; a life which in many of its aspects was itself a little part of labour history.
This appreciation first appeared in North East History, Volume 52, 2021