Archibald Witham Scarr (1827-1904)
From Barrow-boy to Mayor of Leeds

ARCHIBALD WITHAM SCARR (1827-1904)Most people have heard the story of how Michael Marks, founder of Marks and Spencer, began his meteoric career running a stall in Leeds’s Kirkgate Market in the 1880s. One of his fellow market traders also won fame in his day, becoming a household name in Leeds as the ‘Mayor of the masses’. This was the redoubtable Archie Scarr, who spent all his working life in Kirkgate Market while making his mark as a hugely popular figure in local politics and a powerful spokesman for the working man.

Archie was born across the Pennines in Burnley, in 1827. His parents were grocers and tea dealers, but times were hard and when Archie was thirteen the family moved to Leeds where his father set up a vegetable stall in Vicar’s Croft, Kirkgate, then the open marketplace for the town. The family lived in the grim, impoverished area of the Leylands, and money was tight. Archie found work in a warehouse but helped on the stall evenings and weekends. He would load any unsold vegetables onto a barrow and hawk them round the streets, back-breaking work. He soon took over on the stall, and got a reputation for hard work, thrift, and a head for business – up at 2am on market days to meet the market gardeners coming to town and strike the best deal. When his father died in 1855 he took over the business, acquired a permanent stall (and shoes instead of clogs), and later, as the market buildings expanded, took on several more shops. The story goes that Michael Marks offered him a partnership but he turned it down!

It was in the hubbub of the market that Archie developed his formidable skills in quick-witted argument and repartee, entertaining and winning over his customers – they found themselves buying whatever he had on offer. When he expanded the business into dried fruit, especially figs, his cry ‘come and get your scripture fruit’ became famous as his slogan – leading to many a later joke when he went into politics.

Archie, brought up a Wesleyan, was a passionate teetotaller all his life and a fervent and active supporter of the temperance movement. His other major interest in his early years was political reform. In his early thirties he joined the Leeds Working Men’s Parliamentary Reform Association and began to speak at meetings and rallies. At one of the big reform meetings at the Town Hall in 1861 he spoke up passionately for working men’s right to the vote and their vital contribution to the life of the nation. He was chosen to be a member of the Leeds delegation to Parliament in 1866, in the lead-up to the 1867 Reform Act which finally enfranchised most working men.

He turned then to local politics, a trenchant critic of what he saw as the Council’s mismanagement of rate-payers’ money. In 1869 he was proposed by the Liberals for election to the Council. It was claimed he would not be a silent member and no ‘hole and corner work’ would escape him! He was elected in 1872 and was certainly not silent. A lively, humorous, contentious speaker, he intervened on behalf of the working people who funded the Council, opposing what he saw as extravagance and supporting local residents in conflict with Council plans. In industrial disputes he took the workers’ side and offered money in support. His robust down-to-earth style made him immensely popular with working people, and when he failed to be elected Alderman in 1877 (words like ‘rough’ and ‘vulgar’ were used) there was a mass protest. One issue which had caused problems was his utter determination never to don an official robe, even for a Royal visit – this made national news. His refusal to ‘dress up’ of course made him even more popular. He was finally elected Alderman in 1880, and Mayor in 1887, in spite of some opposition. He was delighted and proud, bought a new silk hat (but no robe!), locked up the mayoral wine cellar, and among other events organised a huge free gala in Roundhay Park for the people of Leeds.

After an unsuccessful attempt to stand for Parliament, Archie remained a vociferous member of the Council until 1898, served as a magistrate, and still went down to Kirkgate market every day. He had a good life – two happy marriages, children, travel abroad, good friends, a successful business. Only one event marred his last years, when he was attacked in the street and robbed. He never quite recovered. He died in 1904 and was buried at Lawnswood. In the same year the magnificent new Kirkgate Market building, which still stands today with its magical skyline of towers and minarets, was opened. A pity he could not be there.


Eveleigh Bradford
November 2012