Tag Archives: Eleanor Marx

Eleanor Marx: The Crowded Years

Eleanor MarxThis was part two of Yvonne Kapp’s enormous biography of Eleanor Marx, and I confess, not as enjoyable as the first (you can read about that one here).

Perhaps this is partly because so many of the grand personalities are dead or moved away by the end of the first volume, and there is not the immediacy of family drama. That is undoubtedly part of it. You know the rest will die by the end.

But really, mostly, I think it’s due to the deadly and boring factionalism of the left between 1884 and 1898, after all, that’s what I had to plod through in Morris’s biography as well. A few highlights shine through like the organising of the gas worker’s union and their victory in obtaining the 8 hour day, or the dockers’ first strike, and of course Eleanor is there supporting them. Why I love her. But she spends so much time trying to bring male egos together, to create movement, to keep schisms from growing ever further.

Unless we’re talking about the anarchists. That is one bridge she is busy burning rather than trying to put back together again. I’m still not sure I can wrap my head around the politics of those days, but I didn’t try too hard. Many of the descriptions and long detailed accounts of infighting here made my eyes glaze over I confess…I am also rather jaded by the continuing dose of them still fracturing movement today.

Still, this is well worth a read. Even if you can’t make yourself care about all that the way many still seem passionately to do. So here are some highlights of what I did love — from the frivolous to the important.

Frivolous, but cool: to find out that Eleanor and Edward Aveling spent their sort-of honeymoon in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, where Mark and I just were for our own holiday and loved enormously. We weren’t at the Nelson Arms, and in Wirksworth proper, but still. A lovely place.

There’s some lovely scatterings of social history on the East End:

The fight for free speech and the right of assembly had a long and stormy history. In the early ‘eighties, the East End Radicals who held regular meetings on Mile End Waste in Stepney were constantly chivied by the police. They then adjourned to Limehouse where an open air meeting in Piggot Street, off the junction of the Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road, was addressed by a member of the SDF. it was stopped by the police for causing and obstruction. Thereafter both Radical Club and SDF speakers took to nearby Dod Street, mainly occupied by factories and warehouses and thus deserted on summer Sunday mornings. (69)

The importance of these East End Radical Clubs — which covered the boroughs from Poplar and Hackney, Bermondsey and Stepney as far west as Islington and Finsbury, with their local Federations — lay in that they drew together politically conscious working men…(196)

On Sunday 27th September 1885, 60,000 people marched from Stepney Green to take possession of Dod Street to protest ongoing arrests.

I loved how theatre and literature never ceased being important parts of Eleanor’s life — and Aveling never stopped trying to make his fortune through plays either, curiously enough.

The impact of Ibsen upon Eleanor and her immediate circle was violent: as violent as the sense of outrage felt by the majority of English critics at the first performance of his plays. This new “social drama” stunned them — though not into silence — by its complete break with the theatrical conventions of the time, both in manner and content. (100)

Although it seems that Eleanor lost many of her female friends (a tragedy that I am sure put her more at the mercy of her own depression and Aveling’s moods — though it was Aveling that was the most likely cause), it does seem that at one time, Eleanor met them regularly to go to the theatre– herself, Dolly Radford, Olive Schreiner, Honor Brooke and Edith Lees would pour out afterwards and argue and talk on and on about them.

There a number of curious little views into the left society of her time — like the programme for an Arts Evening to raise funds for the SDF. G.B. Shaw and Kathleen performed in a piano duet composed by Mendelssohn, Aveling read Shelley’s Men of England, Mother Wright read from Adam Bede (!), Bax played Schumann (and went on too long apparently), Morris read his own poetry (went down very well), and a dramatic piece filling the 2nd half saw Eleanor and Aveling playing main roles in In Honour Bound.

There are some interesting asides on Marx’s papers as well, such as Engles ruminating on the translation of Capital, and the difficulties of it:

To translate such a book, a fair knowledge of literary German is not enough. Marx uses freely expressions of everyday life and idioms of provincial dialects; he coins new words, he takes his illustrations from every branch of science, his allusions from the literature of a dozen languages; to understand him, a man must be a master of German indeed, spoken as well as written, and must know something of German life too… but there is something more required. Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too… Powerful German requires powerful English to render it; the best resources of the language have to be drawn upon; new-coined German terms requires the corresponding new terms in English… (113)

Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Edward Aveling
Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Edward Aveling in America, 1886

Then there was that time Michael Davitt refused to meet Aveling because he was an atheist, while both were speaking at the Easter Sunday ‘gigantic demonstration’ in Hyde Park, 1887. Maybe there were other reasons, he is the constant unsettling rather unprincipled presence that seems to taint everything. This in spite of Kapp trying to be rigorously fair. But he causes drama and discord everywhere he goes, undoing every effort by Eleanor.

At least they are equals in calls for speaking, Eleanor spoke at that same rally with Aveling and Davitt, and there is a constant whirl of public speaking engagements that continues through the whole of her life. More than I can possibly imagine.

Returning to 1887, a brilliant description of direction action tactics I wish I’d thought of:

One of the “small matters” which had become “a great question” was the conduct of the unemployed. Some of them had hit upon novel ways of drawing attention to their plight, such as holding church parades in various parts of the country, marching into places of worship to swell the congregation which they treated as a public meeting, objecting loudly and strongly whenever they did not agree with the sentiments of the speaker in the pulpit. (219)

We are also coming to what Kapp believes was a pivotal moment in Eleanor Marx’s life, she writes to her sister Laura that the year is harder than any within recent memory, and quotes Maggie Harkness as a source. Later she writes to her friend Dolly Radford:

…in the streets here one sees so many starving people — people with hunger in every line of their faces that one cannot but be wretched… (222)

This is the background for Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar Square, that day that so impressed everyone on the left, but in very different ways.  Eleanor writes in a letter to Laura:

Last Sunday the troops had ammunition ready and stood with fixed bayonets. Next Sunday I think it very possible they will actually fire. That would be very useful to the whole movement here. It would complete the work some of us have been doing this long while past, of winning over the better Radical element to Socialism. (230)

She is determined to march, to provoke. Kapp’s interpretation is rather lovely, but I am not sure she is entirely right about these being Eleanor’s thoughts:

In Eleanor’s view only those who tried their wings would ever learn to fly. Revolution for her did not have a “a very big R”: it was a process inherent in the small act of standing your ground, asserting and extending your rights, defending your dignity as a human being in every situation and in all the circumstances of daily life. In that way, and that way alone, would men and women change their conditions, their circumstances and, in doing so, themselves. (231)

This was also a pivotal moment for Morris, but from it he took the lesson of retrenchment and building the revolution more seriously. Many felt that way, many experienced and understood the day not as Eleanor did, but as Shaw’s letter to Morris revealed, dated 22 November:

you should have seen that high hearted host run. Running hardly expresses our collective action. We skedaddled and never drew rein until we were safe on Hampstead Heath or thereabouts. Tarlton found me paralysed with terror and brought me on to the Square, the police kindly letting me through in consideration of my genteel appearance. On the whole, I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.  (footnote, 231)

A report of a meeting at the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell Green on what to do following Bloody Sunday from George Standring, editor of the Radical (who later became a member of the Fabian Society in 1893) describes her thusly:

In front of the platform sat Lady Macbeth Aveling and the redoubtable Edward, S.Sc. They were, of course, in favour of a spirited dash at Trafalgar Square; and very fine it was to see the lofty scorn of Lady Macbeth when any speaker on the pacific side rose to address the meeting. When the resolution proposing the Hyde Park meeting was read Lady Macbeth turned to Edward, D.Sc., and hissed ‘C-o-w-a-r-d-s!’ between her teeth. It was very fine indeed… (233)

It’s not flattering, and hard to tell how much the caricature is personal and political, but throughout reading this biography I wondered how much that love of the stage translated into everyday life. I still don’t have an answer.

1888 sees final split of the Socialist League. Important I know, but still. Yawn. But also this continued Eleanor’s evolution, and finally she begins to spend more time with actual working class people and their struggles.

1888 was a year of trade recovery and the great wave of demonstrations subsided. But it was something beyond the ill-usage of the unemployed that now produced a shift in her attitude to the working class. She had begun to explore the East End, sometimes alone, occasionally with Margaret Harkness, not as a speaker nor a demonstrator but more as an explorer, and what she discovered left her deeply and personally involved with the lives of the people. They were not any less the downtrodden and exploited “masses”…but they were no longer featureless crowds… (261)

In letter after letter written at that time, whether from London or the country, this preoccupation with suffering is reflected. (262)

Curious her wandering about with with Margaret Harkness. She describes the docks:

To go to the docks is enough to drive one mad. The men fight and push and hustle like beasts–not men–and all to earn at best 3d. or 4d. an hour! Si serious has the struggle become that the ‘authorities’ have had to replace certain iron palings with wooden ones–the weaker men got impaled in the crush!…You can’t help thinking of all this when you’ve seen it and been in the midst of it… (263)

This is the year of the match girls strike, Eleanor becomes fast friends with Will Thorne, labour leader of the gas workers to victory. After reading his biography and without this assumed familiarity, it was funny to read this:

At that time Thorne was not the stout and stolid figure familiar at the House of Commons to later generations. (323)

As Eleanor shifts her work to focus on working class struggle in the East End, there are some more cool glimpses of history, like this of Silvertown:

In 1852 S.W. Silver & Co., “the well-known outfitter of Cornhill”, bought one acre of land between Bow Road and Braking Creek to which it removed its small waterproofing works from Greenwich. It was the oldest factory on the waterfront. Seven more cares were added in the next few years and, by 1860, the premises were so extensive “that the name of Silvertown was given to the district of which they formed the centre.” (336)

There’s a fascinating aside (possibly just to me) about the transportation links available to Eleanor when she was going to Silvertown daily from Chancery Lane in support of the strike:

  • Metropolitan and Inner Circle line running 6 am to midnight, taken from Farringdon to Aldgate, connecting to Great Eastern or Blackwall Railways to Silvertown.
  • North Metropolitan Company tramcars between Aldgate and Bow, Stratford and Dockland.
  • A Blue Bus from fleet St or Ludgate Hill, a Green Bus from Holborn every ten minutes.

Eleanor became secretary of the Silvertown Women’s Branch of the Gasworkers’ Union in October 1889, and remained connected to them for many years, being elected time and time again to office.

Another little interesting fact from the Trades Union Congress, Liverpool, 1890 — Eleanor was excluded though elected by the Gas Workers and General Laborers’ Union, because she was not a working woman. The representative included 447 men and only 10 women, representing eight womens’ unions with 2610 members. 1300 of them belonged to the Matchmakers Union.

The highlights really, of the whole book, are the letters between Tussy (Eleanor’s childhood nickname) and the General (good old Engels), stories told off the cuff and in great often hilarious detail of the congresses and people attending, and others simply full of personalities, politics and daily life. You remember how much you like her as you read them, a feeling sometimes lost in the detail of the history.

It is even more sad, then, when Engels begins to fail. All the personal drama that surrounds him, and puts Marx’s papers at risk — and god did he have a curious relationship with women. The blow of finding out Freddy is actually her illegitimate brother, tarnishing her view of her father. Aveling was always fairly horrible, and then he goes and marries some very very young woman even though he has an open abscess in his side (I don’t have words for either the ethics or the logistics of that), but Eleanor continues to take care of him, old friends are ill and dying, I’m still unsure of how close her relationship with her sister was, some of their letters are wonderful but not at all personal. She cuts herself off from those who might have been wise and supportive.

And then all the drama at the end. Such immense sadness. The role Aveling may or may not have played. I wanted always a different life for her, but she did so much, spoke to so many people in so many places, supported most humbly working class organising and struggle, tried to bring together a movement across the insularity of different factions and organisations…

Eleanor Marx, presente.

[part 1]

Breath and Memory in Highgate Cemetery

Several years ago now, I went to a talk at Highgate Cemetery. A niche talk for a very niche (but rather fascinating) audience interested in Victorian grave sculptures. It may also have been just the fact of a talk at a cemetery with wine and all that drew them as it had me. But there was no chance to wander round, and somehow I had never been back. Until our latest wander through North London, along Parkland Walk — of my favourite green spaces in all of London, these two both rate high.

South London though, I’d been to a couple cemeteries in South London, those great new cemeteries springing up along the city’s outer limits to deal with the little church graveyards full to overflowing. Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting Bec, next to St George’s hospital where I had an appointment. After a lonesome visit to West Norwood Cemetery I had rather sworn off them, it was sad and grim and I wondered why I ever thought I liked them.

I realise the answer to that question is trees.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Like Arnos Vale in Bristol, Highgate is beautiful, eerie, splendid.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Our lives and deaths as part of a natural world so much bigger than we are, part of trees and forests primeval in their swallowing up of our memories and returning us to a natural cycle. Finally, to breath part of a natural cycle here in London. Just to fucking breathe.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

I like to feel able to embrace that larger reality while fighting like hell to break all of our human cycles of oppression and horror, the second reason this is such a wonderful place.

Highgate Cemetery

Marx’s original grave, before his followers moved him to larger, more monumental grave of infinitely more questionable taste.

Highgate Cemetery

Yet I confess I cried — unexpected and quite embarrassing really. It was not Marx’s grave so much as the cluster of people who have chosen to be buried near him, people who have dedicated their lives to changing the world we live in for the better, and whose actions and words have all impacted my own struggle and thinking. Beginning with Eleanor Marx, who I love immensely and is buried with her father as though she were not worth her own monument. There is also Claudia Jones:

Highgate Cemetery

And so many others, from all around the world:

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Someone else who had a great impact on me when I was growing up? The incomparable Douglas Adams:

Highgate Cemetery

George Elliot:

Highgate Cemetery

Those who I have come to honour more recently through my partner’s love of film:

Highgate Cemetery

Carl Mayer, the cowriter of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari:

Highgate Cemetery

I confess, too, that I have no small enjoyment from some of the weird, wonderful and strange things to be found in places like this:

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

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Ann Stafford: A Match to Fire the Thames

In those last years of the 1800s it really did seem as if the Thames might catch fire. Ann Stafford, author of this book, wouldn’t have been entirely pleased perhaps, she consistently supports the cautious Ben Tillett as against the socialist dream of general strike and revolution. But this is a very readable story of the series of labour agitations (match girls, gasworkers and finally the dockers’ strike) that weaves together reporting from the time and is written much in the same style.

A telling, if poetic, sentence that shows Stafford’s distance from the class she is describing:

The Cholera epidemic of 1866 had startled West London into a shuddering awareness of her insanitary neighbour, East London, which coiled around her flank with its mass of ill-housed, half-starving people, breeding pestilence, many of them vicious and criminal, all dangerous, surely, to society (31).

There are lots of fascinating asides that I have made fairly listy for better or for worse…but it is similar in a way to the structure of the book, that flits around backgrounds before entering into the narrative of the strike itself. It remembers pubs that are no more, like the Blue Posts, which had ‘long been a favourite meeting places of the stevedores. They were welcome: big, well-muscled men with plenty of money to spend, you wouldn’t catch them sitting down four to a pint pot, the way the underpaid and undernourished dockers did’ (17).

Four to a pint pot, and their missus starving no doubt.

Here is more on the history of the Blue Posts:

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father’s curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s.

The Wade’s Arms is the pub most central to this story, however, at 15 Jeremiah Street, E14 (now partly Rigden Street), but it was demolished in 1944.

Almost every physical remnant of this period of labour history is gone.

Stafford doesn’t care about or question the thread of Empire that runs through this, the efforts to claim the rewards of the conquerors for the working men of the conquering race. There is, to me, a fairly incredible comparison between the dockers fighting for wages and the British soldiers under siege at Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857, John Burns in a rousing speech intertwined Empire with the struggle of labour:

I tell you, lads, we will no more surrender than the men in Lucknow surrendered. Now these men fought for a glory which was effervescent and ephemeral; but they nobly did their duty and stood up against a storm of shot and shell, disease and want, and all the miseries of that long siege. You, men, have to hold another citadel today. We are defending our Lucknow–the Lucknow of Labour. Too long have you been cooped up in the prison houses of poverty, suffering, privation and disease, and all the hardships of your lot. But courage! Relief is at hand. As our garrison in Lucknow, straining their eyes towards the horizon, saw the silver sheen of the bayonets of the relieving army, so from this parapet, I too see on the horizon a silver gleam–not the gleam of bayonets to be imbrued in the blood of a brother, but the silver sheen of the full round orb of the docker’s tanner. (quoted p 27)

And then there is this:

“I believe,” said Will Thorne, “that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers work.” (40)

White men were not the only men to work the docks, but others don’t enter this story at all except in a single cringeworthy reference to all men pulling together in the very first pages. But there is a over and over that strong sense that dock work was the lowest possible work of all, these workers the lowest of all workers: “To have worked at the docks is sufficient to damn a man for any other work,” remarked Beatrice Webb (36). Margaret Harkness in her fictional account of the fall of a young man from the country, says the same — there is little to no hope of being fit for anything else after working there with its brutal conditions and starvation wages and odd hours.

All but Ben Tillett believed it impossible to organise them until they proved otherwise.

There’s some background on the dock companies —  4 dock companies ran 7 docks, and they were famously incompetent apparently — Victoria & Albert Dock at Tilbury, The East India and West India Docks,  the London Dock, St Katharine’s Dock, the Millwall Dock, and the Surrey Commercial Dock. They competed with other docks and other ports — primarily Liverpool and Southampton, especially after opening of the Suez Canal. Revenue at East &West India Docks fell from 4 1/2 percent in 1884 to 0 in 1887, London & St Katharine stood at 1 percent in 1888. This in spite of men fighting each other at their gates for the lowest possible wages, working only the hours needed and turned away for the rest. There is a great post on the ‘call-on’ here.

Stafford describes some of the docker’s living quarters, no different perhaps, from the rookeries of Saffron Hill and Bethnal Green, but surely much colder, damper being right alongside the river:

Only the poorest of the dockers, the casual laborers, lived near their work, in the narrow dark streets which ran between the river and Commercial Road. Some of the older houses tottering on the river bank had degenerated and were now let off room by room; they were often known as ‘rookeries,’ for not only did each room contain a family much too big for it, but at night the vary stairs served as perches for men and women who could not afford a room at all (39).

I enjoyed the book’s brief bios of the working class heroes of the strike — Will Crooks, born in Shirbut Street, Poplar — now the site of the Will Crooks Maternity and Child Welfare Crisis. He would speak just outside East India Dock gate every Sunday morning:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Ben Tillett (more about him in further posts, this book takes his side in almost all things but he is a complex man at best — they were all complex in the ways that race and class and gender intersected, often for the worst, in the work and speeches of everyone named here). Will Thorne — ‘In 1881, when times were difficult in Birmingham, he walked to London, and luckily for him he got a job at once at the Old Kent Road Gas Works…’ (51). John Burns. Annie Besant — the only woman to receive her own few pages of biography in here. But the best fragment is about Beatrice Webb, who shared the speaker’s platform at one event in Canning Town:

He [Tillett] says: “…neither I nor any of the other people on the platform appeared to have made a very satisfactory impression on our rather aristocratically prejudiced visitor. She was young, clever, much petted by the intellectuals of the older generation, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending.” On the other he appeared to her as “undoubtedly sincere, but rather dull.” (57)

There comes a mention of Eleanor Marx in passing,

But Mrs. Aveling–the daughter of Karl Marx–was a sad, foreign looking lady, unhappily married, so they said, to the professor who sometimes came down to speak on socialism at open air meetings (18).

She, and the beautiful wife of Mr Burns are mentioned a handful of times as running the union accounts, but they have little further role in this story. There is a brief mention of Clementina Black — my god, Miss Clementina Black! An amazing woman, one I must read of further. But there is a long chapter on the Match Girls strike, the low wages, the sweated labour, the ‘phossy jaw’ — bones eaten away by phosphorous. It hurts your heart.

They were fierce, these women. They worked in the old Bryant and May factory just down the road from where I lived in Bow when I first moved to London. A gated community of luxury apartments now, I had always wondered about that building.

match-girls1

Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike

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They went on strike, simply walked out fed up and organised union and strike fund afterwards, and still they won. After this, the tram workers organised, meeting at midnight at  Pilgrim Hall in the New Kent Rd — the only time they could all get together being off shift. They demanded five journeys a day rather than six, and got their demands. Workers at the Beckton Gas Works organised, and won an eight hour day, with fewer retorts to fill and no reduction in wages without ever going on strike. This was led by Will Thorne, and he was present at the burst of discontent that would kick off the docker’s strike.

This fills the remainder of the book — the organising of the pickets, how the more charismatic John Burns came to lead it rather than Ben Tillett who had been organising there all along.

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © National Maritime Museum, London
John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The mass meetings on Tower Hill to report back on progress with negotiations at Dock House on Leadenhall Street. The move of the campaign from Tillett’s headquarters at Wroote Coffee House to The Wade’s Arms, the reorganisation of relief for thousands of men on strike (saved in the key last days of hunger and misery by thousands of pounds collected and sent from Australia). The brakes put on the strike, when more men wanted to join, such as the engineers from Westwood and Baillie of Millwall and were discouraged from doing so.

A description of Burns from the Star, August 27, highlighting that this is a manly man’s strike:

He carried a short, stout stick. His keen, strong eye, looking out from his strong rugged face and from beneath dark brows, glanced round the room with a searching look… There is something about Burns that gives you, the moment you see him, a great sense of power. It is partly perhaps the splendid physique–like a brawny blacksmith: it is partly the straight and fearless eyes; it is partly the easy and strong pose of an athlete, as he sits on the arm of a chair, with his Inverness cape thrown loosely back; it is partly the virile voice–slightly husky now, from over-speaking, but still deep and resonant and masculine (138).

There are other short notes I found of interest:

‘The once notorious Mahogany Bar in Ratcliffe Highway, since 1888 a Non-Conformist Mission Centre, provided 700-800 breakfasts daily and soup for wives and children at mid-day’ (140).

The outpouring of support, the women who cooked and raised money were tremendous. There is another mention of someone I know:

That mysterious figure, Miss Harkness, who had been constantly in touch with the Committee at The Wade’s Arms, came to him [Cardinal Manning], he says, “from the strikers.” Old Newman, his butler, was disinclined to admit her…But within half an hour, the persistent Miss Harkness had seen the Cardinal… (155)

And this on other unions from my side of the river:

The only trade of any great importance was the coal trade. The men of Clapham and Wandsworth struck on the persuasion of the North London men. The Brixton men seemed likely to join (154).

14,000 tickets were being handed out to men on strike by the men, an extraordinary logistical effort requiring immense resources. The role of the women running this cannot be underestimated though it does not appear here really.

Again from the Surrey side, the unexpected actions of Mr Henry Lafone, who ran Butler’s Wharf and allowed his own men on strike two shillings a day.

I’m not sure how to take Stafford’s description of the ‘No Work Manifesto’ — essentially calling for a general strike if the Dock Companies did not move towards an acceptable compromise. Stafford is clearly not in favour and saw this as the move that hardened the opposition and lost the support of the public. She describes with great favour the Conciliation Committee — the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor, Cardinal Manning, Mr Sydney Buxton, M.P. for Poplar. This is not a committee I would trust particularly to negotiate on the behalf of working men, even though the shipowners and many men of wealth and business were on the side of the dockers at the end. I do think Stafford’s class identity consistently betrays her in the telling of this story both in its focus and in its view of strategy and acceptable goals. But there is nothing about her online, only that Stafford is a pseudonym and her real name was Ann Pedlar, this in spite of the fact she is the author of nine other books listed inside the cover. It’s as if no one cared about women writing histories of the unions, imagine that.

Back to the dockers though, I am looking forward to hearing this in their own words and there are multiple autobiographies, but to finish with Stafford’s account.

There was some last-minute negotiating, rushed conferences, lack of full consultation — so familiar, it is all so familiar. They reached a compromise finally, called it a victory though it was debatable how much exactly the dockers had won. Stafford writes:

This then, was the great achievement: unskilled men had learned how to combine, and as a result, the ‘New Unionism’ of 1889 laid the foundations of the Trade Unionism of today. Almost overnight the tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was in time to become the Transport and General Workers Union with its Headquarters at Transport House (202).

[Stafford, Ann (1961) A Match to Fire the Thames. London: Hodder and Stoughton.]

More on the East End…

 

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Eleanor Marx: Family Life 1855-1883

eleanorA beauty from Virago Press, offering insight into so so much…with the heavyweights of Marx and Engels so pivotal in the life of Marx’s daughter Eleanor, this does very well I think, in focusing on her and through that prism giving real insight into the characters of the men even as they remain somewhat on the sides. It is nice for it to come this way around. This is a wonderfully detailed, meticulously researched biography that draws on a wealth of letters and personal documents, sorts through contrasting accounts, brings to life all of the vibrant personalities in these circles. And it’s only Part 1. The short one. It is undoubtedly sympathetic both personally and politically, and it is open in this, which I liked. Better the point of view that is expressed than that is hidden. Nor did I find it shying away particularly from unpleasantness, though my knowledge of the time and people isn’t particularly deep.

My god, though, the emotional intensity of this family! It’s unexpected though I don’t know why I thought they would be more reserved, more academic. Well, I suspect plowing through Capital is part of that impression’s source. The emotional rollercoaster of their relationships with each other and people outside of the family is quite extraordinary to me as I do not operate in such a way. I knew of their poverty, but did not realise how it came in combination with the desire to keep up a middle-class front for the sake of the girls’ marriageability. After the two rooms they occupied in Soho in the heart of the refugee community after 1848’s uprisings (can you imagine the ferment and politics and wonder?), they moved into houses they could not afford, the girls had piano lessons and drawing and such. They were constantly in debt and sleepless and living off of what Engels could send them. Marx’s aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen inherited money from various relatives at different points, and all of it was spent almost immediately on furniture, travel, an even bigger house…They had a servant, Lenchen, part of the family in a sense but I always wonder how much a servant can really be part of the family, and she was almost certainly the mother of Marx’s only son. There’s a long interesting footnote on that longstanding piece of gossip that illuminates the intricate relationship between Marx, his wife, and his daughters.

Still, to imagine Marx working away on Capital in the midst of the madness is almost impossible, it is a wonder he managed it. The amount of time they spend traveling also struck me as a class privilege that they partook of extensively, again, funded by Engels. And yet at the same time, it is all to do with illness, extreme and lingering, mental and physical. So many children died, their lives where a string of tragedies and loss. They spent so long in this time before antibiotics and in the early ages of medicine fighting off sickness and disease, and Marx lost children and grandchildren while he was writing, Eleanor’s brothers, nieces, nephews. Their love of children is so evident, shining through letters and their frantic flying to be loved ones in times of trouble.

The unhappiness of all three sisters is also striking, all of them falling in love with exiles of the Paris Commune and perhaps this love as doomed as the commune itself and the spirits broken in it. Eleanor Marx’s is the strangest, her year’s long and open and disapproved of engagement to Lissagaray that never comes off. There is so much of the daily lives of the family available to us through the letters, but these tantalising areas remain completely opaque and we shall never know the truth of what happened and why. Perhaps Eleanor was lucky, her sister Jenny living in desperate poverty through the frequent arrests of her husband and his exile, working to support the family and also raising it. Watching her child die. Run ragged and aged before her time in taking care of those who survived. It is the future I have always been most afraid of, and she died just before Marx did. I cannot imagine the sorrow of that time for Eleanor, losing her mother, then within a few months, her sister, father and nephew. Being so surrounded by death — and that this is no unusual thing — is something that I think now, for those of us lucky enough to live where some level of medical care exists for all, is almost unimaginable. I can’t help but feel after reading this that if I can’t better understand that reality, then I can’t understand how people chose to live what life was given to them either.

At the end we meet Edward Aveling, a few chapters on his raising and life before Eleanor. He is so vilified, and in many ways rightfully so, but I am glad Knapp attempted to also find what was good in him. There must have been something to attract the vibrant, intelligent Eleanor to him in the first place. Still, I was hoping for something better. I read with so much sympathy and worry of her attempts to get just a little distance from the family, find herself through work as a teacher, research at the British Library, a career on the stage. And all of this against a background of revolt — there is also much in here on the lives of those exiled from France, on the formation and fall of the International Working Man’s Association and socialist politics after its passing. I wanted more in fact, but rested content with limiting it to maintain Eleanor as the focus — she was very young and while influenced by these things, she did not play the central role that she would come to play in building a socialist movement in Britain. That is the subject of volume 2, and I am looking forward to it.

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