Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Blue plaque for Eleanor Marx

English Heritage has recently agreed to put a blue commemorative plaque on the house in Jews Walk where Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl and herself a passionately committed socialist and activist, spent the last few years of her life.

The first commemorative plaques were installed during the 1860s but it was not until 1901, when the London County Council took over responsibility from the Royal Society of Arts, that they began to achieve popular appeal. The earliest LCC plaques were designed by Arthur Halcrow Verstage, who lived on Horniman Drive. When the LCC was abolished in 1965, responsibility for the scheme passed to the GLC. Since 1986 the scheme has been managed by English Heritage. Because they have strict guidelines English Heritage blue plaques are the most prestigious of all. There is a strict set of criteria to be met before they are approved.

Eleanor’s plaque is the fifth in our area. There are already plaques to FJ Horniman on the Horniman Museum clock-tower (LCC), Sir Ernest Shackleton on 12 Westwood Hill (GLC), John Logie Baird in Crescent Wood Road (GLC) and Sir Francis Pettit Smith on Sydenham Hill (EH), installed earlier this year.

Born in 1855, Eleanor Marx was Karl Marx’s youngest and, perhaps, favourite daughter. She grew up to become a passionate disciple of his, and worked tirelessly to further the cause of international socialism, particularly after his death in 1883. Eleanor’s father was dominating and strong-willed yet she was closely attached to him, and admired him immensely.

Within months of his death Eleanor became involved with Dr Edward Aveling in what she called a “free love” liaison. Her attachment to her dominating father might explain her attraction to Aveling who was domineering and selfish. Few of those who knew him had anything good to say of him. William Morris described him as “a disreputable dog” and Engels’ biographer said that he had “the thieving instincts of a jackdaw and the morals of a tom-cat”. The more Eleanor’s friends tried to warn her against Aveling the more attached she became to him. She took his name, and called herself “Eleanor Marx-Aveling”. Friederich Engels, Marx’s collaborator and Eleanor’s mentor, died in 1895 leaving Eleanor some £7000, enough to make her financially independent. She decided to use some of this money to buy herself a house.

Why she chose to look in Sydenham we don’t know, but one clue is provided by her remark in a letter to her sister on 17th November 1895 that “the house we are about to buy... (Edward swears this is my only reason for buying it) is in JEWS Walk, Sydenham”. On her father’s side Eleanor was Jewish and this was very important to her. Just days before she moved in she wrote “I am Jewishly proud of my house in Jews Walk”. Clearly she was very excited by the prospect of moving to Sydenham. On 29th November 1895 Eleanor signed the lease, and paid £525. On 14th December Eleanor, and perhaps Aveling, moved into 7 Jews Walk. Originally called “Moraston Lodge”, Eleanor decided to call the house “The Den”. It seems that Aveling spent little time at The Den. He visited occasionally “to demand money, speak of his conquests, and menace her”, according to one account.

Eleanor spent much of her time working on her father’s papers, and writing. Thanks to Engels’ bequest she could now afford some secretarial help so, in early 1896, she engaged Edith Lanchester. Edith was quite as radical as Eleanor. Just before starting work for Eleanor, Edith decided to live with her partner James Sullivan. Her family was so outraged that they attempted to have her certified insane. Edith’s daughter, Elsa Lanchester (born in 1902), became an actress and married Charles Laughton. Eleanor had a wide circle of friends on the left of European politics, and there are suggestions (in letters and other sources) early members of socialist movement visited Eleanor at Jews Walk, including HG Wells, E Nesbitt and George Bernard Shaw.

During 1896 Eleanor added a codicil to her will, benefiting Aveling. Some have suggested that he persuaded her to do this. The witnesses were Gertrude Gentry, her maid, whom Eleanor described in a letter as “excellent, but rather stupid”, and “an unidentified John Smith”. Aveling was known to use false names. On 8th June 1897, using the name Alec Nelson, he secretly married a young actress called Eva Frye. Eleanor was persuaded that Eva was merely another of his mistresses and she continued giving money to Aveling. In January 1898 Aveling needed a kidney operation. One of Eleanor’s friends, H M Hyndman, hoped that “the surgeon’s knife might slip” and was inclined to blame the doctor when Aveling recovered. Eleanor paid for the operation, and also took Aveling to Margate where she nursed him back to health. In March they returned to Jews Walk. Eleanor scoured Sydenham for an invalid chair so that she could take Aveling out.

Sometime at the end of March 1898 Eleanor discovered, possibly through a letter received on 31st March, that Eva was not Aveling’s mistress but his wife, a discovery too distressing for her to bear. At about 10am on 31st March the maid was given a note to take to George Dale, chemist of 92 Kirkdale (now no. 181, sixth door down from the Catholic Church). Gertrude returned to The Den with a small white parcel and the poison book for Eleanor to sign. Dr Aveling then left the house to spend the day in London; some have asked how a man apparently so ill was able to travel to London for the day. While Gertrude was returning the poison book to the chemist, Eleanor went upstairs. The white parcel contained prussic acid and chloroform. At 10.45 am Gertrude went upstairs and found Eleanor on the bed, barely breathing. She alerted a neighbour, and then ran around the corner to summon Dr Henry Shackleton of 12 Westwood Hill, Eleanor’s doctor and father of Sir Ernest Shackleton. By the time Dr Shackleton arrived Eleanor was dead.

The inquest was held at Park Hall, Sydenham Park (now a fitness centre). Dr Aveling was evasive and non-committal. The Coroner described him as “a most difficult man”. Aveling said that Eleanor had been “of a morbid disposition and had several times suggested they commit suicide together”. The verdict was suicide, but it is widely accepted that Aveling’s unfaithfulness and profligacy with her money contributed to Eleanor’s unhappiness, even depression. There are still some who believe that he actually tricked her into killing herself. Aveling died just four months later, from complications arising from his operation.

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