Above: View of the front of the house at 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham.
Eleanor was born on 16 January 16 1855, the sixth child and fourth daughter of Karl Marx and his wife Jenny (nee von Westphalen). They were living in cramped conditions in Soho at the time. Of those six children only three daughters were to survive so Karl Marx, who had wanted another son, poured all his energies and expectations into this baby daughter. She was known as ’Tussy’ to the family from an early age.
Eleanor was the apple of her father Karl’s eye and a very bright child. She could recite passages by William Shakespeare at the age of three. At the age of eight she was writing letters to one of her uncles using language that you would have thought was that of an adult.
Eleanor’s father was, of course, Karl Marx. His great friend, Friedrich Engels, whom she thought of as her second father, may have influenced her thinking but she was very much ‘her own person’. Her mother, Jenny, had also taught her political awareness so that she became a trailblazing feminist, a lover of literature and a tireless activist for the poor and oppressed.
Eleanor’s Early Years
As she became a teenager Eleanor translated and edited volumes of her father’s ‘Das Capital’ and also edited some of Marx’s lectures. In this way she certainly came to know what he believed in. At the age of sixteen, Eleanor became her father’s secretary and accompanied him around the world to socialist conferences.
A year later, aged 17, she fell in love with Lissagaray, a journalist and participant of the Paris Commune, who had fled to London after the Commune’s suppression. Although Karl Marx agreed with the man politically, he disapproved of the relationship because of the age gap between the two, Lissagaray being 34 years old. Eleanor then moved away from home to Brighton working as a schoolteacher. Some time later Eleanor, who had been intending to marry Lissagaray, was having second thoughts and she terminated the relationship in 1882.
Eleanor as an Activist
In the early 1880s, Eleanor had to nurse her ageing parents. Her mother died in December 1881. Her elder sister, Jenny Longuet, died in January 1883, of bladder cancer, and her father died in March 1883. Before his death, her father gave her the task of taking care of the publication of his unfinished manuscripts and the English language version of his main work ‘Das Capital’.
In 1884, Eleanor joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and was elected to its executive. During her work in the SDF, she met Edward Aveling, with whom she would spend the rest of her life. In the same year, a split of the organisation led her to leave it and found the rival Socialist League.
In 1884 Eleanor met Clementina Black, a painter and trade unionist, and became involved in the Women’s Trade Union League. She would go on to support numerous strikes including the Bryant & May strike of 1888 and the London Dock Strike of 1889. She helped organise the Gasworkers’ Union and wrote numerous books and articles.
In 1885, she helped organise the International Socialist Congress in Paris. The following year, she toured the United States along with Edward Aveling and others, raising money for the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Amid all this political activity, Eleanor was becoming persuaded that marriage was not something she should get involved with but that ‘free love’ was the way to proceed with her relationship with Aveling.
Eleanor Moves to Sydenham
In 1895, aged 40, Eleanor purchased a house at 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham. That year Friederich Engels, Marx’s collaborator and Eleanor’s mentor, died, leaving Eleanor £7,000, enough to make her financially independent. She intended buying the house and living there with her lover Edward Aveling. Quite why she bought a house in Sydenham is not known for certain. Having lived in Soho and Hampstead and then spent time working with activists in Spitalfields, to move to Sydenham does not appear an obvious choice. Her father Karl Marx was the son of Jewish parents and Eleanor was proud of her Jewish descent. With Jews Walk being one of the few streets in London with an obvious Jewish name, it is possible that Eleanor chose the location purely for that reason. It is known that she wrote to a friend ‘I am Jewishly proud of my house in Jew’s Walk’.
Life in the house at Jews Walk, which she christened ‘The Den’, was not all that she had hoped for. She set about trying to find a gardener to whom she promised “fair wages – 6d an hour”. She also began to sing in the local Socialist choir with her “dear Lewishamers”. Underneath the surface her optimism was waning. Aveling neglected her, and she regretted having no offspring. It is also known that she spent two lonely Christmases at ‘The Den’.
In 1898 Eleanor discovered that Aveling had secretly married his actress mistress, to whom he remained committed. Aveling had been unwell for some time and his illness seemed to her to be terminal. Eleanor was deeply depressed by the faithlessness of the man she loved. For Eleanor the whole idea of ‘free love’ had proved to be the downfall of her relationship.
On 31 March that year Eleanor sent her maid to the local chemist in Sydenham with a note to which she signed the initials of the man the chemist knew as ‘Dr Aveling’, asking for chloroform and a small quantity of hydrogen cyanide (then called ‘prussic acid’) for her dog. On receiving the package, Eleanor signed a receipt for the poison, sending the maid back to the chemist to return the receipt book. Eleanor then retired to her room, wrote two brief suicide notes, undressed, got into bed, and swallowed the poison.
When she got back to the house, the maid discovered Eleanor in bed, scarcely breathing. A doctor was called but Eleanor had died by the time he arrived. She was 43. A post mortem examination determined the cause of death to have been poison. A subsequent coroner’s inquest delivered a verdict of “suicide while in a state of temporary insanity”, clearing Aveling of criminal wrongdoing but he was widely reviled throughout the socialist community as having caused Eleanor to take her life. Four months after Eleanor’s death, Aveling was to meet his own end, on 2 August 1898, at his home in Battersea when he succumbed to kidney disease from which he had been suffering for some time.
Above: Blue Plaque on 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham. Cherry’s ‘London 2: South’ does not give a date for the house being built. Describing the house a one of a Tudor-Gothic pair, in red-brick with diapering (black diagonal bricks set into the exterior wall). The windows have stonework around them, decorated with small gargoyles. The houses, which are still a complete collection of semi-detached villas were probably built some time in the 1860s or 1870s.
A funeral service for Eleanor was held in a room at the London Necropolis Railway premises, at Waterloo Station, on 5 April 1898, attended by a large throng of mourners. Speeches were made by Aveling and others who had known her. Following the memorial, Eleanor Marx’s body was taken by rail to Woking and cremated. An urn containing her ashes was subsequently kept safe by a succession of left wing organisations, including the Social Democratic Federation, the British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, before finally being buried alongside the remains of Karl Marx and other family members at Highgate Cemetery, in 1956.
On 9 September 2008 an English Heritage blue plaque was placed on the house on 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham, where Eleanor Marx spent the last few years of her life. On reflection, it was rather tragic that the warm-hearted intellectual who wished to liberate all women was incapable of liberating herself.