What we did on our holidays: Marx & Engels at the Victorian seaside

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2019 by kmflett


What we did on our holidays: Marx and Engels at the Victorian seaside

It is what is traditionally known as High Summer. In many areas schools are on holiday and Parliament is in recess. For various reasons Staycations are on the increase and that means seaside resorts.

There is a solid tradition of socialism and the British seaside and we need look no further than Marx and Engels to discover it.

Official histories of the town struggle to acknowledge it, but Eastbourne was Engels favourite holiday destination.

Engels regularly went to Eastbourne in the summer and sometimes other months, particularly after he took early retirement from the family business. He stayed at 4 Cavendish Place Eastbourne near the pier. He wrote to Sorge on March 18 1893 that he had spent two weeks in the place and ‘had splendid weather’ coming back ‘very refreshed’. Engels also spent time at the seaside, Ramsgate for example, when he was pondering major theoretical works and concerns.

Engels had a fondness too for Ryde on the Isle of White. He visited in September 1857 when he went to Carisbrooke Castle and returned on several occasions in the 1890s.

Marx had other seaside venues in mind and for other reasons than simply holidays. Indeed as early as 14th July 1857 Engels was urging that Marx ‘go to the seaside’ as soon as possible because of his poor health.

In 1866 he wrote that he had been ‘banished’ by his Doctor to 5 Lansell’s Place in Margate. He complained that it was very quiet in March, vegetating before Londoners arrived for the bathing season. Even so he found the ‘air is wonderfully pure and invigorating’

On 25 August 1871 Marx was in Brighton writing that ‘my doctor found it necessary to banish me for a few months to this place, with the strict injunction to do nothing’.

On 18th May 1874 Marx wrote to Kugelmann ‘After my return from Harrogate I had an attack of carbuncles, then my headaches returned, insomnia, etc, so that I had to spend from the middle of April to 5 May at Ramsgate (seaside). Since then I have been feeling much better, but am far from being quite well’.

By September 1879 Marx had moved a little to The Plains of Waterloo in Ramsgate where on 11th of the month he noted that ‘the weather here is partly good and partly bad, the latter having a tendency to predominate’.

By this time Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny was living in Ramsgate.

Marx had visited Ramsgate previously in 1872 and 1874.

In August 1880 Marx gave an interview to a journalist from the radical New York paper The Sun, partly on Ramsgate beach. It was published in the paper on 6th September 1880.

The journalist John Swinton wrote in part:

The afternoon is waning toward the twilight of an English summer evening as Mr. Marx discourses, and he proposes a walk through the seaside town and along the shore to the beach, upon which we see many thousand people, largely children, disporting themselves. Here we find on the sands his family party — the wife, who had already welcomed me, his two daughters with their children, and his two sons-in-law, one of whom is a Professor in King’s College, London, and the other, I believe, a man of letters. It was a delightful party — about ten in all — the father of the two young wives, who were happy with their children, and the grandmother of the children, rich in the joysomeness and serenity of her wifely nature. (The Sun 6th September 1880)

Marx spent months at the end of his life in 1882 and 1883 in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. The area has not changed so much since he lived there and the house he stayed in, 1 St Boniface Gdns, which is in central Ventnor, has a plaque to mark his stay. Just six years later Churchill was in the town and the veteran Chartist George Julian Harney also visited. People came because of the temperate climate and the beneficial impact on their health particularly in the winter months.

What did Marx and Engels do while at the seaside?

Certainly as Victorian gentlemen did, they went for walks both on the seaside and inland. Marx visited Canterbury on one occasion in 1866 when staying at Margate. He walked the 17 or so miles there and returned the following day on the train.

This was also the time of the growth of commercial photography and snaps of Marx at Margate and Engels in Eastbourne still exist. I’m afraid however that neither is to be found in a bathing costume and the Collected Works make absolutely no reference to paddling in the sea.

We can conclude from all this though that Marx’s favourite seaside resorts were Ramsgate and in his last years Ventnor. Margate and Brighton were popular but less so, while Eastbourne was visited when Engels was in residence.

Extracts from letters Marx wrote while at Margate in 1866 (From MIA Frankfurt site)

Margate, 18 March 1866

5 Lansell’s Place

My dear Child,

From the address you will see that I have been banished, by my medical adviser, to this seaside place, which, at this time of the year, is quite solitary. Margate lives only upon the Londoners, who regularly inundate it at the bathing season. During the other months it vegetates only. For my own part right glad I am to have got rid of all company, even that of my books. I have taken a private lodging which fronts the sea. In an inn or Hotel one might have been exposed to the danger of falling in with a stray traveller, or being pestered by local politics, vestry interests, and neighbourly gossip. As it is, ‘I care for nobody, and nobody cares for me’. But the air is wonderfully pure and reinvigorating, and you have here at the same time sea air and mountain air. I have become myself a sort of walking stick, running up and down the whole day, and keeping my mind in that state of nothingness which Buddhism considers the climax of human bliss. Of course, you have not forgotten the pretty little diction: ‘When the devil was sick, the devil a monk would be; when the devil was well, the devil a monk was he.’


Withdrawing a little from the seaside, and roaming over the adjacent agricultural districts, you are painfully reminded of ‘civilisation’, because from all sides you are startled by large boards, with governmental proclamations on them, headed: Cattle Disease. The ruling English oligarchs were never suspected to care one farthing for ‘der Menschheit ganzes Weh’ [all misery of mankind – Schiller], but as to cows and oxen, they feel deeply. At the opening of Parliament, the horned cattle gentlemen of both houses, commoners and lords, made a wild rush at government. All their talk sounded like a herd of cows lowing, translated into English. And they were not like honest king Wiswamitra, ‘der kämpfte und büsste für die Kuh Sabalah’ [who wrangled and suffered for the cow Sabalah — Heine]. On the contrary. They seized the opportunity to ‘battre monnaie’ [coin money] out of the cows’ ailings at the expense of the people. By the by, the East sends us always nice things — Religion, Etiquette, and the Plague in all forms.


Margate, 6 April 1866

5 Lansell’s Place

Dear Fred,

I have been greatly restored here, and not the smallest sign of a return of the atrocious carbuncles… I have now been here for nearly 4 weeks and have lived for my health’s sake alone. It is time to put a stop to that soon.


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