Bob Darke on how to fight racism in Hackney, 1979

Bob Darke is best known for the 1952 book The Communist Technique in Britain about his disaffection with the Hackney Branch of the Communist Party. That’s been previously covered here.

Darke criticised the CP for its subservience to Stalinist Russia at the expense of working class issues in Hackney. So it was hardly surprising that after he left the party he continued to work as a bus conductor and focus on trade union and tenants issues:

I live in Nisbet House, Homerton, a block of council flats in the Borough of Hackney, where washing is always hanging on the lines on the verandas, and there are bicycles and prams in the tiled hallways and sheds. Such a block of flats in the East End is a world of its own, closer-knit than the luxury flats in the West End where, I imagine, a man can lock his door on his neighbours. But if, in the East End, you can’t keep your own business from the neighbours that also means that your circle of friends is all the wider.

The Communist Technique in Britain, p7

In the clip above he makes the case for strong tenants organisations being bulwark against racism and the spread of organisations like the National Front. 

The sad story of Fred Demuth – Marx’s son in Hackney

“I can’t help feeling that Freddy has had great injustice all through his life.”  – Eleanor Marx

 

Photo of Frederick Lewis Demuth 1851-1929

Frederick Demuth 1851-1929

Frederick’s Demuth’s story is a convoluted one which is contested by a number of historians – and tainted by hostility or deference to his alleged father. This bias makes it difficult to do justice to Demuth himself. 

People have strong feelings about Karl Marx, so I’ll put my cards on the table from the outset and say that reading his books has helped me to understand the world. I would thoroughly recommend David Harvey’s lectures about Capital which can be viewed on Youtube or downloaded as mp3s. As an individual Karl seems as charming and annoying and brilliant and messed up as the rest of us – if not more so. More on that later.

We have some travelling to do before we reach Hackney, so please bear with me…

Marx – married and on the move

Karl Marx married Jenny von Westphalen in 1843. They had been engaged for seven years and had known each other since childhood. In October 1843 the Marxes moved from Jenny’s family home in Kreuznach (near Frankfurt) to Paris. It was a busy time. Karl wrote for a radical journal, met lifelong comrade Friedrich Engels for the first time and began his expansive study of political economy that would be the basis for Capital. The couple’s first daughter Jenny Caroline was born in 1844 (the convention is to use the second name to avoid confusing the Jennys, as we will see).

The Marx family were kicked out of France in 1845 and headed to Brussels. Jenny Marx’s mother was worried about them and sent her housekeeper Helene ‘Lenchen’ Demuth to help. Lenchen stayed with the Marxes for the rest of their lives.

Jenny Laura Marx was born in Brussels in 1845. The Marx family and Lenchen decamped to London in 1849. The two junior Jennys were followed by Edgar (1847); Henry Edward Guy (1849); Jenny Eveline Frances (1851) and Eleanor (1855). That’s six children born to Jenny senior in 11 years. But that wasn’t quite the end of it…

Helene Demuth gave birth to Frederick Demuth on 23 June 1851 in the Marx home of 28 Dean Street, Soho. She was not apparently in any kind of “respectable” relationship at the time, so young Freddy was fostered out. The Marx children assumed (or rather, were helped to believe) that frequent visitor Engels was responsible. But Helene never spoke about her son’s father.

It is now generally (but not universally) believed that Karl Marx was actually Frederick Demuth’s father. This means Karl was shagging Helene whilst his wife was pregnant with Jenny Eveline. His letters from the time mention that he went into hiding in the British Library for many days when Lenchen’s pregnancy would have been discovered.

Frederick Demuth in Hackney

Freddy Demuth as a dashing Hackney lad

Frustratingly little is known about Frederick Demuth’s life compared to his birth. (If you know more, or where to find out more, please leave a comment!)

Freddy was fostered by a family named Lewis in East London. He trained as a skilled fitter and turner (lathe operator – possibly gun-smithing) and left his foster family and “rough childhood” as early as possible.

Ellen Demuth

In January, February or March 1873 Demuth married the Irish gardener’s daughter Ellen Murphy (b 1854). The couple lived in Hackney in the early 1880s and had a son, Harry (aka Frederick confusingly) in 1882.

The tomes of Marxological correspondence show that Eleanor Marx maintained a friendship with Freddy from at least the 1880s onwards.

When Karl Marx died in 1883, Helene Demuth became Engels’ housekeeper (Jenny Marx senior had died a few years previously). Harry Demuth would later recall his father taking him to visit granny Helene at Engels’ Regents Park Road home.

Eleanor continued her efforts to bridge the gap between Freddy and his presumed father Engels:

“Freddy has behaved admirably in all respects and Engels’ irritation against him is as unfair as it is comprehensible. We should none of us like to meet our pasts, I guess, in flesh and blood.”

Perhaps because of this Freddy was invited to Engels’ 74th birthday party in November  1894. But there was no time to develop things further – Engels died the next year. He left nothing in his will for Freddy, but the “legitimate” Marx children were included and are said to have given him regular support. There are contested suggestions that Engels confessed that Marx was actually Freddy’s father on his deathbed.

One account states that Eleanor Marx introduced Freddy to Clara Zetkin as “my half brother” during the Second International’s Congress of 1896 in London’s Queen’s Hall, Langham Place.

In February 1888 Freddy joined the Kings Cross branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers as a skilled fitter. The ASE would shortly become the third largest union in Britain and embark on a lengthy strike for an eight hour day. (Workers’ struggles around the length of the working day was one of the themes Karl Marx tackled in volume 1 of Capital which had been published in English in 1887.)

When Helene “Lenchen” Demuth died of cancer in 1890 she left all her worldly goods – including ninety-five pounds – to Frederick Lewis Demuth of 25 Gransden Avenue, Hackney.

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The site of 25 Grandsden Avenue

That side of Gransden Avenue is now a building site, but our comrades at Past Tense have written about the area as part of their essential Hackney Walk:

London Fields east: Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street, Lamb lane, Gransden Avenue:

 

Sidworth Street was the site of a V2 bomb during the war and in the 1960s and 1970s industrial unties built.

 

In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some buildings around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace are currently squatted, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.

Properties round here bough by local council after WW2 (bomb damage & slum clearance) and in the 1970s. During this time there were several traveller sites on Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue and  Mentmore Terrace. In the 1980s a site on Gransden Avenue/London Lane was being considered as a permanent local authority traveller site.

Freddy’s son later recalled that they inhabited the first floor of the “ramshackle” house, with the Clayton family on the ground floor. Henry Clayton worked with Freddy at Paterson and Cooper, a firm of electrical engineers and scientific instrument makers based at Telegraph Works, Pownall Road, Haggerston.

The 1891 census has the family of Frederick, Ellen and Frederick jnr still at Gransden Ave. Freddy is listed as engineer and fitter. But by the 1901 census only the father and son remained.

In 1892 Freddy’s wife Ellen had left him to run away with a soldier. She also nicked most of his possessions, as well as £29 belonging to a workers’ benevolent fund that comrade Demuth had been entrusted with. Ouch. Eleanor Marx pulled some strings and bailed him out with the assistance of her siblings.

Freddy posing with Hackney Social Democratic Federation comrades

Harry Demuth told journalist David Heisler about his father’s political activity increasing around this time, including being an avid reader of the socialist newspaper The Clarion and his membership of the Hackney Social Democratic Federation, attending their meetings at the Rendezvous Cafe at 155 Mare Street and the British Oak Tavern on Lea Bridge Road. There is also mention of Freddy being one of the founders of the Clapton Park and District Co-Operative and Industrial Society at 28 Brooksby’s Walk in Homerton. Harry recalls his father studying the works of Marx and Engels and having their pictures on the walls of their family home.

We also know that Freddy was a founder member of the Hackney Labour Party. (When was this? The Labour Party was founded in 1900, but its first showing in Hackney parliamentary and council elections is 1922. Separate Hoxton ran a Labour candidate in the 1919 council elections though).

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54 Reighton Rd

By 1911 Freddy was boarding at the slightly more upmarket 54 Reighton Road in Upper Clapton. `His profession is listed as mechanical engineer – working with fountain pens. He was boarding with the Payne family. Alfred Payne had also been a founder member of Hackney Labour Party and went on to become mayor of Hackney between 1919-20.

Harry lived elsewhere at this point, working as a cab driver before briefly emigrating to Australia.

Freddy (front and centre) convalescing from a period of illness, 1912

In 1914 Freddy started working at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, initially as a fitter and then as a foreman. He’d previously had roles at Gestetner (Lea Valley) and stamp printers De La Rue (Bun Hill Row). In 1924 he retired at the age of 73. He was still a member of the Hackney branch of Amalgamated Engineers Union.

Freddy died of heart failure in Upper Clapton in 1929, outliving all the other Marx children. At that point he shared a house with Ellen “Laura” Payne, the widow of Alfred Payne. Freddy’s son Harry was for some reason named as his nephew in his will – he got the surprisingly large sum of £1971 12s 4d. Rachel Holmes suggests that this inheritance may have been a product of the financial support Freddy had received from the Marx siblings.

Yvonne Kapp has Frederick Demuth’s last address as 13 Stoke Newington Common:

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13 Stoke Newington Common

The hazards of moral judgements and historical perspective

“[Karl] did not love the boy, the scandal would have been too big.” – Louise Kautsky

There are two very polarised perspectives on Frederick Demuth and they are both entirely wrong.

Socialists and Communists generally gloss over Freddy’s existence as an unfortunate event that is either an interesting footnote or something that demonstrates the steps that the workers’ movement had to take to defend itself from attacks in the media.

Generally, if he is ever mentioned at all, Freddy is one weapon in an arsenal of tools used to attack his father. If you listened to conservative commentators you would know that Karl Marx was a terrible person who never worked a day in his life (in fact he was paid as a journalist and author) sponged off factory owner Engels (partly true – although Engels was more than willing to help out his objectively more talented comrade) and more seriously raped his servant. The latter claim is of course impossible to prove or disprove now.

The few accounts we have of life in the Marx family household seem to indicate that there was a great deal of mutual affection between Karl, Jenny senior and Helene. That said, there is clearly a power imbalance between employer and employee which makes it difficult to know how complete consent can be in a sexual relationship which takes place in that context.

We also know from accounts of the Marx household and the wider historical context that finances were tight (and often desperate) – and that “respectable” families did not include children born out of wedlock.

Karl Marx shouldn’t have shagged his housekeeper. But he did. Is this a stain on his character? Yes it is. Does it undermine his ideas? Not really, but it is a black mark for sure.

They think only of two individuals and forget the family. They forget that nearly every dissolution of a marriage is the dissolution of a family and that the children and what belongs to them should not be dependent on arbitrary whims, even from a purely legal point of view.

On a Proposed Divorce Law, 1842

 

The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom, because in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.

The Holy Family, 1844

The nucleus, the first form of [property] lies in the family, where wife and children are slaves of the husband. This latent slavery in the family, though still very crude, is the first property …

The German Ideology, 1846

In the above quotes, Marx recognises the unequal status of women in capitalism and the effect that the dissolution of a family can have on children. He would also have been only too aware of the differences in class between him and his housemaid – and the consequences of their relationship being discovered.

Marx and Engels’ vision for a new world included some laudable words about women and relationships:

It [communist society] will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene. It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage, the dependence, rooted in private property, of the woman on the man and of the children on the parents.

Communist Manifesto, 1848

But the world of 1848 (and 1851 when Freddy was born) was even further away from that than we are now. Marx fostered out Freddy because that is what most people in that situation would have done at the time – and because a public scandal about his family would undermine the work he was doing. He behaved in accordance with his class, which meant oppressing his servant even more than usual when the chips were down.

I am not married. I am writing this whilst my daughter does her school homework at the same table. I am able to do this without controversy because of the work done by feminists and the workers’ movement over the last 167 years to loosen the strange-hold of conservative values on the family and child rearing. Marx’s contribution to this process of social change cannot be ignored.

Having said that, parts of the left would still rather cover up a scandal than address the failings of the men it elevates to leadership positions. In 2013 the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party was rocked by accusations that it had covered up allegations of rape and sexual misconduct against one of its leading members. As one of the female victims said at the time: “They are putting the interests of the party above the interests of the women.”

The personal remains political. Which brings us back to Frederick Demuth.

If you subtract the question of his father from the equation, Freddy’s life remains interesting and worth celebrating. He escaped a harsh childhood and a horrendous marriage breakup and still managed to retain his humanity – his capacity to care for others. His years of union work and political activism are the quiet, patient building blocks out of which we will construct a better world.

demuth-freddy

Notes and sources

I first heard about Frederick Demuth during a talk given by Barry Burke and Ken Worpole at Pages Bookshop in 2015. So thanks as ever to them for all the work they did on Hackney’s radical history before I even got started.

I have used the following for this piece:

Eduard Bernstein – What Drove Eleanor Marx to Suicide (1898) – includes a number of letters from Eleanor `Marx to Freddy that demonstrate he was her main confidante towards the end of her life.

Terrell Carver – Marx’sIllegitimate Son’ …or Gresham’s Law in the World of Scholarship – a useful dose of scepticism on the Marx-paternity claim.

Hal Draper – Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation

Edna Healey – Wives of Fame: Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx and Emma Darwin (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Rachel Holmes – Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Yvonne Kapp – Eleanor Marx: A Biography (Verso, 2018) – the main source. Appendix 1 especially.

Yvonne Kapp – Writing Eleanor Marx  – includes an account of the Demuth family contacting her after being messed about by a journalist who stole their family photos.

Frances Wheen – Karl Marx (Fourth Estate, 1999)

Two newspaper articles from the David Heisler interviews in the early 1970s:

ABC Madrid – El Hijo Que Carlos Marx Trato De Olividar (“The son that Karl Marx tried to forget”) (1974)

Der Spiegel – Marx: Ungeliebter Sohn (“Marx: Unloved Son” – google translate) (1972)

8th November: a short history of Hackney’s fight against new roads

Just seen this via the Hackney Society

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Talk with Wayne Asher and Stella Bland. 

Meet at Hackney Archives, Dalston Square, E8 3BQ. Arrive early for a prompt start at 7. Refreshments from 6:30pm, following the Friends of the Archives AGM which begins at 6. 

Please book places following the link on Eventbrite.

Wayne Asher tells the story of the Ringways – a set of urban motorways planned in the 1960s and 70s, which would have made 100,000 people homeless, devastated the environment and prevented the 21st century rebirth of public transport in the capital.

What would have been the impact here in Hackney? What sort of local opposition was there?

Stella Bland takes us to 1988/89, when the East London Assessment Study proposed new roads that cut through housing, heritage buildings and green space from north to south and east to west across Hackney.

The local response was the Hackney No Through Road campaign, involving people from many different communities in our borough.

How could Hackney inspire such plans for its destruction? What did this say about our society, culture, and politics in the late 80’s?
We hope that the evening will end with a good discussion, perhaps exploring current attitudes to transport and traffic.

This is a joint event from the Hackney Society and Friends of Hackney Archives and is free to all, with donations accepted to cover cost of refreshments. Please sign up and come along.

A “Bash The Rich” march in 1900s Hackney?

Walter Southgate was a member of Hackney Trades Council and the Social Democratic Federation at the turn of the Century. He remembers:

“We wanted to stir up the middle classes. So we organised a corps of men; we all put on masks and with George Oram, who was a very tall painter, leading us with a red flag on a long pole, we walked all around the toffee-nosed areas of Hackney”. Many carried placards with various slogans on while “one bloke had a kettle drum and another had a bugle.”

(From Rebels With a Cause: The History of Hackney Trades Council 1900-1975 by Barry Burke)

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Walter expands on this in his excellent autobiography “That’s The Way It Was” (New Clarion Press, 1982):

In a local effort at Hackney during this pre-war period, I remember the local socialists decided that only shock tactics would frighten the smug middle class voters out of their skins. It was an easy salve to their consciences by constantly saying that the unemployed were work shy; therefore, shocks would get some at least to appreciate the dangers and explosive nature of social discontent.

George Oram, a veteran of the Boer War, was to lead a poster parade through the wealthier parts of Hackney and I was deputed to prepare the posters, the markings on which would be skull and cross bones, skeletons, starving children and other macabre stuff.

There were 12 of us, with George at the head wearing his medals and carrying a large red flag, the latter calculated to send shivers down the spines of comfortable drawing room viewers. Each sandwichman carried a poster fore and aft and wore a mask for fear of victimisation. At the rear of the procession a comrade blew a blast on his bugle at intervals.

In the meanwhile any unemployed fellows were ostentatiously busy ringing at door bells and pushing handbills into letterboxes explaining that unemployment was a social responsibility and could not be salved or solved by charity and soup kitchens but by government action. We carried no collection boxes as a sign of our sincerity.

As a publicity stunt, with a moral and educational purpose, this was something new and it brought us many recruits from this quarter of the borough.

There is a brief and very interesting biography of Walter Southgate by our comrades at Hayes Peoples History here.

I’ve not been able to find out more about George Oram or the slogans, yet…

(The UK anarchist group Class War organised “Bash The Rich” marches in the eighties, commencing with one on Kensington on May 11th 1985 – and the revived the tactic in 2007 with a march through Notting Hill. Class War’s inspiration was from the American anarchist Lucy Parsons though.)

Portraits from ‘A Hackney Autobiography’ exhibition

portraits from a hackney autobiography invite

Regular readers of this blog will remember my enthusiastic support for the A Hackney Autobiography project which documented the Centerprise radical bookshop, cafe, meeting place, community hub.

Well as you can see from the image above, the project continues with an exhibition of photographs “of people who worked at or frequented Centerprise and archive material related to their work”.

 

Flashing the peace sign in Finsbury Park

blue-plaq

I have mixed feelings about blue (and other colour) plaques.

On the one hand, they are a handy resource for local historians and can highlight hidden aspects of buildings and places to passersby.

On the other hand they generally promote a point of view where history is made by individuals rather than groups, movements and so on.

Furthermore their official status tends to favour respectable (or very old) radicals. So Stoke Newington boasts a placard for peace poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld at 113 Church Street, but there isn’t one at 359 Amhurst Road, site of the infamous police raid that lead to the Stoke Newington 8 trial.

But also… most of the statues and monuments in London are for bastions of the establishment and not those fighting against it. So maybe the more modern plaques can balance things out?

Despite all that I was intrigued to see this tweet from the Council recently:

holtom-tweet

Not least because I’d assumed that Blackstock Road was well outside the borough, but it turns out the eastern side of the street is Hackney and the western side is the badlands of Islington. Which means the site of the new plaque is the furthest Western point in Hackney:

blackstock

Who Was Gerald Holtom? And what was he doing in Hackney?

Gerald-Holtom

Gerald Holtom 1918-1985

Holtom graduated from the Royal College of Art shortly before becoming a conscientious objector during World War Two. In 1958 he was invited to design artwork for use on the first Aldermaston March, organised by the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War (DAC).

There are various conflicting stories about the artwork’s creation but most people seem to agree that Holtom actually designed the logo at his home in Twickenham (and not in Hackney as per the Council tweet above).

It was a composite of the semaphore for the letters N and D (Nuclear Disarmament):

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On the evening of 21 February 1958 Holtom presented the logo to a meeting of DAC at the offices of Peace News* at 3 Blackstock Road. The group accepted the logo and it had its first outing at the Aldermaston march on 4-7 April:

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Holtom’s logo on the first Aldermaston march, 1958.

Direct Action in Aldermaston

The four day march from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston attracted several thousands.

It’s worth noting that DAC have been described as the “direct action wing” the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (which had also formed in 1957) with some overlap in membership. Alan Lovell describes how DAC’s work in Aldermaston did not stop with the march:

Some months after the march, the Committee returned to Aldermaston for an eight-week picket. The aim of the picket was to make people in the area aware of what was happening at the Aldermaston establishment, to get trade unions to black work on the establishment, and to get individual workers to leave the place.

During the eight weeks, the Committee visited trade unions, distributed leaflets and held factory gate meetings, and canvassed in the surrounding villages. As a result of these activities, five people have actually stopped work at Aldermaston ; three men who were going to apply for work at the base changed their minds ; and five lorry drivers said that they would not drive any more loads to the base.

The pickets were well received by the workers — when a new leaflet was produced the workers often stopped to ask for a copy.

DAC wound up in 1961, with most of its members getting involved with the larger Committee of 100. CND took over the organisation of the Aldermaston marches from 1959. Both of these organisations also adopted Holtom’s logo, which is now globally recognised as a symbol of peace and nuclear disarmament.

The first clip below shows some of Holtom’s original artwork and includes an interview with his daughter, Anna Scott:

The plaque in place

The campaign to get a plaque on Blackstock Road originates with this very readable article by Guardian journalist Ian Jack in 2015:

He gave his unforgettable work for nothing. Shouldn’t the designer of the peace symbol be commemorated?

As it says, the logo has proliferated so much because Holtom did not wish it to be trademarked or copyrighted.

I wasn’t able to make the plaque unveiling last weekend due to a hangover and the fact that it was absolutely pissing it down with rain. It is worth having a look for if you are passing, but you will need better eyesight than me if you want to actually read it…

NB: There is a load of guff on the internet about the symbol being anti-christian or satanic because it is supposedly either an upside down broken cross or an inverted Algiz rune, which symbolises death. As it says above, Holtom combined the semaphore letters N and D to create the logo. In a number of (non-bonkers) accounts he is described as being a Christian himself, and had originally considered using the christian cross as part of the logo (presumably the right way up!).

*Peace News was based at Blackstock Road from 1948 to 1958. It shared premises with Housmans Books which was then primarily a mailorder operation. In 1959 both organisations moved to 5 Caledonian Road where the excellent (and fully endorsed by me) Housmans Bookshop is still based today.

Forthcoming radical history events in Hackney

“A unique reading of the commissioned text, Wollstonecraft Live! which depicts the shooting of a biopic of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, with actors, an original music score, and you, the audience. Taking place in the atmospheric 18th century Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green, attended by Wollstonecraft in the 1780s. Come and hear the pulse of her words woven through the tapestry of a story of and about her life, linking past and present.

Directed by Anna Birch

Script by Kaethe Fine

Sound design by Alastair Gavin”

Tickets £7.50 from here.

Roots, Rhythms & Records: The sounds and stories of African and Caribbean music in Hackney

Hackney Museum: 4 October 2018 – 16 March 2019

“From making beats in bedrooms to performing on stage, enjoying sounds in shebeens to looking sharp for the club, this exhibition explores the history of African and Caribbean music in Hackney.

Through stories of musical innovation, distribution and enjoyment, this exhibition celebrates the impact of African and Caribbean music in Hackney and beyond.

Join us for the exhibition launch on Thursday 4th October, from 6pm. Free, please RSVP here:

FREE

Hackney Museum
Ground Floor
Technology and Learning Centre
1 Reading Lane
E8 1GQ

https://www.hackney.gov.uk/museum-visiting