Where Engels dared to tread: Sylvia Plath, Jose Rizal, and Friedrich Engels

AT THE FOOT OF PRIMROSE Hill, there is a lovely street called Regents Park Road, which we have visited many times before, but it was only today in late January 2020 that we spotted the former residences of two famous people and one less well-known in this country, but very important in his own country.

Chalcot Crescent

The highly regarded American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) lived briefly in picturesque Chalcot Square, which is a few yards south of Regents Park Road. There is a plaque on number three that records that the poet lived there between 1960 and 1961. Married to the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), the couple moved in  to the top floor flat, somewhat cramped accommodation, in January 1960. It was here that their daughter Frieda was born a few months later. Plath described the square as:

“…overlooking a little green with benches and fences for mothers and children … five minutes’ walking distance from Primrose Hill and beautiful Regent’s Park”

It is still an attractive square, made even more appealing by the variety of colours of the 19th century houses surrounding it.  The Hughes’s moved to larger accommodation in nearby Fitzroy Road where she took her own life. Although Sylvia lived longer at Fitzroy Road than in Chalcot Square, her children decided it would be best to commemorate her time in the square. When the plaque was placed on the house on Chalcot Square in 2000, her daughter Frieda was asked why it was not placed on the house in Fitzroy Road. She replied:

“My mother died there … but she had lived here.” (both quotes about Plath from: www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/poet-sylvia-plath-she-died-there-but-she-had-lived-3438440)

Plath lived for about a year in Chalcot Square, but the Filipino national hero Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896) spent even less time in the neighbourhood in number 37 Chalcot Crescent, a sinuous thoroughfare. He stayed in London from May 1888 to March 1889. He came to the metropolis to improve his English; to study and annotate a  work by Antonia de Morga (1559-1636) about the early Spanish colonisation of the Philippines; and because London was a safe place to carry out his struggle against the Spanish, who were occupying his country (www.slideshare.net/superekaa/rizal-in-london-52133406). At Chalcott Crescent, he was a guest of the Beckett family. While lodging with the Becketts, Jose had a brief romantic affair with Gertrude, the oldest of the three Beckett daughters. When her love for him became serious, Jose left London for Paris. Before he left, he gave the Beckett girls three sculptures he had made in London.

Rizal was a remarkable man with many skills. Born in the Philippines, he was an ophthalmologist by profession and fought vigorously for reform of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Amongst his other abilities were novel and poetry writing; philosophy; law; art including drawing, painting, and sculpting; ethnology and anthropology; architecture and cartography; history; martial arts; and magic tricks. Apart from his brief fling with Miss Beckett, he had numerous other affairs all over the world. After staying in many places in different continents, he returned to the Philippines, where his involvement in activities against the Spanish rulers caused  him to be arrested and executed by Filippino soldiers in the Spanish army on the 30th of December 1896.

Well, if you, like me, have never heard of the remarkable Jose Rizal, it is likely that the German born Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) is familiar. This father of Marxism and socialism came to Britain in 1842 to work in his father’s textile business in Salford. Friedrich’s father had hoped that by sending him to England, his son might abandon some of his radical political views. The opposite happened. With his partner, Mary Burns (1821-1863), with whom he lived until she died, he completed his research for his work “The Condition of the Working Class in England.”

After spells in Prussia, Paris, and Brussels, Engels arrived in London in November 1849. He re-joined his father’s company near Manchester in order to make money to help finance Karl Marx whilst he laboured in London on his important work “Das Kapital”. Engels in Manchester corresponded daily with Marx in London. By early 1853, Engels was already predicting that there would be revolution and civil war in Russia. He did not live long enough to see his predictions fulfilled.  In 1869, Engels retired from his father’s firm and moved to London in the following year.

Unlike his friend and colleague Marx, who lived in modest accommodation in London, Engels, who was well able to afford it, lived in a lovely house facing Primrose Hill. He moved into 122 Regents Park Road in 1870 with Mary Burn’s sister Lizzie, with whom he lived until she died in 1878. Marx lived not far away, in Kentish Town (at Grafton Terrace) until 1875, then even closer in Belsize Park (at Maitland Road) until his death in 1883. With the Marx family living close by:

“… Marx now living in Kentish Town and Engels based in Primrose Hill, the two concentrated their efforts on various groundbreaking works such as German Ideology (1846) and Capital (three volumes: 1867, 1884, 1893 – the latter two were edited and published by Engels after Marx’s death).” (www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/the-history-of-karl-marx-and-friedrich-engels-in-primrose-3435968).

I find it ironic that two men, Marx and Engels, whose ideas were to bring about the downfall of the bourgeoisie and plutocracy in many countries of the world, lived in an area that was and is, even more now than before, prized by members of those classes, who seem to ignore the examples of history by continuing to espouse these ideas whilst simultaneously enjoying the rewards that money and privilege bring. I wonder what Engels would be thinking if he were to tread the pavements of Regents Park Road today.

Politics aside, there is no escaping the fact that Primrose Hill and its surroundings are fine examples of what makes London such a wonderful place to live and enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Where Engels dared to tread: Sylvia Plath, Jose Rizal, and Friedrich Engels

  1. Thanks for sharing this, especially about Jose Rizal, a national hero where I come from.
    I bet not many people know about the affair with Ms Beckett, but neither am I surprised, knowing his “amorous” reputation. The link to the slideshare is also informative. Cheers!

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