Friedrich Engels and his unfortunate neighbours

FRIEDRICH ENGELS LIVED almost opposite London’s Primrose Hill at number 122 Regents Park Road. A colleague and friend of Karl Marx, he lived between 1870 and just before his death in 1895 in this large house located 360 yards west of the railway lines that run from Euston to places outside London.  His residence had been chosen for him by Jenny (1814-1881), wife of Karl Marx. Every Sunday, Engels used to hold an ‘open house’; all visitors were welcome. Liberal amounts of food and drink would be available and there was music and singing. According to Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Engels, the visitors included, for example, leaders of European socialism such as Karl Kautsky, William Morris, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Keir Hardie, Eduard Bernstein, and Henry Hindman. Hindman, who was a mentor and supporter of the Indian freedom fighter Shyamji Krishnavarma, who was active in Highgate between 1905 and 1910, nicknamed Engels ‘The Grand Lama of Regents Park Road’. Amongst visitors from Russia:

“The founders of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, considered the visit to his house in Regents Park Road a necessary pilgrimage whenever they were in London. Vera Zasulitch, who lived in London was another regular visitor as indeed was Stepniak, the terrorist author of “Underground Russia”” (note 1)

The congregation of so many socialists at his home attracted the attention of the police, who frequently kept number 122 under surveillance. Lenin, who first visited London in 1902, clearly would have not been able to visit Engels at Primrose Hill.

We visit Regents Park Road on some Saturdays and Sundays when parking is easy and free of charge, but, alas, we were born far too late to have been able to enjoy the stimulating atmosphere that must have reigned in the home of Engels on Sundays. Despite the absence of the great Engels, there is much to enjoy along the road where he lived, even during these restricting times of the covid19 ‘lockdown’. Apart from fresh air in plenty on Primrose Hill, there are interesting food shops and a few places that serve hot drinks to passers-by. One of these, which we favour, is Greenberry Café, which is located near to the railway lines. Almost next to this establishment, there is a building set back from the road. Its red brick façade is topped with a green tiled pediment with white lettering that reads:


Chalk Farm Garage

Proprietors

The Flight Petroleum Co Ltd

The ground floor of this building, which might once have included the workshops of the garage are closed in with modern glazing. Now used as the art gallery of the Freelands Foundation (https://freelandsfoundation.co.uk/about), this used to be a regular local petrol filling station. Flight Petroleum is a company that still exists. It is based in Mississippi (USA).  Before becoming a gallery, the former filling station was a branch of the Bibendum company that supplied alcohol not as motor fuel but in the form of wines and spirits.

Almost next to the former garage, a few feet left (i.e, west) of it, there is a curious looking white building, that was not built as a dwelling or a shop. On 19th and early 20th century maps, this is marked as being a ‘chapel’. An extremely detailed (5 feet to the mile) map of 1895 reveals that this chapel was in the grounds of the ‘Boys’ Home Industrial School’. The school’s grounds occupied much of the corner of Regents Park Road and King Henrys Road that meets the former at an acute angle. Where the former garage stands now used to be the entrance to the courtyard around which the school’s buildings were arranged.

I looked at two useful websites, www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonBoysIS/ and http://whispersandvoices.blogspot.com/2009/07/boys-home-regents-park-road-london.html, to learn about the school and its history. The school was originally founded by the physician and social reformer George William Bell (1813-1889) as the ‘Home for Unconvicted Destitute Boys’ in 1858 in some houses on Euston Road, where the British library stands currently. Later that year it became a certified ‘Industrial School’, which admitted boys sent by the courts for their protection as well as those who came voluntarily. In 1865, the school had to move because its premises were to be demolished in order to build a railway goods shed.

The school moved to new premises on Regents Park Road, initially a row of three houses. The chapel, one of whose pediments bears the letter ‘T’, was added after the school received a donation from a generous donor and was later superseded by the establishment of the St Marys Church on the northeast corner of Primrose Hill.  In 1868, a new school room was built on the northern side of the school’s yard. This was raised on arches, the spaces beneath them being used to store materials such as wood that was used in some of the practical classes taught in the establishment. By the 1890s, the school occupied the buildings that now form the corner of Regents Park and King Henrys Roads.

The boys learnt a variety of skills including carpentry, brushmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, and so on. They were also hired out to local residents, as Edward Walford described (writing in 1882):

“A large quantity of firewood is cut on the premises, and delivered to customers, and several boys are employed by private families in the neighbourhood in cleaning knives and shoes. The amount of industrial work done in the Home is highly satisfactory. The products of the labour of the boys and their teachers —clothes, shoes and boots, brushes of every kind, carpentry and firewood—are sold, and contribute to the general funds of the institution …”

I wonder whether any of these highly productive young boys did jobs for the household of Friedrich Engels, who lived close by. At the same time as they were beavering away, so was Engels. During his residence close to the school, he:

“ … wrote many of his famous works at № 122—The Housing Question (1872), Anti-Duhring (1877-78), the revised form of three chapters of this book published as Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (1880), Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Ludwig Feuerbach (1888).” (www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/pamphlets/1963/london_landmarks/index.htm).

Engels died in 1895. The school closed in 1920. On a map surveyed in 1938, the school’s courtyard still existed, the garage was not yet built, and the chapel was still marked as such. Today, there is no memorial to the school where it used to stand, but Engels’ house is distinguished from its neighbours by a circular plaque. Both the school and Engels were involved in social reform and the welfare of the oppressed, but few today would associate this pleasant road near Primrose Hill with those historical activities.

Note 1:

www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/F19FEAB88CAD3C1ACBB7B917B1EC1E00/S0020859000002364a.pdf/russian_emigration_and_british_marxist_socialism.pdf

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