The history of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Primrose Hill and Kentish Town

Adam Sonin explores the life of philosopher, social scientist, historian and revolutionary Karl Marx, who lived in Chalk Farm and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

A century after Karl Marx’s death he had more than a billion followers - yet only 11 mourners attended his funeral.

He was described as a revolutionary genius though he never led a revolution.

His time was devoted to writing about capital yet he lived in acute poverty.

Only once has a house owner ever requested that a blue plaque be removed – and that was of Marx’s final address in Chalk Farm.


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In 1849, Marx, no longer welcome in mainland Europe and officially stateless, moved to London.

The authorities on the continent ordered him to leave Paris after writing a paper which supported an assassination attempt on the King of Prussia.

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It was in London that he began his 34 years of research on Capitalism in the reading rooms of the British Museum.

Fifty years later Lenin followed in Marx’s footsteps, signing the register as Jacob Richter.

In the late 1850s, while out drinking with two fellow Socialists, they decided to drink a glass of beer in every pub between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road.

There were 18 pubs on their route and by the time the group reached the last they were more than merry.

With a strong German accent Marx loudly declared that England was full of philistines and the “damned foreigners”, as they were called, narrowly avoided a brawl.

As they staggered off they stumbled across a pile of paving stones.

The group began to throw stones at gas lights, smashing the glass.

Three or four policemen gave chase but they managed to escape down a back street.

Marx had been greatly inspired by Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) and his first book The Condition of the Working Class in England was written in 1844.

The two had been in contact through correspondence and finally met in Paris in the summer of 1844.

Between 1870 and 1883, with 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).

On Sundays, Marx would take his family to Hampstead Heath for picnics, reciting lines from Shakespeare as they walked.

He proudly reported to Engels that: ‘The children are constantly reading Shakespeare.”

At home, his wife Jenny von Westphalen – the daughter of a Prussian baron – nicknamed him her “little wild boar” after the coarse hair that covered his body.

He was also nicknamed “the Moor” by the rest of his family owing to his thick beard.

Marx suffered from a number of health issues, in particular enormous boils on his backside.

As a result of this he often worked standing up at his desk at the reading rooms.

Engels always said he could tell the passages that had been written under the worst pain.

To this Marx responded: “At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember the carbuncles until their dying day. What a swine they are!”

Both Marx and Engels addressed crowds at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park but Marx had a lisp which made him a less than inspirational speaker. Years later Lenin also spoke at this spot.

Marx frequently used pseudonyms when renting a house in order to make it harder for the authorities to track him down.

While in Paris, he used that of ‘Monsieur Ramboz’ and in London he signed off his letters as ‘A. Williams’.

The family were thrilled when Engels, affectionately nicknamed ‘General’ or ‘General Staff’, knocked at their door as it made a refreshing change to the stream of bailiffs they constantly feared.

As well as bringing money, Engels loved to entertain and the two often performed duets, each singing one song’s lyrics to the other’s tune.

At his funeral in 1883, Engels told those gathered that: “On the 14th March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think.”

He ended his speech by saying: “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.”

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