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Engels in Eastbourne – radical history tour

Memorial plaque to Friedrich Engels, with red paint sprayed all over it.
Engels plaque vandalised by the National Front. Photo credit: public domain 

An Eastbourne campaign group is battling to reinstate a plaque dedicated to one of the godfathers of communism, Friedrich Engels, who was a regular visitor to the town. The plaque in Cavendish Place was taken down in the 1970s after it was repeatedly vandalised by National Front extremists and is currently archived in the Manchester People’s Museum. 

Unhidden. The radical history of Eastbourne − a self-guided walk.

As well as seeking to reinstate the plaque, the Engels in Eastbourne group (EiE) has launched a fascinating walking tour that uncovers the radical history of the town. Billed as Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the walk brings to life some of Eastbourne’s unsung socialist heroes such as George Meek (acclaimed author of George Meek, Bath Chair-Man; by Himself); Eastbourne’s first Labour councillors: postal worker F.J. Huggett and railway driver A.J. Marshall; and champion of the poor, street vendor William Washington King aka ‘Daddy’ King and his legendary collection cups. 

The around-the-town walk shows where they lived and worked, starting at Eastbourne railway station and ending at the Peace Garden next to the Wish Tower Slopes.

A tale of two towns 

From 1851 to 1891, the population of Eastbourne grew from fewer than 4,000 to 35,000. The two wealthiest landowners had set to work to design a resort for the rich. It was to be a town “built by gentlemen, for gentlemen”. Many of the higher echelons of society would arrive from London to take up residence for the summer (bringing along their wives of course). 

Opening in 1880, the Queens Hotel was one of the last grand hotels to be built. Its imposing size and its position near the pier, at the end of Grand Parade, was thought to have been deliberate, as it conveniently blocked the view of the east side of the town from its grand parading visitors. This was where the town’s workers lived. 

Black and white photo of bath chair men on Eastbourne seafront.
Bath chair men at Eastbourne Pier, at the end of Grand Parade. Photo credit: public domain 

“Don’t go east of the pier, dear”

Apparently, excursions were available for the most curious amongst these visitors who could peek in the safety of numbers at how the other half lived. But more generally the advice was clear: “Don’t go east of the pier, dear.” The working classes were to be tolerated, but they would be kept in their place and hidden from sight. Houses were built to accommodate them in the Seaside area of town. The 7th Duke of Devonshire had belatedly worked out that although the visitors brought their servants with them, locals had to work the laundries and catch the fish.  

Shining a light on our radical past 

This tendency to set the ‘right tone’ of Eastbourne, and to keep the underbelly of life hidden, cast its shadow across the centuries. Much of the history of the town’s working classes has been uncovered by local history enthusiasts. But there was a gap in that market. Where was the radical history? Did Eastbourne have any of this? This excursion of discovery started on 7 April 2018, when Eastbourne People’s Assembly hosted Protestival, a day-long event of music, speakers, poetry and performance. At the after-party the question was asked: “What are Marx and Engels’ connection to Eastbourne?”  

Black and white photo of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Marx's three daughters
Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Marx’s daughters Jenny Caroline (1844–1883), Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855–1898) and Jenny Laura (1845–1911). Photo credit: public domain

Ashes to ashes

We quickly realised that no one knew much more than the fact that Engels’ ashes were scattered off Beachy Head. Any visitor alighting from a train who popped into the nearest pub would discover this from one of the pub’s decorative wall displays. But beyond the ashes, what else was there? Some of us started wondering what else could be uncovered. And so this is how the Engels in Eastbourne Campaign began: a project dedicated to making visible Eastbourne’s more radical history. 

Plaque where it belongs 

The unveiling of the plaque by Heinz Herr Birch. Photo credit: German Democratic Republic Chargé d’Affaires 

The EiE campaign has several aims, including to reinstall an Engels plaque at the address he often stayed at near the pier. Eastbourne was Engels’ favourite seaside town. During the last 15 years of his life he would often hurry down, usually accompanied by a member of Marx’s family and/or close friends. There was briefly a plaque, in 1976, at the address in Cavendish Place; but within 6 months, members of the National Front had succeeded in their stated aim that it would not stay up for long. They had demonstrated at the plaque’s ceremonial unveiling and vowed to destroy it. And so, after several attempts at criminal damage, the plaque was finally so heavily graffitied with red paint that the hotel owner gave up and asked for its removal. 

The aim to have a replacement plaque continues and despite various hold-ups EiE maintains it will be successful, one day. But in the meantime, another aim of the campaign, to bring some of the town’s radical history to life via a self-guided walk, has now been accomplished.  

Discover Eastbourne’s radical history

Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an around-the­-town walk, starting at Eastbourne railway station and ending at the Peace Garden next to the Wish Tower Slopes. The map of this walk is available from the Eastbourne Pilgrimage Project website, where you will also find a downloadable pamphlet to accompany the walk. There is also an introduction to the walk on the University of Brighton website blog

It is all ready and waiting for you to enjoy. Spring is upon us, Covid restrictions are being relaxed, so what better way to enjoy some of your leisure time than a visit to Eastbourne and a stroll around town discovering its more radical history? We hope you enjoy. 

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