Sisters Mary and Lizzy Burns were two Manchester Irish women who became the lovers of socialist writer Frederick Engels and played a significant role in his life.
After a brief visit as teenager, Frederick Engels came to Manchester in December 1842, aged 22, to work in the family firm Ermen & Engels. Engels had been born in Barmen (now Wuppertal) in Germany in November 1820 into a conservative wealthy family that had made its money in cotton manufacturing. At the age of 18, he had become involved in radical politics, contributing two anonymous articles to a local newspaper which exposed the conditions endured by workers in the mills and factories.
In 1841 Engels did military service in Berlin, though he spent much of his time attending philosophy lectures at the university and debating ideas with the Young Hegelians in numerous drinking establishments.. He also began contributing articles to the radical newspaper Rheische Zeitung, published in Cologne. His family were appalled at his political ideas and hoped that by sending him to work in the family firm in Manchester, he would be cured of them. On his way to Manchester he called into Cologne to meet the new editor of the paper, Karl Marx, though at their first meeting the two men did not get on particularly well.
Engels worked in the firm’s business office on Southgate (the factory was in Weaste, now demolished). At some point he met Mary Burns, probably early in 1843. They may have met at the Owenite Hall of Science on Deansgate at which Engels was a regular visitor, although some historians have suggested that Mary worked in the Ermen & Engels factory. According to research carried out by Roy Whitfield, Mary and her sister Lydia (known as Lizzy) were the daughters of Michael Burns and Mary Conroy and lived off Deansgate, then an area of foetid courts and narrow alleys.
Marx’s daughter Eleanor described Mary in a letter to Kaut Kautsky written in 1898, as “a Manchester factory girl, quite uneducated, though she could read, and write a little”. She also said Mary was “pretty, witty and altogether charming” and that her parents were very fond of her and always spoke of her with the greatest affection.
Whilst in Manchester Engels made a detailed study of social conditions in Manchester. It seems likely that the Burns sisters guided him around the city, ensuring his safety in areas where a well-to–do foreigner was a rare sight and potential target. Engels left Manchester in August 1844, returned to Germany and finished writing the book. It was published in Leipzig under the title The Condition of the Working Class in England (It was not published in translation in Britain until 1892). The book was dedicated “to the working classes of Great Britain” and Engels wrote that:
“I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on your conditions and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. I have done so. I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port wine and the champagne of the middle-classes and devoted to my leisure hours to meeting plain working men.”
Twenty years later Marx wrote to Engels about the book:
“I have read your book again and I have realised that I am not getting any younger . What power, what incisiveness and what passion drive you to work in those days. That was a time when you were never worried by academic scholarly reservations! Those were the days when you made the reader feel that your theories would become hard facts if not tomorrow then at any rate on the day after. Yet that very illusion gave the whole work a human warmth and a touch of humour that makes our later writings – where ‘black and white’ have become ‘grey and grey’ – seem positively distasteful.”
Engels and Marx became firm, indeed life-long, friends on their second meeting in Paris in the summer of 1844 where Marx has been living since the previous autumn, having been forced to leave Germany. They met again in Brussels in the spring of 1845 – Marx now having been forced to leave France) and then journeyed on to Manchester in July. Here they worked together studying texts in Chetham’s Library. The table at which they worked can still be seen.
In 1870 Engels wrote to Marx “in the last few days I have often been sitting at the four-sided desk where we sat twenty-four years ago. I like this place very much, because of its coloured glass the weather is always fine there.”
On their return to Brussels in August 1845 Mary Burns accompanied Engels. Marx and Engel lived next to each other and spent their time in discussion with other exiles and drinking. Mary seems to have returned to Manchester later that year.
Both Marx and Engels took part in the 1848 revolutions in Germany. After the defeat of the revolutions in the summer of 1849 both men had to leave Germany again. In 1850 they came to Britain which would be their home for the rest of their lives. They struck a deal: Marx would research and write while Engels would support him with the money he earned as a partner at Engels & Ermen.
Frederick Engels arrived back in Manchester in November 1850, living at 70 Great Ducie Street, and re-ignited his relationship with Mary. The firm’s office was at 7 Southgate. In a letter he complained to Marx about the gloomy view over a pub yard, probably that of the Star Hotel. Nearby was another public house where James Belfield was the landlord. Engels sent money regularly to Marx and they corresponded almost every day. Many, but not all, of their letters have survived.
Engels now embarked upon an elaborate double life which was unearthed after meticulous research by local historian Roy Whitfield in his book Frederick Engels in Manchester. For his public life as a respectable businessmen Engels kept a set of rooms in which he entertained his business friends, joined the Albert Club (a club for German businessmen named in hour of Prince Albert; it was situated on Oxford Road) and rode regularly with the Cheshire Hunt.
In the private part of his life Engels lived with Mary Burns who, together with her sister Lizzy, ran boarding houses, moving from time to time to different parts of Manchester. Engels was often registered as a lodger at these houses but used different names, presumably for the purpose of concealing his identity from the prurient. This did not always work. In April 1854 he wrote to Marx “the philistines have got to know that I am living with Mary”, forcing him to take private lodgings once more.
In April 1862 he wrote to Marx, “I am living with Mary nearly all the time now so as to spend as little money as possible. I can’t dispense with my lodgings, otherwise I should move in with her altogether.”
Both Engels’ private and public lodgings are all long since demolished. There is a plaque to him on Thorncliffe House, a University of Manchester student residence, which is built on the site of 6 Thorncliffe Grove, Chorlton-on-Medlock, one of Engels’ “official” residences.
Engels and Mary Burns never married. She died suddenly on 7 January 1863 at 252 Hyde Road, Ardwick. Her burial place is lost. At some point Frederick and Lizzy became lovers. Eleanor Marx was a frequent visitor to the household and friends with Lizzy. She later write to Karl Kautsky that Lizzy “was illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet.” According to Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, Lizzy was “in continual touch with the many Irishmen in Manchester and always well informed of their conspiracies.” He even suggested that “more than one Fenian found hospitality in Engels’ house” and that they were involved in the dramatic rescue of the Fenian leaders Kelly and Deasy in September 1867. There is no evidence for this, although their house at 252 Hyde Road was close to the rescue site.
Engels, to his great relief, finally retired from business on 30 June 1869. Eleanor Marx, who was staying with them, later wrote:
“I shall never forget the triumph with which he exclaimed ‘for the last time!’ as he put on hi boots in the morning to go to his office. A few hours later we were standing at the gate waiting for him. We saw him coming over the little field opposite the house where he lived. He was swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming. Then we set the table for a celebration and drank champagne and were happy.”
Frederick and Lizzy left Manchester for London in September 1870, taking a house at 122 Regents Park Road, Primrose Hill, just ten minutes walk from Marx. The comfortable house was an epicentre for the burgeoning Socialist movement, with endless correspondence and visitors. Lizzy suffered much ill-health in her later years and died on 11 September 1878, being buried in Kensal Green cemetery. She and Frederick had married just before her death. Marx died on 14 March 1883 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Finally Engels himself – by now the Grand Old Man of International Socialism – died on 5 August 1895. At his request his ashes were scattered at sea off Beachy Head.
Article by Michael Herbert