Thanks again to everyone who came to the Engels in Eastbourne conference which was a great success, with delegates from across the world attending and great talks and discussion – and it will hopefully act to raise awareness about Eastbourne’s radical history and the connection to Friedrich Engels both locally, nationally and internationally. Safe journeys home to all who came!
Please register by 1 May 2023 if possible – thank you.
The refurbished Winter Garden in Eastbourne is going to dedicate a special Paul Robeson Room in honour of Robeson’s legendary performances at the venue during the 1930s period and a special commemorative programme of events is being put together to help launch this. So far these include a special performance of ‘Call Mr Robeson’ by Tayo Aluko at the Grove Theatre in Eastbourne on Friday 4 November 2022 – details of how to book tickets please see here: https://grovetheatre.onlineticketseller.com/events/20265
Summer is here and many of us are headed for the seafront. We are so fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. Do you recognise this art work of Eastbourne’s wonderful beach ? Who painted it? Where did it used to be sited in Eastbourne?
Some of the Trade Unionists amongst us will recognise it. There used to be a fantastic International Workers Mural in the dining area of The View Hotel, formerly the Transport and General Workers Union Recuperation Hotel and Conference Centre. It was painted by an Arts Collective that included Michael Jones, son of the Great Trade Unionist Jack Jones.
The Mural is now in boxes awaiting reinstallation at the new Unite Conference Centre in Birmingham. The Engels in Eastbourne Campaign has been meeting with Unite’s Hotel Manager to ensure the knowledge about the Mural is not lost in time to Eastbournians.
Just ONE project of the EiE’s Campaign is for a pull out brochure of the Mural to be commissioned. This is now agreed and is in progress. But much more currently being discussed. For example, would you like to see a full sized copy of the Mural in a prominent public building in Eastbourne? Would you be interested in visiting an exhibition of the Radical History of the Mural and the Transport and General Workers Union? Would you be interested in finding out more about the period in the relatively recent past when our Town was an important National centre of Trade Unionism in this country.
And, incidentally, our Town can be remembering and celebrating many other areas of our Radical History. We are currently in discussion with EBC on how best to commemorate Paul Robeson’s connection with Eastbourne.
Please get in touch if you wish to support the Engels in Eastbourne Project by messaging the Facebook Page. Let’s begin working together on driving this and several other Radical History of Eastbourne projects forward.
Meanwhile, we will, of course, keep you updated of developments.
[Many thanks to Heinz Birch, former German Democratic Republic (GDR) Charge d’Affaires, for kindly allowing us to translate and republish this extract from his autobiography Wiedersehen, ich gehe in die Fremde : Streben für eine bessere Welt (2017) on this website about his role in unveiling the original Engels plaque in Eastbourne in 1976]
At this point I would like to mention a recreational place on the coast of Great Britain that Friedrich Engels once chose for days of recreation. He spent several holidays in Eastbourne. This place apparently exerted a special attraction on him.
The place in which Engels lived during his stays on the coast was a popular weekend destination for members of the Embassy. The consequence of this was that the East German diplomats entertained good relations with the trade unions in Eastbourne.
At some point a thought matured to remember and commemorate Fredrich Engels at this historic place with a memorial plaque. The festive unveiling of the plaque took place in May 1976. Because Karl Heinz Kern was on holiday during this time I as his deputy conducted this ceremonial act in the name of the DDR and in the presence of the mayor. The Tory – member of the Conservative Party – insisted on inviting us and other guests to a reception in the town hall and afterwards to a concert in the theatre of the town.
This mayor not only possessed an awareness of history but also proved to have courage because for, the enemies of progress, the commemoration of Friedrich Engels, the loyal companion of Karl Marx was a thorn in their side. When we unveiled the plaque ceremoniously, there were supporters of the National Party [Front] – the neo-fascists – standing on the other side of the road with flags and posters and they were trying to disturb the event with their shouting and smearing. But success was denied to them. Under the strict supervision of the local police they were held behind a pen erected specially for them.
After the unveiling of the plaque we visited the place on the steep coast from which Friedrich Engels ashes were given to the tumultuous sea according to his final will. We were fortunately amongst ourselves. It was an elevating feeling to think back to this 27 September [August] 1895 on which one of the great thinkers of the international working class found his final resting place off the coast of Beachy Head in the presence of Eleanor Aveling, Karl Marx’s daughter.
Edited to add – letter in Sussex Bylines from Sheila Taylor
Engels’ plaque campaign
Carol Mills’ Engels in Eastbourne article, mentioning the original plaque to Engels, aroused memories for me too, as I helped to organise the unveiling event. I was Secretary of the Britain-GDR Society at the time and was invited by the local organisers to give the commemorative speech at Beachy Head. A dramatic location for a public speech! On the clifftops above the sea clutching my typed script, I read out the history of Engels in Eastbourne, glancing up from time to time at Heinz Birch’s encouraging smile in the front row. A Guardian journalist had spotted this highly unusual event and wrote it up as a feature article, gleefully mocking our little gathering of naïve idealists. The East Germans and I were all very sad when right-wing vandals forced the plaque to be removed. I’d be delighted if it could be reinstated! It would be fun to be in touch.
Secretary, The Britain-GDR Society (1976-80)
Edited to add again – many thanks to Sheila Taylor for providing a copy of her speech on the day – see scans below
Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – a digital self-guided walk of some of Eastbourne’s radical history.
Eastbourne was designed and developed by its landowners from the 1850s onwards. Built as a new resort for the rich, the population greatly expanded from less than 4,000 in 1851 to nearly 35,000 by 1891. The town was owned by just two families, the Davies-Gilberts who owned about a quarter of the town, and the Cavendish family, notably William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who owned about 2/3rds of the town. From 1859, plans were laid out to build an entirely new town to attract the higher echelons of society to either live or to holiday here. Designed as a new resort, Eastbourne was built “for gentlemen by gentlemen”. The working classes of the town were kept hidden from the sight of our elite visitors in the Seaside area to the East, where visitors feared to tread.
Opening in 1880, the Queens Hotel, near the Pier, was the last of the grand hotels to be built in the town. It was thought to have been deliberately positioned to provide a visual marker for the end of the Grand Parade to the west. To the East of the Queens Hotel there were smaller hotels and boarding houses built largely between 1790 and 1840. There was no road along the seafront on this side of the pier. Visitors were advised ‘don’t go east of the pier, dear’. Though there are accounts of curiosity excursions, for the elite, into the Seaside area, so they could literally ‘see how the other half lived’.
And just as the working classes were kept hidden from the sight of our elite visitors, so too nowadays has much of the town’s radical history been hidden. Some of us wanted to put this right. So; this walk was written to give a snapshot of just some of Eastbourne’s more radical history. Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is Eastbourne’s Radical History Walk No 1. It is an around the town walk, starting at Eastbourne railway station and ending in Meads Village.
“Every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat and therefore a little bit of history may help”. Tony Benn.
We will be seen, and we will be heard, and we will build a better world.
The walk was written as part of the Engels In Eastbourne Campaign. Thank you to the Eastbourne Pilgrimage Project for their support and encouragement in bringing this walk to you. You will find the walk map and the accompanying pamphlet on their website – see below for links. We hope you enjoy.
It was a long hot summer in 1929 and there was a late heatwave. The 1920s saw the seaside opening up to the working classes thanks to improved working conditions, paid holidays, and an affordable railway network. No longer was Eastbourne the sole preserve of the elites. The heyday of bathing carriages and servants was drawing to an end. Many resorts had already done away with imposing charges and only allowing those who hired a bathing carriage and corporation towel to enjoy sea bathing. The working classes no longer had to keep to paddling with their hankies on their heads as they could not afford the charges. 8p per half hour for the carriage; 2 pence for a towel, plus tip. That was nearly a shilling a dip. So, for a family of 4 for a week this amounted to over £1, or about £70 in today’s money! No, a new working-class bathing habit had arrived in the resorts – the mackintosh bathers. Visitors would arrive on the beach straight from their guest houses already clad in their bathing gear and with their long mackintoshes covering over. Most resorts by 1929 were resigned to the changes and had abandoned the charges. But Eastbourne was not having it. Those in charge were resisting the vulgarity of free bathing. Eastbourne was determined to hang on to its ‘elite resort’ status for as long as possible. Council officials patrolled the pebbles issuing stern warnings. There were bylaws you see; Eastbourne could not be doing with the common people. And besides, 1928 had seen £5,300 profit for the Corporation – that is £300,000 in today’s money. This was double the profit of 1927. So. What was it to be? Profits or people? Time for a showdown.
September 13th, 1929 was ‘the day class war came to Eastbourne’. The ‘Bolsheviks of bathing’ had their sights set on action. An act of civil disobedience saw 150 mackintoshed men and women march their way to the shore with the puzzled onlookers not knowing what to make of it. The beach patrollers rallied upon the protesters demanding their names and addresses so that official letters of reprimand could be correctly executed. The ultimate sanction.
The Eastbourne Mackintosh Rebellion hit national headline news for some full 5 days. The country was on the side of the people. The bathing carriages were described as smelly, dirty, and damp. One reporter asserted: –
‘the name of Eastbourne should stink in the nostrils of holiday makers until Eastbourne’s governors are changed!’
the Corporation response,
‘we do not mean to be vindictive, but we will not have our authority flouted!’
Anyway. By 1932 almost all charges across the country had been abandoned. The end of an era. Even for Eastbourne, that oh so exclusive town ‘built for gentlemen by gentlemen’.
Information and photo ‘Bathing Scene Eastbourne’ courtesy of Charlie Connelly from the podcast https://podcastaddict.com/episode/96072451 8: The Eastbourne Bathers’ Rebellion of 1929. 14 Feb 2020. For more “Great stories from around the coasts of Britain and Ireland”, please see the Facebook Page Coastal Stories Podcast, brought to you by Charlie Connelly, bestselling author of ‘Attention All Shipping’. For more on Radical Eastbourne see here
[A short piece, Engels at Home by Edward Aveling from The Labour Prophet after Engels’s death in 1895 has recently been transcribed for the Marxists Internet Archive – and it is worth quoting the end section here – which alludes to Engels’s cremation in Woking before his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head – as it mentions Eastbourne…].
… During his last illness at Eastbourne, in spite of all the pain and weakness, there were flashes of the old geniality and joviality, and never, to the very end, did his kindness to and thoughtfulness for everyone for a moment cease. Of that kindness and generosity this is not the place to speak. Every one of his friends can think of that unparalleled generosity and kindness silently, and will have much food for thought…
His life was a beautiful one, and he loved it…. With his knowledge, his good work well done, his certainty of the future of the movement, his troops of friends-—among whom of course Marx was the first, the last, the be-all and the end-all—his intense joy of living, he, more than most men, rightly enough loved and clung to life. Not, of course, that he had for a moment the slightest fear of death. No one who knew him but would give all they possessed in the world to be at the end of such a life as his.
It is something for English people to remember that the work of Marx and Engels was mainly done for the world in this little country, and that both of them died here. That is a higher honour than can be conferred by the tombs and mausoleums of all the kings and conquerors in the world. The places for the dead that will be most visited hereafter will be the grave at Highgate, and the simple little building among the pines of Woking.
The International Workers’ Mural that Eastbourne should not forget
At the time of its creation in 1922, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) was the largest and most ambitious amalgamation brought about within trade unionism. Later, following various talks between unions a merger with Amicus was agreed and Unite the Union was created in 2007. Today in Eastbourne we have an active Trade Union Council and active members of Unite Community Eastbourne Group have been researching some of the town’s trade union history. Here is the story of the International Workers’ Mural that Eastbourne should not forget.
Jack Jones left school at 14 and after a few jobs joined his father as a Liverpool Docker. He became an active member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and later became the General Secretary of this union from 1968 until 1978. He was a great trade unionist, being converted to socialism by reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, who wrote it in Hastings 1906 to 1910. Jack once explained how that book “was passed from hand to hand among people in the Labour movement and had a remarkable effect on our thinking”.
In September 1974, the first stone was laid by Jack Jones for the TGWU’s new purpose-built convalescent, holiday and educational centre at Eastbourne. The Eastbourne Centre was then opened by Jack Jones in October 1976. This Centre was built for the purposes of a workers’ recuperation and holiday centre and a Conference Centre for the union. The Centre is now called The View Hotel. It is still owned by Unite the Union. The mezzanine level at The View shows some of the hotel’s union history.
In the dining room of the Centre there used to be a full sized and very colourful mural by the Art Workers Co-operative – Michael [Mick] Jones, Christopher Robinson and Simon Barber. Mick Jones was the son of Jack Jones. The mural is an artistic tribute to international trade unionism and the importance of solidarity amongst workers. For example, part of the mural illustrates “the union’s struggle through depression and war from which emerges a victorious procession with banners of the amalgamated unions. Support for the Spanish Republic in the 1930’s is shown by the inclusion of the graffiti, ‘SOLIDARITY WITH SPAIN’.”
The mural was dismantled during the recent renovations of The View Hotel. It is being stored safely in boxes ready to be reassembled at a planned for new Unite the Union Conference Centre and Hotel in Birmingham.
Unite Community Eastbourne met with the Manager of The View, about ensuring the story of the mural is not lost from Eastbourne history. There is no picture of the mural on the mezzanine level. The suggestion of a full colour reproduction of the mural was not taken up as it would not fit in with the new colour scheme. However, it was agreed that a pull-out brochure would be produced showing the mural in all its colourful glory. We are really looking forward to this brochure and will keep you updated on progress. The photo posted here shows a part of the mural that most likely was inspired by our Sussex coastline. Certainly one part of the mural shows the Beachy Head lighthouse.
NB The Eastbourne Trade Union Council and several of our local unions hold meetings at The View and make occasional use of the Conference Centre. (Unfortunately Unite had not negotiated for any discounts with the new management, an oversight that local trade unionists regret).
Eastbourne Unite Community
[This post is part of a wider series of posts on Radical Eastbourne]