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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mary and Lizzie Burns


While researching Frederick Engels' life in England, I was touched by the references to his relationships first with Mary Burns, and later with her sister Lizzie Burns (photo opposite).

These warm and formidable Irish women obviously contributed vastly to both his personal life and to his understanding of the deprivations of working class people.

I tried then to pick them up in the 1851 to 1891 Census records - with no luck.

Perhaps this is not altogether surprising given the pressure to hide scandalous, out-of-wedlock relationships, the interests of the authorities in the possible Fenian connections of the sisters, and a possible desire on the part of Engels to safeguard them from the attentions of British and Continental secret police surveillance.

But as shown at the end of this article, there is a tantalising possibility that Mary was picked up in the 1861 Census - and that she gave birth to two sons, William (b 1843) and Thomas (b 1854).

Do any families own legends about their descent from Frederick Engels?


Friedrich (Frederick) Engels is assumed to have met Mary Burns when he first visited Manchester in the early 1840s, and she certainly accompanied him to continental Europe in 1845.

In the private part of his life Engels lived with Mary Burns who, together with her sister Lizzie, 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.”

She and Engels never married but he lived much of the time at the house he provided for her and her sister Lizzie in Ardwick (although he maintained separate lodgings). Engels was distraught at her death at the age of 41 in 1863. As he wrote to Marx, 'I felt as though with her I was burying the last vestige of my youth'.

Mary Burns's death was the occasion of almost the only sharp interchange between the two friends. Marx received a letter from Engels telling him of the death and Engels, not unnaturally, expected his old friend to extend great sympathy. Instead, Marx's reply mostly dwelt on the problems of finance and health which were yet again besetting his family.

Engels did not reply for a week and then wrote a fairly reproachful letter, to which Marx then wrote a deeply apologetic reply. Engels finally came round, although obviously still hurt:

“I tell you, your letter stuck in my head for a whole week, I couldn't forget it. Never mind, your last letter made it quits: and I am glad that when I lost Mary I did not also lose my oldest and best friend”.

When Engels eventually started a relationship with Mary's sister Lydia, known as Lizzie, Marx and Jenny appear to have been careful not to make the same mistake again. They became friendly with Lizzie (she and Jenny Marx would holiday together in later years) and Eleanor visited Manchester to stay at the Engels-Burns household. She also accompanied them on a trip to Ireland.

When Engels met the young Mary Burns in 1840s Manchester, she was almost certainly involved in the Chartist politics of the time, as were so many Irish textile workers. There is no sign that the Engel’s relationships with the Burns sisters were ever regarded by any of the participants as one sided or oppressive. There is, however, some evidence that Engels gained a great deal from living with these women, and that their personalities were at one with his own.

Eleanor Marx was a frequent visitor to the household and was friends with Lizzie.

She later write to Karl Kautsky that Lizzie “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 Marx’s son-in-law, Lizzie 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 wrote to the German socialist August Bebel's wife in 1878 after Lizzie's death, 'She was of genuine Irish proletarian stock and her passionate, innate feeling for her class was of far greater value to me and stood me in better stead at moments of crisis than all the refinement and culture of your educated and aesthetic young ladies.

The 14 year old Eleanor Marx wrote home in 1869 with a description of the Burns household:

“On Saturday it was so warm that we, that is Auntie [Lizzie] and myself and Sarah, lay down on the floor the whole day drinking beer, claret, etc... In the evening when Uncle [Engels] came home he found Auntie, me and Ellen [Lizzie's niece], who was telling us Irish tales, all lying our full length on the floor, with no stays, no hoots, and one petticoat and a cotton dress on, and that was all”.


Mary Burns

Age 38
Estimated Year of Birth 1823
Relationship to Head of Household Head
Address 107, Birch Street

District Chorlton, Ardwick
Parish Ardwick
Administrative County Lancashire
Birth Place Ireland

[With sons William 18 and Thomas 7].

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