1990s >> 1999 >> no-1139-july-1999

Mary Gray and Eleanor Marx

Mary Gray and Eleanor Marx

A number of papers of Mary Gray (1854-1941), an active member of the Social Democratic Federation before the First World War, have been donated to us. They contain some interesting material, including two previously unpublished letters from Marx’s daughter Eleanor.

The SDF had been founded in 1881, mainly on the initiative of H. M. Hyndman, as the Democratic Federation, a federation of London Radical (i.e. leftwing Liberal) clubs. In 1883 it proclaimed Socialism as its aim and changed its name to Social Democratic Federation. However, it kept its programme of “advanced” reforms to be achieved within capitalism, or what its 1892 Programme and Rules (which are amongst these papers) described as “measures called for to palliate the evils of our existing society”. In 1884, over this issue of retaining a reform programme as well as over the authoritarian behaviour of Hyndman, part of the membership (including William Morris) broke away to form the Socialist League. However, the SDF survived, and was always the bigger organisation.

After the demise of the Socialist League following its take-over by bomb-throwing anarchists, the SDF was the only organisation in Britain propagating the ideas of Marxian Socialism. Most of the early members of the SPGB had been members of the SDF, the Socialist Party being a breakaway from the SDF in 1904 for the same reasons that had led to the SL breakaway 20 years earlier.

Mary Gray joined the SDF in 1890. She had been born Mary Rogers near Wokingham in Berkshire, the daughter of a baker, in January 1854; in 1876 she married Willie Gray, a stonemason, and lived in Reading where their daughter, Florence, was born in 1879. Later the family moved to Battersea in London.

Mary Gray became a very active member of the SDF. In 1895 she stood as an SDF candidate, and was elected, as a member of the Battersea Board of Poor Law Guardians. She was a speaker and lecturer for them, and not just in London. Amongst the papers is a handbill advertising two meetings by her in Coventry in November 1896, one on “Socialism, The Only Hope of the Worker” and the other on “The Economic Position of Women”. There is also a press cutting from an Ilkeston paper of an outdoor meeting she addressed in the market square there in July 1897 on “Society As It Is”. For a time she was on the Executive Committee of the SDF.

As the title of the second lecture in Coventry shows, Mary Gray was interested in what was then called “The Woman Question”, not just votes for women but also the economic position of women generally under capitalism. She was on friendly terms with two other prominent women members of the SDF, Marx’s daughter Eleanor and Edith Lanchester.

Eleanor Marx lived with fellow Socialist Edward Aveling without getting formally married. This was a daring thing to do in the 1890s as Edith Lanchester found to her cost. A schoolteacher who at the time lodged with Mary Gray, she stood as SDF candidate in West Lambeth for the London School Board elections in 1894. The next year, when she decided to follow Eleanor Marx’s example and live with a man without getting married, her family found a doctor to certify her and she was locked up in a private mental asylum. As a result of the outcry and campaigning that followed she was released after three days. Various items in connection with this campaign are included in the papers.

The papers also contain two letters from Eleanor Marx, or Eleanor Marx Aveling as she called herself. Eleanor Marx was not simply Karl Marx’s daughter but an active Socialist in her own right. She had been amongst those who had left the SDF in 1884 to found the Socialist League but had resigned a few years later because she disagreed with the anti-parliamentary position it eventually took up. She rejoined the SDF in 1896 and was a frequent attender at the classes at the SDF offices at 337 The Strand, where Aveling lectured on economics.

Eleanor Marx’s letters to Mary Gray are not political but we reproduce them as they have not been published before. The first, dated 25 September 1896, is a short note which reads:

Dear Mrs Gray,
As you cant come Wedy you + Florrie must fix some other day. But try & come tomorrow night to 337. First because of classes, but also to fix up an evening to come here.
Eleanor Marx Aveling.

Florrie was Mary Gray’s daughter, who was then aged 17, and “here” was The Den, Jews Walk, Sydenham, London, where Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling lived.

The second letter, dated 24 January 1898, is longer:

My dear Mrs Gray,
I had a letter from Edith on Saturday — + if you have any news of her please let me know. I’ve written to Sullivan to ask if I cd see Edith. Is n’t her boy lovely? I am quite in love with this delightful little man.
I shd have been to see you — but as you know, Edward has been dangerously ill. He is now at Hastings, but though the lung trouble seems better, it seems certain that he must soon — in a week or so — undergo a most dangerous operation for the abcess he has so long suffered from. The operation is so serious that there is the utmost danger. But without operation there seems no hope at all.
So you will see, dear Mrs Gray, that I have very great trouble. Of course, I have not said anything to Edith in my letter of this — it wd be unwise for her, but I tell you, as I am so sure of your kindly sympathy.
Hearty greeting to Mr Gray + Florrie + you, + a big kiss to the sweet little man.
Eleanor Marx Aveling.

“Edith” is Edith Lanchester and “Sullivan” is James Sullivan, the man she lived with and the father of the baby boy mentioned in the letter. What is poignant about this letter is that within two months Eleanor Marx was dead. While he was on the South Coast, Aveling—who had never been highly regarded in the Socialist movement for his personal integrity—married an actress he knew. Eleanor felt she had no alternative but to commit suicide, at the age of 41. Those who believe in some form of immanent justice will be reinforced in their belief by the fact that Aveling did not survive the year.

Mary Gray is credited with founding the first Socialist Sunday School, in Battersea in 1892. Battersea happened to be one of the SDF branches which contained many of the founding members of the SPGB—the protest meeting which eventually led on the founding of the Socialist Party was held in Battersea Town Hall—and it is interesting to note that the Battersea branch of the SPGB continued the Socialist Sunday School tradition, a report from the branch in the Socialist Standard for November 1904 reading: “A Sunday School class for the children is held every Sunday afternoon, and is well attended, and after the school a communal tea is provided to which all comrades are most heartily invited”.

There existed a Socialist Sunday School Union, organised from Glasgow, though it seems to have been more of an ILP rather than an SDF movement, using progressive teaching methods and preaching a kind of “ethical socialism” but which was still recognisably socialist in general terms. For instance, a handbook published in 1923 which is amongst Mary Gray’s papers gave two definitions of socialism, one of which was:

Socialism is the co-operative ownership and control of the vital industries (connected with food, clothing, housing, transport, etc) and the means of education by all the adults of a national community, and it implies the abolition of rent, interest, profit and the wages system.

Also, a model lesson on “Money” ends as follows:

When the fields and factories, the trams and the houses, and all the material wealth of the world shall belong to all the people, and shall be used for the happiness and welfare of the people, no money will then be needed nor any millionaires.

At least this shows that socialism, as we have always defined it, is not our own invention but was once the more or less widely accepted definition.

Mary Gray was well-entrenched on the reformist wing of the SDF and wouldn’t have had any sympathy whatsoever for those who broke away from the SDF to set up the SPGB. The papers include a poem she wrote in 1903 on the first birthday of her grand-daughter which contains twelve excruciating lines describing an SDF meeting held to celebrate Hyndman’s recovery from an illness at which “the cheers that went up showed the love and reverence” of “his comrades and friends”.

The papers have nothing on her political views after 1903 but she remained in Battersea until at least 1935 before moving to Hampshire and then Wiltshire. She died in 1941.


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