Six Sussex Socialists

Leonard Woolf at Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex.

Sussex, with its rolling Downs and seaside towns, may not immediately summon up thoughts of socialism. Yet here, as everywhere, the spectres of women and men who fought for a better day are all around. I think of them in these final days before polling day on 6 May.

Some connections are fleeting (Tony Crosland was born in St Leonards, Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton); others run deeper. As it’s May Day, from a cast of thousands I have chosen six socialists with a Sussex connection — you can add your own favourites if you think I’ve made an unforgivable omission.

Eleanor Marx (1855–1898)

Marx moved, at 18 years old, first to 2 Manchester Square, and then to 6 Vernon Terrace in Brighton to teach in a girl’s school in Sussex Square. There, she had an affair with Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, one of the Communards (the Parisian experiment in workers’ control, not the 1980s pop band) and translated his history of the commune. She broke off the engagement after a year and returned to the radical politics of late-Victorian London. Marx and her circle returned to the Sussex coast, especially their beloved Eastbourne, throughout her life as a holiday-maker. On 27 August 1895 she arrived at Eastbourne station with Eduard Bernstein, Frederick Lessner and Edward Aveling with the ashes of Friedrich Engels, and made their way to the beach. There, they hired a boat and skipper and scattered the ashes at sea, off Beachy Head. Marx was a feminist, socialist, activist, linguist, and writer, with a hand in everything from the first productions of Ibsen, to the Bryant and May strike. She was abused horribly by her husband Aveling, and took her own life at the age of 43.

Leonard Woolf (1880–1969)

Woolf’s association with Sussex began as a boarder at Arlington House school, but his deeper connection with the county started in 1919 when Leonard and his new wife Virginia bought the Round House in Pipe Passage, Lewes. The same year, they bought Monk’s House in Rodmell, which Leonard owned for the next fifty years. Here the Woolfs wrote, entertained, gardened, published TS Eliot’s The Waste Land amongst many other works, and where Virginia drowned herself in the Ouse which runs at the end of the large gardens. Woolf was a Labour Party man, a Fabian, and advised on international relations. In 1922 he came fourth in the Universities seat in the general election, but his lack of electoral success was more than made up for by his voracious writing, especially his multi-volume diaries, and his letters to the second great love of his life Trekkie Parsons (who died in Lewes in 1995). Woolf lived long enough to see the Sixties, and took an honorary doctorate from the new University of Sussex in 1964. Monk’s House, Rodmell is now maintained by the National Trust, where his ashes are buried.

Clementina Black (1853–1922)

Clementina Black was a feminist, trade unionist, socialist and Fabian, born in Brighton. Her father David was Brighton’s town clerk, and the family lived in 58 Ship Street, a street well-known to delegates to Labour Party conference. In 1877 she published her first novel A Sussex Idyll, but is better known as an advocate of votes for women, and campaigner for equal rights for women workers. She was secretary of the Women’s Trade Union Association, and moved the motion at the TUC in 1888 on equal pay. She wrote The Agitator, an autobiographical novel about her work. Black was a friend of contemporary of the poet Amy Levy, Eleanor Marx, and Annie Besant, and the women circulating around the Fellowship of the New Life, the Fabians, and the ‘new’ unions of the socialist revival. Some accounts have her dying in Brighton, but I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. She died in Surrey in 1922, and is buried in East Sheen cemetery.

Robert Tressell (1870–1911)

Robert Noonan, known to history as the author Robert Tressell, wrote the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, about a group of painters and decorators in Hastings. He wanted to call it the ‘Ragged Arsed Philanthropists’ but was dissuaded. Born in Liverpool, Tressell (as in trestle-table, geddit?) moved to Hastings in 1901 working for Bruce & Co and Burton & Co painters and decorators. This experience of exploitation, and his involvement in the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led him to write his socialist novel (perhaps, the socialist novel). The tragedy is that he never saw it published, nor the extraordinary evangelistic impact it had on twentieth century socialism. Tressell lived at 1 Plynlimmon Road on the West Hill, then the top flat at 115 Milward Road, the briefly Warrior Square in St Leonards, then 241 London Road, where there is a somewhat down-at-heel plaque. The campaign for a more substantial Tressell monument in Hastings remains ongoing.

Denis Healey (1917–2015)

Denis Healey belongs to that remarkable wartime generation who make those who came after seem so utterly inconsequential. After war service, he became the Labour Party’s international secretary, Labour defence secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, and deputy leader of the party. His association with Sussex stems from the purchase in 1977 of Pringles Place in Alfriston, a seven-bedroom 1930s country house which set him back £63,000. From here, Healey could escape the vicious tumult of the Labour Party, and look over the Cuckmere Valley all the way to English Channel, with Edna by his side and a gin and tonic in his hand. There was a swimming pool where Healey claimed to swim 20 lengths a day, and a library with over 60,000 volumes where he retreated into his famous ‘hinterland’. Healey is buried, alongside his wife Edna who died in 2010, at St Andrew’s, Alfriston.

George Orwell (1903–1950)

Eric Blair came to Sussex as a boarder at St Cyprians school in Eastbourne (at the end of my road). He hated it so much, he never came back. However, the influence of his time in Sussex ran very deep. First, it sparked his love of nature, with rambles over the Downs and swims off the rocks as an antidote to bedwetting, Greek and floggings. He wrote ‘I think by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies, and…toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable’ and I think he’s right. Orwell’s love of all things bucolic seeps through this novels, especially the Golden Country in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Second, it was here that he discovered Chalk Farm which became Manor Farm, and then Animal Farm, in the village of Willingdon. The Red Lion pub plays a central role in the tale, because it is here that Farmer Jones gets so drunk he forgets to feed the animals, thus sparking the revolution, not unlike the bread shortages in Petrograd in 1917.

Paul Richards is the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Sussex police and crime commissioner.

Writer. London and Sussex.

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