Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of the ‘mob’, had called in the nearby cavalry, who, armed with swords, charged into the crowd. It resulted in mass condemnation. It stirred many public figures to speak out. It moved the poet Shelley enough to immediately set to work on The Mask of Anarchy.

Mary had one sister, Lydia, also known as Lizzy, who was five years her junior (1827-1878).

It has been claimed that Mary began working in a factory from the age of nine, which, whilst impossible to substantiate, was certainly a ‘normal’ age for children of the poor to begin work, as Engels himself notes: These operatives are condemned from the ninth year to their death to live under the sword, physically and mentally".

Mary would almost have certainly begun her working life as a scavenger. This was a demanding role which required small bodies, and thin, nimble hands to keep the constantly flying bits of stray cotton and fluff away from the machinery. Aged just thirteen years old when her Mother died, Mary’s income would have become all the important to the Burns household.

The information relayed represents just how little information there is on her – and this has been gleaned mainly from the scant mention of her in Engels’ various biographies.

The next evidence of Mary’s presence occurs in the late 1830s as she is recorded as contributing to a Chartist cause, a movement in which she is said to have been active. This listing of her as a contributor to such a cause reveals much about her, particularly in these early years, indicating her politicisation.

Mary does not appear in records again until the 1841 census from which we can ascertain that both Burns sisters were working as domestic servants, Mary for a family called the Chadfields, the head of which, George Chadfield, was listed as a ‘Master Painter’ (Whitfield, p.22). At a time when society offered little social provision this entry into service could well have served the purpose of avoiding the irregular periods of casual work associated with the mills. It can also be seen as providing an escape from a new stepmother. Following his wife’s death in 1835, Michael waited less than a year to wed Mary Tuomey, who brought with her a son, Giles, from a previous marriage.

From the end of 1842 Mary’s movements are somewhat clearer, for this was the time when the young Engels arrived in Manchester. Keen to prise him away from his revolutionary activities and anonymous subversive writing Engels Snr had sent his son to work at the family factory, Ermens & Engels, in which Engels Snr had just bought a partnership. The factory ‘employed around 800 workers in the specialist process of manufacturing sewing thread’, (McLellan, 1977: p.20). Whilst the Ermens & Engels mill was situated in Weaste, in Salford, the office, where Engels and Godfrey Ermens would have spent most of their time, was at 7 Southgate, off Deansgate.

Not long after his arrival Fred seems to have begun working on what would become his seminal text, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. The work also incorporated his reports of slums in London, particularly St. Giles, London, which he had visited en route to Manchester.

Fred and Mary were said to have met in Manchester at the beginning of 1843. It is claimed, most notably by Edmund Wilson and the socialist Max Beer who met Fred a few years before the latter’s death in 1895 that Mary was, at that time, working at the Ermens & Engels mill in Weaste. There are several biographers who refute this because Engels’ recorded his impressions of the women working at his father’s mill as being all unattractive ‘...short, dumpy and badly formed, decidedly ugly in the whole development of the figure’.

Whitfield cites Edmund Wilsons’ assertion that Engels ‘was having a love affair with an Irish girl named Mary Burns who worked in the factory of Ermen & Engels and had been promoted to run a new machine called a ‘self-actor’. She seems to have been a woman of some independence of character as she is said to have refused his offer to relieve her of the necessity of working. She had, however, allowed him to set up her and her sister in a little house in the suburb of Salford where the coal barges and chimneys of Manchester gave way to the woods and fields. Mary Burns was a fierce Irish patriot and she fed Engels’ revolutionary enthusiasm at the same time that she served him as a guide to the infernal abysses of the city’, (cited by Whitfield, p.19, Wilson, p.135, To the Finland Station, p.141) Yet Whitfield warns the reader to exercise caution by pointing out that Wilson cites no references to the sources from which his statements are derived.

Most recent biographer, Tristram Hunt, is one of those biographers who claims that Engels did not meet Mary at his father’s mill, but whilst she was still in service, something which another recent biographer, John Green, also believes. Both Hunt and Green may have been influenced by local historian, Roy Whitfield.
However, in an article for The Guardian, Hunt then claims that Fred’s:
Lifetime partners were two illiterate sisters – first Mary, then Lizzy Burns – of “genuine Irish proletarian blood”, who he might have picked up from his father’s mill. Engels had once condemned the tendency of mill owners to take advantage of female hands; here, he did just that.

For Hunt, at least, it is clear that the situation in which Fred may have met Mary Burns is subject to change, depending on the piece he is writing.

There have also been claims, most nobably by the late local historian husband and wife team, Edmund and Ruth Frow, that Mary was not working at a mill at this time, nor was she in service, but that, whilst ‘there is no positive knowledge as to where Frederick Engels and Mary Burns first met, it is quite possible that it was in the Hall of Science’ and that it was possible that it was there she was selling oranges.

The issue of Mary selling oranges at the time of meeting Engels is something covered in greater detail in the next section.

One aspect that many biographers can agree upon is that she was responsible for guiding him, or accompanying him, around the slums for The Conditions of the Working-Classes in England, which was published in Germany upon his return there in the middle of 1844. Mary’s accompanying, or guiding, of Engels is emphasised by Green, who goes so far as to say that ‘the first hand investigation he carries out of the lives of working people in Manchester could never have been done without the help and collaboration of Mary Burns’, (2008: p.69). (My emphasis) He adds: The Conditions of the Working-Classes in England ‘may never have been completed without her influence and it would certainly have lacked its sense of intimacy and first-hand knowledge’ (p.71).

Intimacy is certainly something that Engels and Mary built up during his initial eighteen month stay. Whilst Mary would be kept as his lover, hidden from those with whom he associated during his official social and business life, this was not the case in terms of his political and intimate social life. His closest political and literary friends, such as the German poet Georg Werth, Chartists Julian Harney and James Leach, the latter being ‘the author of Stubborn Facts from the Factories, whom Engels regarded as a good friend’ (Henderson, 1976: p.22), all knew of the relationship. Leach’s book ‘was an attack on the Free Trade manufacturers and the factory system... and was also a scathing indictment of low wages and dangerous working conditions, (Frow, 1995: p.12). Of course, there was also the man who was fast becoming his closest friend, Karl Marx. Werth, working and living in Bradford, would often visit Manchester on his one day off and he would join Engels and Mary on their walks around the town,
Engels pounded the streets of Manchester, ‘at all hours of the day and night, on weekends and holidays’ for example, on Whitsunday, 1844, Georg Weerth a young German workingman and aspiring poet, who was employed in Bradford and whom Engels had befriended…came over to Manchester and spent the day with him, and the daylight hours were consumed by their wandering all about the city…’ (Marcus, 1974: p.98

Engels managed to maintain this double life of work and Mary/politics/writing by keeping separate lodgings at Great Ducie Street, as well as renting 24 Daniel Street, a cottage in Hulme. It was here that he and Mary seemed to have been able to live as a couple. Hunt describes then as being ‘in each other’s arms over -1843-4’.

This intimacy was brought to an end in the summer of 1844 when Engels was called home by his father. As Green states, Fred ‘appears to have (had) no plans to return to Manchester, so it has to be assumed that he considers his affair with Mary Burns to be over’, (p.95).

He returned alone to Barmen, in the Wupper Valley, a small town that was known, like many European towns of industry, as ‘Little Manchester’. It was also a town, like Manchester, whose river, the Wupper, suffered from the dye-pollution emitted from the surrounding factories, such as that owned by the Engels’ family. Friedrich wasted no time and immediately set about engaging in revolutionary activity in Barmen, he visited a number of towns for the purpose of establishing contact with the local socialists and spoke at meetings organized by him jointly with other socialists and democrats...’ (Stepanova, pp.43/4). Whilst Engels was clearly busy in his home town he also had to deal with the increasingly difficult family relations. He refused to return to what he referred to as the ‘damned commerce’, and something would have to give. ‘Finally, in the spring of 1845, unable to remain any longer under the paternal roof, Engels left Barmen for Brussels, whither Marx had removed, having been deported from Paris at the insistence of the Prussian Government (Stepanova, pp.43-44).

There is no mention of Mary from 1844 to 1845 but she appears in 1846, when, having persuaded Marx to accompany him, Engels returns to Manchester on a six-week stay.

This period of time in Manchester, Marx’s first visit, is focussed on by all biographers. Much is made of the amount of time Marx and Engels spend at Cheetham’s library, in front of a stained glass window through which the sun shines. They describe a picture of intellectual and pre-revolutionary bliss. It was not long Engels reunited himself with Mary and convinced her to return with him and Marx to Brussels, Belgium. Whilst many biographers have given a sentence or two over to Friedrich and Mary’s reunion, there are those, such as Stepanova, who fail to mention it at all.

Mary spent a year, from mid-1845 to mid-1846, with Engels and Marx in Brussels, a place in which she was also said to have got on well with Karl’s wife, Jenny. Werth also left Bradford to join the group.

Despite this reunion, this period in Mary’s life is one which Green has assumed contained much loneliness for Mary, as he writes:
with only English and a little Gaelic, she will have found it virtually impossible to converse with the others, apart from with Werth and, to a limited extent, with the Marxes. But with Marx and Engels spending most of their days and evenings locked away in intensive reading and writing, and having little money herself, she will have felt very isolated, (p.101).

Estranged from his father and his father’s money, this year was a time of financial struggle for Friedrich and Mary, yet Werth ‘helps them financially when he can, but they are living from hand to mouth most of the time’ (Green, 2008: p.103).

In the summer of 1846 Mary returned to Manchester alone, whilst Fred went on to Paris, increasingly engaged in anticipation of Europe-wide revolutions, alongside those of an amorous nature. The ever-sociable Engels fell in with German artist Korner, with whom he joined in these amorous adventures, (Carlton, 1965: p.50).

At this point in the works on Engels we learn nothing more about Mary until 1850. However, from Cologne, back in Barmen it is not long before Fred has reached another stalemate with his father. Engels Snr became much more aware of his son’s political activities primarily because of a painful encounter at the Haspeler Bridge, which separated Elberfeld from Barmen. Friedrich, wearing the red sash of revolution, was in the middle of directing a group of gunners when he came face to face with his father, who was on his way home from church.

It is important to stress the differences between Engels and his father. Engels Senior was a strict Pietist and took himself as a factory boss and upstanding member of the Barmen community, along with the family name, which had been built up in previous generations, very seriously. Friedrich, on the other hand, had radically opposed ideas, as the Frows explain:
Before he arrived in England (for the first time, in 1842), Engels had begun to distance himself from his father’s ideas on life. Having read Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, he felt himself liberated from obscurantism. He noted the contrast between the way of life of families such as his and those of the poor operative whom he saw on his journeys to school and work, (p.3).

By the time Friedrich had taken part in this attempted armed uprising where not only father and son had their painful encounter, but their belief systems also, Friedrich had already served a year, from 1841-2 in the army in Berlin, as part of national service, something which, as the son of a wealthy father, he could have avoided, but chose not to. He had also spent the aforementioned formative period in Manchester, where he had seen at first hand the harsh reality of the conditions that burgeoning capitalism gave rise to. When Friedrich had returned to his home town in 1844 he returned to find that it had also changed much at the hands of Industrialism. Friedrich ‘informed Marx that Wuppertal had changed greatly during the years of his absence – considerable industrial development had taken place and opposition sentiments had gripped wider sections of the population’ (Stepanova, p.42).

A highly intelligent young man Friedrich was also a voracious reader. Like Marx he shared a passion for Shakespeare, as well as the poets Renard the Ox, and prose writers such as Goethe and Lessing. Stepanova also focused on the opposing characters of Engels and his father, drawing an image of the entire Engels family trembling before Engels Senior ‘the autocrat’.

The eager and self-willed Frederick with his keen penetrating mind and independent thinking was ‘the black sheep’ of the family. The boy’s reading alarmed the father, so much so that in a letter to his wife he wrote:

Last week Frederick came home with average marks. Outwardly, as you know, his behaviour is better, but it seems that the severe thrashings of the past have not taught him complete obedience even when threatened with chastisement. Today, for instance, I was vexed when I found in his drawer a filthy lending-library book, a novel about the knights of the thirteenth century... May God save his soul...’ (cited in Stepanova p.7, from Gustav Mayer)

The collision course Engels Senior and his son were on was most apparent, and may account for much of the antagonism between the pair, when Friedrich was forced by his father to leave school a year before final examinations in order to enter what he would from then on call the ‘bitch business’. Writing to Marx, Engels stated that: If it were not for my mother, whom I really love, who really possess a very fine personality, only cannot stand up against my father, I would not dream for a moment of making the slightest concession to my fanatical and despotic governor.

None of the biographers have highlighted the similarities in paternal relationships that may have forged a strong bond between Friedrich and Mary. Although Friedrich was dependent upon his father financially, it would have been impossible for Mary to have the same dependence upon Michael Burns, and it may have, up to one point, have proved the other way around. It is also highly likely that, after Michael Burns remarriage to Mary Tuomey, that she was also under no obligation to answer to him either.

There is no factual information on what Mary may have done during this period. It was not until more than more than three years later that Mary was reunited with Friedrich. In the autumn of 1849 Friedrich made his way for England, arriving back in Manchester in 1850, unaware of how long his stay would be. From this point on he and Mary seem to have proceeded more formally than in 1843/4 and 1845/6. ‘Shortly after returning to... Manchester... he set up house with her in a modest suburb, her sister Lydia (Lizzie) acting as housekeeper. At the same time he occupied bachelor lodgings nearer the centre’, (Carlton, 1965: p.113). The pair are tracked by Roy Whitfield as Mr & Mrs Boardman and Mr & Mrs Burns as, over the years, they move from Moss Grove, Moss-Side to Dover Street in Rusholme to Ardwick and then the address where she would spend her last night alive, at 252 Hyde Road, Ardwick.

Over the following years Friedrich also maintained his own activities within the social circles of Manchester’s upper echelons, such as fox hunting with the Cheshire hunt, which was commensurate with his growing status as the son of a mill owner.

Mary is next mentioned by reference to the fact that her father and stepmother admitted themselves to Manchester’s notorious workhouse, or ‘Poor Law Bastille’, on New Bridge Street. Michael died there in 1858 and was buried at St. Patrick’s Church in Miles Platting. His widow was still listed as an inmate of the workhouse in the 1861 Census, (Whitfield, p.70). From this information there can be little doubt as to the relationship Mary had reached with her father, and stepmother, over previous years.

Yet, two years before her father’s death, Fred and Mary had taken a holiday to Ireland. The letter Fred wrote to Marx upon their return, in May 1856, showed the maturation and settled nature of his relationship with Mary, casually referring to ‘we’, and ‘our’ as in ‘during our trip to Ireland...’ The trip also served to instil in Friedrich a genuine sympathy for the Irish plight.

Engels and Mary saw approximately two thirds of Ireland during their trip, having travelled from ‘Dublin to Galway... then 20 miles north and inland, on to Limerick, down the Shannon to Tarbert, Traice and Killarney, and back to Dublin...’ (Letters). He referred to the famine when they saw all the derelict farmhouses, ‘most of which have only been abandoned since 1846... I had never imagined that famine could be so tangibly real. Whole villages are deserted...’ His sympathies are evident when he wrote ‘...through systematic oppression, they have come to be a completely wretched nation and now, as everyone knows, they have the job of providing England, American, Australia, etc., with whores, day labourers, maquereaux, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other wretches’, (Letters). The trip also served to deepen Engels interest in Irish nationalism, history and culture.

Apart from this trip to Ireland, from 1850 to her untimely death in 1863, there is little more to be gleaned of Mary, due largely to Friedrich’s own destruction of his personal letters, which, Whitefield asserts, makes clear ‘that Engels’ purpose was to remove all references to his personal life with Mary Burns and to the methods he had employed to try to disguise his dual existence during those years, (p.7).

Even Mary’s death, far from being treated as an event in its own right, is treated by Engels’ biographers more for the fact that it gave rise to the much discussed, infamous letter between Engels and Marx that was the cause of their first serious falling out. After notifying Marx of Mary’s death Marx’s reply to Friedrich offered little more than a passing line of sympathy before proceeding onto his own financial difficulties. Uncharacteristically, Friedrich was furious. It was only a week later, after he received a letter from Marx abasing himself and apologising unreservedly, that Friedrich allowed the friendship to be restored.

It was not long after Mary’s death that Fred formed an intimate relationship with Lizzy that would last for the next fifteen years. She died whilst they were living in London, in 1878. A day before Lizzy’s death Fred had conceded to her dying wish that they marry, making Lizzy Fred’s only official wife.

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