Home Tourist – Marx Memorial Library

Continuing my project to visit both well known and more out of the way places in  London that I’ve never previously been to, this week. I went to the Marx Memorial Library.  It’s in a neat building in Clerkenwell, identified only by a brass plaque on the door.  They offer tours each day at 1pm, and the door is stoutly locked until then.  We were a small group of strangers assembled on the doorstep by the time we rang the bell and were admitted.

Our appearance seemed to come as a pleasant surprise to the people in charge at the library.

During the short tour I learnt a number of things I hadn’t known before.

The building was originally a school for the children of Welsh artisans of the area, but when the school grew too big for the premises, part of it was taken over by the London Patriotic Society establishing a socialist presence there.  This, together with the history of political liberalism in the area, perhaps encouraged Lenin to seek exile here, but in the event he used an office in the building for a year in the early 20th century to publish the newspaper Iskra (The Spark).  The office used by him is kept as a little shrine, a locked door, bare floorboards where blue grey lino carpets elsewhere.

The broadsheet paper was printed in the locality, by one of the many independent local printers, and was then secretly distributed into Russia.  I was impressed that the London printers could print a paper in Cyrillic.

The fact that the library is also the custodian of the largest collection of documents relating to the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and also retains a complete archive of everything published by the German communist party, because ‘you never know what might happen there’.

There’s something very low key and home spun about the library notwithstanding its large collection.  They know they have lots of materials of great interest to a wide range of academics, but they have no present intention of digitising any of it – if you want to see it, you have to come for a visit.

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