‘A call to action. Instructive, full of excitement, harmony and pathos.’ Alan Sillitoe
‘Unfailing humour and rage..’ Michael Foot
‘His language is bizarre, vital, inventive and precisely heard.’ The Spectator
‘A torch to pass from generation to generation.’ Tony Benn
Tressell’s daughter Kathleen could not afford to attend her father’s funeral, let alone pay for it. Over half a century later, she was unable to watch a BBC dramatisation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists because she did not have access to a TV set.
Robert Tressell (1870–1911) was the pen name of Irishman Robert Croker or Noonan. He didn’t live to see April 1914, when his only literary work was published. Originally called ‘The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists’, the book was subtitled ‘Twelve Months in Hell’. A spirited story of political awakening set in the English building trades, it follows central character, Frank Owen, as he tries to educate a diverse band of painters and decorators. The philanthropists of the title are Owen’s fellow workers – they give away labour power to their employers.
Aged 18, Noonan had moved to Cape Town, where he became a signwriter. One account of his South African exploits tells of the onset of sickness during incarceration, after he had helped to form the Irish Brigade, an anti-British force that fought alongside the Boers in the Second Boer War. A contrary version claims that he left South Africa before the outbreak of war – riding home pissed across the chilly veldt had triggered his ill-health.
Noonan settled in Hastings, England, where he found poorly-paid work as a signwriter and housepainter. A stained glass mural by Tressell can be found in Hastings Museum. Influenced by the ideas of designer William Morris, in 1906 he joined and undertook tasks for the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1884 and a forerunner of the Labour Party. Tressell’s health deteriorated further: he developed TB. He started writing a novel, hoping that it would make enough money to save himself and daughter Kathleen from the workhouse. (His wife had died of typhoid fever in 1895.) Completed in 1910, a 1,600-page hand-written manuscript was rejected (largely unread) by three publishing houses, which depressed Robert severely. Kathleen had to rescue the manuscript from the fire. For safekeeping she hid it in a metal box beneath her bed. Robert decided that he must emigrate to Canada. He reached Liverpool where he was admitted to the Royal Infirmary Workhouse. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 2nd February 1911, to be buried in a pauper’s grave.
Kathleen mentioned ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ to her friend, writer Jessie Pope. Jessie recommended the manuscript to her publisher, who bought the book rights for £25. It was published in Britain, Canada and the United States in 1914. It appeared in the Soviet Union (1920) and in Germany (1925).
Jessie’s edit involved heavy cuts, with much of the repetitive, socialist ideology removed. Clearly interfering with the author’s aims, it ended on a despairing note with the hero, Frank Owen, contemplating suicide. Ending the way Tressell intended, an unabridged edition was published in 1955.
The novel has attracted criticism for its sexism and treatment of working class culture. The influence of Charles Dickens is evident, particularly in the depiction of the suffering of children. Like Dickens, Tressell portrays children as victims of the class system, but in contrast he writes of their innocence – a willingness to share and their hope for the future. The book has been cited as a positive factor in the Labour Party’s landslide British General Election victory in 1945. The hand-written manuscript is housed in the TUC library.
In an era when most works of art are meant to leave us satisfied, glutted with special effects and violence and fantasy and sex, motivated only to buy the DVD or look forward to the sequel, radical art seems hard to come by. ‘What we need, Althusser suggested, is art that both helps us to recognize the social structures that shape our lives and also motivates us to go out and transform them.’ Tom Pepper