How Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists became a sacred text for aspiring socialists

Despite an erratic publishing history, Tressell's ferocious satire became ubiquitous in the early 20th century, and soon entered the working-class canon. 

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Few writers have had more modest ambition than Robert Tressell. Welcoming readers to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, he said he hoped simply to tell an “interesting” story and offer a “faithful” picture of working-class life. He achieved rather more than that. Countless left leaning politicians and leading trade unionists have testified to the novel’s formative influence, and it has been credited with winning the 1945 general election for Labour and for the introduction of the NHS. Not without reason has Tristram Hunt, the former Labour MP and current director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hailed it as a “sacred text”.

Tressell’s chosen milieu was one he knew well, that of the building trade, in which he was an accomplished painter and decorator. The setting was a small town in the south of England. Its fictional name is Mugsborough, but you didn’t need to be a detective to deduce that it was a barely veiled portrait of Hastings, a place that the author – born 150 years ago – came to loathe with a vengeance.

Although it’s a long book – my Penguin edition runs to 740 pages – not a lot happens. Day by day, over the course of a year in the first decade of the last century, we are treated to a Knausgaard-like account of the life of working men who, if they’re lucky and skilled, might earn as much as seven pence an hour. What makes it so compelling, however, is the authenticity of Tressell’s voice, the sparky dialogue and the passion of its portrayal of a society ensnared in inequality. As George Orwell observed, he is “especially good at bringing out the importance of very small disasters. He knows, for instance, all about the loss of sleep that can be entailed by not possessing a clock.”

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Tressell’s choice of “philanthropists” is fiercely ironic. The novel’s hero, Frank Owen, is an avowed socialist, as was his creator. He is also an atheist who ponders how an “infinitely loving God” can tolerate such suffering. Owen believes that his co-workers are dupes who, for scant reward, donate their labour to their bosses and profiteers. Rushton & Co, his employer, is one such. Not only does Mr Hunter, its bullying foreman, rule with unyielding and insensitive cruelty by seeking constantly to reject those who can be replaced more cheaply, he is ever eager to short-change customers. What motivates “Misery”, as Hunter is nicknamed, is the prospect of earning his own percentage of Rushton’s profit.

“It was to make possible the attainment of this object that Misery slaved and drove and schemed and cheated,” Tressell writes. “It was for this that the workers’ wages were cut down to the lowest possible point and their offspring went ill clad, ill shod and ill fed, and were driven forth to labour while they were yet children, because their fathers were unable to earn enough to support their homes.”

But while Owen rails against such injustice, he is no less exercised by the apathy of his God-fearing, forelock-tugging colleagues, who are unable to comprehend why their lot never seems to improve. Rather than blame a system that treats them as slaves, they prefer to find other reasons – foreigners and foreign imports, for example – for the parlous situation in which they find themselves. Their ignorance is exacerbated by their preferred reading matter, principally the gutter press. In contrast, Owen, well read, well informed and highly articulate, is regarded as a crank and an agitator: “It was because he was in the habit of speaking on these subjects that his fellow workmen came to the conclusion that there was probably something wrong with his mind.”

Orwell first read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in the 1930s when he himself was dirt poor and struggling to make his way as a writer. Its influence on his work is patent, in particular on Down and Out in Paris and London. Like Tressell, Orwell went out of his way to assure his readers that everything he wrote was more or less true and that nothing had been invented. Tressell’s novel, he felt, was “wonderful”, albeit not beautifully written. “It recorded things that were everyday experience but which simply had not been noticed before – just as, so it is said, no one before AD 1800 ever noticed that the sea was blue.”

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By then, however, Tressell had been dead for 20 years. He never lived to see his only book in print. Orwell mistakenly believed that he had taken his own life in 1914, when in fact he was a victim of tuberculosis and died in 1911. In common with numerous others, Orwell also wrongly asserted that Tressell was of working-class stock, which added to the novel’s cachet and fed the impression that he was an untutored genius.

The reality is rather more complicated as his biographer, FC Ball, revealed. Born in Dublin in 1870, he was the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, an inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and his “Liaison Lady”, a woman called Mary Noonan. After Tressell’s father died – he would have been ­nearly 80 when his son was born – Mary married, but the boy and his stepfather did not get on. Consequently, Robert Noonan, as he would be known for the rest of his life, left home ­– without completing his education – for South Africa, where he was employed as a sign writer and a newspaper hack.

He married in 1891 and had a daughter, Kathleen, but he and his wife, who had an affair, soon separated. Around this time he appears to have become politically active, supporting pro-Boer Irish nationalist brigades in opposition to the British and becoming involved with trade unions. Raising Kathleen while attempting to make ends meet, he was never far from the breadline. Meanwhile his health was worsening, which frequently led to him being off work. This all provided abundant background material for the book.

***

Despite his sympathy for the plight of the working class, “the philanthropists”, Tressell – who took his pseudonym from the trestle table that was a vital piece of his trade’s equipment – was always an outsider. In part, this is explained by his bourgeois origins, autodidacticism and intellectualism. He spoke several languages and was an avid reader of good literature, including Shakespeare, Swift, Byron, Shelley and John Ruskin. What also set him apart was his desire not merely to do a job but to do it well. One co-worker, quoted in Ball’s biography, said he was “a brilliant scenic painter and sign writer” who loved art for art’s sake. “He shared with William Morris and Walter Crane a desire to give to the world the best that was in him, so that the beauty of his work should be an ­inspiration to all striving for what is most beautiful… Nothing distressed him more than the scamping of his work.”

It was on his return from South Africa that he found himself in Hastings. By now, it was clear he was perilously ill. Eventually, increasingly unable to work, Tressell decided that he and Kathleen should emigrate to Canada. Leaving her with relatives in
Hastings, he went at the beginning of 1911 to Liverpool, where he hoped to earn enough to pay for their passage, but he died en route and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The erratic publishing history of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is part of its allure. Tressell finished it in 1909 and sent it to a number of publishers in the hope that it would change his fortunes, but it attracted no takers. The handwritten manuscript was left with his daughter, who showed it to a journalist called Jessie Pope. She was its first editor and a brutal one; its original 250,000 words were cut by two-fifths. This edition appeared in 1914, a few months before the outbreak of the First World War and, while generally well received, it was lost amid the fallout from the conflict.

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In the 1920s, however, when books such as WH Davies’s The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End were beginning to attract a cult following, its audience grew. Further, similarly abridged editions appeared, including that to which Orwell was introduced by a librarian in Leeds in 1932, hence, perhaps, his patronising criticism of it being “clumsily written”. The first complete version did not appear until 1955, by which time it was part of the working-class literary canon and on the must-read list of aspiring socialists. An example of its ubiquity is the mention it gets in Chris Mullin’s prescient novel, A Very British Coup. The hero, Harry Perkins, gives a copy to his girlfriend Molly, inscribed: “To a slightly Tory lady in the hope that she will see the light.” Unimpressed, Molly doesn’t get beyond page 50.

Others had more stamina. What grabbed them, and kept the pages turning, was the ferociousness of Tressell’s satire and his depiction of lives rarely memorialised in literature. It felt real, unvarnished, unfiltered. Orwell agonised over whether Tressell could be described as a proletarian writer and decided that perhaps he could. Unfamiliar with the mysterious author’s background, he felt he was different from, say, DH Lawrence who, though born a miner’s son, had “an education that was not very different from that of the middle class”. The same could be said of many other writers, such as Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Gissing who, in the 19th century, wrote sympathetically of the working classes but were not of them and certainly did not earn their living among them.

In that regard, it is fair to say that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists broke new ground in fiction. In its wake came the Angry Young Men and novels such as John Braine’s Room at the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, one of a number of writers from the working class on whom the “Painter’s Bible” left an ­indelible impression. Poetry, as Auden said, may make nothing happen, but the same cannot be said of novels. Some change things utterly. This, despite his modesty, was surely Tressell’s hope. 

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?

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