The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The manuscript of the seminal novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (RTP) is a substantial, historical artefact. At over one thousand, seven hundred hand written pages, it is secured in three weighty, breeze-block sized archive boxes. From its Tressell designed front page, it’s creation and turbulent life are reflected through its annotated, heavily edited, cut and reconstructed pages.
A key part of the TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University, the manuscript is consistently popular, recently attracting the attention of, amongst others, the Irish Embassy, historian Paddy O’Sullivan and the University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, Prof Don MacRaild. It recently featured in a short BBC series about Novels that Shaped Our World.
The manuscript was digitised and is available in its entirety from www.unionhistory.info
Robert Tressell was the pseudonym adopted by Robert Noonan, born in Dublin in 1870 with six brothers and sisters. Recent research by Bryan MacMahon indicates that he was probably taken to live in London with his mother when he was young for several years, before moving to live in Liverpool. He emigrated to South Africa in the late 1880s as a young adult and worked as a decorator and sign writer, a highly skilled and well paid job. He married Elizabeth Hartel in Cape Town, and lived in Johannesburg. Daughter Kathleen was born a year later, and some years after they separated and Robert took sole responsibility for his daughter. He was a member of a trade union and politically active in the local labour party, trades council, and International Labour Party. He developed tuberculosis around 1900. He moved to Hastings with Kathleen in 1901, which was well known for its good health.
Hastings historian Steve Peak in the introduction to the centenary Hastings edition of the RTP describes Robert as short, with a slight Irish accent, an atheist, very cultured, reader of a wide variety of books, an alcohol consumer, kind to his friends and fond of cricket.
Hastings and St Leonards was a formerly genteel town with no industry, a growing problem of poverty and unemployment. This to Robert was made worse by the election in 1906 of a Conservative MP in what had been a Liberal constituency. The decline in the standard of living for the working class that followed, some have argued, provided the catalyst for Robert to start writing what would become the RTP.
He completed the manuscript in 1910, with the title The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Being the Story of 12 months in hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell. Robert sent it to three publishers but with no success and at some point he threw it on the fire, from which Kathleen rescued it. His TB was getting worse, and he was finding it harder to get work. And so he decided to emigrate to Canada for health and economic benefits.
Robert gave the manuscript to Kathleen as a present saying “I can’t leave you money or property, but look after this, it might come in useful some day.” Soon after he left for Liverpool with the intention of finding work before getting a ship to Canada. Kathleen never saw him again. His biographer Fred Ball says it is doubtful he thought he would make it. He was in an advanced state of TB and was admitted to the work-house hospital where he died in February 1911.
After Tressell’s death in 1911, his daughter Kathleen moved to London and worked as a children’s nurse. Whilst working for one employer she was fortunate to come into contact with a journalist Jessie Pope who had worked for Punch. Jessie was persuaded to look at the manuscript and was so impressed she showed it to the publisher Grant Richards. Kathleen was persuaded to sell the manuscript outright for £25. Jessie Pope edited the manuscript from 1700 pages down to 1000 in line with contemporary literary fashion (according to Fred Ball). The book sold well and a shorter, more affordable trade union edition was published afterwards at 700 pages (see 1927 edition published by The Herald and Richards Press).
The original manuscript passed through several hands before being acquired by Tressell’s biographer, Fred Ball, in 1946. Fred with the help of his wife Jacquie painstakingly put the two parts of the manuscript back together, and recorrected Jessie’s editing (using a mirror and kettle in some cases). You can see a full description of how Fred tracked down the manuscript and put it back together in its original format on our website. A full text edition was finally published in 1955 by Lawrence and Wishart.
The manuscript was then bought by the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives (NFBTO), and presented to the Trades Union Congress the following year.
Tressell’s most recent biographer Dave Harker, has estimated the novel has had 117 printings in the UK, printings in Canada, Australia, the USA and Russia, and translated printings in Russian , German , Dutch, Polish , Slovak , Czech , Bulgarian (reportedly) , Japanese , Persian , Chinese , Korean , Turkish and Spanish various plays (the most famous being Stephen Lowe’s version), radio programmes, TV films, tapes and CDs.
Many people have praised the Authenticity of the novel. In his preface to the novel Robert Tressell says In writing this book my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working class life…The work possesses at least one merit – that of being true. I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of.
In the introduction to the 1927 edition George Hicks, General Secretary for the NFBTO and President of the TUC wrote Tressell has caught the spirit, the tone, the soul of working-class life more than any other writer of his time. What he has described is true to life: we know he lived it. We workers in the building industry know he was one of us.
Tony Benn described it as a torch to be passed from generation to generation. A sentiment that’s been echoed by others like Tom Watson and Len McLusky. My dad enthused about its authenticity and recommended it to me, and I read it as a teenager; its injustices angered me and inspired me and it still does. It’s a remarkably powerful novel that I’m proud is in the TUC Library.
In the introduction to the 1965 edition playwright Alan Sillitoe claimed the book had haunted him ever since reading it. He said the reader could get many things out of it a bolstering of class feeling; pure rage; reinforcement for their own self-pity; a call to action; maybe a good and beneficial dose of all these things.
Filming in the TUC Library for a documentary that includes the manuscript of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists shown on BBC2 in 2019. Photo L to R – myself (Jeff Howarth, TUC Library), director John Mullen and academic Ian Haywood of Roehampton University.
Jeff Howarth, TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University
Robert Tressell's novel 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' was published in 1914 and has sold millions of copies world wide since. The tale of a group of house painters in Edwardian England is told from a socialist perspective, the principal character, Frank Owen, being an ardent socialist. The novel came to be regarded as an important text for socialists, that each generation could relate to their own experience. Its appeal is partly its realism, the language and characterisation of a class. But, also the lucid explanation of socialist theory in relation to everyday life. Tressell sub titled the work 'Twelve months in Hell as told by One of the Damned 'The reader is taken through 'twelve months in hell' from the workers' point of view as they struggle to maintain themselves and their families in a world of hard work, poverty, and the constant fear of unemployment, debt and the workhouse. But it is not merely seen through from the workers perspective as he details the working of the entire system of capitalism through the middlemen: employers, landowners and politicians, all of whom, he points out have no alternative but to perpetuate the system.
The period Tressell lived in Hastings 1901-1910 was an era of great change in two particular areas, social reform and Labour politics. The new century saw the growth of the debate on social reform and the arrival of the new third party in parliament, the Labour Party. Whilst the working class can hardly be said to have gained great improvements in their standard of living, there was a final acceptance that social reform was necessary. The Labour Party, with all its inadequacy and limited power did arrive on the parliamentary political stage. The trade unions despite their weaknesses were a major force, respected and feared by many. An accommodation was reached which led to an acceptance of Labour politics and legislation to appease or appeal to the working class. The struggle of the old Victorian ideas of self help against state interventionism were taking place as Robert Noonan, socialist, artist, idealist, worked with and lived with the working class.