"Very few novels have the power to transform lives and the aim to change the world. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is one of them. It is powerful and compassionate, bitter, and funny. It deals with the big themes and the small. It is a slice of social history and an optimistic promise made to the future.
If we think that we have got it hard, today, and that the odds are stacked against unions and the Left: then, just look at this account of the battles waged by these pioneer Socialists. Their fight, belief, and principle is encoded in every page.
One of the first, and best, working class novelists, Robert Tressell encapsulated all that was - and is -best and most vital in our movement. We owe it to him - and all those other nameless trade unionists who spent "a year in hell" alongside him - to deliver upon his vision of "the great change" and a bright, Socialist future".
I was vaguely aware of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists from quite a young age - thirteen? fourteen? - because of living in Hastings, which is the fictional town, ‘Mugsborough’, where the novel is set. I’m not sure I really knew much about it, although I was fascinated by the title. I think I may have started the book at some point when I was fifteen or sixteen, didn’t really find it in any way interesting or readable and abandoned it. Some years later I went back to it and immediately became rather obsessed with it, but have no idea why at that point particularly. This often happens to me. It also happened with Dickens’ Bleak House.
I don’t really like the use of made up names of places or names that pertain to a character’s personality which don’t sound authentic, so I had to get over that. I found the language somewhat difficult too, like I do Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy because it is slightly archaic. But once I got into the rhythm, it flowed into my head easily.
It is fascinating historically and it gives, I believe, an accurate picture of a society in which there are no safety nets: health service, benefits…only charity and family to literally stop people from starving.
One of the first truly left wing, working class novels.
From what I remember the author is cynical too about do gooders, who, among other things seem to be trying to book a lovely slot in heaven.
The book is enormously sad in parts and gives one an idea of how brutal life was at that time for both men and women and also adheres to the idea of a false consciousness preventing progress in that the vast majority of the characters have chosen not to believe that an alternative reality is possible as they ‘know their place’ and can’t seem to believe they can bring about change by voting for a better future.
Although the political arguments are fascinating, what I really enjoyed was the peek inside peoples’ homes and how they survived, or not, when work was not forthcoming. I came out of the book with a burning sense of the wrongness and wickedness of very wealthy people, many of whom could not really give a toss about the poor and whose major aim seemed to be to add to their fortune, a task they allocated to ‘bosses’ who earned more than the workers and and did the dirty work of the wealthy.
I had a few friends who loved it but mainly people seemed wary of it and were put off by the rather dense wordiness of it all. Stick at it!
"I first heard about Ragged Trousered Philanthropists from my Dublin grandad who worked the season as a labourer here in England but loved painting and decorating back home - so, all in all, he probably felt he had a fair bit in common with the author.
"When I read the book as a teenager, ‘the great money trick’ was a lightbulb moment for me - an involved but vivid explanation of how workers are robbed of full and fair rewards for their labour ... my grandad never lost faith that working people could organise together through unions to free our minds and challenge injustice. He was an optimist - and so am I."
Robert Tressell House, Hastings: In the summer of 1982, the young Neil Kinnock (then Shadow Education Secretary)unveiled a plaque re-naming the GMB union's office in Hastings in honour of Robert Tressell. Alongside him were: Annette Maloney (Chair of the Hastings Labour Party); Les Chambers (GMB Regional Officer); and Derek Gladwin (GMB Southern Region Secretary).
A strikingly new copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was on the shelf alongside the fireplace in the Front Room (the “parlour” , only used for reading and at Christmas and other high occasions) in my grandfather’s terraced house in Tredegar. It shared space with the Odham’s Press (sold through the Daily Herald special offers in the 1930’s) works of Dickens, the Brontes, Walter Scott, Shakespeare and other classics. Working class people (or their middle class descendants like me!) will have memories of these home libraries and I inherited most of my grandfather’s collection from my parents. I still have them, supplemented by the Collins editions of other standard works. I now also have the 1965 Granada version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, with me since publication.
I first read the book when I was about 14 or 15 and then, with more comprehension, during a University vacation in between shifts in Ebbw Vale steelworks. By that time it was basic reading for several Labour Party comrades, some of them introduced to the book by me. It went alongside Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Jack Jones’ Biden to the Feast, Jack London’s political thrillers and The Citadel by A J Cronin (he was a GP in Tredegar in the 1920’s).
When I was a WEA tutor/organiser between 1966 and 1970, I must have distributed it to dozens of my adult students at Trade Union workplace classes with the Health Warning “it looks long but you won’t be able to put it down and it will save you a lot of other reading “. It did too: there has never been a better insight to the Theory of Surplus Value or a clearer expose of the delusions of Imperialism, organised religion, the British Press, bourgeois affectations or the self-subservience of “not for the likes of us”.
The late Barry Moore, a 22 year old engineering shop steward when I met him, became my Constituency Agent and beloved friend. He went to College at Harlech and Cardiff University, graduating with a 2:1 ,and was later appointed South Wales District Secretary of the WEA. He said “this is the book that changed my life”.
There are too many memorable passages to list but I particularly recall the “renegade socialist”, the Great Oration, the Oblong ,the Outing and the unforgettable Barrington maxim “when we get socialism there won’t be any people like us. Everyone will be civilised”. The whole book is packed with idealism, entwined with realism in the midst of servitude and penury. The countless instances of humour, of rationality, of profound belief in the common sense of justice, equity and compassion all give instruction, strength and inspiration, especially at times when political “sense” is less than “common”.
Because of the questions from the Robert Tressell Society, I recently read TRPT again - about 65 years after the first treat and probably 30 years after the last reading. It made me realise afresh how much appears to be different in more than a century since Noonan wrote the book but - and it’s a very big “but” - also how much remains pitifully unchanged. It isn’t depressive or self-pitying to observe that the all-pervasive insecurity which afflicted “the Philanthropists” ebbed for decades after 1945 but then flowed back in the 1980’s and is now at flood tide.
We live in a rich country where Social Care for a (long heralded) ageing population is punishingly inadequate, where de-industrialisation without preparation shattered communities, where zero hours “contracts” and the (euphemistically entitled) gig-economy replicate the exploitative day-labouring of Tressell’s time, where food-bank philanthropy is vital for millions, where young generations have less housing, employment and civil security than their parents, where the self-oppressions of ignorance, fear and racism still abound, where the richest 1% of the population has the same 13% proportion of wealth as its forebears had in 1913, and where the “Forty Thieves” are in and around the Cabinet.
Of course, general conditions of life are immeasurably better than they were at the turn of the 20th century and it would insult those who fought for those improvements to suggest otherwise. But the advances in technology, economy and even democracy have not hauled human society or the UK as far forward as they should. The “Philanthropists” are not ragged trousered now. But they are - unconsciously, as always - denying themselves collective strength, greater knowledge and the higher expectations, chances and choices that the beneficiaries of their generosity take for granted. So many people still believe - and say - that the finer things and, more important, the decisive powers are “not for the likes of us”.
The World needs another Tressell with the experience, the insights, the intelligence, the brilliant Swiftian irony to provide the mirror of realisation of our condition. We need another Tressell to make fresh generations understand that there is an attainable better way if they want it and - crucially - are willing to act together to get it.
Neil Kinnock, Baron Bedwellty, Leader of the Labour Party, 1983-92.