1914: Robert Tressell - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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1914: Robert Tressell - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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Jan 15, 2014, 12:16pm

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, pseudonym for Robert Noonan
first published in abridged form in 1914
published in 1918 in even more abridged form
first published in full in 1955

Every once in a while you come upon a book that makes you wonder "Where has this been all my life?" That was my immediate reaction on reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Ostensibly a story about a group of working men in Edwardian England, it is actually a devastating attack on the society of the time. As we see this crew of painters, wallpaperers, plasterers and decorative workers go about their daily lives for Rushton and Co., the precariousness of their existences and those of their families is revealed. Poor laws, child labour laws, education, pensions, charity, religion and politics are all revealed for the sham they truly are when it comes to the realities of the working class, employed or not.

Frank Owen, the main character, is convinced there is a better way. Owen's name is a nod to Robert Owen, the great reformer from a century before, and like him, Frank believes that socialism will provide the answers, if only his fellow workers will see the light. To this end he spends hours discussing 'The Great Money Trick' with them, demonstrating that no matter how much or how well they work, the capitalist classes will always have the money, control of resources, and property, while the people who create things with it will always want. The men in turn reply that such things "aren't for the likes of us". After all, don't school and church teach that "The poor are always with us"? They have been taught there is a natural order to the world, and they know from experience there is nothing to be gained by upsetting it. The men know on a personal level that to object or protest would lead to immediate termination; that there are hordes of unemployed willing to work for even less than they do the minute a vacancy occurs. Frank himself despaired of the future. Ill with tuberculosis he struggled on, knowing the day would come when he could no longer work.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written in 1911 and published posthumously in 1914. Tressell's town of Mugsborough was actually Hastings, where political corruption was rife. Tressell's name was Robert Noonan, but he took his writing name from one of the tools of his trade, the trestle. Like Frank, he was employed as a painter, giving the speech and settings of the novel an immediacy that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. Tressell's criticisms of his world ring true on every page. He viewed these ragged men as the true philanthropists of the age, for it was they who were creating the enormous wealth of the propertied classes. His writing has echoes of the humour of Dickens, but it also has many of the more sombre tones of Gissing and Hardy.

The original manuscript had 250,000 words, but was almost halved when it was first published. The 1918 edition was edited down again, to about 90,000 words. It wasn't until 1955 that the full manuscript was restored and published in its entirety. Leaving out the last third of the book in its early editions gave a completely different tone to Tressell's work. It left out the crucial "Great Oration" by Owen's friend Barrington, who is finally able to impart Frank's message, in theory if not in practice, to some of their fellow workers. For those interested in the politics of the times, it also left out the political campaigning and backroom manouevering of the Tories and Liberals, and the struggle to fill the void on the left before the full emergence of Labour.

In retrospect we know the "Golden Light" from the "risen sun of Socialism" did not work out as those early adherents had hoped, but as a piece of social history, this novel restores some of that idealism and makes you wish for just a little of that light.

Jan 15, 2014, 12:19pm

The story behind the restoration of the full work of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is interesting in itself.

Jessie Pope, the woman who was paid to edit the original 1914 version down from manuscript form, actually took scissors to the manuscript, cutting whole sections out, writing over others, and generally shuffling the pages around. After WWII, a man called Fred Ball took it upon himself to track down the pieces of the original manuscript, which he managed to do, paying £63 for them. He then painstaking reassembled it, cello taping the pieces together. The TUC has put the full restored document on line. Here is a sample:

Here is a link to the entire manuscript:

The edition I read was from Oxford World Classics. It was the fully restored edition and runs 614 pages plus excellent notes.

Jan 16, 2014, 2:21am

A very interesting choice, and interesting review. Obviously, poverty is all but gone, but in our abundancy-driven neo-liberalist society talking or writing about poverty is out of fashion, because all people who used to vote socialist are now goaded into believing that their interests are best served by a liberal or conservative program. (Just as the younger generation socialist politicians speak using liberal lingo and look down on the working class).

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists stands in a tradition of many books, both fiction and non-fiction inspired by poverty and socialist writing. One of such, now also considered a classic is How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, and through the title The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists reminds of Ragged Dick, or street life in New York with the boot-blacks although Alger's interest in the gamin may not have been entirely pure.

I suppose the introduction to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists explains the odd publication history of all those abbreviated editions. How commendable of Oxford World Classics to bring out a complete, unabridged edition.

Jan 17, 2014, 2:37pm

edwin, the introduction to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists did indeed bring out the publication history, as well as some of the political history of the emerging labour movement at the time. I can't say enough about the Oxford edition with its notes, chronology and introduction. There were several titles mentioned that I would like to read as companions to this book and Ragged Dick is one of them. I've only read How the Other Half Lives in bits and pieces, but should read it in its entirety. It will be interesting to see how it compares to Mayhew?

Good point about Alger. I am currently reading a book called Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which spends some time on the relationship of photography to the craze for wandering the slums and points out that that was not entirely pure either.

Jan 17, 2014, 10:55pm

Ragged Dick is a very short read of about 100 pages, I read the Norton Critical edition which, with notes and criticism came to 304 pages. I did not like Ragged Dick that much (2.5 *), so I gave it away. I wonder whether the notes + essays made reference to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists or not. As I remember, both How the Other Half Lives and Ragged Dick are available in Norton Critical editions and Penguin, in the latter Ragged Dick is combined with another tale by Alger.

It is funny, that just last week I thought about the role of poverty and socialism in literature. Just before the end of the year, I read D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and after that I started reading A miner's sons by Len Doherty, which I bought together with Daughter of the hills. A woman's part in the coal miner's struggle by Myra Page. Both Doherty and Page were members of the Communist Party in Britain and mostly active as writers in the 1950s.

Len Doherty, born in Glasgow in 1930, left school at the age of 14, and decided to become a miner and work as a collier in the pits at Sheffield at the age of 17. Having published short stories in various periodicals, his first novel, A Miner's Sons, appeared in 1955, followed by The Man Beneath, published in 1957. His third novel, The Good Lion appeared in 1958. He was active as a journalist till his death in 1983.

Jan 18, 2014, 10:52am

I've ordered the Oxford Classics edition.

Of course, one can't think about miners without thinking of Germinal, one of my favorite books of recent years.

Jun 12, 2015, 2:08pm

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell is a unique reading experience, but one that I was thankful to finish. The misery and dejection of the working people is graphically described, but however accurate it may be the repetitive nature of much of it means that it can be a slog to read, However dispiriting this may be, it is the underlying message that most of them deserve to be half starved and destitute, for continuing to support the capitalist system that is most depressing. The Ragged Trousered philanthropists are the working men because in undisguised irony Tressell is saying that they are devoting their lives for the most deserving of charities: the rich.

The books final two sentences imagine a socialist utopia:

“The light that will shine upon the world wide Fatherland and illumine the gilded domes and glittering pinnacles of the beautiful cities of the future, where men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy. The Golden Light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of socialism”

But they deny all that has gone before and are really only the delirious dream of Owen the consumptive, socialist working class hero of the novel.

The novel which doubles as a socialist tract follows the working lives of a band of painters and decorators. They are driven and “sweated” to complete jobs in a cut throat competitive environment. Tressell himself was a sign writer and uses his experiences to give a first hand, blow by blow account of their working conditions; he tells of their struggle to clothe and feed themselves and of their desperately poor home life. The story of their continuous struggle to survive is interlaced with the Socialist teaching that could transform their lives. The original teacher is Owen who whenever he can; lectures his workmates on how a socialist system would be to the benefit of all. The reader follows Owen’s explanation of how the Capitalist money trick works, how it robs the workers of the fruits of their labours. Their are diagrams painted on walls, their are impromptu question and answer sessions, but through it all Owen struggles to make any headway, let alone make any converts. Later it is a socialist battle van visiting the town that provides a platform for the socialists and finally George Barrington (an independent man of means) makes an impassioned plea for Socialist change: in effect delivering a socialist manifesto.

The Socialist message is repeated and enhanced throughout the book, but it continually fails to impress the townspeople of Mugsborough. The working men continue to vociferously support the system which serves to enslave them:

“They often said that such things as leisure, culture, pleasure and the benefits of civilisation were never intended for ‘the likes of us’

They refuse to believe that changing the system would benefit anybody and perhaps after all they are right, because Tressells message that men/women do not deserve socialism and will not be ready for it for another 500 years; comes through loud and clear. Tressells book has been taught in schools and universities and was required reading for any would be socialist member of the British parliament, but those days are gone. After the recent Conservative success in the British Election this year, it would appear that either the working class has disappeared completely from the majority of the South and Midlands, or that they still believe that the knobs (rich and powerful) have a divine right to run the country.

Sir Graball d’Encloseland, Mayor Sweater, Councillors Rushton, Didlum and Grinder, along with Mrs Starvem, and Lady Slumrent ably supported by Rev Bosher run the Town of Mugsborough for all that it is worth and in effect take the book into the realms of a fable (although a very long one). In my opinion there is no doubt that the book could do with some serious editing, but as an example of a Socialist novel with a political message then it is in a class of it’s own. I can’t say I really enjoyed the book, but I liked what it said and so 4 stars.

Jun 12, 2015, 3:17pm

Great discussion here, and thanks to baswood for introducing me to the book, and then this thread.

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