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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Wordsworth Classics)

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Of course, ‘Tressell’ was not Lenin – who had only 20 émigré intellectual supporters in Switzerland in 1910 - and Noonan died in Liverpool in February 1911. Yet in August, after the revolutionary syndicalist Tom Mann agitated 100,000 workers outside St George's Hall, just down the road from where Noonan died, police charged repeatedly and injured and arrested many. After 3,000 workers tried to free those being taken to Walton Goal, troops shot and killed two of them. A city-wide strike began and the ‘Great Unrest’ was underway.

Ball, F. C. (1979) [1973]. One of the Damned: Life and Times of Robert Tressell. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd. p.10. It has often been said that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was the first working-class novel. This may be wide of the mark in global terms, but it is not far wrong for England. As Fred Ball wrote, ‘it was the first English novel I’d ever seen in which men at work was the basic setting, and the working class the central characters, and treated as real people, the kind of people I had been brought up among, and not as “comic” relief.’ Grant Richards Ltd. published about two-thirds of the manuscript in April 1914 after Tressell's daughter, Kathleen Noonan, showed her father's work to her employers. The 1914 edition not only omitted material but also moved text around and gave the novel a depressing ending. Tressell's original manuscript was first published in 1955 by Lawrence and Wishart. [1] The characters are strongly detailed in vivid technicolour, not from outward apearance, but from their circumstances and the particular ways they each have of dealing with the world in which they find themselves. The drama of their lives is interwoven with a narrative, that arranges each scene, then lets it play out as we voyeuristically watch, like helpless bystanders to one car crash after another. The manuscript was then bought by the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives (NFBTO), and presented to the Trades Union Congress the following year.In addition to writing two biographies which described his search for the real Robert Tressell — Tressell of Mugsborough (1951) and One of the Damned (1979) — Fred Ball also managed to get the original version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists published by Lawrence and Wishart. By which time he had established that Tressell was not, in fact, originally from England but was born in Dublin in 1870, and correctly identified the name under which he lived most of his life: Robert Noonan. Irish Roots The story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is in large part the story of its author, Robert Noonan. Born in 1870 the illegitimate son of an inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary, Noonan ended up as a decorator and lone parent in Hastings. A craftsman who shared Ruskin's belief in the dignity of labour, he was a gifted autodidact familiar with the radical canon from Shakespeare to William Morris. F. C. Ball, One of the Damned: The Life and Times of Robert Tressell, Author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979. As we now know, some of Ball’s assumptions about Tressell’s Irish childhood were inaccurate. Many years later, the research of Bryan MacMahon would reveal that the boy had spent much of his early years in various parts of England and was not, as Ball assumed, unfamiliar with the country until the 1900s. Tressell received a good education — speaking seven or more languages, by some accounts — but very little of the inheritance passed to his mother reached him, with the vast majority spent or going to his sisters and other family. He had much of the experience of an elite upbringing but without the means that so often went with it.

Tressell’s attachment to his craft can be gleaned from his chosen pen name, a reference to a painter’s trestle table. It was more than a means to earn a living, or a mere functional task — it was a vocation. As the 1920s Painters’ Journal article remarked, Almost 100 years after it was first published, the relevance of this work, and it's ability to speak to us in the 21st century is surely a stark indictment of our time. Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labour.’ And the message ...that society's repeated failure to fairly distribute the necessities of human life, and a pathalogical tendency towards corruption and vain consumption are so prevalent, so manifestly routine, that our doom is all but certain. Our very survival as a species may lie in re-organizing our affairs efficiently for the benefit of all, rather than the priviledge of few. What we call civilisation—the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers—is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal—he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before. [11] Critical reception [ edit ]


One of the characters, Frank Owen, is a socialist who tries to convince his fellow workers that capitalism is the real source of the poverty he sees all around him, but their education has trained them to distrust their own thoughts and to rely on those of their "betters". Much of the book consists of conversations between Owen and the others, or more often of lectures by Owen in the face of their jeering; this was presumably based on Tressell's own experiences. With unflinching attention to detail he reveals the drama unfolding in the daily routine of their lives, their happiness, and their misery. The importance of this work lies not with the subjects and their circumstances, but with the author's socioeconomic analysis of them. With the dedication of a master-craftsman, he describes each chararacter's difficult situation in context, and explains their limited options with factual fatalism. His ability to place you in the very skin of his characters is perhaps a measure of the integrity of this work. Unfortunately, not everyone wanted to be saved. Kathleen Noonan once recalled her father's fury at his colleagues' failure to understand their socialist calling. "He would get exasperated when he could make no impression on the workmen when trying to get them to better their conditions. He would say they deserved to suffer." That cold anger towards a working class refusing to appreciate its revolutionary duty suffuses the novel. Owen even says of his fellow workmen: "They were the enemy. Those who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to the existing state of things, but defended it, and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion to alter it." Indeed, Owen the elevated intellectual displays more hostility to his myopic comrades ("He hated and despised them...") than to the exploitative boss class. But it is in this criticism of misguided philanthropy that the book's status as a "working-class classic" runs into trouble. Noonan's approach is a product of the late-Victorian socialist revival when hopes of political transformation swept Britain with religious fervour. Socialists started to display the same kind of moral certainty as the Salvation Army; activists likened themselves to missionaries. Noonan himself found a niche in the Social Democratic Federation run by his fellow middle-class Marxist, Henry Hyndman. And this elevated approach, of a secular priesthood bringing salvation to the fallen, is exactly the tone Owen adopts with his fellow philanthropists.

This is a human story, and it is eminently readable, but it also chillingly reveals the schism and vice at the heart of the capitalist so-called civilisation, based on the system of money. We knows wot they are, sir. Most of ’em is chaps wot’s got tired of workin’ for their livin’, so they wants us to keep ’em.’ In 1897, Noonan was granted a divorce, following an appearance as the plaintiff in a hearing at the Supreme Court, in Cape Town. The court granted the divorce and awarded Robert custody of Kathleen. It has been suggested that the failure of his marriage may have provided a sub-plot in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that concerns Ruth Easton, who has a child by Alf Slyme. [7]With surgical skill, and sometimes without the tenderness of foreplay, the reader is sand-blasted. Bleak tales of desperate poverty unfold in minute detail. You are immersed in and become part of the drama in ways that feel immediate and uncomfortabe. As you read, you may occasionally need to set the book aside and compose yourself. This isn't real, it's just a story! ... or is it? A 6 x 60-minute radio adaptation was transmitted as a "Classic Serial" on BBC Radio 4 in 1989. It starred Sean Barrett, Brian Glover and Peter Vaughan. It was produced by Michael Bakewell and dramatised by Gregory Evans. It is therefore ironic then that Tressell’s best-known work is a mural which adorned the wall of St. Andrew’s Church on the Queen’s Road. The church is now gone, but a portion of the mural was saved, restored and is on display in Hastings Museum. Beautifully intricate and clearly inspired by William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement, its inscription is a psalm from the King James Bible: ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’ A sentiment which many workers over many decades would apply to the writings of Robert Tressell. We've had Free Trade for the last fifty years and today most people are living in a condition of more or less abject poverty, and thousands are literally starving. When we had Protection things were worse still. Other countries have Protection and yet many of their people are glad to come here and work for starvation wages. The only difference between Free Trade and Protection is that under certain circumstances one might be a little worse that the other, but as remedies for Poverty, neither of them are of any real use whatever, for the simple reason that they do not deal with the real causes of Poverty.'

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