The Man Who Made a Million Socialists

Robert Tressell, author of 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,' was born 150 years ago. His writing left an indelible mark on the socialist movement — but the man himself was almost forgotten by history.

Robert Tressell, the author of the classic socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, was one of the most influential writers in twentieth-century England. Yet, for decades after his death, hardly anyone knew who he was. He died 3 February 1911 in Liverpool Royal Infirmary, and was buried a week later in a pauper’s grave. The book which he worked on for the final five years of his life had never been published — and, as far as he knew, it never would.

Tressell’s resting place was only rediscovered in 1968, an overgrown patch of what is now Walton Park Cemetery. In 1977, Liverpool workers marked his resting place — and those of the dozen buried alongside him — with a gravestone and a William Morris poem, ‘The Day Is Coming’. But Tressell’s day may never have come had it not been for the research of Hastings historian Fred Ball, who spent many years on a ‘bewildering’ search uncovering facts about the author’s life.

Before Fred Ball, the only widely known description of Robert Tressell came from the poet Jessie Pope, who had received the manuscript for Ragged from Tressell’s daughter Kathleen and arranged for its first publication with the publisher Grant Richards in 1914. Tressell, Pope wrote, was ‘a socialistic working-man’, ‘a house-painter and sign-writer who recorded his criticism of the present scheme of things until, weary of the struggle, he slipped out of it.’

Fred Ball first began looking into Tressell after he heard that Mugsborough, the fictional town in which The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is set, was in fact his own native Hastings. He enquired about Tressell in the local library but discovered that no biography existed. In fact, there were no books referencing Tressell or the background to the novel at all. So, in 1942, he published a letter in The Hastings & St. Leonards Observer — as he was later to find out, The Obscurer of Tressell’s book — seeking information about the man and his life.

The correspondence he received set him on many paths at once — sometimes appearing contradictory, other times actually so. He discovered an article written in the Daily Worker in the 1930s identifying Robert Tressell by another name, ‘Robert Newland’. This first introduced the idea that the book had been written under a pen name. A 1920s article in the Painters’ Journal also confirmed that, just as the book’s protagonist Frank Owen, Tressell had been a painter himself. But it didn’t provide a full account of his life either.

It was only after many years of research that Ball found out Tressell’s real identity. By this time, after the Second World War, he had acquired the original handwritten manuscript for The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, discovering that the version published in 1914 had been, in Ball’s words, ‘mutilated’. Tressell — which, to add to the confusion, was spelled ‘Tressall’ by the publisher — had written a 1,700-page tome that was much more detailed and radical than the version many had read to date.

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

“You know,” said I, “it was an Irishman that wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,”
“It’s not an Irish name, though, is it? Tressall.”
“Course it’s not,” said I, “it’s not a person’s name at all … “

– Brendan Behan, ‘Borstal Boy’

Tressell’s Irish upbringing was the source of considerable confusion for Ball. He had lived two rather different lives, and even within those there were contradictions. Tressell was born the son of Samuel Croker (whose name he first used) and Mary Noonan at 37 Wexford Street in Dublin, where a plaque today hangs in his honour. Croker, an inspector with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and later a magistrate, was a man of considerable means. ‘What happened to my working-class writer?’, Ball wondered in his works.

Robert Tressell’s plaque on Wexford Street, Dublin, where he was born. (Credit: The Tressell Memorial)

But Tressell was an illegitimate child. Mary Noonan was not Croker’s wife. She was, as the phrase at the time went, his ‘kept woman.’ She had four children in total: Robert, Mary-Jane, Ellie, and Adelaide, none of them particularly Irish names. Samuel Croker was 80 at the time of Robert’s birth and would die not long into his childhood. And for any Dubliner, the places where Mary Noonan is recorded as having lived during this relationship with Croker would be familiar. Her addresses were in locations around Montgomery Street, known locally as ‘The Monto,’ then one of the best-established red-light districts in Europe.

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.

This would go some way to explaining the first notable action of Tressell’s young adulthood. Living in Queen’s Road, Liverpool, and working as a sign-writer, he was convicted in May 1890 of stealing silver from a shipping magnate. He spent a number of months in prison before departing shortly afterwards for South Africa, where he settled first in Cape Town and met and married Elizabeth Hartel, with whom he had his daughter Kathleen. Their marriage does not appear to have been a happy one and, by 1894, Tressell was divorced and living with his daughter in Johannesburg.

His workmates in Johannesburg remembered Tressell as a ‘wild Irishman’. This is where we get the first sense of his involvement in politics — not in socialism, as such, but Irish republicanism. He is said to have regularly worn the green sash of the United Irishmen, and served on the committee of the Transvaal ’98 Centenary Association which marked the anniversary of their uprising. His membership card — signed ‘RP Noonan’ and bearing the slogan ‘Live Ireland, Perish Tyranny’ — survives in the archives of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in London.

In the years leading up to the Boer War the Transvaal region was no far-flung place for Irish nationalists, many of whom felt their cause was associated with the Boers. James Connolly saw their struggle as part of a global phenomenon, ‘there are in India, Egypt and other portions of the British Empire other and much larger populations also kept down in forced subjection.’ Accordingly, Robert Tressell was to come to know a number of prominent Irish republicans. He served on the ’98 committee with John MacBride, who would later be executed for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916. MacBride led an Irish brigade in the Boer ranks during the war in South Africa and later married Maud Gonne, an Irish republican who agitated on behalf of the Boers in Dublin alongside Arthur Griffith and James Connolly.

It seems likely that Tressell himself read the works of Connolly, who wrote relatively frequently about the cause and its connection to Ireland’s independence struggle. He was certainly familiar with the works of Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League, who visited South Africa on a solidarity delegation during the war. The sections in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which reference the ownership of land by the rich and the plight of their tenants strongly echo Davitt. It is not the only green shade in Tressell’s book: the 1907 Belfast dock strike, led by Connolly’s long-time comrade James Larkin, is also referenced. Tressell must have been fascinated reading about the role of his father’s RIC in that dispute, first in repressing workers and then in mutinying on their behalf.

Whatever his other inspirations, South African historian Jonathan Hyslop has established that Tressell considered himself a socialist by this stage and became active in the local trades council. But his stint in the Cape was also to impact his life in other ways. While in the country he contracted tuberculosis — a condition that was to hamper Tressell for the rest of his life. Tressell decided to leave South Africa in 1901 and return to England with his sister Adelaide and her son, Arthur, a child Tressell considered almost his own and the inspiration for Frank Owen’s son Frankie in the book. Tressell’s other sister, Mary-Jane, was based in what she described as ‘dear, sunny Hastings’, and with its seaside climate reputedly good for bronchial conditions, it was there that Robert Tressell settled next.

The Real Mugsborough

Robert Tressell arrived in Hastings as a worker with little if any independent means, but his adopted home lacked the kind of industrial base which sustained working-class life in other parts of the country. Most of its workers relied on the corporation. The building trade, which Tressell found work in, was considered a lowly form of employment.

The Victorian era had been Hastings’ heyday, with rail extended to seaside towns across Britain. Tressell arrived at the very moment this period ended, in 1901; the population was falling, there was little demand for building work and even its more illustrious neighbour, St. Leonard’s, was generally felt to be in a state of decay. Plans to make Hastings into a port city with a grand new harbour were abandoned in 1897, leaving an unfinished harbour arm which offered an enduring symbol of its decline.

The early twentieth century was a time of rising inequality, as stagnant wages paved the way for soaring profits. This was felt even more acutely in Hastings, which offered an exile for high-society types from the south of England and London while providing little by way of decent jobs for workers. The Hastings News in November 1901 forecasts a bleak winter for the town’s children, with ‘visions of relief funds and soup kitchens.’ Artisans were out of work, it said, ‘with painters, as usual being the worst sufferers.’ Hardly the welcome Tressell would have wanted.

He found his first job in Hastings with Bruce & Co, the building contractors which offered the inspiration for Rushton & Co in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. According to Fred Ball’s research, a great deal of what Tressell writes in the book is autobiographical. The company was, indeed, owned by a tyrant who once sacked a worker for addressing him in the street. It did also have a toady foreman, similar to the character variously called Misery, Nimrod, or Hunter, with whom Tressell had a fractious relationship. The secretary of the light refreshment fund absconded in real life too — and the apprentice, Bert, was a real boy named Bill Gower, whose testimony in later years provides us with the picture of Tressell’s working life we have today.

Little had been known until then about Tressell’s talents as an artist, but Gower’s testimony helped to illuminate this aspect of his life. It was discovered that he had been a master sign-maker — painting one for another building company, Adams & Jarrett, which lasted until the 1960s — as well as a decorator of fine rooms. The famous Cave from the book is likely an amalgam of a number of jobs in the wealthy upper St. Leonard’s locales of The Green and Hollington Park Road. We now also know that Tressell worked on a Moorish room, as Frank Owen did, in the Val Mascal in Gillsmans Hill between 1903 and 1904.

Although its introduction maintains that Tressell meant ‘no attack on honest religion,’ The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is distinctly anti-clerical in its outlook, mocking the false piety of the ruling classes and excoriating their use of religion to manipulate the workers. ‘The vicar goes about telling the idlers that it’s quite right for them to do nothing, and that God meant them to have nearly everything that is made by those who work,’ it says in one memorable passage, ‘in fact, he tells them that God made the poor for the use of the rich.’

In addition to writing, Tressell was a successful decorator of fine rooms, including the Chancel of St. Andrew’s pictured here. (Image: Hastings Museum and Art Gallery)

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.

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,

He loved his 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 in striving for that which is most beautiful . . . Nothing distressed him more than scamping on his work. He, like the rest of us, was not permitted to do his work. Everything was sacrificed to god of profit.

A Socialistic Working-Man

Tressell’s debt to William Morris did not end with art. Morris’ Manifesto of the Socialist League had a profound impact on Tressell’s socialism and many echoes of its politics can be found in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Bill Gower recalls that he would recite from Morris’ works, as well as those of Dickens, Shelley, Byron, and Swift, and make their books available to his fellow workers.

However, within Ragged itself there is only one clear reference to socialist liter- ature: Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England and Britain for the British, hugely popular texts of the early twentieth century. It is again a strange twist of circumstance that it would be Blatchford — founder and publisher of The Clarion — who Tressell references in his masterpiece. That paper had, after all, supported Britain’s campaign in the Boer War — one of its most controversial positions within the broader socialist movement.

The Clarion could count tens of thousands of weekly readers by the time Tressell had settled in England. But it was far from the only red star on the horizon — socialist politics were on the rise across the country with the number of parties and organisations growing year on year. Hastings, however, lagged behind. In 1906, just as the Labour Party was making its first electoral breakthrough, the town was caught in an election between a Liberal and a Tory — with no socialist on the ballot.

A membership card for the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which counted Robert Tressell among its members. (Credit: Hastings Museum and Art Gallery)

Tressell records this election (and a subsequent 1908 by-election) in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Hastings was one of the only seats to go Tory in 1906 in an otherwise good year for the Liberals, electing another Irishman — millionaire financier and tyre magnate Harvey du Cros. Two years later it returned his son Arthur in his place. Interestingly, Tressell reverses these fortunes in the book, awarding the seat to the Liberals.

This, Fred Ball says, was a wry comment on the interchangeable nature of the two pro-capitalist parties. In Ragged, Tressell writes about how the two candidates come together after the election to toast each other’s fortunes. It also transpires that this was describing a real event: The Observer records a dinner between Tory and Liberal supporters after the election at which the health of the king and the prosperity of the empire were toasted by all.

It was after this 1906 election that Tressell came together with leading figures from the local trades council to form the Hastings branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The chairman of the trades council, and early SDF activist, Fred Owen is believed to be the inspiration behind the name of Frank Owen in the book. But Tressell knew other prominent Hastings socialists well, too — Alf Cobbs was at that time a well-established labour leader in the town and organised in support of strikes alongside Tressell.

Putting his talents to good use, Tressell designed and made the Hastings SDF banner which was later to be adapted for the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Tragically, this banner was taken to Birmingham for safe keeping in the 1930s and has never been recovered since. Only a photograph survives, but it is fitting that Tressell should have contributed in this way. Britain’s labour movement banners are probably the only things which surpass the work of Morris and Crane as aesthetic contributions to the international socialist movement.

The burning injustices of class society had, by this time, made Tressell an impassioned evangelist for the socialist cause. One such example, again recorded in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, was the 1905 case of a man who had murdered his children rather than see them starve. In the book, Frank Owen briefly considers this fate for his own family, remarking that it might be a kinder end than the one the system had in store for them. This fear of the workhouse animated both Tressell and his protagonist throughout their respective journeys.

The development of Tressell’s Marxist politics can be seen in an anecdote Fred Ball records from one of his workmates. ‘How much do you earn?’ the man asks Tressell, before being impressed by his answer. ‘Well,’ Tressell says, ‘you asked me what I earned, not what I got paid.’ By 1906, when Tressell set about writing his book, the concept of expropriation was on his mind. The belief that wealth was created by the rich and given away to the working class had to be tackled. The truth was that it was the workers who sustained the idle elites by their labour, not the other way around. If anyone were the philanthropists, it was them.

The Philanthropist

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.’

Robert Tressell in this sense belongs in the same bracket as Ireland’s Seán O’Casey, America’s Jack London, and Russia’s Maxim Gorky, great writers from working backgrounds who gave voice to their class at the turn of the twentieth century. In his focus on dialogue, Tressell is probably most similar to O’Casey — yet Ragged is a distinctly English novel in its sensibilities, its character, its humour. And it is all the better for it, there are few more tragic Irishmen than ones who cannot adapt to their exile. Perhaps in its original title — The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists — Tressell finally found his common ground between these isles.

Ragged draws on deeper traditions too, which shine some light on the depths of Tressell’s education. Schooled in Classics, his is one of the great Socratic novels — built around a basis of argumentative dialogue that seeks to prod and probe the limits of class consciousness among working people in every bit the same manner which Plato describes in his Dialogues. Beneath this literary style is a deeper message about socialist politics that will resonate with anyone involved in the struggle for a better world: experience alone does not guarantee consciousness, pedagogy too is required, and oftentimes direct confrontation with reactionary ideas.

The only surviving photograph of the Robert Tressell’s socialist banner, made originally for the Social Democratic Federation and later adapted by the Independent Labour Party. (Credit: Hastings Museum and Art Gallery)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists may, in fact, be the best example of socialist educational literature in the English language. And it achieved this in utter defiance of the literary wisdom of its time, that novels should tell stories rather than teach. A number of its chapters were specifically designed for the latter purpose. In ‘The Money Trick’ it set up the problems with capitalism as a system and explained the theory of surplus value, in ‘The Oblong’ it described its social structure — and in ‘The Oration’ it outlined an alternative, in the voice of socialist orator Barrington, which was durable enough to withstand the many scepticisms thrown at revolutionary ideas by the masses of the people as well as the enemies of progress.

Tressell’s unique contribution was borne of his unique perspective. He was at once a worker, who lived the experiences he writes about in the book, and a child of the ruling classes who had been exposed to a life beyond the turgid slog. This made him an outsider; and that perch from which he could at times be seen to judge workers had its drawbacks. Certainly, there is an unusually strong thread woven into English socialism of sectarians for whom the working-class is a constant disappointment. While Tressell was not one of these, he did offer them some degree of comfort. But his perspective is redeemed by the fact, as Raymond Williams noted, his experiences had demonstrated that the suffering of the working class ‘wasn’t an immutable law of life, it was a specific social condition.’ And he set about trying to persuade his colleagues — in life as in literature — of that fact.

If Robert Tressell could occasionally seem to portray workers as conservatives it was more a reflection of the undercurrent of bitterness which at times seized upon the plot. It was a well-deserved bitterness, too. Tressell took to writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists after 1906 because, due to his failing health, there was little else he could do. He worked throughout the day then, often exhausted, recorded his experiences at night. And all the time he feared ending up in a workhouse, unable to prevent his daughter from becoming a ward of the state. It was a brutal end for a man of such intelligence, talent, and decency.

Once again, however, Tressell managed to find purpose even in bitterness. The blunt, descriptive names he gave to the book’s characters — Misery for the foreman, Crass for his assistant, Slyme for the untrustworthy wretch, Grinder and Didlum for the businessmen, Sweater for the Mayor — could be castigated for a lack of subtlety. But they are, in fact, one of Ragged’s great strengths, a clarity which allows the reader to dispense with the social fictions often associated with men of high status and learn to hate the despicable.

But if he himself made good use of his bitterness, surely we should feel some of it more unforgivingly on his behalf. Robert Tressell’s final months were spent in pain, the cost of a life at work and a lack of decent medical care. He died a pauper, having seen his book rejected by penny-pinching publishers. He must have felt, in his final moments, that his life was a failure. It is the nature of capitalism to separate the work from the worker, to elevate the former while treating the latter as expendable. But even in these terms, Tressell’s fate was particularly cruel.

Some have argued that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists won the 1945 election for Labour. This seems unlikely. It did, however, make a million or more socialists in the century of its existence, often finding its way into the hands of people whose minds are just progressing from a belief that the system is fundamentally good but in need of reform to seeing it as fundamentally wrong. This is the bridge that all radicals must build if our visions are to be realised, and Robert Tressell provided the bricks and mortar.

Thinking of his fate, I am reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s quote about Einstein, that his existence was not so remarkable as ‘the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.’ Robert Tressell is proof of this, a truly great writer whose class meant that he died without knowing the appreciation of his work. How many more never even have their novels and their names salvaged by history? If we take one injunction from Tressell’s life, it should be our responsibility to abolish the conditions that made his writing so compelling.