In writing this book my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working-class life...
August 6, 2009 10:18 AM   Subscribe

In August 1910, an Irish sign-painter and decorator named Robert Noonan left the town of Hastings on the south coast of England, and made his way north and west towards Liverpool, with the hope of emigrating to Canada. Already sick with tuberculosis, his condition worsened once he reached the city, and he was to die there in a workhouse hospital ward, in February 1911. He had, however, left in the care of his daughter Kathleen a package that was to change the political landscape of twentieth-century Britain.

Composed between 1906 and 1910, and written under the pen-name of Robert Tressell, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists told the story of a group of house-painters and craftsmen living and working in the appalling conditions of Edwardian provincial capitalism, in the fictional town of Mugsborough, a narrative based on Tressell's own working life in Hastings. The novel's central character, Peter Owen, preaches the socialist cause to try to convert his fellow working men (the titular characters, who seem content to 'donate' their labour to their capitalist masters). Tressell was to die without seeing his book in print, but it has now sold over a million copies in numerous languages and it has never been out of print since its eventual publication in 1914; its text can be found here, and Tressell's original manuscript can be scrolled through here. The Trades Union Council keeps detailed pages devoted to Tressell, as does Hastings Museum. The Robert Tressell Society runs an annual festival in the town in his honour. Although after his death in 1911, he was buried in a pauper's grave in Liverpool, a monument was subsequently raised over the spot, as well as at the hospital in which he died. In his adopted home of Hastings he is honoured throughout the townscape, including an accommodation block of the university, and several commemorative plaques. His family received nothing beyond the £25 Kathleen was paid for the rights to the manuscript in 1914, although she and her own son continued to champion the novel's causes. There has been a marked upswing in the book's sales this year, and this week The New Statesman named it number 5 in their list of the most important progressive and liberal books ever (just behind Marx, Engels, and Jesus).
posted by hydatius (12 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Very cool.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:34 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great stuff, thanks. I live in Brighton and I'd never heard of the Hastings link. (Incidentally, number 6 on the New Statesman list is another Sussex-dwelling radical, Tom Paine. A book about his time in Lewes has just been published).
posted by athenian at 10:57 AM on August 6, 2009

For most of my childhood, I lived just a stone's throw from Noonan's grave -- which is just across the road from Walton Prison. They put the monument up at around the same time as they created a City Farm on a small patch of land adjacent to the cemetary.

The book was one of the first things foisted upon me as a child, growing up in a left-wing Liverpool family. That and the maudlin Her Benny
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:04 AM on August 6, 2009

I believe our local MP, Eric Heffer was instrumental in raising the money for the memorial. As an joiner before he became a politician, the book resonated greatly with him.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:08 AM on August 6, 2009

Great post, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on August 6, 2009

Here's a link to the City Farm that's adjacent to the gravesite.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:48 AM on August 6, 2009

PeterMcDermott: Not just in Liverpool. Her Benny was on the reading list at my suburban Hertfordshire primary school, as well. I didn't like it - though I remember the characters being just annoying rather than self-aware proletarians.
posted by athenian at 11:53 AM on August 6, 2009

Much of the novel still rings true today, e.g. the reflections on the xenophobia of the popular press:

The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of .. the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed .. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners .. It was all as clear as daylight. The foreigner was the enemy.

It's also fascinating to study the manuscript and see how it was revised for publication. The handling of swearwords is interesting. One of the characters complains about 'this bl--dy tea', though elsewhere the word is spelt out in full. A reference to 'that b---r Sawkins' is altered to 'that swine Sawkins'. And a long passage about sex before marriage was obviously too racy for publication in 1914.
posted by verstegan at 1:32 PM on August 6, 2009

Wow, thank you for this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:40 PM on August 6, 2009

I consider myself pretty well read, and I'd never heard of this work. Thank you so much!
posted by dejah420 at 3:54 PM on August 6, 2009

I remember the characters being just annoying rather than self-aware proletarians.

I think the message we were supposed to take is that this is what happens when we don't have a welfare state -- children die of cold, selling matches on the street.

In every other respect, I think it's a fairly standard Victorian 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' melodrama.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:47 PM on August 6, 2009

It is a pity he didn't meet Marx, we could have had a revolution!

If they had not both been suffering from appalling health due to the lack of socialised medicine ; )
posted by asok at 6:57 AM on August 7, 2009

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