OTD – 3 February 1911 – The death of Robert Tressell



He was something of a contradiction – he had a number of different names for a start, was an avowed socialist who sent his only child to private schools while he could afford it, and, despite writing one of the definitive working class novels of the early 20th century, once had a black manservant.

We know him as Robert Tressel, author of one of the most influential left-wing novels of the last 100 years, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. But his original name was Robert Croker. He was the product of an extra-martial relationship between his mother, Mary Noonan and a Royal Irish Constabulary Inspector, Samuel Croker, who died five years after his birth.

He was born in Wexford Street in Dublin in 1870 and, largely thanks to his mother, whose name he later adopted, he was well-educated up to the time he left Ireland, at the age of sixteen. By 1890 he was in South Africa, working as a signwriter, and writing articles for Cape Town newspapers.  He had one child, Kathleen, from an unhappy and short-lived marriage there. He moved them both to Johannesburg in 1897, where he became involved with the centenary commemoration of the 1798 rebellion. He also became acquainted with Irish nationalists John MacBride and Arthur Griffth in the Transvaal, and later helped to establish the Irish Brigade, which fought against the British Army in the Boer War. Whether or not he actually participated in the conflict himself, is one of the many imponderables of his short life.

He returned to England in the early 1900s, settling down on the south coast, and working as a signwriter and house painter. Here he joined the Social Democratic Federation, a forerunner of the Independent Labour Party. It was during this period that he began work on what was to be a hugely significant novel.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which may originally have been intended to be called The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists, was finished in 1910, and amounted to a virtually unpublishable 400,000 words. It was rejected by the first three publishing houses Noonan approached. Thoroughly depressed, and also suffering from tuberculosis, he is said to have attempted to burn the manuscript. His daughter Kathleen, who played a huge part in the novel’s eventual status, apparently rescued it from destruction.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is set in the southern coastal town of Mugsborough—Hastings in disguise. The names of many of the characters are as subtle as the naming of the location. They include Botchit, Grinder, Leavitt, Starvem, Crass and Slyme. The philanthropists in question are house painters—the nom de plume chosen by Noonan is a pun on one of their essential pieces of equipment, the trestle table. Their philanthropy, according to the main character, the socialist Frank Owen, lies in the offering of their services to their employers for such low wages—‘benefactors in ragged trousers who willingly hand over the results of their labour … to the rich’—as Frank Owen puts it himself.

Having failed to secure a publisher for his work, Noonan decided to emigrate to Canada in 1911, but only made it as far as Liverpool. He died en route, of pulmonary tuberculosis. He was only forty years of age.

And that might have been the end of the road for The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, were it not for Noonan’s devoted daughter. Kathleen managed to persuade the writer and journalist Jessie Pope, infamous for some awful patriotic WW1 poetry, to look at the manuscript in 1913. She recommended it to her publisher, and undertook to edit the volume herself. In the process, she redacted much of the socialist content, and produced a highly bowdlerized version of the material. A second edition, published in 1918, was also abridged, but was closer to the original source.

A 1940 Penguin edition of the work, was widely read by British soldiers of the Second World War, and is said to have influenced the outcome of the 1945 General Election, which returned Labour to power. Though that’s quite a claim for a mere book. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists didn’t appear in its original form until 1955. Since then it has been adapted many times for radio and TV.

Noonan, or Tressel if you’d prefer, was buried in an unmarked grave in Liverpool, and his final resting place was not identified until 1968. It now bears a memorial, as does the house of his birth in Dublin.

The author of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists died one hundred and six years ago, on this day.


Drivetime podcast 3/2/2017