Robert Tressell

?1870-1911; [b. Robert Noonan]; b. at 37 Wexford St., Dublin [not Belfast, as commonly believed; see note]; he became painter and decorator in Hastings; wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (abridged 1914; 1918), set in “Mugsborough” and based on Hastings experiences, centred on Frank Owen, who lectures fellow-workers labouring to make money for employers who desport themselves on the continent; d. of TB, Liverpool; he left the MS of his famous novel to a dg., who succeeded in finding a publisher for the abridged version; the MS was rediscovered in 1945 and edited by F. C. Ball (1955); Tressell is quoted in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy; a repository of Tressell material is kept at Hastings Museum. OCEL

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists
produced by George Moore Films (2014)
Available at YouTube - online.

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See reprints, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Lawrence & Wishart 2003), 634pp.; Tristram Hunt, intro., The Ragged-Trousered Philosophers (London: Penguin 2004), 747pp.

Electronic edition ...

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is available at the Gutenberg Project online [first pub. 2009; rev. formats Jan. 2012] - and also in RICORSO Library, “Writers”, as attached [macro-edited copy].

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  • F. C. Ball, ed., Tressell of Nagsborough (1951), with port.;
  • F. C. Ball, ed., One of the Damned: The Life and Times of Robert Tressell [...&c.] (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1973), xiii, 266pp., pls. & ports.; Do. [rep.] (London: Lawrence & Wishart 1979);
  • Extracts from One of the Damned: The Life and Times of Robert Tressell, Author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist [Hastings Classics] (Hastings: Logos 1997), 10pp., ill.
  • Tristram Hunt ‘Introduction’, in The Ragged Trousered Philsophers (London: Penguin 2004), Introduction.
  • Rosie Meade, ‘Opening Up Robert Tressel’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, in Mobilising Classics: Reading Radical Writing in Ireland, ed. Fiona Dukelow & Orla O’Donovan, (Manchester UP 2011) [Chap. 4.]

See also Jack Mitchell, ‘Early harvest, three anti-capitalist novels published in 1914’, in H. Gustave Klaus, ed., The Socialist Novel in Britain (Harvester 1982); also Patrick O’Sullivan, ‘Patrick MacGill, the making of a writer’, in Seán Hutton & Paul Stewart, eds., Ireland’s Histories, Aspects of State, Society, and Ideology (Routledge 1991), pp.203-222.

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Tressell-Williams Conference ...

A conference was held at Brighton University on Tuesday, 20 Sept. 2011 to mark the centenary of the death of Robert Tressell and 50 years since the publication of Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution.

Keynote speakers:
  • Professor Stuart Laing, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton, author of Representations of working class life
  • Howard Brenton, whose stage adaptation of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists has been performed at Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre
  • Professor Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton, author of Working-class Fiction: From Chartism to “Trainspotting”
Sundry papers were presented at two parallel sessions. Contact address: s.j.chapman’

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Cahal L. Dallat, in ‘Summer Books’, Fortnight 330, reviewing Dermot Bolger, ed., Ireland in Exile (New Island Bks. 1994), [Joseph] O’Connor identified the perceived absence of first person texts of Irish emigrant life, apart from Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philosophers. Dallat comments that Noonan/Tressell was, of course one of those who hid his roots (just one fleeting mention of Ireland, a reference to industrial action in Belfast, in the whole work) and wrote his bitterly socialists tract about English society, a strange evasion since Cobbett, Marx, and Engels all felt the condition of Ireland to be a central social issue in England.

Brian Power, review of Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists [reiss.], in Books Ireland (March 2003): `[…] the novel highlights the hypocrisy of Christians as much as others who expoitled their fellows for personal gain. Surprisingly, however, it is not bitter, nor is it anti-religious. This is because the narrator is a character of sincere and passionate believs whose concern for others is as great as that for his own wife and family. After describing lay-offs, evictions, a culpabley avoidable fatal accident at work, a grotesque funeral, a hilarious “beano”, family illness and break-up, and some kind and charitable acts, the books on a determinedly optimistic note. In a sentimental and touching crescendo, the narrator and author succeed in transcending [imminent] personal tragedy in order to point towards the prospect of a brighter social future for everyone’.

D. J. Taylor, ‘One for the Workers’, review, in Times Literary Supplement (15 Oct. 2004): The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is essentially an acocunt of a working-class community’s exploitation at the hands of the most loathsome rattlers of the capitalist swill-bucket ever brought to print. The licensed swindle that is municipal government in Mugsborough has its echo in the decorating concern of Rushton & Co which cheerfully works its employees to the bone and throws them out into the street at a moment’s notice, while systematically cheating the customers who admit them to their houses. Despite the flaring surfaces - all the capitalists are merely brutal imbeciles - this allows for a fair amount of individuation at the lower end of the scale, and there are some sharp individual portraits, in particular the good-natured bachelor, Philpot, always ready to help a friend in trouble, who dies in a preventable accident, and the triangle of Easton, his wife Ruth and the seducing lodger, Slyme. / Without consciously advertising the fact, the novel also demonstrates why it was that the enticing Socialist horizon sketched out by Owen in his lunch-hour chats could never be reached. Class solidarity in Mugsborough turns out to be as rare as an ability to pay the rent, snuffed out by the division between skilled and unskilled labour and drowned in deep reservoirs of working-class deference. Interestingly, Noonan seems to have shared certain of these beliefs himself, taking pains, for example, to contrast the coarseness of the upwardly mobile town councillors with the graceful gentility of the coming young preacher, John Starr. / In the end The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists fits neatly into Chesterton’s category of  “good bad books” - works that are chock-full of faults but which strike some deep imaginative chord capable of cancelling out the clumsiness of the design. [...]’

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The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists (1914): ‘As Owen thought of his child’s future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against his fellow workmen. They were the enemy - those ragged-trousered philanthropists, who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to their miserable slavery for the benefit of others, but defended it and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion of reform. They were the real oppressors - the men who spoke of themselves as “the likes of us” who, having lived in poverty all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for their children.’ (Quoted on the Tressell website, online [accessed 09.02.2011].

From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914)

Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by “over-production”; it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by “over-population”. It’s caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air - or of the money to buy it - even as now thousands are dying for want of the other necessities of life. You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless the had the money to pay for it.

Most of you here, for instance, would think and say so. Even as you think at present that it’s right for so few people to own the Earth, the Minerals and the Water, which are all just as necessary as is the air. In exactly the same spirit as you now say: "“t’s Their Land,” “It’s Their Water,” “It’s Their Coal,” “It’s Their Iron,” so you would say “It’s Their Air,” “These are their gasometers, and what right have the likes of us to expect them to allow us to breathe for nothing?” And even while he is doing this the air monopolist will be preaching sermons on the Brotherhood of Man; he will be dispensing advice on “Christian Duty” in the Sunday magazines; he will give utterance to numerous more or less moral maxims for the guidance of the young. And meantime, all around, people will be dying for want of some of the air that he will have bottled up in his gasometers. And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order, and after doing your best to tear him limb from limb, you’ll drag him, covered with blood, in triumph to the nearest Police Station and deliver him up to “justice” in the hope of being given a few half-pounds of air for your trouble.

―Posted on Facebook by Brian Ings [27.08.2018]

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Margaret Drabble, ed., Oxford Companion of English Literature (OUP: 1985), notes that its debates on socialism, competition, employment, and capitalism are skillfully interwoven with a realistic and knowledgeable portrayal of skilled and unskilled labour; principle chars. include Frank Owen, socialist craftsman, Barrington, socialist son of wealthy father, and the inadequate but well-intentioned Eastons.

Website: The Robert Tressell Society (formerly The Robert Tressell Centre) is based at 4 Church Road, St.Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex,  TN37 6EF [online].

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Nag/Mug?: COPAC gives F. C. Ball, Tressell of Nagsborough (1951) but also Tressell of Mugsborough (1951) in caps [err.].

Birthplace: In the reference literature, Tressell’s place of birth is generally given as Belfast, or else he is stated to be ‘of Irish extraction’ implying that he was born in Britain. The birthplace 37 Wexford St. (Dublin 2) has been supplied by Sean Cruise in correspondence with this website. Sean lives at 36 Wexford St., and has a keen familiarity with the locale and its traditions.

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