Robert Tressell – Guardian appeal to save his work

The following text is a summary of two news stories that appeared in the Guardian in 1981 and 1982 and the full text of a story from 1983. My own article on Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is on the previous page.

The British Labour movement is being asked to honour and help to preserve a real life fragment of this ambition. Robert Tressell author of the first major working class novel was a signwriter himself and died of tuberculosis.

Like Owen he was given little chance to paint anything more creative than advertising slogans on walls at seasonal rates which were cut during the depression of the early 1900’s.

But he got a commission for a mural 40 feet by 20 feet to cover the whole chancel of a church, St Andrews Hastings. The opportunity came from a builder who wanted to commemorate a dead wife. Tressell worked until 2 or 3am to finish it. He was paid 8 pence an hour, ½p an hour more than his normal rate plus an honorarium of £5 from the church which was the equivalent of three weeks wages.

Of this mural only a single faded and deteriorating panel only four feet by three feet six survives. It is said to be the only thing left of his identifiable graphic work. A national appeal for £1500 towards its preservation has just been launched aimed at the generation of socialists who have discovered Tressell since the unmutilated text of his classic was first published in 1956.

The appeal-founder organiser is Mrs Irene Wright aged 32, a housewife and former Lewisham Council gardener. She first read the novel eight years ago after discovering that while on holiday in Hastings that they were staying opposite the house in which Tressell wrote it.

“It was the first book to put into words things I had felt over the years. It made me realise I was a socialist.”

Mrs Wright found that in 1970 St Andrews Church had been demolished. The mural had been whitewashed to conceal daubing by vandals. In a race against the bulldozers a panel was removed and taken to Hastings Museum which could not however afford to restore it.

The illuminated panel from St Andrews, Hastings

It shows a bible open at Psalm 119 with the gold leaf illuminated words: “Thy words are a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” The bible rests on Tudor roses.

Mrs Wright said it would deteriorate if kept in the box in the museum.

Expert advice was that it could be restored for £1500. She and the appeal sponsors felt that the relic should be given a permanent home in the artist’s home town.

The Manchester branch of UCATT, the construction union closest to Tressell’s work as a 7½p a hour signwriter sent £100. So did the Transport and general Workers Union. The print union SOGAT gave £75 and the print and clerical union NATSOPA £50.

Most of the rest came in small cheques of £1, £2 and £5 from readers of the Guardian report which was reprinted as part of the appeal and has now raised £2208.

It is expected to be ready for display by Easter for public display and out for loan top places like the National Museum of Labour History.

A small beloved relic of the days when socialism was powerless but also innocent was unveiled at the weekend, thanks largely to the generosity of Guardian readers.

It is a 3ft square church mural panel, the only surviving graphic art of Bob Noonan, an Anglo-Irish house painter and signwriter who died in tubercular poverty in Liverpool in 1911 aged 41.

Hundreds of Labour Party enthusiasts went to his home town of Hastings on Saturday to celebrate his memory and achievement. Noonan is better known by his pen-name, Robert Tressell, as author of the classic Edwardian working-class novel, The Ragged Treasured Philanthropists, a bible for successive generations of socialists.

In a speech at the unveiling ceremony for the panel at Hastings Museum, the Liverpool Labour MP, Mr Eric Heifer, called Tressell “the greatest socialist writer Britain has ever produced.” He should be honoured every year on a par with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Mr Heifer urged. Other speakers suggested that Tressell would have been an ally of the health workers.

But Tressell’s grand-daughter, Mrs Joan Johnson, a guest of honour at the ceremony, said in an interview that he would have had no use for the modern Labour Party. “They don’t live up to socialism in the way that Grandad taught,” she said.

The mural was the only chance he was given in his life to produce a work of visual art. The panel was the only fragment of the mural saved when the church was demolished in 1970 It lay in hundreds of pieces in cardboard boxes until 1981, when Mrs Irene Wright from Catford, London, enlisted sponsorship from trade union and Labour leaders for a £2,000 appeal.

The construction union UCATT and other unions gave over £300. Much of the rest came in small cheques from readers of a Guardian report which was reprinted in the appeal leaflet. The panel was restored by the South East Conservation Centre and will tour the country before coming hack to the Museum at Hastings.

Tressell left behind a family of Christian Socialists with deep reservations about what has become of his aspirations.

Joan Johnson unveiling the panel
Joan Johnson unveiling the panel

Mrs Johnson said: “I often think it’s a good thing granddad died when he did. He would have had a fit at Stalinism and tower blocks, and he would turn in his grave at the way people act these days.

“One of his great messages was that people should always do a good job, as his mural shows.”

“The unions today, don’t necessarily want to do a good job. They just want to do a job and get paid for it. Neither Labour nor the TUC seem to be able to do anything about it.”

The page on Robert Tressell is here.

This page and more in a similar vein comes from a collection in my eBook.  An echo from the Green Fields .

A selection of pages featured in the book can be read by following the links in the right hand sidebar; all pages are on this site.