The following much extended article owes much to Reg Johnson (who still keeps in touch – thank you), husband of the late Joan Johnson (who died in 2000), grand daughter of Robert Tressell.
The photo of Robert Tressell (real name: Robert Noonan) in 1908 (left) is by courtesy of Reg Johnson.
One of the reasons behind my interest in writing about Tressell stemmed from a series of stories in the Guardian newspaper which are reprinted on the next page.
Ask any committed socialist of the old school (certainly not a Blairite or New Labour man) why they became so involved with the labour movement and they will mention The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as one of the main reasons.
This book still has the power to similarly affect anyone today and was the only written work that Robert Tressell produced.
I am no different. My father left school at 12 with barely an education and grew up in Hoxton on the fringes of London’s East End before it became ‘gentrified’. Yet for a man with basic literacy he could write in beautiful copperplate script and produce a traditional grained oak front door from a piece of plain wood after reading just a few pages on the techniques of the skill.
Talent is not the preserve of the middle classes; nor is a fine education that leaves too many only book learned but with no skills. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had a similar effect on me as Jack London’s Martin Eden. When critics complained that no one could rise from illiteracy and a working class background to be a leading literary figure Jack London pointed out that Martin Eden was himself.
Just like Tressell’s hero Owen in the book, my father was a painter/decorator. Come Christmas Eve he would be on the dole until February because that was the nature of the trade he was in.
Now in 2010 according to the experts the UK is just easing out of recession. But there has been millions of men and women put out of work because of the greed of the Banks. I’ve worked in one – I know. And it’s not the greed of the clerk behind the till or behind the desk or on the phone – it’s the greed of the executives and the Chairmen and the Board. You won’t find any of those in the dole queue.
I first heard these lines on an LP track by a female folk singer whose name I’ve forgotten but not the lyrics. They were written by Woody Guthrie in 1958 on the song Pretty Boy Floyd :
Some men rob with a six-gun;
Others with a fountain pen.
But as through the world you ramble
As through the world you roam
You won’t never find an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
Not much changed there then.
And what of the book itself? My only advice – buy a copy and read it.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not really about the class struggle, or the classes at war. It is a statement about the conditions in which the ordinary working man found himself. For the most part they accepted them without murmur – with echoes of the farm labourer touching his forelock. It bred a generation of working class Tories who believed that their bosses and the so-called ruling classes really were their betters. The workers knew their place.
Into this comes Owen who has a vision of a better future if only the workers would accept that they have to fight to attain that future. Robert Tressell born Robert Noonan was not a working class man himself. He was born into a respectable middle class family but circumstances drove him to to seek work wherever he could by using his graphic skills; but most of the time having to accept much lower paid and undemanding work just to stay alive.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has often been performed on stage but only once as a TV drama. A copy of this televised version was never kept by the BBC. If anyone has a copy then please get in touch with me or with any of the people mentioned in the link below. It was broadcast in 1967 as part of a Theatre625 season on BBC2.This is my personal statement on Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Rather than repeat what has already been written and because the author and the book deserve a wider audience and greater understanding then the following is well worth a visit:
The Robert Tressell Society: everything you ought to know about the author, his time, where he lived and news on events and exhibitions: The Robert Tressell Society
This page and more in a similar vein comes from a collection in my eBook An echo from the Green Fields