Robert Tressell

Robert Tressell

Robert Noonan (Tressell) was born in Dublin on 18th April, 1870. His father, Samuel Croker, was a retired senior policeman and magistrate. His mother, Mary Ann Noonan, was not married to his father. Money was in short supply and at the age of sixteen he left home in search of work.

In 1888 Robert emigrated to South Africa. He settled in Cape Town and found work as a decorator. On 15th October, 1891, Robert married Elizabeth Hartel. Their only child, Kathleen, was born on 17th September, 1892. While away working in Johannesburg, Elizabeth began an affair with Thomas Lindenbaum.

In February, 1897, Robert Noonan obtained a divorce and was granted custody of Kathleen. Father and daughter moved to Johannesburg. He became an active a trade unionist and he later became Secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council. In May 1899 he took part in the launch of the International Independent Labour Party.

In 1901 Robert and Kathleen moved to England. He settled in St. Leonards, Sussex, and found work as an interior decorator with Bruce & Co, Electrical and Sanitary Engineers and Builders. Later he worked for Burton & CO, Builders and Contractors.

In his spare time he took a keen interest in aviation. He designed and built a 6 ft. model airship called the Martian. In 1905 it was offered to the War Office with an article that he had written, The Evolution of the Airship, warning that the France and Germany were likely to produce an airship that could be used to bomb people during a war. The War Office was unimpressed with his ideas and his proposal was rejected.

Robert Noonan once again became involved in politics. During the 1906 General Election he came into contact with a small group of socialists living in Hastings. Influenced by the writings of William Morris, Noonan joined the Social Democratic Federation.

Noonan was a highly skilled interior decorator and was able to obtain high wages. However, in 1907 Noonan had a row with his employer when he refused to hurry a difficult job. Noonan was sacked and as this coincided with a recession in the building trade, he had difficulty finding employment. Noonan now experienced long periods of unemployment and during this time he wrote the novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. The manuscript of over 1600 hand written pages was sent to three different publishers. Fearing that the socialist ideas expressed in the novel would get him blacklisted, he submitted the novel under the name of Robert Tressell. After it was rejected by all three, Noonan suffered a bout of deep depression. On one occasion his daughter saved the novel from being put on the fire.

Noonan was now suffering from tuberculosis. He eventually found work in Liverpool. He planned to emigrate with his teenage daughter to Canada. His health deteriorated and he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse on 26th November, 1910. Robert Noonan (Tressell) died of bronchial pneumonia and cardiac failure on 3rd February, 1911. He was buried in a pauper's grave in Walton.

The book includes an explanation of how capitalism works: "It's all done with blocks of bread. Owen takes the role of the entire capitalist class. Three of the workmen play the entire working class. Owen cuts slices of dinnertime bread. They represent raw materials. The workers are paid to change the raw materials into goods, which they do, cutting each slice into three blocks. Owen pays them each one block of bread: a third of the value of the goods they made. At the end of a week's work Mr Capitalist Class has two blocks, a worker has one. But every week they have to buy the necessities of life for which Owen charges... one block of bread. Hey presto: the workers end up with nothing. They do it again. His workmates laugh as Owen's blocks of bread - his profits - pile up, the rich getting richer the poor staying poor. Then without warning Owen closes down his factories. There is a glut. The market is depressed. The dinnertime scene erupts into a carnival of protest, then suddenly Mr Hunter, Rushton's General Manager, bursts in. Meekly they go back to work. What Tressell has demonstrated so entertainingly is nothing less than Karl Marx's labour theory of value, a cornerstone of socialist thinking."

Kathleen Noonan was determined to get her father's novel published. It was eventually accepted by Grant Richards Ltd in April 1914. Unwilling to pay royalties, the company purchased the copyright for £25. Soon afterwards it appeared in the United States (1914), Canada (1914), Russia (1920) and Germany (1925). The book became very popular during the 1930s and some people believed it helped the Labour Party to win the 1945 General Election and George Orwell said it "a book that everyone should read".

This was an edited version of the manuscript and the original version, containing 250,000 words, was published for the first time by Lawrence and Wishart in 1955. The first paperback edition (Panther) appeared in 1965. Over the next few years it was reprinted 23 times.

Robert Tressell's grave was not found until 1970. Money was raised by local socialists and an engraved headstone was added to the grave. It includes not only Tressell's name but the twelve other paupers who had been buried in the same grave.

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Tressell enclosed a letter with the manuscript that he sent to the publishers in 1910.

The action of the story covers a period of only a little over twelve months, but in order that the picture might be complete it was necessary to describe how the workers are circumstanced at all periods of their lives, from the cradle to the grave. Therefore the characters include women and children, a young boy - the apprentice - some improvers, journeymen in the prime of life, and worn-out old men.

I designed to show the conditions resulting from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely - Socialism. I intended to explain what Socialists understand by the word 'Poverty': to define the Socialist theory of the causes of poverty, and to explain how Socialists propose to abolish poverty.

It may be objected that, considering the number of books dealing with these subjects already existing, such a work as this was un-called for. The answer is that not only are the majority of people opposed to Socialism, but a very brief conversation with an average anti-socialist is sufficient to show that he does not know what Socialism means. The same is true of all the anti-socialist writers and the 'great statesmen' who make anti-socialist speeches: unless we believe that they are all deliberate liars and impostors, who to serve their own interests labour to mislead other people, we must conclude that they do not understand Socialism. There is no other possible explanation of the extraordinary things they write and say. The thing they cry out against is not Socialism but a phantom of their own imagining.

Another answer is that the book is not a treatise or essay, but a novel. My main object was to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally.

This was the task I set myself. To what extent I have succeeded is for others to say; but whatever their verdict, the work possesses at least one merit - that of being true. I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of. As far as I dared I let the characters express themselves in their own sort of language and consequently some passages may be considered objectionable. At the same time I believe that - because it is true - the book is not without its humorous side.

The scenes and characters are typical of every town in the South of England and they will be readily recognized by those concerned. If the book is published I think it will appeal to a very large number of readers. Because it is true it will probably be denounced as a libel on the working classes and their employers, and upon the religious-professing section of the community. But I believe it will be acknowledged as true by most of those who are compelled to spend their lives amid the surroundings it describes, and it will be evident that no attack is made upon sincere religion.

(2) Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (1914)

"When there's no work," Owen went on, taking another dip of paint as he spoke and starting on one of the lower panels of the door, 'when there's no work, you will either starve or get into debt. When - as at present - there is a little work, you will live in a state of semi-starvation. When times are what you call "good", you will work for twelve or fourteen hours a day and - if you're very lucky - occasionally all night. The extra money you then earn will go to pay your debts so that you may be able to get credit again when there's no work.'

Easton put some putty in a crack in the skirting.

"In consequence of living in this manner, you will die at least twenty years sooner than is natural, or, should you have an unusually strong constitution and live after you cease to be able to work, you will be put into a kind of jail and treated like a criminal for the remainder of your life."

Having faced up the cracks, Easton resumed the painting of the skirting.

"If it were proposed to make a law that all working men and women were to be put to death - smothered, or hung, or poisoned, or put into a lethal chamber - as soon as they reached the age of fifty years, there is not the slightest doubt that you would join in the uproar of protest that would ensue. Yet you submit tamely to have your life shortened by slow starvation, overwork, lack of proper boots and clothing, and through having often to turn out and go to work when you are so ill that you ought to be in bed receiving medical care."

(3) Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (1914)

"Money is the real cause of poverty," said Owen.

"Prove it," repeated Crass.

"Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labour."

"Prove it," said Crass.

Owen slowly folded up the piece of newspaper he had been reading and put it into his pocket.

"'All right,' he replied. 'I'll show you how the Great Money Trick is worked."

Owen opened his dinner basket and took from it two slices of bread but as these were not sufficient, he requested that anyone who had some bread left would give it to him. They gave him several pieces, which he placed in a heap on a clean piece of paper, and, having borrowed the pocket knives they used to cut and eat their dinners with from Easton, Harlow and Philpot, he addressed them as follows:

"These pieces of bread represent the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind; they were not made by any human being, but were created by the Great Spirit for the benefit and sustenance of all, the same as were the air and the light of the sun."

"You're about as fair-speakin' a man as I've met for some time," said Harlow, winking at the others.

"Yes, mate," said Philpot. "Anyone would agree to that much! It's as clear as mud."

"Now," continued Owen, "I am a capitalist; or, rather, I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me. It does not matter for our present argument how I obtained possession of them, or whether I have any real right to them; the only thing that matters now is the admitted fact that all the raw materials which are necessary for the production of the necessaries of life are now the property of the Landlord and Capitalist class. I am that class: all these raw materials belong to me."

"Good enough!" agreed Philpot.

"Now you three represent the Working Class: you have nothing - and for my part, although I have all these raw materials, they are of no use to me - what I need is - the things that can be made out of these raw materials by Work: but as I am too lazy to work myself, I have invented the Money Trick to make you work for me. But first I must explain that I possess something else beside the raw materials. These three knives represent - all the machinery of production; the factories, tools, railways, and so forth, without which the necessaries of life cannot be produced in abundance. And these three coins' - taking three halfpennies from his pocket - 'represent my Money Capital."

"But before we go any further," said Owen, interrupting himself, "it is most important that you remember that I am not supposed to be merely "a" capitalist. I represent the whole Capitalist Class. You are not supposed to be just three workers - you represent the whole Working Class."

"All right, all right," said Crass, impatiently, "we all understand that. Git on with it."

Owen proceeded to cut up one of the slices of bread into a number of little square blocks.

"These represent the things which are produced by labour, aided by machinery, from the raw materials. We will suppose that three of these blocks represent - a week's work. We will suppose that a week's work is worth - one pound: and we will suppose that each of these ha'pennies is a sovereign. We'd be able to do the trick better if we had real sovereigns, but I forgot to bring any with me."

"I'd lend you some," said Philpot, regretfully, "but I left me purse on our grand pianner."

As by a strange coincidence nobody happened to have any gold with them, it was decided to make shift with the halfpence.

"Now this is the way the trick works"

"Before you goes on with it," interrupted Philpot, apprehensively, "don't you think we'd better have someone to keep watch at the gate in case a Slop comes along? We don't want to get runned in, you know."

"I don't think there's any need for that," replied Owen, "there's only one slop who'd interfere with us for playing this game, and that's Police Constable Socialism."

"Never mind about Socialism," said Crass, irritably. "Get along with the bloody trick."

Owen now addressed himself to the working classes as represented by Philpot, Harlow and Easton.

"You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week's work is - you must each produce three of these square blocks. For doing this work you will each receive your wages; the money will be your own, to do as you like with, and the things you produce will of course be mine,to do as I like with. You will each take one of these machines and as soon as you have done a week's work, you shall have your money.'

The Working Classes accordingly set to work, and the Capitalist class sat down and watched them. As soon as they had finished, they passed the nine little blocks to Owen, who placed them on a piece of paper by his side and paid the workers their wages.

"These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can't live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is - one pound each."

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist's terms. They each bought back and at once consumed one- third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week's work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of the things produced by the labour of the others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital, for he still possessed the three pounds in money and in addition four pounds worth of goods. As for the working classes, Philpot, Harlow and Easton, having each consumed the pound's worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work - they had nothing.

This process was repeated several times: for each week's work the producers were paid their wages. They kept on working and spending all their earnings. The kindhearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pile of wealth continually increased. In a little while - reckoning the little squares at their market I value of one pound each - he was worth about one hundred pounds, and the working classes were still in the same condition as when they began, and were still tearing into their work as if their lives depended upon it.

After a while the rest of the crowd began to laugh, and their merriment increased when the kindhearted capitalist, just after having sold a pound's worth of necessaries to each of his workers, suddenly took their tools - the Machinery of Production - the knives away from them, and informed them that as owing to Over Production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.

"Well, and what the bloody 'ell are we to do now?" demanded Philpot.

"That's not my business," replied the kindhearted capitalist. "I've paid you your wages, and provided you with Plenty of Work for a long time past. I have no more work for you to do at present. Come round again in a few months' time and I'll see what I can do for you."

"But what about the necessaries of life?" demanded Harlow. "We must have something to eat."

"Of course you must," replied the capitalist, affably; "and I shall be very pleased to sell you some."

"But we ain't got no bloody money!"

"Well, you can't expect me to give you my goods for nothing! You didn't work for me for nothing, you know. I paid you for your work and you should have saved something: you should have been thrifty like me. Look how I have got on by being thrifty!"

The unemployed looked blankly at each other, but the rest of the crowd only laughed; and then the three unemployed began to abuse the kindhearted Capitalist, demanding that he should give them some of the necessaries of life that he had piled up in his warehouses, or to be allowed to work and produce some more for their own needs; and even threatened to take some of the things by force if he did not comply with their demands. But the kindhearted Capitalist told them not to be insolent, and spoke to them about honesty, and said if they were not careful he would have their faces battered in for them by the police, or if necessary he would call out the military and have them shot down like dogs, the same as he had done before at Featherstone and Belfast.

"Of course," continued the kindhearted capitalist, "if it were not for foreign competition I should be able to sell these things that you have made, and then I should be able to give you Plenty of Work again: but until I have used them myself, you will have to remain idle."

(4) Margaret Drabble, The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (1987)

The action takes place during one year in the lives of a group of working men in the town of Mugsborough, and the novel is a bitter but spirited attack on the greed, dishonesty, and gullibility of employers and workers alike, and on the social conditions that gave rise to these vices. Debates on socialism, competition, employment, and capitalism are skilfully interwoven with a realistic and knowledgeable portrayal of skilled and unskilled labour in the decorating and undertaking business, and with the human stories of the families of the workers. Noonan's coining of names for local worthies - Sweater, Didlum, Grinder, Botchit, etc. - indicates his attitude towards the widespread corruption and hypocrisy that he exposes, and the book has become a classic text of the Labour movement. The ironically named 'philanthropists' of the title are the workers who toiled for pitiful wages while making no effort to understand or better their lot.

(5) Alan Sillitoe, article on Robert Tressell published in 1965.

I read an abridged edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when I was nineteen and with the Air Force in Malaya. It was given to me by a wireless operator from Glasgow, who said: "You ought to read this. Among other things it is the book that won the 1945 election for Labour." It had been cut to half the length of the present full version, made to end on a note of despair suggesting that cranks who believed in Socialism could do nothing better than think of suicide. The present edition ends the way the author intended.

It isn't easy to say precisely the effect this book had on me when I first read it. It certainly had a great one, because it has haunted me ever since. Those whose life has touched the misery recounted by Robert Tressell can get out of it many things: a bolstering of class feeling; pure rage; reinforcement for their own self-pity; a call to action; maybe a good and beneficial dose of all these things.

The soul of Robert Tressell, in its complete rejection of middle-class values, seems forged in the formative years of the English working-class, during the Industrial Revolution of 1790-1832. Tressell no doubt inherited this feeling from his early days as a more independent workman in South Africa. The working people in his time did not have the same clarity, violent outlook, nor intellectual guidance of those earlier men of the Industrial Revolution. Never before or since were they so spiritless or depressed.

England was stagnating, eddying in a cultural and material backwater of self-satisfaction and callous indifference, in which those who had hoped it would go on forever, and those who had not were beginning to curse the day they were born. But by the time the first great English novel about the class war was published, the power of those who might act was being cut down on the Western Front. The Great War drained off the surplus blood of unemployment, and definite unrest. It proved once more the maxim that war is the father of a certain kind of progress - in certain societies. I imagine also that Robert Tressell's destitute workers welcomed it, for a while.

(6) Howard Brenton, The Guardian (5th February, 2011)

Tressell was the pen name of an Irishman, Robert Noonan; he took it in honour of his trade, painting and decorating. Last year I adapted his masterpiece as a play which was performed at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre then at the Chichester theatre festival. The idea to do the adaptation came from its director, Christopher Morahan. He says of the novel: "It's the antidote to the double dip, what it's like to be working or not as the case may be, funny, true, angry and timeless. It changed my dad's life as it did mine."

"The Great Money Trick" never failed to work both for the angry, sharp and sympathetic audience at the Everyman and the more conservative, though equally alert, audience in Chichester's Minerva theatre.

It's all done with blocks of bread.

Owen takes the role of the entire capitalist class. Three of the workmen play the entire working class. Owen cuts slices of dinnertime bread. They represent raw materials. The workers are paid to change the raw materials into goods, which they do, cutting each slice into three blocks. Owen pays them each one block of bread: a third of the value of the goods they made. At the end of a week's work Mr Capitalist Class has two blocks, a worker has one. But every week they have to buy the necessities of life for which Owen charges . . . one block of bread. Hey presto: the workers end up with nothing. They do it again. His workmates laugh as Owen's blocks of bread – his profits – pile up, the rich getting richer the poor staying poor. Then without warning Owen closes down his factories. There is a glut. The market is depressed. The dinnertime scene erupts into a carnival of protest, then suddenly Mr Hunter, Rushton's General Manager, bursts in. Meekly they go back to work.

What Tressell has demonstrated so entertainingly is nothing less than Karl Marx's labour theory of value, a cornerstone of socialist thinking.