Robert Tressell and “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”

Way back when, (well in the late 80’s or early 90’s, which was a long time ago… or at least it feels that way to me!) I was given a book to read that changed my outlook on life. That book was called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It was written by a man called Robert Tressell in the early 1900’s, but it still strikes a chord today.

The original manuscript of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists can be read here for free, and it’s worth doing so as it has won approval from the political left and academics alike. It has been cited as a factor in the landslide Labour victory in 1945.

Tressell, originally from Ireland, died in Liverpool one hundred years ago this year in 1911 and he was buried in a pauper grave in a field in Walton, but I’ll come back to that a bit later. I was asked to write an article for our website to mark the anniversary of his death, so I got to research Robert Tressell and found that he had a life that was not what I expected.

Our story begins in Dublin Ireland. Tressell was the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a senior member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Tressell – or Croker as he was in those days – had a really good education being well versed in several languages. At the age of 16 Robert Croker changed his name to Robert Noonan, taking his mother‘s maiden name, and left his family declaring that he “would not live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlordism”

Noonan travelled to South Africa in 1888, where he became a painter and decorator without ever having served an apprenticeship. He married a woman who, after the birth of his daughter Kathleen, had multiple affairs. Noonan and his wife divorced in 1895 with Noonan keeping the house in Cape Town.

Noonan moved to Johannesburg, where he got a well paid job with a construction company and was able to send his daughter to an exclusive convent school. It was during this time that Noonan learned about the industry that he would later write about in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. During this time Noonan had a black manservant called Sixpence whom he was said to be “very fond of”.

During the next few years, Noonan’s life became a bit murky. He joined the Irish Brigade, who fought with the Boers against the British in South Africa. Although it’s not known how deeply his dealings were with the brigade, some academics say he was captured and spent time in prison till the end of the Boer War, others say he fled the fighting, but whatever happened he fled the country.

Noonan went to England next, living as a sign writer in Hastings and sending his daughter to various private and convent schools. But the money he received was not enough to keep this up, so Kathleen ended up going to public schools. During this time Noonan had a variety of part time jobs, and in 1905 he even tried to design aircraft for the War Office, but his designs were rejected.

Influenced by the quasi-Marxist ideas of designer and socialist William Morris, Noonan joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1906 and after a falling out with his employer he lost his job. Noonan’s health deteriorated and he eventually developed tuberculosis and was unable to work. This was when he decided to start writing in order to keep himself out of the workhouse.

He wrote under the name of Robert Tressell, fearing that the socialist views expressed in the book would have him blacklisted. The name Tressell was a pun on a Trestle Table, an important part of a painter and decorator’s kit. Tressell finished the book in 1910, a 1600 page manuscript that was all hand written. He was rejected by three publishing houses, causing him to fall into a depression, with his daughter saving the manuscript from being burnt by hiding it in a box under her bed.

Tressell, unhappy with his life in England, decided that he and Kathleen would emigrate to Canada, but he would never reach there. While waiting for transport in Liverpool, Tressell was admitted into the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse where he died of phthisis pulmonalis, a lung disease, on the 3rd February 1911 aged just 40.

Tressell was buried in an unmarked mass paupers‘ grave with twelve other people, near Walton Prison where Rice Lane City Farm now stands. Nobody realised who was buried in the field until two local trade unionists Alan O’Toole and John Nettleton researched Tressell’s death to uncover the burial plot. In 1977 a memorial stone was erected in the field, which is now Tressell field. If you look on Google maps you can see that nearby there is also a Noonan Close.

 Sadly Alan O’Toole and John Nettleton are no longer with us.

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2 thoughts on “Robert Tressell and “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”

  1. Very good piece, I was saddened to hear of the death of Alan O’toole.He was a great working class historian, I didn’t know him but I know that he was the original researcher who put James Hanley ,George Garrett and Jim Phelan all together as Liverpool Irish Seamen writers.This ended up being promoted by Ken Worpole in his book, Dockers and Detectives and in many ways led to James Hanley’s revival. I knew John Nettleton better and wrote his obituary for Nerve magazine. I hope someone does the same for Alan O’toole. Well done for the piece.

  2. Very sad to know Alan has gone, we were at Northern College togeather in the 1980’s and kept in touch for many years afterwards, a brilliant mind.

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