Manuscript of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Part 1

Robert and Kathleen Tressell

Robert and Kathleen Tressell. Copyright The Robert Tressell Family Papers

The TUC Library is fortunate to have the manuscript of the seminal novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (RTP) in its archives and we’ve had a lot of interest shown in it recently with visits from the Irish Embassy; author (and the University’s new Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research) Prof Don MacRaild, and historian Paddy O’Sullivan; as well as from a television production company interested in filming it for a documentary.

The manuscript was digitised and is available for research on our website The Union Makes Us Strong 

I thought it might be of interest to remind our audience of the remarkable life of Robert Tressell in a series of posts.

Robert Tressell was the pseudonym adopted by Robert Noonan., born in Dublin in 1870 with six brothers and sisters. Recent research by Bryan MacMahon indicates that he was probably taken to live in London with his mother when he was young for several years, before moving to live in Liverpool. He emigrated to South Africa in the late 1880s as a young adult and worked as a decorator and sign writer, a highly skilled and well paid job. He married Elizabeth Hartel in Cape Town, and lived in Johannesburg. Daughter Kathleen was born a year later, and some years after they separated and Robert took sole responsibility for his daughter. He was a member of a trade union and politically active in the local labour party, trades council, and International Labour Party. He developed tuberculosis around 1900. He moved to Hastings with Kathleen in 1901, which was well known for its good health.

Hastings historian Steve Peak in the introduction to the centenary Hastings edition of the RTP describes Robert as short, with a slight Irish accent, an atheist, very cultured, reader of a wide variety of books, an alcohol consumer, kind to his friends and fond of cricket.

Hastings and St Leonards was a formerly genteel town with no industry, a growing problem of poverty and unemployment. This to Robert was made worse by the election in 1906 of a Conservative MP in what had been a Liberal constituency. The decline in the standard of living for the working class that followed, some have argued, provided the catalyst for Robert to start writing what would become the RTP.

He completed the manuscript in 1910, with the title The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Being the Story of 12 months in hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell. Robert sent it to three publishers but with no success and at some point he threw it on the fire, from which Kathleen rescued it. His TB was getting worse, and he was finding it harder to get work. And so he decided to emigrate to Canada for health and economic benefits.

Robert gave the manuscript to Kathleen as a present saying “I can’t leave you money or property, but look after this, it might come in useful some day.” Soon after he left for Liverpool with the intention of finding work before getting a ship to Canada.  Kathleen never saw him again. His biographer Fred Ball says it is doubtful he thought he would make it. He was in an advanced state of TB and was admitted to the work-house hospital where he died in February 1911.


Six new interviews on our Britain at Work website


Britain at Work homepage

We have six new interviews on our Britain at Work website from the Newham New Deal Project. These were produced as part of the Discovering Stratford Village project, Working lives, working community, 1890-1990. They include a nurse (Flora Ocran), a journalist (Debbie Collins), an author (Derek Smith), a factory worker (John Simmons), a police officer (Kimberley Page), and a nurse and nursery owner (Sue Perkins). As with the other interviews, the oral histories consist of the complete transcript, an audio clip, portrait, and brief description of their working lives and trade union activity. The complete audio is available for research from the TUC Library.

Debbie Collins was an NUJ member from her first job in 1980 until she left Time, Inc in 2017. Deborah talks about her time in the NUJ at local newspapers, and at Wapping, about union organisation in local and national newspapers, pay disputes and strikes, and the developments in the newspaper industry. She also discusses changing technology, including the move from hot metal to direct computer typesetting.

Paige Kimberley was a member of the Police Federation, she recalls how the Police Federation supported her claim for child support, paid off her overdraft, and provided funds for a holiday. She joined the Metropolitan Police as soon as she was able to do so –at 18 and a half years of age. She rose through the ranks, via a range of posts, including spells as a Rape Investigator, and as an Inspector at Charing Cross, where she introduced the first permanent night duty, before ending up investigating crime in public order across London. She talks about uniforms, shift work and some of her roles. She discusses expectations of women police officers in the 1980s, about being a single parent at 20 and going back to study for her sergeant’s exams.

Flora Ocran was born in Ghana in 1939, and trained as a nurse there. She was always interested in nursing, and her mother used to deliver babies in the village and surrounding area. She came to the UK in 1964, and on arrival worked in a nursing home in Kent in order to qualify as a UK registered nurse. She worked in many London hospitals as an agency nurse, often doing night shifts, remitting funds to family in Ghana.

Derek Smith came to Newham in 1976 to join Soapbox Theatre as a playwright. In 1979, he helped set up a community bookshop, Page One, in West End Lane, E15, as a member of the cooperative of the same name, and stayed for three years. During that time he published the first book of poetry of Benjamin Zephaniah, who was also a cooperative member. He left the cooperative in 1982, and joined Tower Hamlets Cooperative Development Agency where he worked for four years.Subsequently he pursued his career as a professional writer, publishing a number of books. He was also the Coordinator of Forest Gate Writers’ Workshop for a number of years.He talks about the challenges of running a cooperative, and setting up Newham Cooperative Development Agency, funded by the Greater London Council (GLC).

Sue Perkins trained and worked as a nurse specialising in children., then specialized as a children’s nurse. She trained as a Health Visitor working with families and children. She was a member of the Health Visitor’s Association and discusses problems with salary re-banding. She started an independent nursery in Newham in 1989, and established a second nursery in Plaistow in 1991. She describes the development of her nurseries in East London.

John Simmons  started his working life as an office boy at the head office of the London Co-op, where he stayed for around 15 years. He then worked briefly in stock control for a chain of shoe shops, before working for Vanoppen Transport at the London International Freight Terminal, driving a fork lift truck. He then worked for Streetly Bert Chemicals, loading acid. He describes a hazardous environment there and lack of safety equipment, which he believes contributed to his ill health. He also discusses a work accident with another employer, which left him hospitalized. He reviews his job choices over the years. He was a union member whilst at the Co-op, and describes taking part in the strike there to support equal pay for women.

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