Manuscript of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Part 1

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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.

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