After Tressell’s death in 1911, his daughter Kathleen moved to London and worked as a children’s nurse. Whilst working for one employer she was fortunate to come into contact with a journalist Jessie Pope who had worked for Punch. Jessie was persuaded to look at the manuscript and was so impressed she showed it to the publisher Grant Richards. Kathleen was persuaded to sell the manuscript outright for £25. Jessie Pope edited the manuscript from 1700 pages down to 1000 in line with contemporary literary fashion (according to Fred Ball). The book sold well and a shorter, more affordable trade union edition was published afterwards at 700 pages (see 1927 edition published by The Herald and Richards Press).
The original manuscript passed through several hands before being acquired by Tressell’s biographer, Fred Ball, in 1946. Fred with the help of his wife Jacquie painstakingly put the two parts of the manuscript back together, and recorrected Jessie’s editing (using a mirror and kettle in some cases). You can see a full description of how Fred tracked down the manuscript and put it back together in its original format on our website). A full text edition was finally published in 1955 by Lawrence and Wishart.
The manuscript was then bought by the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives (NFBTO), and presented to the Trades Union Congress the following year.
Tressell’s most recent biographer Dave Harker, has estimated the novel has had 117 printings in the UK, printings in Canada, Australia, the USA and Russia, and translated printings in Russian , German , Dutch, Polish , Slovak , Czech , Bulgarian (reportedly) , Japanese , Persian , Chinese , Korean , Turkish and Spanish various plays (the most famous being Stephen Lowe’s version), radio programmes, TV films, tapes and CDs.
Many people have praised the Authenticity of the novel. In his preface to the novel Robert Tressell says In writing this book my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working class life…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.
In the introduction to the 1927 edition George Hicks, General Secretary for the NFBTO and President of the TUC wrote Tressell has caught the spirit, the tone, the soul of working-class life more than any other writer of his time. What he has described is true to life: we know he lived it. We workers in the building industry know he was one of us.
Tony Benn described it as a torch to be passed from generation to generation. A sentiment that’s been echoed by others like Tom Watson and Len McLusky. My dad enthused about its authenticity and recommended it to me, and I read it as a teenager; its injustices angered me and inspired me and it still does. It’s a remarkably powerful novel that I’m proud is in the TUC Library.
In the introduction to the 1965 edition playwright Alan Sillitoe claimed the book had haunted him ever since reading it. He said the reader could get many things out of it “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.
Just finished filming in the TUC Library for a documentary that includes the manuscript of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to be shown on BBC2 sometime later this year (2019). Photo L to R – myself (Jeff Howarth, TUC Library), director John Mullen and academic Ian Haywood of Roehampton University).