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.

See more on



Labour Women in Power: Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) and Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947)


Guest blogger this week is Dr Paula Bartley, author of Labour Women in Power – Cabinet Ministers in the Twentieth Century published by Palgrave Macmillan.

margaret bondfield

British Labour delegation to Russia 1920.The delegation comprised Ben Turner, Ethel Snowden, Tom Shaw and Robert Williams from the Labour Party; Margaret Bondfield, Albert Purcell and H. Skinner from the TUC.

In 1899 Margaret Bondfield was the only woman delegate at the Trades Union Congress. It was her first conference but she ‘surprised and delighted the Congress with her stirring speech 1.  She made two speeches at the conference: one proposing a vote of thanks to foreign delegates; another supporting a resolution to set up a Labour Representation Committee, a committee which eventually grew into the Labour Party. In 1923 Bondfield became the first woman to Chair the Trade Union Congress, the first woman to hold a ministerial post and the first woman to be a Cabinet Minister. 

Margaret Bondfield was Minister of Labour in charge of unemployment benefits. Unfortunately in 1929 the Wall Street crash precipitated an economic depression, the Labour Party split over how to solve it and when elections were called in 1931, Bondfield lost her seat and never  returned to Parliament.

Ellen Wilkinson and Cecil Malone, TUC Congress, Bournemouth, 1926

Ellen Wilkinson and Cecil Malone, TUC Congress, Bournemouth, 1926
Ellen Wilkinson was national organiser for the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers and MP for Middlesborough East during the General Strike. She spent the nine days travelling round the country speaking at public meetings and sending enthusiastic reports back to the TUC. She later wrote a novel ‘Clash’ about her experiences.

Like Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson was sponsored by her trade union as its parliamentary candidate. She was first elected in 1924 and as a Labour MP and trade unionist she travelled round the country during the 1926 General Strike garnering support. At one time she ‘addressed a meeting of 3000 people’ in Hull where ‘the spirit was admirable’ 2.  During the 1930s she fought against fascism, helped organise the Jarrow March and during the war co-authored the Labour manifesto Let us Face the Future . After the war, as we know, Labour won a landslide victory. The new Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Ellen to the Cabinet as Minister of Education.  She was the first female Minister of Education and the second woman to become a Cabinet Minister. 

1  TUC Congress Report, 1899,  p64, TUC on-line.
2  Memo by Ellen Wilkinson to TUC committee, 1926, TUC online.


Running a class on Community Action


Photo of class in reading room
I helped run two classes recently for the Media and Communities module at the University. In the first class I delivered a lecture on the TUC, and the role of trade unions, highlighting the historical significance of trade unions for worker’s rights. Then I talked about the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, a network of working class writing groups   that thrived during a period of significant social, economic and political change in the UK especially through the 1970s and 1980s, and represented a significant counter-cultural movement. I provided examples about adult literacy, gender, migration, trade union activity and labour history. We have the UK’s largest collection of publications and recordings. 


The second class took place in the Special Collections Reading Room which houses the TUC Library. After an introduction I took the students through our exhibition about the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike, which illustrated the broad and diverse support for the strike, with panels dedicated to trade unions, trades councils, and various community groups. There were also recent publications and music that illustrate the continued passion that the subject inspires. We then had an activity based around examples of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, which included testimony about working life and trade union activity, and community action. The exhibition is available as a download and for loan.


Unions in the British Building Industry


We had a visitor into the Reading Room today looking at the history of trades unions in the building industry and I thought it worth sharing some of what we unearthed with you. From the National Federation of Building Trades Operatives (founded 1914 to 1970, now Unite) …

various publications from the National Federation of Building Trades Operatives

and the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (founded 1921 to 1971, now Unite)…

various documents from Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers

There are various resources on our website Britain at Work about the post-war building industry, including interviews with trade unionists, information about the Lump (an abusive form of recruitment that casualised labour), the Shrewsbury 24 (see here for a link to the campaign),  the Festival of Britain, and women in the building trade.


Bournville model village and the cocoa supply chain


Bournville cover

I recently came across this wonderful cover of a publication advertising the Bournville model village outside Birmingham, established by Cadbury family (we have a small series of them in our New Town boxes).

Inside were depictions of the cocoa supply chain from Ghana to the British midlands, with further beautiful pictures by the artist Frank Newbould (1856-1944), most famous for travel posters.



Bournville village


Kings College students study General Strike archive


Photo of students

Kings College student Gina Teslo and Emily Hopper (SOAS) look at our General Strike collection as part of their studies into Ellen Wilkinson’s book Clash.

Groups of students have been visiting over the last two weeks to look at primary sources illustrating the various forms of communication that occurred during the nine days of the strike, including TUC leaflets, progress reports, examples of local reports from Leeds Trades Council, letters of support (including one from Leonard Woolf), telegrams, and posters. They were given the opportunity to hear an interview with Harry Watson (from the oral history collection) in which he describes the activities of the strikers in Canning Town attempting to enforce the picket around the Victoria docks, as they witnessed the armoured cars accompanying the goods being taken from the docks.

armoured car

This was part of their studies into the background behind Ellen Wilkinson’s novel Clash.

Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson was national organiser for the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers and MP for Middlesborough East during the General Strike. She spent the nine days travelling round the country speaking at public meetings and sending enthusiastic reports back to the TUC.  She later wrote Clash about her experiences.


Post Colonial Labour and Working Class Histories


HMS Souvenir pamphlet cover

Guest blogger this week is Megha Sharma, a PHD Scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in India who came to study in late summer 2018

I visited UK from 20th august to 15th September, 2018 for my archival work funded by the Charles Wallace India Trust. My thesis titled ‘Juridicality of Labour in India 1947-80’ looks at the growth of labour relations and policies formulated to deal with post-independence challenges. Specifically focusing on the establishment of industrial tribunals and labour courts to counter the rising number of strikes. Tribunals aimed to introduce a new way of dispute resolution and changed the discourse of labour relations. Workers resisted these states’ led mechanisms of labour management. Their expectations and demands were represented to a certain extent through the union representatives in the official circles. But it is through the court proceedings that we can get a greater insight into the ways that workers used such institutions. In the court cases the workers acted independently, and through unions, to negotiate their terms and nature of work. By using examples of case proceedings from Delhi I will bring out how workers were able to access the courts/tribunals. And their implications on changing dynamics of labour relations.

My work was based in the trade union and labour archives I consulted in the London Metropolitan University’s Special Trade Union Collection. I prerequisited my material and it was ready for consultation when I visited the reading room. They have online and hard bound catalogues for reference which are very easy to use. They let you order as many files as you wish or need in the day. You can reserve and keep the files on the table to use next time. The staff over there were very friendly and helpful with everything from planning the visit there to directions for reaching the archives. My weeks over there were wonderful and very comfortable to carry on my research.
Among the collections I accessed there was Marjorie Nicholson’s special collection who was a British trade unionist interested in the Indian labour movement. I researched the material she found in India during her visits. As well as her notes to these resources inclusive of secondary and primary records. This made the collection extremely insightful and relevant for my thesis. The archives also included field notes from her conversations with trade unionist and Indian policy makers detailing the scope and growth of trade union in India. It gives a quick recapitulation of the entire Indian working movement along with the future plans as remembered and shared by eminent trade union leaders.

A critical phase of the labour relations was when the British administrators and trade unionists tried to help their counterparts in India. The British model of trade unionism was taught in India with the hope that the model could be emulated to an Indian setting. There is a very thin archive on this theme in India making it difficult to develop my chapter further. The TUC Library’s archives filled this critical gap in my research and gave new insights into how communications between the two countries were progressing. And their implications on the labour relations. There were rare reports of the British administrators’ visit to India to understand and survey the conditions of trade unionism.

There is also a rich collection of the trade union pamphlets and research bulletins by various political parties; such as the Indian Trade Union Congress, Hind Mazdoor Sabha, All India Trade Union Congress and Indian Federation of Labour. These parties regularly came out with bulletins of information regarding their past activities and engagement with workers across different establishments of production. Along with economic and development plans for the future. All of these pamphlets and booklets were neatly arranged in the TUC Library for scholars to access and read. The rich selection of material gives a comprehensive view from below i.e. of workers; to counter these narratives there were equally well-preserved records from the research institutes of Labour in India. These were set up by the Government of India to monitor and regulate the capital and labour relations. Detailed cases studies conducted by Indian Labour commissioners to figure out the best model of labour and management relations that could be adapted to India. Most of these institutes and parties are no longer functioning which has made it impossible to find their records anywhere in India. In the TUC Library, the workers’ world comes to life when you sit reading their publications. Including workers’ descriptions of their conditions of work, aspirations for their future generations and hope from the current government.

These journals are critical for understanding the life and times of workers, and how they were able to negotiate their demands and expectations with government and their employers.

For any researcher dealing with the issues of labour, development and specifically trade unionism this Library offers an integral repository. By allowing quick access to the material as well as preserving material spreading over several years covering various events of political and industrial significance.


Dispute between G D H Cole and Walter Citrine


Lansburys coverOur guest blogger Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official) describes an exchange between two leading figures of the Labour movement on the role of trade unions Douglas Cole and Walter Citrine he discovered in the TUC Library

G.D.H. Cole (1889-1959), an Oxford don, had been a research officer (as a conscientious objector), for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers during WW1. He was one of the brightest and most committed pro-union socialist intellectuals of the early to mid- twentieth century. He would become Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, but remained active on the left of the Labour movement for decades. He wrote extensively on every aspect of trade union affairs, The Labour Party and Socialism, as well as producing biographies of historical figures such as William Cobbett and Robert Owen, in a lucid style which influenced generations of activists. In 1925, he was promoting Guild Socialist/Workers Control ideas and wrote a piece entitled, ‘Organise the Workshops’ for [George] Lansbury’s Labour Weekly of 27th June.  

Cole article

In it, Cole urged the trade unions to ‘Organise the Workshops’ for a ‘A Left Wing Industrial Policy’. He was critical of the unions’ tendency to “make men loyal to their craft [or sectional group of workers], rather than to the workers’ movement as a whole”. In his view, workers should be reminded that their union card committed them to a class loyalty with wider industrial objectives.  The branch structure of the unions he saw as ‘entirely ineffective’ and ‘obsolete’ for this purpose and instead suggested that they should organise on a workshop basis to get control of industry. Shop stewards (then becoming common) should represent the whole shop rather than a particular trade or group. Such gratuitous advice would not be well received, even today!

Sure enough, it ‘drew the fire’ of the unions in the shape of a response from the new Assistant General Secretary of the TUC, Walter Citrine (1887-1983). In the following issue of July 4th 1925, Citrine, who had recently moved from being AGS of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) in Manchester where he had considerable experience in the movement since before the war, entitled his piece, ‘Theorists and Facts’. This gives a flavour of how he regarded Cole’s ‘advice’ and he took issue with what he saw as criticism by an outside academic.  He took it as implying the futility of all trade union effort to improve the lot of workers under capitalism, based on the classic Marxist analysis and conclusions. Cole had argued, ‘Hence, we must have a movement which can make a frontal attack on capitalism for the drastic remaking of society.’   

Citrine article

Perhaps reminded by his friend George Hicks or Alf Purcell of the General Council, that the left-moving Hull Congress of 1924, had just agreed an Industrial Workers Charter, he penned another, more emollient, article in the following issue (‘Where we fall short’, July 11th). This accepted the need for ‘a considerable measure of practical [workers] control’, and that ‘unless we can permeate the individual Trade Unionist with a fuller appreciation of his identity of interests with workers of other occupations, our prospect of achieving the wider objective of Trade Unionism is remote.’ 

The week after (July 18th), Labour Weekly, carried a reply from Cole, whom Citrine had challenged. He urged Citrine not to be so touchy, citing his own credentials for entering such a debate! He said, ‘I fancy I have earned [it], both by study and by work for the Trade Union Movement’. He went on to clarify that it was not his intention to demean the contribution which the unions had made since the 1850s. They had forced Victorian British capitalism to concede the improvements which had been made to the standard of life of all workers. But now, he believed, they had entered a new stage of capitalism in which their ability to pay was curtailed, especially by the burden of War Debt and the power of finance capital generally to which employers were increasingly beholden. It was in those new circumstances, he believed, that traditional union organisation, however strong, would not be sufficient. Instead, ‘a frontal attack on the rights of property’ was needed, preferably through parliamentary action, but if necessary through revolutionary force. 

It is a reflection of the mood of the time in the trade unions, that Citrine in his further response, (July 25th), did not return to the fundamental argument which he had first raised. Instead, he declared himself satisfied by Cole’s ‘well-reasoned and frank reply’ that ‘the difference between us is not fundamental’! Now he gave a short tutorial on the different types of union structures there were, (citing the famous Heinz boast in his heading, ’Our 57 Varieties’) and how complex it all was. He had been given the job of sorting out the different union perspectives on the best future structure by the Hull Congress! It came to nothing by 1927, as all the craft, industrial, occupational and class type unions were quite happy with what they had built over the years. 

A few days later, July 30th, (‘Red Friday’), the threat of coordinated industrial action by the ‘triple alliance’ of railway, road transport and miners’ unions, forced the Conservative government into substantial concessions in the coal industry. However, in less than a year (May 1926), a better-prepared government forced the TUC into a humiliating retreat ten days into the first and only British General Strike. The syndicalist philosophies of the previous two decades were tested to destruction. It was ‘back to the drawing board’ for the unions and the TUC. Walter Citrine emerged from this cauldron to lead the TUC in an entirely different but highly successful direction. 

But maybe Cole wasn’t so far out really, in calling for a workshop/office-based unionism along with Citrine’s ‘adequate participation of the workers in control and management’.  We are still waiting, nearly a hundred years on!


Collaborative Preservation of Working-Class Histories: Migration, Food, and Cultural Heritage in the FWWCP Collection (Part 3) By Jessica Pauszek and Vincent Portillo


Examples of book covers

Guest bloggers Dr Jessica Pauszek and Syracuse University Fellow Vincent Portillo describe their recent visit, along with their summer school students from the Syracuse University’s Studies Abroad Programme, which took place over a month between May and June 2018. This is the third in a short series written about their visit and the work they have been doing on the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. 

In our first two blogs (here and here) about building the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP) Collection at the TUC Library, we talked about themes of mental health, gender, and sexuality as working-class concerns. Here, we are going to talk about the material concerns of migration as evinced by FWWCP working-class writers, specifically focusing on the roles food and language play in these stories.

Throughout its 40+ year span, the FWWCP sponsored working-class writing groups in multiple areas of London where it originated in 1976. During this time, the FWWCP also gained global membership. Writing groups were forming, for example, in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, South Africa, and the United States. As people moved between countries, the FWWCP became an outlet for immigrant writers to share their stories, representing writing across national, cultural, and linguistic borders.

Still, the greatest concentration of FWWCP groups remained in England. Sometimes, immigrants started their own writing groups; other times, they joined already existing groups. Regardless, through their subjectivity as immigrants, they shifted the focus of working-class writing. Rather than solely addressing the concerns of the dominant White, Protestant, English citizen, the FWWCP became a space for the disenfranchised of numerous nationalities, ethnicities, and languages to speak out and have their stories heard.Some groups such as the Ethnic Communities Oral History Project focused on immigrant histories through oral histories and interviews. Other groups such as Centerprise, Commonword, Peckham Publishing Project, and Pecket Well College integrated migration stories alongside other topics such as education or gendered identity. Within these writing/publishing groups, the narratives range from Bengali, Caribbean, Polish, Irish, Iranian, Greek-Cypriot, Welsh voices and more. Interestingly, writers did not only express their own concerns related to migration — the exile and nostalgia felt from leaving their homeland, family, and friends — but they also discussed absences that play out in daily life. For example, it wasn’t always easy finding ingredients, or even the utensils to cook food from the home country.

One graduate student, Gabriela Arguindegui, was interested in the representation of food and migration in the FWWCP collection. She noted, “Reading about how food and culture reinforce identity helped me to better understand the plight of some of these groups and the importance of these recipes to their lives.” In fact, through cookbooks published within the FWWCP, Gabriela saw how writing about food and cooking not only provided a chance to showcase  “the eloquence [of] those who are otherwise marginalized or ignored in society” but also represented a space to share expertise and cultural knowledge.

Often times, this knowledge was conveyed through bilingual texts — Urdu and English; Polish and English; Creole and English; Arabic and English — representing an important sense of rhetorical agency in writing and publishing, which allowed members of these groups to maintain connections to culture and linguistic heritage, while creating a sense of community in their new space. Brittney West, an undergraduate student researching migration in the FWWCP Collection, described the resiliency and hope that she witnessed in “these raw, honest, unapologetic narratives.” She states: “Working with immigrant stories preserved in the FWWCP Collection cemented the idea that writing is more than just a creative outlet. It’s something that commemorates, listens, speaks, and remembers. It’s what some people need to survive change. Writing is a way to remember who you are, where you came from, and who you may want to be.”

The FWWCP Collection contains numerous publications — life histories, memoir, poetry, oral history, fiction, and interviews — that explore food and migration in both English and bilingual publications. You can learn more by visiting the TUC Library. The FWWCP/FED is also on Instagram (fwwcp_collection) and at