Robert Tressell’s Hastings

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HASTINGS Borough Council has just published a new pocket-guide to Robert Tressell’s Hastings. Its author Steve Peak describes the guide.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was probably the most influential working-class novel ever written. It was set in Edwardian Hastings and St Leonards, and it described the misery of ordinary people in such a way that it helped create the welfare state in 1948 and radicalise the post-war Labour movement.

Tressell was a painter and decorator in the Hastings building trade from 1902-10, and his book is as much a factual documentary of these years as a novel, portraying where he worked and lived. Many of these settings can still be seen today in Hastings, and the new Guide to Robert Tressell in Hastings and St Leonards describes his life, and pinpoints on a map the places where he lived, the firms that he worked for and some of the scenes in his book.

Robert Tressell was the pseudonym of Robert Noonan, born in Dublin on April 18, 1870. He emigrated to South Africa in the late 1880s, was married in 1891, and soon became a father.

He divorced his wife in 1897, and took custody of their six-year-old daughter Kathleen, whom he was to look after on his own for the rest of his life.

They came to Hastings in late 1901, partly because Tressell’s sister Mary lived in the town, and also because he had tuberculosis, which could be eased by living by the sea. They first stayed briefly with Mary in her flat at 38 Western Road, St Leonards (now demolished) and then moved to 1 Plynlimmon Road, Hastings. In May 1902 they moved to the top flat at 115 Milward Road, just below Plynlimmon Road, staying until 1906. Both houses have plaques.

Tressell’s first job was with Bruce & Co, a firm of engineers and builders, which had an ironmongers shop at 2 York Buildings. From late 1902 or early 1903 he worked for another building firm, Burton & Co, of 88 Stonefield Road. From 1906 he was employed by the builders Adams & Jarrett in Norman Road, the last firm that he is known to have worked for.

Tressell was employed on many buildings, including St Andrews Church in Queens Road, where Morrison’s petrol station is today, and part of his wall-painting there is preserved in Hastings Museum.

Much of the building work in the novel’s town of Mugsborough actually took place in upper St Leonards, around Hollington Park Road, then the borough’s wealthiest area.

The book’s main setting is The Cave, probably modelled mainly on the house Val Mascal in Gillsmans Hill, with other settings in nearby properties, especially Filsham Lodge at the top of Filsham Road, and West Dene in Hollington Park Road.

It was the appalling and deteriorating conditions in the lives of many poverty-stricken local people in the early 1900s which gave birth to a strong socialist movement in Hastings around 1906. But by then Tressell was suffering badly from tuberculosis, and this, added to his responsibilities as a single parent, forced him to spend much of his time indoors when not working, and so he began putting together the material for the book.

Tressell and Kathleen moved into the top flat above a cycle shop at 241 London Road, in late 1907 or early 1908, and it was in the front room here that he wrote most of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. He adopted the pseudonym surname of Tressell to hide his identity from employers.

Number 241 was to be Tressell’s last home with Kathleen. He finished the book in early 1910 but no publisher would accept it, so in August he went to Liverpool, planning to emigrate to Canada. His tuberculosis worsened, however, and he died in Liverpool Royal Infirmary on February 3, 1911, aged 40, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had an immediate impact when it was first published on April 23, 1914, and this pocket-sized guide will help celebrate the forthcoming centenary.

Most of the places described here are included in this guide, which is available free at the town’s two museums and two tourist centres. Steve’s book Mugsborough Revisited describes Tressell’s life, work and novel in more detail.