Ragged Trousered Philanthropists author is honoured

Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell

Today the eye’s of the world fell on London and the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

However, while many will watched the divisive former prime minister laid to rest in a lavish funeral, some on the left have been celebrating the life of one of the father’s of the British Labour movement whose life was shaped in Hastings and whose body lies in a pauper’s grave in the North West.

Robert Croker, latterly Noonan, was born on April 17, 1870, and was responsible for writing perhaps the most seminal of British left wing writing.

Working under the name Robert Tressell, Noonan wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – a book which would go on to inspire countless generations of left wing thinkers.

A sign-writer by trade, Noonan’s book would leave an indelible mark on the consciousness of the left and act as a rallying call for the downtrodden working class everywhere. It would go on to sell more than one million copies worldwide, in six different languages.

Set here in Hastings – renamed Mugsborough for the book – Tressell’s masterpiece follows sign-writer Frank Owen as he tries to convince his fellow workers that the capitalist system they work so backbreakingly for is actually the source of the abject poverty they find themselves in (the Great money Trick as he calls it).

The original manuscript was turned down by three publishing houses and, were it not for the protestations of Tressell’s daughter Kathleen, the writer would have tossed the novel onto his fire.

In any case it was not until three years after Tressell’s death in 1911 that the book finally saw the light of day – initially released in the UK, Canada, and the USA in 1914. Copies were then sent to the Soviet Union in 1920, and Germany in 1925. However, it was not until 1955 that an unabridged edition including Tressell’s original ending was released.

Since then it has won an army of fans and been voted the 72nd greatest novel of all time in a 2003 poll.

Tressell wrote the book while living and working in Hastings between 1902-1910 and many of the landmarks of Mugsborough are still visible today.

During those eight years, Tressell worked for a trio of building firms – Bruce & Co, Burton & Co, and Adams & Jarrett – and lived in a host of houses, including 1 Plynlimmon Road, 115 Milward Road, and 241 London Road, where most of the book was written.

Hastings had enjoyed something of a boom time in the late 1800s, but by the time Tressell arrived in 1066 Country, the tourist trade was declining and building work began drying up fast.

Day trippers strolling along the prom were replaced by hungry workers on poverty marches and snaking queues for soup kitchens.

Sevenpence an hour for skilled workers and fivepence an hour for labourers was the most people could expect to earn.

For many, Tressell included, it was a grim existence – leading to early editions of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists carrying the catchline: Being the story of 12 months in Hell, told by one of the damned.

Tressell himself was a radical socialist. He was present in the crowds at The Cricketers pub in September 1906 when the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was reformed in Hastings, and in the following three years he painted banners for them, and wrote and distributed leaflets and pamphlets, only becoming less involved as the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists began to take shape in 1909.

A year later, suffering from tuberculosis, he set his heart on a new life in Canada and left Hastings for Liverpool in the hope of securing regular work which could fund a life overseas.

He left his daughter behind at St Leonards Warrior Square Station and, tragically, would never see her again. He died at 10.15pm on February 3 1911 at the Royal Liverpool Infirmary and was buried in a pauper’s grave with twelve others opposite Walton prison in Liverpool. His beloved daughter was told by telegram, but could not afford the train fare and missed the funeral.

The whereabouts of his final resting place was not discovered until the 1970s and, because his remains were mixed up with others, it was impossible to remove his body and give him a reburial.

The plot is now at least marked and a nearby road has been renamed Noonan Close in memory of the writer.

One of the overriding tragedies of Tressell’s life was that he never got to see how important his book became.

Steve Peak, a Hastings-based historian who wrote the book Mugsborough Revisited, told the Observer Tressell was “more important than Orwell”.

“It (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist) was a book by the working class, for the working class.

“It was so important because it helped shape the welfare state after the Second World War and had provided a huge incentive to the Labour Party after the war to make life better for normal working class people.

“Tressell was an inspiration because he wrote in a way that when you read his work it made you feel. Its mix of sadness, frustration and humour struck a chord with people. It was less a novel, more the facts of what it was like at the time.

“It is without doubt one of the most important books this country has ever seen.”

Another high profile fans is the actor Ricky Tomlinson, who has often explained how reading Tressell’s book changed his life.

The Royle Family actor was given two years in prison after taking part in a dispute on a building site and it was while serving time that he happened across The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - a book he says, “Changed my whole way of thinking, my whole way of life, it was unbelievable.”

That story will be shown on Sky Arts HD on June 6 – directed by another big Tresell fan, the comedian Johnny Vegas and starring Tomlinson.

Before that though comes today’s anniversary, which sees a clutch of Tressell fans gathering at his modest final resting place in Liverpool to pay their respects to a man whose experiences of Hastings helped shape this country’s politics.