Robert Tressell - the man, this town and the book that echoed down the decades

Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell

HASTINGS may be best known around the world as the furnace in which modern England was forged.

1066 And All That. The Norman invasion. The battle at Senlac Hill and a new direction for the people of Britain.

But you don’t need to go back 944 years to find this corner of East Sussex at the epicentre of social reform.

In fact, little more than a century ago, a sign-writer began working on a book which would leave an indelible mark on the consciousness of the Left and act as a rallying call for the downtrodden working class everywhere.

That writer was Robert Noonan, better known locally under the pen name Robert Tressell. His book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, would go on to sell more than one million copies worldwide, in six different languages.

Set 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 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 ended was released.

Nevertheless, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is said to have had a major impact on Labour’s 1945 election triumph, not only because of its popularity among the political establishment, but also by tapping into the post-war longing for a change in social conditions which became increasingly prevalent as the huge sacrifices of war became obvious.

Left-wing firebrand Tony Benn is among the book’s champions. He describes Tressell as “a teacher of our time who speaks from the past to give us hope for the future” and hails the work as a seminal text in British politics.

“Tressell’s contribution to the reawakening of hope,” he said, “is that he gave us a torch to pass on from generation to generation. He gave us a lamp to light the way.”

And Benn is by no means alone.

Well-known writer Alan Sillitoe called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists “The first great English novel about the class war,” while the British public voted it 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 paupers grave in Walton Park Cemetery. His beloved daughter was told by telegram, but could not afford the train fair and missed the funeral.

One of the over-riding 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, said Tressell was “more important than Orwell”. He told the Observer: “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.”