The man who inspired Tresssell

Alf Cobb was Robert Tressell's inspiration
Alf Cobb was Robert Tressell's inspiration

ROBERT Tressell may be the most famous socialist to emerge from Hastings but he found his inspiration in another local rabble-rouser.

Alf Cobb moved to 1066 Country from his native East End of London in 1900 to look for work as a draper.

There he found notoriety and a new calling - soon becoming the articulate, passionate and determined figurehead of the left-wing locally, revelling in the role of secretary of the local Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

It was there he crossed paths with Tressell, who himself was an active member of the SDF - albeit on a far less level, busy as he was, with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

A gifted orator, Cobb gravitated naturally to the role of muckraker-in-chief and helped uncover many of the scandals on which Tressell based his masterpiece.

As his political activity increased, so too did the attentions of the ruling class and town’s decision-makers, who waged a long-running war with Cobb which saw the firebrand made bankrupt, regularly dragged in front of the courts, imprisoned and even sued for libel in the High Court.

Perhaps his greatest triumph came in 1910 when he exposed what he called “widespread muddle, mismanagement and monstrous scandals” in the town hall and led the prosecution of both the town’s mayor and the at the time all-powerful Hastings Corporation.

His speeches were often reproduced word-for-word in the Observer, alongside his letters to the editor - with many featured in full in Mike Matthews’ book A Mugsborough Rebel.

One particularly popular speech stated: “Life for the great mass of people is one long endless round of struggle to live, from which there is no permanent escape other than socialism.

“Much however can be done by our local administrative bodies to smooth the rugged path over which the workers have to travel.

“The only hope our class have to better their lot is to use their intelligence in their own interest by first, understanding the value of the vote; second, using it in their own interest; third, refusing to give it to any candidate or party upholding the current system.”

Famously, the Left had to wait until 1997 and the election of Michael Foster and New Labour before enjoying a non-Tory or Liberal MP.

But, despite coming nearly 90 years earlier, modern day politicians have a lot to thank the trailblazers like Cobb and Tressell for.

The current leader of Hastings Borough Council, Jeremy Birch, said: “I am proud that Robert Noonan wrote his book here because it means that Hastings will have forever played an important part in the future of the Labour movement in this country.

“I read the book when I was a teenager and it motivated me not just to want to change conditions for normal people but in wanting better.”