Saturday, 21 September 2013

Penguin no. 251: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressall

     As Owen thought of his child's future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against the majority of his fellow-workmen.
     They were the real enemy - those ragged trousered philanthropists, who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to their miserable slavery for the benefit of others, but defended it, and opposed and ridiculed any suggestions of reform.
     They were the real oppressors - the men who spoke of themselves as "the likes of us" who, having lived in poverty and degradation all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for the children they had been the means of bringing into existence.

Robert Tressell[1] was a relatively young man dying of tuberculosis when he wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and he didn't live to see it published. His abiding concern at the time, and his motivation for writing the book, was the one he projects onto the protagonist Frank Owen in the passage above: a despair at his inability to adequately provide for his daughter's future, and a frustration with the circumstances he felt to be responsible. His anger is evident in almost every page he has written.

My old and rather tatty Penguin edition was published in Australia during the war, when quality control cannot have been a priority[2], and the early publication date means that this copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a shortened version of a book which had already been severely abridged in editions published in 1914 and 1918. The manuscript Robert Tressell left with his daughter comprised 1600 pages and a quarter of a million words; the abridged version was reduced by more than half.

Jessie Pope, who abridged the manuscript, claims in the preface to have 'cut away superfluous matter and repetition only' so that 'the rest practically remains as it came from the pen of Robert Tressall', but it seems that she understates her contribution. When compared with the original text (published in full in 1955), the Penguin shortened/abridged/expurgated edition has a different ending, one character completely excised, speeches swapped between characters, and a number of sub-plots removed[3]; his promotion of socialism has apparently been downplayed, and the sense of despair amplified.

In part, this is a work of propaganda, and so it seems reasonable to infer Robert Tressell's views from those he projects onto his protagonist, and these suggest a man angered by what he considered to be the inherent unfairness of the class system existing in Edwardian England. His protagonist views manual work as the only work of substance, with all else adjudged wasteful, yet he notes that in this society the men who produced all the products which underpinned the functioning of society were precisely those denied any opportunity of consuming them. He asserts that the low wages meant that working men had to subsist largely on 'margarine, adulterated tea [and] mysterious beer' while all they produced was taken from them for the enjoyment or profit of what he terms the 'loafing classes'. It was a system which produced 'luxury, refinement and culture for a few, and condemned the majority to a lifelong struggle with adversity, and many thousands to degradation, hunger and rags'.

The most compelling feature of this story is the intimate and detailed portrayal Tressell provides of the consequences of this putative exploitation. He had worked as a painter and decorator, and as a signwriter, in both South Africa and in Hastings, and his story follows the daily experiences of a group of painters and decorators employed to renovate a building recently purchased by the local mayor, Mr. Sweater, in the fictional south coast town of Mugsborough. All of these men are paid wages which cannot provide for even the essentials of family life, and because their employment is uncertain, they spend much of their lives in debt. They face an unremitting struggle to get by, even when working every hour possible.

He suggests the entire class is undermined from birth. The children are born into poverty and grow without adequate nutrition. They dress in cast-off clothes and at times even these must be pawned to provide food or to pay the rent. They live and work without any comfort or protection from the elements, and age prematurely due to the harshness of their lives. And after being hounded and slaved during their working hours, and living always with the uncertainty which comes of the possibility of being laid off at an hour's notice, there is nothing to which to look forward. Old age brings decrepitude, increasingly uncertain employment, and the prospect of ending one's days in the workhouse.

Frank Owen argues that private ownership of land is a principal cause of all this misery. And he argues that this private ownership is inherently unfair, a function of chance rather than merit, with the present generation of owners having done nothing to deserve their good fortune. The animosity that the writer feels toward those with power over the workmen is hinted at in the names he allocates them - just as he calls their home town Mugsborough, he names the foreman Crass and the overseer Hunter; the local newspaper is christened The Obscurer and he has building firms such as 'Makehaste and Sloggit' and 'Smeariton and Leavit' competing for business in the town.

Despite all this, the real targets of Frank Owen's frustration are the workmen themselves - those referred to as the ragged trousered philanthropists - because they willingly supply their labour in a system set up explicitly to exploit them, and rather than fighting against such a system, they defend it, and mock as mad the man who would suggest that things could be different. The bitterness expressed seemed so intense that I wondered if there was something personal in Robert Tressell's projected condemnation. Perhaps it was a reaction to being mocked for his views by real-life counterparts of his workmen, or perhaps it was something deeper, a resentment at not being recognised; a disappointment borne of a belief that he had the answer and men such as these refused to accept it as the truth.

As well as describing the conditions in which men such as his characters lived and worked, the book has been structured to develop the argument that capitalism is the underlying cause of poverty, and socialism is the answer. Tressell anticipates the likely objections of his readers and puts them into the mouths of his painters. Owen  is mockingly invited to give a series of lectures at times when the men are assembled - typically during the tea-breaks - and he uses these to gradually develop his case. One by one the objections are addressed.

But it is a simple model of the economy which he offers, one conceived to function almost like a machine, with cause and effect linear and predictable, and the dynamic nature of the system completely ignored. There is little thought given to complexity: to interactions, dependencies, unforeseeable consequences, or even the effects of chance. And it all lacks consistency, although perhaps this is an artefact of the abridgement: one moment he is arguing that monopolies are a cause of all the workers' problems, and the next that multiple retailers competing with one another to sell the same range of products is wasteful.

I was unconvinced by his solution, and I cringed each time he condemned these poor uneducated men, but I valued his depiction of their plight. If the book is of continuing interest, it must be because of the detailed description he provides of the lives of these working men and their families: of the despair to which they were prone, the harsh conditions they were forced to endure, and also, though he seemed not to approve of it, of their spirit and their small acts of rebellion.

Read the book online: a substantially longer version than published by Penguin in 1940.

[1] In editions published prior to 1955 the pseudonym is spelt Robert Tressall; in those published after it is spelt Robert Tressell.
[2] My copy carries the name of the Lothian Publishing Company Pty. Ltd., but was 'wholly set up and printed in Australia by "Truth" and "Sportsman Ltd"', and while not the worst Australian-published Penguin I have seen, its cover could never be described as orange. (And seeing the Melbourne Truth listed here was a surprise - I have some memories of it from my childhood, and recall it as a newspaper devoted to scandal and sensation.)
[3] Mayne, B. (1967). The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: An Appraisal of an Edwardian Novel of Protest, Twentieth Century Literature 13: 73-83.


  1. The unabridged version does, I think, give a more cohesive picture, and Frank Owen was a much more likeable and sympathetic character than he sounds in your version. It's easy to dismiss this book from our 21st century perspective, but it does show the awful conditions of the working classes at that period, and the difficulty of breaking free. I admit, I was shocked by the complicity of the men, but this was an era when people were brought up to accept their lot in life and they had very little chance of getting an education and improving their situation.

    1. I think that Frank Owen was generally meant to be a sympathetic character - in this version he is clearly suggested as the most reasonable, patient, intelligent and hard-working of the men. He simply had this one blind-spot, in that he felt the men and their families deserved their fates if they would not convert to socialism. It seemed heartless, but it is perhaps understandable if he believed he knew the answer and that the very men who stood to benefit from its implementation were those voting to maintain the status quo. The complicity of the men seemed a useful rhetorical device enabling him to gradually develop his argument and so persuade his reader, but I guess it is also likely that the working men really were as conservative as they are presented here.

  2. I've circled this one for a while, so thank you for shedding light on the various versions. I think I would definitely seek out the fuller one, despite my love of old Penguins.

  3. The unabridged version is well worth reading--it fits into a rough triangle whose corners are George Gissing, George Orwell and Arnold Bennett.

    As to the 'Truth' newspaper, it devolved into a boobs/crime/horseracing scandal rag, but it started life as a socialist and republican newspaper (though with plenty of scandal, too) which combined some pretty high ideals with some pretty nasty racist stuff as well.

  4. We have a copy of this book at the library. I've seen it many times whilst shelving but not much being borrowed. I had no idea what it was about, so thanks for educating me. I'll have to give it a look when I get back to work to see what edition it is.

  5. The unabridged version is well worth reading. It's also a good comparison with People of the abyss, by Jack London, which was written at about the same time.

  6. Hopeful
    I have been looking at a copy with a Litho(?) on the front of the cloth binding.
    Inside is Preface to the first edition by Jessie Pope 1914. Tressell is spelled
    Do you have any info on this edition?

  7. I, for one, wouldn't dream of dismissing this book! It, like those of Upton Sinclair, may well be a centenarian but from my 21st-century perspective, its message is bang up-to-date. Britain's so-called neoliberal economy has resulted in more than a million 3-day food parcels being distributed by the Trussell Trust, a reported 16 million people having less than £100 in their bank accounts at the end of the month, unions eviscerated, and social mobility at a stand-still. Shamefully, Tressall's account of the inequality of wealth is as relevant today as when it was written.



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