A Slight Case of Censorship

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell: Lawrence & Wishart, 30s.

Forty-five years ago a house-painter named Robert Noonan died in a workhouse hospital in Liverpool. He left an 18-year-old daughter in Hastings, and two years later she sold for £10 the manuscript he had entitled The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; Being the Story of 12 months in Hell, told by one of the Damned, and written down by Robert Tressell. It was first published in 1914. Not many people read it in the next four years, while the philanthropists of the world were killing one another, but from its republication in 1918 it has been a continual best-seller.

Until the appearance of Mr. F. C. Ball’s Tressell of Mugsborough in 1951, little was known about the book or its author. It was plainly a piece of autobiography— most people, in fact, believed that the author had committed suicide, as his hero Owen had done. Least known of all was the fact that the entire book had never been published. The most widely circulated edition was known to be an abridgement; it was in fact an abridgement of an abridgment, the “complete” edition containing only about two-thirds of the book as Noonan had written it.

The original editor, Jessie Pope, gave no hint of what damage she had done. She wrote merely:

“In reducing a large mass of manuscript to the limitations of book form, it has been my task to cut away superfluous matter and repetition only. The rest remains as it came from the pen of Robert Tressell, house-painter and signwriter, who recorded his criticism of the present scheme of things until, weary of the struggle, he slipped out of it.”

A better pointer to why such extensive cuts were made was given by the publisher. Grant Richards, in his Author-Hunting. After speaking of the length, he said:

“The book was damnably subversive, but it was extraordinarily real . . . Did I do harm by spreading such a book broadcast ? I do not think so.”

The complete book has now been published for the first time. The “superfluous matter and repetition” amounts to eleven chapters and some material from the remainder. One main character was erased altogether— Barrington, the well-to-do sentimental Socialist. Several of the expositions of Socialism, always presented as Owen’s “lectures” to his workmates, actually belong to the Barrington episodes. Mr. Ball’s guess is that “it wouldn’t have done to let it be thought that a gentleman might have wit enough to see through the Capitalist system.”

The sub-plot about Easton’s wife and the Bible-punching lodger is developed to much greater length: Ruth has a baby, parts from and is reconciled with her husband. The excision of this section is probably, as the Preface suggests, “out of consideration for the prejudices of the time.” Its inclusion adds a great deal to the novel. Noonan’s sharp eye saw how little chance there was of married happiness in poverty—the fault was not in human beings but in the conditions which made a mockery of human relationships. The episode, like many of the other deleted sections, carries a strong criticism of religion. Noonan was especially bitter about Christianity (though his fore-word specifies ” no attack . . . upon sincere religion “). He describes feelingly the “charitable” organizations and the smug religious humbugs of Mugsborough— more than anything else, his target is the gross, money-grabbing materialism of the Shining Light Chapel, its pastors and its worshippers.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a remarkable book. Its author was not an educated man in the conventional sense: his writing was often crude, his grammar often bad. He was a craftsman, a member of the Social-Democratic Federation, who had read and learned a bit more than most—enough to make him indignant where others were submissive. His story of painters is the story of what he saw, experienced and knew need not happen: the humiliation and degradation of the working class. He chronicles the despair of the man who wants to make the others see it too:

” ‘Oh, damn the cause of poverty!’ said one of the new hands. ‘ I’ve ‘ad enough of this bloody row’ . . . This individual had two patches on the seat of his trousers and the bottoms of the legs of that garment were frayed and ragged. He had been out of work for about six weeks previous to this job, and during most of that time he and his family had been existing in a condition of semi-starvation …”

This is more than a picture of conditions half a century ago, however. If it were merely that, it would have been forgotten along with The Cry of the Children and The White Slaves of England. It is still in a large measure true today. Building workers are better paid and better treated now—mainly because of the unions which Noonan urged his mates to join; they are still poorly paid and without any security of employment. People who discover painters earning £10 a week forget (or don’t know) that a painter who gets 50 weeks’ work in a year is lucky. Or that the bonuses which bolster a painter’s (and many another workman’s) pay are only means for him to work himself out of a job the faster. The words of Noonan’s sacked workmen can be echoed in a good many places today:

‘There it stands! ‘ said Harlow, tragically extending his arm towards the house. ‘ There it stands! A job that if they’d only ‘ave let us do it properly couldn’t ‘ave been done with the number of ‘ands we’ve ‘ad in less than four months! And there it is, finished, messed up, slobbered over and scamped, in nine weeks! ‘ ‘Yes, and now we can all go to ‘ell,’ said Philpot gloomily.”

The scamping of work—the tears trickling down the paintwork “as if the doors were weeping for the degenerate condition of the decorative arts”—the rushing and paint-slinging because “the job’s losing money” (the unvarying condition of every building job, according to the boss) are well-known to every workman. If he has never actually worked for firms named Smeariton and Leavit, Makehast and Sloggit, Dauber and Botchit, Rushem and Pushem, he knows them very well; as well as he knows Crass the foreman, and the employer who “saw only that there was a Lot of Work Done, and his soul was filled with rapture as he reflected that the man who accomplished all this was paid only fivepence an hour.”

Times may have changed, but not so very much, and what has changed not at all is the exploitation of the working class. That is why no book of its sort has had as much popularity with working men as the Philanthropists. It is wrong, however, to suppose that the exploitation has to go on. Jessie Pope altered The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and made its hero commit suicide—the act of the man without hope. Robert Noonan knew better. His manuscript ends not with suicide but with optimism:

“Mankind, awaking from the long night of bondage and mourning and arising from the dust wherein they had lain prone so long, were at last looking upward to the light . . .The Golden Light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism.”

Noonan had not really learned enough: his Socialism was the hopeful reformism of the Social-Democratic Federation. It would, however—in this writer’s view, at any rate—be churlish to make that a major criticism. Here was a man who lived, suffered and was angry; would that there were many, many more.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has always been worth anybody’s money, and in its full version it is even more so. Readers of the SOCIALIST STANDARD who have noted the price and think it steep will be interested to know that there is a special “Trade Union and Labour Movement” edition in limp cloth for 10s. 6d., for which application may be made to the publishers.

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