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Book Review: ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

The Philanthropists

‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, by Robert Tressell (Panther Books, 7s. 6d.)

Robert Noonan spent the latter part of his life at Hastings working, when work was available, as a house painter and decorator and sign writer. He was a member of the local branch of the Social Democratic Federation. During the first decade of this century he devoted his leisure time to writing a novel which, in his own words, was to be ” . . .  a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally.”

Noonan completed his task in 1910 and soon afterwards entered hospital, where he died of tuberculosis early in 1911. He left his manuscript to his daughter who, like many girls of her time, went into service, taking the manuscript with her. Three years later, following a chance conversation with a member of the staff of Punch, the work was brought out of her tin trunk and published under the author’s title, The Ragged trousered Philanthropists and in his pen name, Robert Tressell.

The earliest editions were abridged or, more correctly, emasculated.. Chapters were left out and the remainder rearranged, phrases were altered and deleted, characters omitted and a tragic ending imposed to meet the commercial demands of the publishers and pander to current literary and political conventions.

Years later a group of enthusiasts recollected the missing chapters, reconstructed and rearranged them in the form the author originally intended. A more complete edition, with only one chapter missing, was published in 1955 and it is this fuller edition that is now published in paperback form. The original manuscript was presented to the TUC in 1959 and is now held at Congress House, London.

A book that can command continuous editions and reprints for over fifty years must surely qualify for the title, of a Classic. Thousands of workers have claimed that their political ideas were first stimulated by reading it.

In the story the author casts himself in the role of Owen, a house painter who devotes every opportunity to explaining to a group of workmates how they are exploited in all directions. Despite their abject poverty and insecurity of livelihood they defend capitalism with heat, using arguments that have long since disappeared from the vocabulary of all but the most stupid of anti-socialists. .

Those who remember working class conditions during Edwardian days will know that Noonan writes fact into his fiction. He weaves into his story chapters on charitable organisations, religious bodies, unemployment, a parliamentary election, a workers’ social outing, the Clarion cyclists, Public houses, public meetings and the seduction of a worker’s wife, much of which was omitted from the earlier editions.

But Noonan did not expound Socialism. When he does propose an alternative to capitalism it turns out to be the woolly reformism of the Social Democratic Party, now in part inherited by the modem Labour Party. The characters that Noonan portrays as Socialists are advocates of nationalisation as the solution to the workers’ problems. They visualise a benevolent State operating industry in the interests of the whole of the people, reducing working hours, removing undesirable institutions and increasing wages so as to provide an equitable distribution of wealth. Noonan ridicules religious organisations but accepts the idea of a Great Spirit as creator of natural raw material.

It is astonishing that a man who so obviously realised that it is the private ownership of the means of wealth production from which stem the social evils about which he wrote so satirically, should halt his thinking on the threshold of the socialist alternative.

We have read this novel a number of times and with this recent reading we find that age has not staled it. We still smiled at the antics of the workers on their beano, we were still sad at the death of Philpot and we were still angry at the stupidity of Crass and the schemes of Sweater and Sir Graball D’Encloseland. With all its faults and limitations we shall probably read it again someday.

W. Waters

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