The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

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The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists
First edition
Author Robert Tressell a.k.a. Noonan, born Croker
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Grant Richards
Publication date
23 April 1914
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a novel by Robert Tressell first published in 1914 after his death in 1911. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature. It placed seventy-second in the 2003 The Big Read survey conducted by the BBC.


Robert Tressell was the nom-de-plume of Robert Noonan, a house painter. Although born in Dublin (and baptised with the surname Croker), Noonan settled in England after living in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century. He chose the pen name Tressell in reference to the trestle table, an important part of his kit as a painter and decorator. Based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse if he became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Noonan's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses.

The novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of Hastings, where Noonan lived, although its geographical location is described in the book and is well away from the actual town of Hastings. The original title page of the book carried the subtitle: "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell."

He completed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript was rejected by the three publishing houses to which it was submitted. The rejections severely depressed Noonan, and Kathleen had to save the manuscript from being burnt. She placed it for safekeeping in a metal box underneath her bed.

After Noonan died of tuberculosis, Kathleen was determined to have her father's writing published and showed it to a friend, the writer Jessie Pope. Pope recommended the book to her own publisher, who bought the rights in April 1914 for £25. It was published that year in much abridged form in the United Kingdom and in an even more abridged form (90,000 words, from the original 250,000), in 1918.[1] It was also published in Canada and the United States in 1914, in the Soviet Union in 1920, and in Germany in 1925. The publisher removed much of the socialist ideology from the first edition; an unabridged edition with Noonan's original ending was not published until 1955, edited by F.C.Ball, who also wrote two biographies of Tressell, Tressell of Mugsborough (1951), and One of the Damned:The Life and Times of Robert Tressell (1973).

Plot introduction[edit]

Clearly frustrated at the refusal of his contemporaries to recognise the inequity and iniquity of society, Tressell's cast of hypocritical Christians, exploitative capitalists and corrupt councillors provide a backdrop for his main target — the workers who think that a better life is "not for the likes of them". Hence the title of the book; Tressell paints the workers as "philanthropists" who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.

The hero of the book, Frank Owen, is a socialist who believes that the capitalist system is the real source of the poverty he sees all around him. In vain he tries to convince his fellow workers of his world view, but finds that their education has trained them to distrust their own thoughts and to rely on those of their "betters". Much of the book consists of conversations between Owen and the others, or more often of lectures by Owen in the face of their jeering; this was presumably based on Tressell's own experiences.

Major themes[edit]

The book provides a comprehensive picture of social, political, economic and cultural life in Britain at a time when socialism was beginning to gain ground. It was around that time that the Labour Party was founded and began to win seats in the House of Commons.

The book advocates a socialist society in which work is performed to satisfy the needs of all rather than to generate profit for a few. A key chapter is "The Great Money Trick", in which Owen organises a mock-up of capitalism with his workmates, using slices of bread as raw materials and knives as machinery. Owen 'employs' his workmates cutting up the bread to illustrate that the employer — who does not work — generates personal wealth whilst the workers effectively remain no better off than when they began, endlessly swapping coins back and forth for food and wages. This is Tressell's practical way of illustrating the Marxist theory of surplus value, which in the capitalist system is generated by labour.

The house that is under renovation in the book, referred to frequently as the 'job', is known by the workmen as 'The Cave'. Given the author's interest in the philosophy of Plato, it is highly likely that this is a reference to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". A major recurring theme in Tressell's book highlights the inability and reluctance of the workers to comprehend, or even consider, an alternative economic system [other than free market capitalism]. The author attributes this inability, amongst other things, to the fact that they have never experienced an alternative system, and have been raised as children to unquestioningly accept the status quo, regardless of it being potentially inimical to their own interests. In Plato's work, the underlying narrative suggests that in the absence of an alternative, human beings will accept and submit to their present condition and consider it to be 'normal', no matter how contrived the circumstances.


Writing in the Manchester Evening News in April 1946 George Orwell praised the book's ability to convey without sensationalism "the actual detail of manual work and the tiny things almost unimaginable to any comfortably situated person which make life a misery when one's income drops below a certain level." He considered it "a book that everyone should read" and a piece of social history that left one "with the feeling that a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive."[2]

Jonah Raskin has described The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists as "a classic of modern British literature, that ought to rank with the work of Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce (even though James Joyce was Irish not British), and yet is largely unknown...Tressel's bitterness and anger are mixed with compassion, sympathy and a sharp sense of humour." [3]


  • A television adaptation in the Theatre 625 series was transmitted on BBC2 on 29 May 1967, starring Edward Fox as Barrington and Alan Wade as Bert the barrow boy, who feature on the front cover of the contemporary paperback. This adaptation no longer exists.
  • A stage adaptation, written by Stephen Lowe and directed by William Gaskill, was first performed by Joint Stock Theatre Company in Plymouth on 14 September 1978. It opened at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith on 12 October 1978. A two-handed version by Neil Gore debuted at the Hertford Theatre in July 2011 and has since toured including to the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
  • A stage adaptation, written by Archie Hind and directed by David Hayman, was performed in 1984 by the Scottish agitprop theatre company 7:84.
  • A stage adaptation, by Tom Mclennan, was commissioned by the union, PCS, for "Unions 08". The play is still running and on its third consecutive year of touring. The Tressell society said of the adaptation: "This is the best production of this important work we have ever seen."
  • A 6 x 60-minute radio adaptation was transmitted as a "Classic Serial" on BBC Radio 4 in 1989. It starred Sean Barrett, Brian Glover and Peter Vaughan. It was produced by Michael Bakewell and dramatised by Gregory Evans.
  • An adaptation was made by Above The Title Productions for BBC radio in 2008, produced by Rebecca Pinfield and Johnny Vegas, and directed by Dirk Maggs. Three 60-minute episodes were broadcast as the Classic Serial on Radio 4. Actors included Andrew Lincoln (Owen), Johnny Vegas (Easton), Timothy Spall (Crass), Paul Whitehouse (Old Misery), John Prescott (Policeman), Bill Bailey (Rushton), Kevin Eldon (Slyme), and Tony Haygarth (Philpot). This adaptation was nominated for a Sony Radio Drama Award in 2009.[4]
  • In May 2009, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-part sequel called Mugsborough 1917, which featured many of the cast from the previous year's production. The dramatisation was by Andrew Lynch and features the characters of Robert Tressell's novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, picking up the story 10 years on.[5]
  • A stage adaptation, written by Howard Brenton and directed by Christopher Morahan, opened at the Liverpool Everyman on 17 June 2010 and subsequently transferred to co-producer the Minerva Theatre in Chichester as of 15 July 2010.
  • Merseyside Young Labour, using an adaptation by Tom Mclennan, performed it as a fundraiser in August 2013, setting ticket prices as 'Pay What You Can Afford', in keeping with the book's values.
  • A film adaptation loosely based on the play-script by Stephen Lowe was put into production by George Moore Films in Norfolk; directed and adapted by George Moore and was due for independent release in October 2013, with the final edit completed in April 2014 in time for a small cast and crew premiere at the Forum, Norwich. As of May 28, 2014 the film is available for viewing on YouTube from George Moore Films, alongside two trailers. The film would soon become award winning.
  • A 75-minute documentary about Tressell, the manuscript and the books impact was produced by Shut Out The Light (directed by Daniel Draper and Christie Allanson) in 2014. Contributors included Dennis Skinner MP, Tom Watson MP, Len McCluskey, Ricky Tomlinson, Stephen Lowe and Neil Gore. The film was described by The Socialist Worker as "an elegant celebration of the centenary of the book’s first publication." (

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Oxford World's Classics edition, 2005, edited and with an introduction by Peter Miles
  2. ^ George Orwell, Smothered Under Journalism, pp.256-257
  3. ^ "A Great Socialist Novel",In These Times magazine, August 22-28, 1979. (p. 17)
  4. ^ "Sony Award winners and nominees 2009" (Retrieved: 7 September 2009)
  5. ^ "Classic Serial: Mugsborough 1917" (Retrieved: 7 September 2009)

External links[edit]