“The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell

Ragged TrousersIn 2014, BBC news reported on the centenary of this 1914 novel that inspired socialist activism. Robert Tressell (some books spell this “Tressal”) is the pen name of Robert Noonan, a sign writer, who died penniless three years before his book was published. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists follows the struggles of 20 decorators in the fictional seaside town of Mugsborough, which is thought to be based on the author’s experience of Hastings.

Wikipedia notes that characters include hypocritical Christians, exploitative capitalists and corrupt councillors but these provide a backdrop for his main target — the workers who think that a better life is “not for the likes of them”. The title of the book then refers to the workers as “philanthropists” as they throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.

Our classics group read this for their September 2015 meeting. Memories of the meeting are getting a bit fuzzy but there were three three readers present,  all of whom liked the book. Discussion concerned the author’s take on politics, economics, local government and charities as well as its style and its re-telling of the living conditions of the working class.

Two of our group missed the meeting but sent comments by email:

Helen –

I enjoyed all of it except for about two thirds in when it dragged for a few chapters but it soon picked up to an enjoyable end. Whilst occasionally subsiding into a ranting, Tressell writes with enough humour and intelligence to create a varied cast of characters including the malevolent Hunter, Crass and working class hero Owen. I really grew fond of Owen and felt he had a good ending as at one point I thought he may have done something awful. The book has a myriad of targets including the Church, Edwardian philanthropy and the working class. The book is fascinating from an historical point of view in that it was written at about the point that organised labour was getting off the ground.

Jill –

While I can’t say I found it a pleasurable read I’m glad to have read it. I think it’s historically important, documents an interesting time, and rings with truth.

Our overall score was 8.5, an average based on four readers.

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