Frank Owen is the central character and hero of Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. The novel takes its name from the angry sense of impotence and indignation which Owen reveals in this extract from the book:
“As Owen thought of his child’s future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against his fellow workmen. They were the 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 suggestion of reform. They were the real oppressors – the men who spoke of themselves as ‘the likes of us’ who, having lived in poverty all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for their children”
Owen is deeply frustrated that his workmates cannot see the injustice of their lot or grasp the possibility that they could do something about it. Indeed, they accept with docility the yolk of poverty.
Tressell’s profound belief in social justice led him, in 1906, to join The Social Democratic Federation and to embrace socialism. Not everyone who reads “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” – as I did, aged fifteen – will become a socialist but it is a book which should create a keen sense of social justice and one which helps form the conscience. It’s a book which is a rebuke to those who see Catholic Social Teaching as a mere incidental to their faith.
Tressell’s real name was Croker – although he chose to go by the name of Noonan – and his triple identity, and loss and rejection of identity – tells you a lot about him.
Born in Dublin in 1870, the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker – a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary – his father, who was a Protestant, had him baptised a Catholic. Noonan was his mother’s maiden name. The nom de plume, Tressell, came from the trestle table from which he did his work as a painter and decorator – the occupation around which he would weave his novel.
On emigrating to South Africa, to escape an unhappy childhood, Tressell became an apprenticed decorator. A broken marriage brought him and his daughter, Kathleen, to England and he settled in Hastings – where the story of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” is set. Although good at his trade, bad health and the onset of tuberculosis left him unemployed. Hoping to avoid penury and the workhouse he began writing – and his novel was the result.
The book was completed in 1910 but publishers rejected it. Severely depressed he and Kathleen decided to start a new life in Canada. They only got as far as Liverpool – where, like so many Irish before him – in an enfeebled and wretched state he was taken to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse where, on February 3rd 1911, he died of phthisis pulmonalis — a wasting away of the lungs. He was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers opposite the city’s Walton Prison, in a grave which was not discovered until 1970. It was the ultimate loss of identity.
In 1914 the book was published posthumously and gained great influence in the years which followed. Many academics attribute its influence to the Clement Attlee’s historic post-war victory in 1945.
In this centenary year of Tressell’s death, Liverpool City Council have arranged readings from the book in public libraries and sent a copy to each of the city’s secondary schools. At Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on behalf of Live3rpool John Moores University I recently hosted a Roscoe Lecture and, before an audience of 1,300 people, invited Jon Cruddas MP to share his insights into the writer and the book.
I invited Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, because he combines intelligence with conscience, passion with integrity. A few more MPs like Cruddas, and the House of Commons might regain some of its reputation. The lecture may be heard at:
Jon Cruddas says that Tressell’s fate – the workhouse and the anonymous pauper’s grave – and the central themes of the book – provided clues for the Labour movement about how to rediscover their purpose in political life- and what he describes as their own loss of identity and self knowledge.
He is withering in his criticism of today’s technocratic politics represented as mirror images in each of our political parties, and argues instead for “a politics of virtue” – giving good examples of what he describes as “the virtues of common people.” Like Tressell’s hero, Frank Owen, Cruddas calls for the release of energy, latent talent and potency of powerless people.
Tressell, through Owen, also draws down on the struggles which have gone before. Cruddas believes that “Tony Blair’s remark “leave the past to those who live in it” helps you understand why Labour has lost its identity.” Cruddas argues for “a journey of self discovery”; for “a sense of loss and yearning” and in a powerful and telling phrase “for the democratisation of the dead.”
By this, he means that the sacrifices of those who have gone before make possible the opportunities of today. They give us context and meaning – and by disowning your past you emasculate yourself.
Given Cruddas’ own Irish antecedents it was perhaps significant that the lecture was taking place to the site of Liverpool Workhouse – which at times had as many as 5,000 inmates – and was a place of holocaust for so many of the Irish-born poor who would die there. It was demolished in 1939 to make way for Sir Edward Lutyens’, Catholic Cathedral – and completed after the war, in 1967, by the architect, Sir Frederick Gibberd, as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.
Tressell died in Liverpool’s workhouse and an Inspector’s earlier report of its conditions is a poignant reminder not to wallow in the past, but not to forget it either:
“There are” fever wards for both sexes, and wards set apart for cases of cholera affecting men and women.
Some of the wards contain boys and girls only… quite young persons are to be seen in the wards with adult inmates. …Many of the wards are seriously defective in regard to ventilation; some of them may be described as being in this respect in a bad, and some in a very bad state.” The report enumerates what it described as “serious evils.”
Remembering, then, what has gone before leaves Cruddas to conclude that “The future for Labour lies in the past” in a rediscovery of identity. With Dylan Thomas he also shares a belief in localism: “what is best is parochial and magical” – as Thomas put it.
Cruddas says we can’t “make progress at the expense of human relationships” – and he insists on the centrality of identity, tradition, respect, duties, patriotism, community and love of family. He says that pride in your country or love of family has foolishly been eschewed by the Left and that what he calls “conservative socialism” is what Tressell’s hero, Frank Owen, was all about. Refreshingly, so, too, is Jon Cruddas.
His lecture can be heard at: http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/97603.htm