11 Jun Who was Robert Tressell?
Robert Tressell is a pseudonym, used by the writer of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In his only published work, he has a habit of naming characters after their profession or personality – something people either find endearing or excruciating. For example, Makehaste & Sloggit are a building company, Newman is a new hand on site, and Sir Graball D’Encloseland is an aristocratic landowner. Are these jokes? I’m not convinced they are that funny.
Tressell’s surname is from the folding wooden stands associated with the decorator’s trade. He was Irish, born in 1870 Dublin as Robert Croker. His father, Samuel Croker, was an elderly retired police officer and magistrate with an adult family of his own, who never married Mary Noonan, Robert’s mother. They had four children together – Robert and three sisters – and when he died, Croker left Mary and the children the wealth of significant property. Robert must have grown up conscious of the status afforded to his father’s ‘real’ family, and the contrasting position of his own mother and sisters.
It seems that Tressell may have had the opportunity to attend Trinity University in Dublin but refused on principle, choosing not to live on his father’s inherited wealth. Robert later told his daughter that he began a painting apprenticeship at 16, but it there is no record of it. As some point he emigrated to London, then Liverpool (via six months in prison for selling stolen goods, although it’s unclear who was really responsible), then South Africa, where he made a good living as a talented sign writer and decorator. These then, are the origins of our ‘working class hero’. The older I get, the more I understand that fiction is full of heroes because there is no such thing in real life. I mean, people do heroic things, but no-one is so pure that they are perfect in every aspect of their lives. Here comes the milkshake duck…
In South Africa, Robert was active in the politics of class and labour. We were disheartened to discover that in reality he didn’t live up to the Socialist ideal of a brotherhood of man – he was instrumental in organising demonstrations against the employment of black skilled labour in Johannesburg. Records suggest he kept a black servant, dehumanisingly named ‘Sixpence’. Neither of these things would have seemed particularly outrageous for a white man in turn-of-the-century South Africa, but learning about Tressell’s racism certainly turned my stomach.
When he was 21 Robert married 18 year old Elizabeth Hartell and their daughter Kathleen was born in Cape Town in 1892. But by 1896 Robert and Kathleen were living in Johannesburg, and the child had been told that her mother was dead. The circumstances of the break-up are familiar to readers of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Noonan seems to have neglected Elizabeth’s emotional needs and took her for granted, which allowed a maleficent lodger to take advantage of her, impregnating her before moving on. This is the exact story arc for Ruth and Easton in the novel, where Tressell holds Easton to account for Ruth’s fall from grace. The central difference is that Noonan did not have a friend like Owen to talk him into forgiving her and repairing the marriage. I wonder whether this reveals regretful wish fulfillment from Robert? His apparent understanding of Elizabeth’s situation, as demonstrated by his portrayal of Ruth’s life, has endeared him to me enormously.
Robert escaped the Boer War by taking Kathleen to safety in Cape Town before it began. This involved an arduous three-day train ride to which he later attributed his chest complaint. It was actually the beginnings of the bronchial pneumonia – or tuberculosis – that killed him. It is the death sentence that his protagonist, Owen, lives with throughout the novel.
By 1902 Noonan was divorced and living in the English seaside town of Hastings with one of his sisters. His daughter Kathleen would have been about ten. Here he tried to earn a living as a decorator during a sharp and painful building slump. He was well-travelled, politically aware, talented, versatile and experienced. Yet he was often unemployed, and it was during this period that he worked on The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. I imagine it was his viewpoint as an outsider – Irish, with a working life in Africa – that gifted him a stark comprehension of ‘the present system’. The manuscript was unlike anything that had gone before, and of course it was rejected by several publishers. This devastated Robert, who was by now quite ill.
In 1910, he was living with another sister in Liverpool, trying to earn and save enough to emigrate to Canada. He died, aged 40, in the Walton Infirmary in 1911 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Kathleen, now 19, happened to be working as a governess in the house of Jessie Pope, the writer and pro-war poet to whom Wilfred Owen would dedicate Dulce et Decorum Est six years later. Kathleen showed the manuscript to Pope, who recommended The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to her publishers, Grant Richards. They commissioned her to ‘edit’ it into a much safer working-class tragedy of about one third the length of the original. The political ideology was the first victim of the mutilation. Kathleen sold the manuscript with full rights for £25 (about £12,000 now) and began a new life in Canada. The book has never been out of print since.
It wasn’t until after the second world war that Kathleen returned to Britain and discovered the success of her father’s work. The full 250,000 word edition was published in 1955 and the original manuscript donated to the TUC library where it can still be seen, or you can look at it online here, including Tressell’s lettering on the front cover: “the story of twelve months in hell, told by one of the damned.”
The novel is not explicitly autobiographical, but there is so much of Robert’s life in its pages. I feel certain that some of the comic passages are retellings of tall tales shared over lunch on a job. It seems to me that the real Robert Tressell lies in a complex and sensitive mixture of three of his characters: Barrington, Owen and Easton. Barrington is the son of a wealthy man with sympathy for the working class, and ideas for their emancipation. Owen is an artist, frustrated by the shoddy and unfulfilling work he’s asked to do, and by his colleagues’ refusal to recognise their oppression. And Easton is trying so hard to carve out a life from the destitute misery that he nearly loses everything by failing to appreciate things from his wife’s point of view. Throw in an unexamined history of Irish Nationalist sabotage and Empirical racism hidden beneath, and you have yourself a writer.
The good he did does not outweigh the bad, it doesn’t work like that. But neither his gifts nor his vices should be ignored. If it hadn’t been for his commitment to record what he saw around him, and Kathleen’s preservation of his life’s work, we would never have heard of him. He would have been just another nameless, itinerant working man who died early, of a condition directly related to his working conditions and ‘the present system’.