The Failing System

Robert Noonan, born Robert Croker, did not have a picturesque life. Born in Dublin, Ireland, he was the illegitimate son of a retired Resident Magistrate. At a young age, Noonan and his mother moved to London where he was a good student. When radical political consciousness seized him at the age of sixteen, he moved away from home. At the age of 20, he was arrested and imprisoned for six months. Following his release, he moved to Cape Town, South Africa where he married Elizabeth Hartel. A year later, they had their daughter, Kathleen. When he moved back to London in 1901, he was a single father raising his daughter.

As a result of his experiences, Noonan, a painter and decorator by profession, begun working on a novel that elaborated on the exploitation and abuse afforded to the working class by their employers. Nine years after returning to London, he finally completed his personal masterpiece, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The original manuscript was a verbose narrative of over 250,000 words cramped in 1,600 pages. Unfortunately, none of the three publishing houses he submitted it to accepted his novel. These rejections weighed heavily on Noonan who fell into depression. He planned to burn his work but Kathleen stored it in a metal box under her bed. On February 3, 1911, Noonan passed away due to pulmonary tuberculosis without his work being published.

Following her father’s death, Kathleen mentioned and showed the novel to a visitor to the house where she was employed, Jessie Pope, a poet and a journalist. Pope recommended the book to her own publisher, Grant Richards, who eventually bought the rights to the book. In 1914, the novel was finally published, albeit an abridged one. The 1918 version of the book further reduced the number of words to roughly around 90,000. It didn’t take long for the book to make its stride in the global scene. Its 1914 publication in the United Kingdom was followed by its publication in the United States and Canada. The rest, they say, is history.

“I am much more concerned about what is to become of ourselves if these things are not done,’ replied Barrington. ‘I think we should try to cultivate a little more respect of our own families and to concern ourselves a little less about “Royal” Families. I fail to see any reason why we should worry ourselves about those people; they’re all right–they have all they need, and as far as I am aware, nobody wishes to harm them and they are well able to look after themselves. They will fare the same as the other rich people.”

~ Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Set in Edwardian England, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists charts the story of Frank Owen, a house painter in the fictional town of Mugsborough. He was trying to seek employment in order to support his wife and son. Despite his working class background, Owen has obtained a political awareness which sets him apart from his peers. Good fortune found him when he, along with a motley crew of about 25 workers, were contracted to renovate of a three-story house referred to as “the job”. A committed socialist, he tried in earnest to convert, or at least educate, his workmates about his political ideologies. During dinner breaks, his voice dominated conversations, preaching about the fundamental differences between capitalism and socialism. It was his fundamental belief that their poverty stems from capitalism.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is, in a way, an account of the author’s life. In his only literary work, Noonan elaborated on the widening social and financial inequalities that existed during his time. Drawing from his own experiences of abject poverty, and excessive exploitation, he has written an intricate account of what is fundamentally ailing a society dominated and controlled by capitalists. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, with its blunt knife, dissects the flaws of capitalism and how it contributed to the creation of an apathetic workforce. On one conversation, it was mentioned that, “The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the present states of affairs, for the purpose of preventing us from discovering the real causes of our present condition.”

On the surface, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a massive political satire. With his political enlightenment at the age of sixteen, Noonan grew up to be active in political circles, and was a founding member of the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first organized socialist political party. Noonan imbued Owen with his political views and ideologies. However, Owen remained an anomaly in a sea of harried faces. However, it was not just the system that Noonan was trying to dissect in the narrative. What made the novel flourish was its satirical portrayal of the prevailing attitude of the working class, especially those who believe that a better life is not for them. Try as he might, he can never seem to make inroads in arousing his colleagues’ political consciousness. Their lot, an eclectic mix of Catholic conservatives, non-socialists, and even some opportunists, failed to discern why they station in life never improved.

A recurring theme in the narrative was the reluctance of Owen’s peers to recognize an alternative economic system. They were brought up to accept the status quo, hence, they take things as they are, including the exploitation and the abuses of their employers. Overlooking the loopholes of a system that continuously allowed their exploitation, Owen’s colleagues rationalized their poverty as a result of external forces beyond their grasp. This lack of information was exacerbated by their limited literature, deriving information from the gutter press. Ignorance, to some extent, was bliss. In all his talks, it was his colleagues’ lack of cognition to the root cause of their predicament that Owen tried to address.

“We must be selfish: the System demands it. We must be selfish or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter. The more selfish we are the better off we shall be. In the ‘Battle of Life’ only the selfish and cunning are able to survive: all others are beaten down and trampled under foot. No one can justly be blamed for acting selfishly–it is a matter of self-preservation–we must either injure or be injured. It is the system that deserves to be blamed. What those who wish to perpetuate the system deserve is another question.”

~ Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Even at a young age, it was inculcated to the workers’ mind that they are not meant for better things. The “Philanthropists” in the title is an allusion to these workers who work themselves to exhaustion in exchange for a paltry compensation. They lead harsh lives, dominated by their employers. For their hard work, they barely receive praises or commendations. In contrast, the slightest mistakes are meted with the steepest of penalties, or worse, dismissal. Whilst the employers bask in their overflowing wealth, the working class had to contend with starvation and poverty. The working class’ fervent desire to avoid the workhouse was exploited by the rich and used it to their advantage. As the “philanthropists” oscillate in a constant cycle of exhaustion and inebriation, Owen is further drawn into frustration. The root of his frustration was colleagues’ refusal to see how the system has failed them.

Through Owen, Noonan channeled his own frustrations. He also vividly portrayed the sedentary response of his colleagues. Despite the setbacks, Owen was not disheartened. He demonstrated to his colleagues how capitalism is keeping them from achieving a better life through practical illustrations. It was through these insightful conversations and interactions between Owen and the other characters that the narrative relied on. However, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not the typical novel. Anchored on the ideas of socialism and its elucidation, the novel was bereft of a formal plot. These dialogues and conversations made up for the lack of plot.

The novel’s biggest accomplishment was Noonan’s in-depth and critical analysis of the various subjects and circumstances explored in the narrative. With surgical acuity, Noonan dissected the origins of what afflicted the working class. Noonan’s keen attention to details translated well in reeling in the attention of the readers. He gave a credible and realistic account of each character, of their circumstances. Consequently, he made the readers partake of this squalor that permeated throughout the story. But whilst a bleak atmosphere hovered above the narrative, all hope is not lost. The novel has depicted the numerous ways in which men exploit his fellows but Noonan also demonstrated that an alternative is still possible.

Noonan chose Robert Tressell to be his nom de plume for he fears that his socialist views would have him banned. His chosen surname, Tressell is a reference to the trestle table, a seminal part of a painter’s kit. The story of Owen and his fellow renovators was juxtaposed on a vivid backdrop of the conditions prevailing that time. Noonan, with acuity, painted a sweeping picture of the prevailing social, political, and cultural atmosphere in Great Britain. The minutiae of British life, especially that of the working class, slowly unfolded. The drama within the household, their triumphs and tribulations, their joys and sorrows, was captured in evocative details by Noonan. The lush details gave better context to the ideologies that Owen was elaborating on. In the context of British history, this was a period that was marked by the ascent of socialism and socialist ideologies. Many has even credited the novel for the successful campaign of the Labour Party to wrest seat in the House of Commons.

“What we call civilisation—the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers—is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal—he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.”

~ Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a human story and is seminal work of literature renowned for its political scope. Interwoven in the narrative are moral and ideological passages that compliment the human interest facet of the novel. It is a sweeping masterpiece in which Noonan dissected, with unflinching attention to details, the sources of the maladies plaguing society in a period where starvation and poverty were ubiquitous. He reeled in the readers with his powerful writing. Edwardian England was bleak, and the working class was unabashedly exploited in exchange for profits. Whilst it was written and published over a century ago, the realities captured in the novel resonate in the contemporary. As the working class refuses to acknowledge the failure of the system, the schism between them and the wealthy widens.

Since the book’s publication, we have made some progress in addressing some of the concerns raised by Noonan in his only work. However, inequities that existed then are still existing in the contemporary as greed, corruption, and insatiable materialism remain prevalent. To avoid the collapse of humanity, we must reorganize our affairs to benefit all, not just a select few. Capitalism’s failure led to a cycle of abuse and exploitation of the working force. While we scurry from home to workplace on a daily basis, it is not lost on us how we are still incapable of meeting the requirements for a decent life. What is required is a reorganization that will benefit all, not just a select few.

Ratings

77%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

It was during the first Big Bad Wolf Sale back in 2018 that I first encountered the name Robert Tressell and his novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. I did not have an iota on what the book was about nor have I ever heard of Tressell. The book’s title was the first thing that piqued my curiosity. Thankfully, I didn’t second guess myself and just bought the book without more ado. Later on, I learned that it was listed as part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die; I was at a point where I wanted to tick off as many books from the list as I can. Unfortunately, it took years before I got to read the book. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the book contained semi-autobiographical elements. I actually thought that the book was a light one, brimming with wit and humor. Boy was I wrong, very wrong. What really stood out from the book was its strong political ideologies. However, it was something that was, I guess, understandable considering the circumstances upon which it was written. After witnessing the inequities in the current system of capitalism, one can’t help but feel frustrated. Tressell wrote a rich and deep narrative that merges realities of the early 1900s and political ideologies. The novel remains a seminal work for the realities it has underscored still resonate in the contemporary.

Book Specs

Author:  Robert Tressell
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publishing Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 587
Genre: Political Fiction, Semi-Autobiographical

Synopsis

A group of English working men are joined one day by Owen, a mysterious journeyman-prophet with a strange vision of a just society. Slowly, he wins the trust and hearts of his fellow workers, rousing them from their dour complacency with his spirited attacks on the greed and dishonesty of the capitalist system. Originally published in 1914, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an absolute classic of social critique, a rousing piece of economic and political argument wrapped up in a novel that is powerful, thought-provoking and, above all, riotously funny.

About the Author

Robert Noonan was born Robert Croker on April 17, 1870 in 37 Wexford Street, Dublin, Ireland. He was the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a former inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary and a retired Resident Magistrate.

By 1875, Noonan was living in London, and was registered in the 1881 England Census under his stepfather Sebastian Zumbühl’s surname. After achieving a certain level of radical radical political consciousness at the age of sixteen, he left his family and toon on several jobs to survive. In 1890, when he was 20-years old, he was imprisoned for six months after breaking into the dwelling house of his sister’s employer. The following year, he moved to Cape Town, South Africa where he worked as a painter and decorator. He married Elizabeth Hartel in October 1891, and their daughter, Kathleen, was born on September 17, 1892. However, in 1897, the couple divorced and in 1901, Noonan and his daughter moved back to England.

In England, he began to work as a painter in Hastings, Sussex. In 1906, he became a founding member of the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation. At about the same time, he started to write The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists based on his experiences. After a dispute with his employer, Noonan and Kathleen moved back to London in 1909. A year later, he completed his only novel. However, three publishers rejected his 1,600 pages of handwritten manuscript. The rejection left a bitter aftertaste that led to Noonan’s depression. He intended to burn his novel but Kathleen hid it in a safe under her bed.

Frustrated with their life in England, Noonan decided to emigrate to Canada. However, before they could board a ship bound for Canada, Noonan was admitted to the Liverpool Royal Infirmary where he eventually died of pulmonary tuberculosis on February 3, 1911.