Socialist Party archives - Militant Irish Monthly, March 1983, No. 109
‘One of the damned’
Robert Tressell was the author of one of the great classics of socialism, the novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. When Tressell drew up the title page of his book, published after his death, he wrote ‘the story of twelve months in hell, told by one of the dammed.’ For decades afterwards very little was known about Robert Tressell and it is due to the patient investigation over many years by FC Ball we know who Tressell was. He was in fact Robert Noonan, born in Dublin in 1871, son of Samuel Croker, a Resident Magistrate, and Mary Noonon.
After his father’s death, his mother re-married and at the age of 18 or 19 Robert left his Dublin home and emigrated to South Africa. He rejected his middle class background, chose the life of a skilled worker, and because of this, his family disowned him. Even without formal qualifications he found work as a painter and sign writer on the strength of his artistic talents.
In South Africa he married and his only child, Kathleen, was born there. His stay in South Africa coincided with the Boer War, a war of colonial butchery and robbery, fought by Britain against the Boers for the possession of the gold-rich Rand. The war deepened not only his hatred from British colonialism but also his disgust with capitalism. He had left home, he told his daughter, because ‘he would not live on income of absentee rentals.’ Tressell joined an ‘Irish Brigade’, the ‘Transvaal 1798 Centenary Association’ which supported the Boers.
He left South Africa in 1901 with his daughter (his wife had died) and went to live in England. He chose to live in Hastings (the ‘Mugsborough’ of his book) which was an Edwardian seaside resort with neither factories nor industry, and at the time was in decline. Work was very scarce, the only major employers were painting and decorating firms, and workers were reduced to poverty to beg and fight each other for work.
This is where Tressell spent the last decade of his short life; from where he drew the source of his book and his hero, Owen, whose life was similar to his won, the money grabbing, lying, cheating employers and capitalist politicians, the heartless, slave-driving foremen and his battered, bruised, sometimes courageous, sometimes blinded workmates.
Tressell quickly became active in the growing labour and socialist movement. He joined the Painters Union and also the Social Democratic Federation which adopted Marxist policies. He became one of its main local organisers and agitators.
We are given a portrait of Tressell during this time as an intense, unselfish, considerate man who loved his art, who also loved to discuss science and politics with his friends and comrades. He was also very close to his daughter. Due to constant sickness (TB) and the writing of his book Tressell became less and less active, in his last two years.
Finally, he left Hastings in August 1910 and went Liverpool to seek work and enough money to enable Kathleen and himself to emigrate to Canada. Unable to hold down any job due to his chronic TB, he was coughing up his own blood. Penniless he was forced to enter the Royal Liverpool Infirmary – a new name for the workhouse, and after five weeks he died there on February 3rd 1911. His daughter at 16 never even got the chance to visit him before he died.
Tressell was buried in a pauper’s grave because no one claimed his body. His sisters knew of this and even in death disowned him. He had left the manuscript with Kathleen who minded it until it was first published in 1914.
He left us Owen ‘ one of the damned’ whose story of 12 months in hell was written down in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Tressell who had been there with him.
A painter’s tale - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, by Robert Tressell
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