A painter’s tale

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, by Robert Tressell

Reviewed by Martyna Quirke, Dublin South East YS, in Militant, Jan-Feb. 1982

This novel is about a group of painters and decorators and their families at the beginning of the 20th century – a time when workers day-to-day existence was threatened by the whims of the employers. It vividly describes working class life at that time: the subjection, and destitution of the people whose labour created the glamour, glitter and luxury of the age.

The setting of the story is the fictitious town of Mugsborough, a small town in the south of England, whose governing council we are not surprised to learn are the local landowners and racketeers with vested business interests in the town. The characters of the town are gripping and unforgettable and you will laugh at their simple desires, humorous mannerisms, cry with their misfortunes and be filled with rage at the destitution of the characters, who become as familiar as your own workmates; characters such as Crass the chargehand, Misery the foreman, Rushton the firm’s director, Old Jack Linden struggling to keep pace at work, Owen the man with the vision of a just society, as well as the women who suffer most.

Do-gooders Own, the main character, agitates among his workmates, tells them how socialism could not only give them enough daily bread and the assurance of a steady job, but also the real hope of alleviating the inequalities in society for good. They will not listen so he calls them Philathropists – ragged Trousered ‘do-gooders’ who willingly hand over the results of their labour to the employers and the rich. They think it the natural order of things, that it is not for the likes of them to interfere in what belongs to their betters. Redundancies, near starvation and family tragedies occur, but Owen keeps his faith in the socialist future, and manages by patiently explaining his ideas to gain the ear of this fellow workers, who listen in ever growing interest.

The relations which exist between the workers and their employers, the attitude and feelings of these two classes, the workers’ circumstances when at work and when unemployed, their pleasures, their religious and political opinions and ideas are realistically portrayed. This social basis of capitalist society is exposed, and the socialist solution, as the only real solution to their problems, is put forward.

The theme of this novel is the class war, yet the personal detail makes it a compelling and very readable novel. Unreservedly I recommend it as a faithful picture of working class life, as relevant and educational today as when it was written.

Martyna Quirke, Dublin South East YS

‘One of the damned’

Robert Tressell was the author of one of the great classics of socialism, the novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. Read this biographical article here

More Labour History pieces are available here

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are available here.

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