Introduction to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
By Steve Peak
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is often said to be one of the most influential books ever written. This semi-documentary novel describes how ordinary people were forced to lead lives of poverty, exploitation and misery in the typical provincial English town of Mugsborough – Hastings and St Leonards – in the early 1900s. The book was first published in 1914 and was so moving and horrifying that it spurred many working people into becoming active trade unionists and political campaigners. In Britain, the General Strike in 1926, the election of the Labour government at the end of World War Two, the setting up of today’s welfare state in 1948 and the radical actions of the labour movement in the second half of the 20th century are all widely believed to have been inspired by this book. The late Tony Benn described it as “a torch to be passed from generation to generation”.
But who was Robert Tressell, and how did such a man – a painter and decorator in the building trade, suffering from tuberculosis, and having to look after his daughter alone in a series of rented flats – come to write in his spare time a 1,706 page manuscript that became a book which was read around the world and which changed many people’s live forever?
The Crokers and Noonans
Robert Tressell was born on 18 April 1870, at 37 Wexford Street, Dublin, in a flat above what is now a Paddypower betting shop. His registered surname at birth was not Tressell – the pseudonym he used as the author of this book – but Croker, although the surname he actually used was Noonan, his unmarried mother’s maiden name.
His father Samuel Croker was an Irish ex-magistrate who was about 80 years old when Robert was born. Croker had 13 children by two women, and Robert was the 12th of these. Croker himself was born in County Waterford in 1790. He joined the Constabulary in 1823, and later became a stipendiary magistrate, working in Ennis, Co Clare, until 1843. He then retired, with two pensions. From 1864 onwards he lived in substantial houses in various fashionable suburbs of Dublin.
In September 1827 Croker married Jane Usher Quin in County Waterford where he was serving as a policeman, and between 1828 and 1844 they had six children. Croker died in 1875, and Jane in 1887, but the couple seem to have separated, without divorcing, in the 1850s, for in 1858 he started having children with another Irish woman whom he never married. This was Mary Noonan, who was to be Robert’s mother.
Mary seemed to be Croker’s “kept woman”, his mistress, by whom he had four daughters and three sons. This was between 1858 and 1872, when Croker himself was aged 68 – 82. The registered surname of all the children was Croker, but several of them appear to have used their mother’s name of Noonan instead (or as well).
Mary’s seven children were:
- Mary Jane (Jennie), born 1858 in Co Westmeath. In 1875 she married a draper, John Bean Meiklejon, and lived and worked in St Leonards all the years that Robert was there, dying in that town in 1927.
- Henry John, 1860 in Dublin, died in London 1935.
- Teresa, 1862 in Dublin.
- Ellie (Zella), c1866 “at sea”, died 1946.
- Adelaide Ann, 1867 in Dublin. She became a single parent with her son Arthur, whom Robert was close to. She died in 1945.
- Robert, 1870 in Dublin.
- William, 1872 in Dublin.
Mary Noonan lived at many addresses, mostly in a part of central Dublin which was recognised as being a red-light district. It is not known if Croker shared any home with her in Dublin, or that they ever actually lived together. He was a Protestant, while she was a Catholic, and as an unmarried mother of seven children, she would have had low status in society. But it seems they had a good relationship, and that Croker actively supported her and his children, despite opposition from his wife Jane and some of her children.
Croker was well-off, but to what extent is not known. Robert’s daughter Kathleen believed that Croker was a landowner, with estates in Ireland whose rents produced a significant income. If this is correct, and Robert benefitted from some form of inheritance after Croker’s death in 1875, it could have helped Robert travel as much as he did as a young man, and may have supplemented his uncertain income as an unwell painter and decorator so that he could rent reasonable homes. It could also help explain how, in less than 20 years, Robert’s sister Mary Jane could change from being a back-street shopkeeper in St Leonards to becoming the owner of three very large detached houses in the most desirable part of the town.
Robert’s Early Years
In August 1873, shortly before he died in January 1875, Croker gave Robert’s mother Mary Noonan a building: 145 Great Britain Street, Dublin, a substantial commercial property on four floors, which she sold a few weeks after he died. Also in August 1873, Mary sold her last Dublin residence, 38 Bessborough Avenue, a small single-storey terraced cottage in a cul-de-sac. By June 1874 Croker had left his wife Jane in Dublin and moved to 91 East India Dock Road, East London, probably taking Mary with him, plus Robert and at least some, if not all, of her other children. Croker died there on 6 January 1875, of old age, aged 86.
Until 2014 it was believed that Robert spent most of the first 18 or so years of his life in Dublin, going from there to South Africa in the late 1880s, where he stayed until coming to Hastings in 1901/02. Many of his biographers felt this may have given Robert a perhaps incomplete understanding of what real working class life was like in the England which is the setting of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (The RTP). But following research by Bryan MacMahon for his book Robert Tressell, Dubliner, it now appears that Robert as a youngster spent little time in Dublin, as he was almost certainly living in London from 1874 to about 1883, after which he probably moved with his mother to Liverpool. And other researchers have found that he was imprisoned there for burglary when he was just 20 years old. So now it seems that Robert both knew England and had experienced some of its dark side.
Shortly after Croker’s death in 1875, Mary Noonan married Sebastian Zumbuhl, a Swiss cabinet-maker, in London. For a few years they (and presumably Mary’s youngsters, including Robert) lived at 37 Fitzroy Street, London W1, an upmarket four-storey 1790s house close to Fitzroy Square, and near today’s Post Office Tower.
Mary and family had moved out by 1881, for the census that year recorded that the famous author George Bernard Shaw and his mother were then living at No 37. The RTP was a great success when published as a Penguin novel in 1940; in 1937 Penguin expanded their business by producing non-fiction Pelican books, the first of which was The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism – by GB Shaw. No 37 Fitzroy Street has been restored and is now open to the public as the Fitzroy House Museum in memory of L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology ‘religion’, who lived there in the 1950s.
In the 1881 census, the Zumbuhl family, including Robert, were recorded as living at 27 Elmore St, north London, staying there until 1883. At some point after that they moved again. Their whereabouts for the rest of the 1880s are unknown, but in the 1891 census Mary and Sebastian were living at 18 Chapel Place, Liverpool, with their two sons, but not with Robert. The census also records that Robert’s sisters Ellie and Adelaide Noonan were then in domestic service in Liverpool. Sebastian died in Liverpool in 1894, and Mary in June 1896.
Following research by the late Marion Walls of Sussex University and Dr Stuart Borthwick of Liverpool John Moores University, it is now known for certain that Robert was in Liverpool at that time, because in June 1890 he and a Ms Frances Wilson were found guilty of stealing a quantity of silver and kitchen equipment worth £50. This was taken from the house of Charles Fay, a shipping agent, in Courtney Road, Crosby, a well-off district of western Liverpool. The Liverpool Mercury of 4 June 1890 described Robert as “A respectably-dressed man, named Robert Noonans [sic], who lives in Queen’s Road, Everton.” Wilson lived near him, in Perth Street, Everton, and she pledged several of the items at a pawnshop in nearby Everton Road. Robert was reported as being a brother of one of Charles Fay’s “servants”, and this was probably Adelaide.
The Liverpool County Intermediate Sessions on 10 June 1890 sentenced both “sign-writer” Robert and unemployed Frances Wilson, aged 25, to six months in gaol.
It is not known if Robert served the full six months to December 1890, but soon after he was released he emigrated to South Africa. Did he go because of a feeling of shame for being a convicted criminal? South Africa at that time was an exciting and rapidly developing land of many opportunities, with ships going there from Liverpool. Why not take a berth or work a passage?
Robert initially lived in Cape Town, working as a decorator and signwriter. On 15 October 1891, when aged 21, he married Elizabeth Hartel, 18, in the Church of Holy Trinity, Cape Town, a Protestant church. Little is known about Elizabeth; she was possibly an Afrikaner.
Eleven months later, on 17 September 1892, their daughter Kathleen Noonan was born in the Cape Town suburb of Mowbray.
But the marriage was not a happy one, and in 1894 Robert found Elizabeth was having affairs, so he split with her and moved to Boer-controlled Johannesburg. In February 1897 he divorced Elizabeth and was given control of Kathleen, whom he was to look after on his own for the rest of his life. Kathleen – Katie to her friends – was boarded at a Catholic convent school in Johannesburg where she was well cared for, and Robert visited her weekly.
Author Jonathan Hyslop believes that there were strong and important similarities between Robert’s marriage failure and The RTP story of Ruth Easton, who is seduced and has a child by the vile Alf Slyme. Hyslop says that Robert “seems never to have established an extended intimate relationship after his marriage ended” and that he had feelings of guilt towards Elizabeth. [Hyslop 69-70]
Fred Ball recorded in One of the Damned that in 1946 Stuart Ogilvy, a friend of Robert in South Africa, said that Robert worked as foreman for a building firm and “was a very good signwriter … and had the makings of a brilliant artist. Noonan was an extremely pleasant fellow and the best of company and we became very friendly. … There can be no doubt that he had a brilliant and versatile mind.” Stuart believed Robert’s private life was not happy, but he was very attached to Kathleen. “His standard of life was good – a very solid sort of man.” Robert was “very fond of writing, especially articles dealing with everyday life”. [Ball 15-17]
Johannesburg was then a rapidly expanding gold-mining city, where profit-obsessed employers ruthlessly exploited their workers in the most extreme manner. Tressell took an active part in the trade union and socialist movements to try limit this. He also became involved in the political background to the struggle that was to become the 1899-1902 Boer War, when British and Dutch Boer imperialists fought for control of the southern tip of Africa and its resources, especially gold and diamonds. Robert, with his Irish anti-British sentiments, was one of the Irish settlers who supported the Boers.
In 1897 Robert became secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council, in which he played a prominent role. It was also in Johannesburg that he was drawn into socialist politics. In May 1899 he represented the Trades Council at a public meeting which set up an International Independent Labour Party, and he was elected onto its committee.
Jonathan Hyslop believes that “The RTP’s critique of capitalism needs to be seen in relation to Robert’s experience of life in Johannesburg. For someone of Robert’s sensitivities Johannesburg could not but be a lesson in the effects of the untrammelled pursuit of profit. … Johannesburg was the site of Robert’s anti-capitalist revolt, the place where he became a socialist and a labour organiser.” [Hyslop 81]
While in Johannesburg Robert appeared to be well-off. He owned a plot of land and a house site, and he also funded his widowed sister Adelaide and her son Arthur to come to South Africa from Chile, where she had moved to from Liverpool. Had Robert received an inheritance from Croker?
Robert in following years saw his nephew Arthur, born about 1897, as almost his own son, and Arthur was probably the model in The RTP for Frankie Owen, the young son of the book’s hero, Frank Owen and his wife Nora.
Robert opposed the Boer war when it started in 1899, but it is not known if he played an active role in it. He and Adelaide left South Africa before the war came to an end in May 1902, being a hard-won British victory. By then he was suffering from the chest and lung problems that were to seriously affect him for the rest of his life. On 17 September 1901 Robert, Kathleen, Adelaide and Arthur sailed to England on the Union Castle liner SS Galician, probably arriving in mid-October.
To Hastings and St Leonards
After spending a short time in London, the four came to St Leonards in late 1901. Robert and Adelaide had been invited by their sister Mary Jane Meiklejon to stay in her flat at 38 Western Road, St Leonards (where the water pumping station is today). Robert was still suffering from a bad chest, and in South Africa a doctor may have told him he had tuberculosis. This may be part of the reason for him deciding to stay in Hastings and St Leonards, as it was believed to be a healthy place to live for people with such complaints.
At that time, St Leonards was still trying to maintain its separate image from Hastings. St Leonards was created by famous architect James Burton in 1828 as an exclusive seaside resort for well-off Londoners, being separated from the rough pre-1066 town of Hastings by over a mile of countryside. But by the end of the 19th century the expansion of both towns towards each other and the poor management record of St Leonards Council had forced the pair to merge as one municipal authority, much to the annoyance of the better class of St Leonards resident.
Fred Ball commented “Even as a highly skilled workman he [Robert] couldn’t have come at a worse time for a job. It is true that [the town] had become a ‘superior’ resort, although not so superior as Eastbourne, but with no basic industries, with a higher than average [number] of retired and elderly inhabitants (it still has) and an economy best described as taking in one another’s washing. St Leonards, originally laid out by James Burton, a nineteenth century speculator, had many streets built for the new gentry, many of which in my time became the one- or two-roomed houses for hundreds of lonely remittance women – the spinster relations of the aforesaid gentry, so much thicker than blood is water. But the only industrial buildings were the gas-works retort-houses, built almost in the centre of the town by the cheeky founders, and which belched smoke and the sickly smell of gas over the populace. …
“The town being entirely without factories and industry, the working classes lived off the Corporation (and men literally fought for jobs there), the public utilities, the railways (and horse-buses), shops and hotels (the two worst-paid occupations), and domestic service, or the ‘kiss-me-Aunt’ trades as they were referred to by an irascible elderly working gentleman of my youth [Ball’s mother’s father] who used to carry the hod. And last of all there was the building trade.
“And Robert was dependent upon this, the worst of the lot. The trade was at its lowest ebb for 20 years in [the town] following the developments in Victoria’s reign when most of the town had been built – the population at 65,000 [in 1901] was nearly four times as great as 50 years earlier. But 65,000 was the limit, in fact the numbers actually declined by 5,000 during the eight years Robert lived there.” [Ball 31-32]
Sisters and Brothers
Robert’s sister Mary Jane (1858-1927) married John Bean Meiklejon (1852-1925) in 1875, and had six children, one of whom (Paul) married cousin Kathleen Noonan in July 1914 in Canada. Until 1900 Mary and John ran a small grocer’s shop in a West St Leonards back-street, then moving to 38 Western Road for about two years. In 1903 Mary Jane and her daughter Alice (who was blind) set up and ran a school for blind and feeble-minded children. For over 20 years the school was unique, as there was no other institution in the UK catering for such girls (there was one for boys, in London). From c1902/03 onwards John lived in London most of the time, visiting Mary Jane occasionally.
The school was initially in three tall terraced houses, 48/49 Kenilworth Road and 37 Carisbrooke Road, St Leonards, with the gardens of Nos 49 and 37 backing onto each other. In 1910/11 Mary Jane began buying large detached properties in fashionable Upper Maze Hill, St Leonards, acquiring three by 1919 in which she and Alice ran various schools for handicapped children, especially the blind. These buildings – numbers 12 and 22/3, plus St Paul’s House – would have been very expensive to buy and it is difficult to see how Mary Jane could have bought them without funding from the Croker family inheritance.
Mary Jane became ill in 1923/24, and this plus other problems forced her to start closing the schools from late 1925 onwards. No 22/23 shut first, and the final closure of the other two followed her death in January 1927, although Alice continued living in one of them, St Paul’s House, for several years. She died in 1962, probably still living in St Leonards. Numbers 12 and 22/23 Upper Maze Hill have been demolished and replaced by large blocks of flats, but the extensive St Paul’s House remains much as it was, and is now a care home for up to 25 people.
Kathleen in late life felt that something had divided the Noonan family, with Robert never mentioning his brothers, or his sister Ellie, while his relations with Adelaide were not “brotherly or sisterly” in affection. But, she said, “I think Mary Jane was the only one who was hostile, probably because she didn’t want to be linked to a working man, especially in her own town. She resented his choice of life and also possibly there was a guilt complex as she may have had most of the family fortune though most of it was tied up in Chancery.”
Hastings Homes, Jobs and Schools
In late 1901 or early 1902, Robert and Adelaide and their two children moved to 1 Plynlimmon Road on top of the West Hill, Hastings.
Robert acquired a job at Bruce & Co (Rushton in The RTP), electrical and sanitary engineers, builders and hardware sellers. They had shops at 2 York Buildings (now opposite Macdonalds) and 40 Havelock Road (where the University Centre Hastings building is today). There was also a yard and stores near the north-east end of Russell Street (now a private car park). Robert looked after Bruce’s ironmongers shop in York Buildings and did sign writing.
Robert was described as being short, with a slight Irish accent, an atheist, very cultured, reader of a wide variety of books, an alcohol consumer, kind to his friends and fond of cricket. He always wore a trilby hat to work, never the cap common to most working men. He could speak at least seven languages.
The first school for Robert’s daughter Kathleen was the Aylsham House School, a terraced house at 21 Vicarage Road, near their house in Plynlimmon Road. Next she went to the Roman Catholic school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Old London Road. After that, some time late in 1902, she was sent to a fee-paying Catholic convent school in Deal. During 1904 she moved to the free St Andrews Church of England (ie, Protestant) Elementary School in Stonefield Road, Hastings, perhaps because money was short. In 1908 (possibly 1907) she received a bursary to St Helens Pupil Teacher Centre, later St Helens High School for Girls.
By late 1902 the four Noonans had again moved, this time to the top flat, number 5, in Grosvenor Mansion, 115 Milward Road, Hastings. This was down a long flight of steps from 1 Plynlimmon Road.
In the early years of the 20th century flying by airships, balloons and airplanes was being widely experimented with in many countries, and around 1902 Robert wrote an article called The Evolution of the Airship. This contained eight of his drawings of early balloons and airships. He was especially interested in aviation, and he built a six-feet long model airship in the back garden of No 115, helped by his friend Bill Gower.
In late 1902 or early 1903 Robert left Bruce & Co because he was fed up with them. He particularly disliked the foreman, whom he combined with the foreman at his future employer Adams & Jarrett to form The RTP’s nasty chief foreman Nimrod/Misery/Hunter. It is believed that Robert then spent up to six months seeking work in London, but failed (or something happened?) and he came back to Hastings.
Ball said “It is from the shock of his experiences with Bruce & Co that I date the real origin of the passionate sense of outrage which was to inspire and light up The RTP; and, perhaps, the beginning of the deep sense of loss which he was to feel over the rest of his short life.” [Ball 42]
Robert next worked for Burton & Co, an undertakers and general painting and decorating business. It had a shop at 88 Stonefield Road, Hastings, where the firm remained until the 1980s. Today it is a plumbing shop. There was also a workshop on the other side of Queens Road, at 2 Waterworks Road, now demolished.
At this time Robert is known to have worked at: Kite’s Nest, a detached house on St Helens Park Road, by Hillside Road; and the Imperial pub, on a corner of Queens Road, next door to Burton’s shop.
Another job for Burton was Robert’s high quality artistic renovation of the chancery of St Andrews Church in Queens Road. The church was built in 1869-70 and stood where the Morrisons petrol station is today. Burton agreed to redecorate the chancel as a gift to the church, and it was completed by Easter 1905. In 1970 the church was demolished, but part of a 20×40 ft mural painted by Robert was rescued and is now on display in Hastings Museum. This is the only surviving example of what is known for certain to be Robert’s work.
Ball believed that from September 1903 to June 1904 Robert and most of Burton’s staff worked at Val Mascal, a large house in Hollington Park Road. It was here that Robert “is said to have decorated the Moorish room and some have told me that this was the famous ‘Cave’, the setting for the book.” [Ball 58-59] But the ‘Cave’ seems to be an amalgam of at least three houses in the Hollington Park area where Robert worked: Filsham Lodge at the top of Filsham Road, West Dene (and its lodge) in Hollington Park Road and, most prominently, Vale Mascel (now Val Mascal). Experiences elsewhere in the town also probably coloured Robert’s picture of the ‘Cave’.
Ironically, on his way to work in these Hollington Park houses, Robert would have walked past the three similarly high class properties in Upper Maze Hill that Mary Jane was to buy after he died.
A Disgusting Town?
The year 1906 was a landmark in the history of Hastings and St Leonards. The general election on 15 January produced a shock result, with the Tories taking the seat from the Liberals. This played a major role in creating an active socialist and labour movement in Edwardian Hastings, and probably in prompting Tressell to write his book. The election was “fought against the background of a declining standard of living for the working classes, but not for the rich. Purchasing power in 1905-06 was well below that of 1900, but profits were soaring. Taxation was mostly indirect and on articles of common consumption so that, as now, the heaviest fell on the ordinary people.” [Ball 71]
The Hastings Liberal MP Freeman Freeman-Thomas was expecting to retain his seat, but he lost to William Harvey Du Cros, the rich Irish owner of the Dunlop tyre business. Hastings was one of only a handful of seats across the country taken by Tories from Liberals, when the election overall was a major victory for the Liberals. The exceptional Hastings result sparked comment around the country. The Hastings Mail said: “Our feeling is summed up in one word – disgust, disgust at the ludicrous position in which our town is placed in view of the overwhelming opinion of the country against Mr Balfour. … Hastings Tories fought a political fight in 1900 [general election] and were worsted; they knew that their only chance to retrieve that disaster was to introduce a millionaire. He came, and aided by powerful combinations, strange artifice, peculiar methods, his capital triumphed.” [Hastings Mail, 20 January 1906]
The Du Cros family were of Huguenot origin, and Harvey was born in Dublin in June 1846. He had an unhappy childhood and left home at 15 to fend for himself, and was advised to take up sports for the sake of his health, becoming a national champion in fencing and boxing. He had seven sons, all of whom were involved in sports. In 1888 Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop, living in Ireland, discovered the pneumatic tyre principle, but Harvey Du Cros immediately saw the potential of such tyres for bicycles, and in 1889 he set up what was to become the Dunlop Rubber Company, which soon became one of the biggest companies in the worldwide tyre trade. Harvey’s family made an immediate fortune from tyres, and after he died on 21 December 1918 one obituary described him as “the Napoleon of the tyre industry”. [MacMahon 68]
This local Tory victory in 1906 and the rapidly increasing poverty and unemployment in Hastings prompted the setting up of a Hastings branch of the Marxist group the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). One evening in September 1906 a few men met in the Cricketers pub, on the corner of South Terrace and Waldegrave Street, Hastings, to discuss creating such a body. Those attending including Robert Noonan, Bill Gower, radical local activist Alf Cobb and Edward Cruttenden, founder of the Hastings Trades and Labour Council in 1894.
On the evening of Friday 12 October 1906 the new SDF had its first open meeting, to officially launch the Hastings branch, in the Beehive Dining Rooms, 32 Pelham Street. The chairman at that meeting was Fred Owen, who was probably the inspiration for the naming of The RTP’s hero as Frank Owen, the literary voice of many of Robert’s personal feelings and emotions.
Life and Work in St Leonards
Robert left Burton & Co in 1906 and went to work for St Leonards builders Adams & Jarrett – Makehaste and Sloggem in this book.
Early in 1906 Adams & Jarrett rebuilt their shopfront in Alfred Street, off London Road. It is known that at some time Robert painted an Adams & Jarrett advertisement on the London Road side of that building, and he may have done this during the 1906 rebuild. Much of this wall was later demolished, but a section with some of the sign on it was left standing, and until 2006 the words “Adams & Jarrett” were still visible, the last-known survival of Robert’s work still in its original location. But during that year it was painted over.
When working for Adams & Jarrett, Robert painted a large company advertisement on the end wall of the end house in Perth Road, Silverhill, St Leonards, on its corner with Battle Road. This advertisement was visible until the mid-1960s, when it was painted over after the firm changed hands. In 1908 Adams & Jarrett moved out of Alfred Street to 12-14 Norman Road, advertising themselves as general builders and decorators. The firm still occupies these premises, selling all types of domestic electrical appliances.
Adams & Jarrett were the last building firm that Robert is known to been employed by before leaving the town in 1910. It seems that he worked in many parts of Hastings and St Leonards, irrespective of who his employer was, and this created his overall view of the town.
Other work that Robert is believed to have carried out in St Leonards (but not necessarily for Adams & Jarrett) was at the Buchanan HospitSal in London Road (a scenic wall inside a new extension, opened by the Lord Mayor of London on 28 November 1908); the outside of Hollington Church in the Wood; St Johns Church in Upper Maze Hill (bombed in World War Two and then rebuilt); the Post Office in Kings Road; the Presbyterian Church of St Columbia, probably on the north-west corner of Warrior Square, destroyed in World War Two; a door in 10 Stockleigh Road; and possibly Christ Church in London Road.
Robert probably decided to write The RTP as he witnessed the rise in poverty and despair in Hastings during 1906 and ’07, and the dramatic but ineffectual fightback by socialist and Labour campaigners. During 1907 Robert threw himself into SDF work. Unemployment had reached its highest level for 20 years, and tough action against socialists by police and employers meant the SDF branch developed a hard core of militant socialists, among them Robert. It met regularly in the Beehive in Pelham Street, and that summer, the Hastings SDF were “a leading light among ‘The Reds of the South-East’.” [Harker 33] Suffragettes were also campaigning in the town at this time.
During 1906 the four Noonans moved out of the flat at 115 Milward Road, going to unknown addresses at Warrior Square and St Johns Road. [Ball 89] Then in late 1907 or early 1908 Robert and Kathleen moved into a flat at 241 London Road, St Leonards, without Adelaide and Arthur.
It was in this flat that Robert wrote most, if not all, The RTP. The flat, not self-contained, was at the top of No 241, on the fourth floor, plus it included some of the third floor. On the ground floor was a cycle shop, the Adna Cycle Depot, owned and run by Charles Alfred Beney. Kathleen said: “On the top floor was a big front room which was Dad’s and where he did his writing.” [Ball 103]
In March 1908 there was a Parliamentary by-election at Hastings. Harvey Du Cros MP suddenly announced on 23 February that he was standing down because of poor health, and the election took place just 13 days later, on 7 March. There was no Independent Labour Party or socialist candidate, and the Liberal vote was poor, with the Tory majority increasing from 413 in 1906 to 1,108, on a total vote of 7,972. The new MP was Harvey Du Cros’s son Arthur, chairman of Dunlop Rubber. He was to retain his seat at the next general election, on 15 January 1910, and again in 1911. Arthur Du Cros was strongly against the Suffragette, an animosity that climaxed in their burning down in 1913 of the large St Leonards house he had been living in.
Robert’s Last Days
In 1908 Robert was not robust but did not look too sick, although he suffered from coughing. However, this became steadily worse into 1909, when his friends and workmates were seeing a marked decline in his overall health.
The writing of the final manuscript of The RTP probably took place between late 1908 and early 1910 as Robert became more ill and could therefore probably not do many other things. He was full of hope about the book, but his increasing sickness by 1910 seemed to be reducing him to real poverty, unless he was receiving some of the family inheritance from his father.
The manuscript has a total of about 250,000 words on 1,706 quarto pages, and is viewable on the TUC History Online website (details in Sources). It is sub-titled: “Being the story of 12 months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.” Robert sent it to three publishers, who all returned it, unwanted.
During 1910 Robert’s failure to find a publisher, his apparent poverty, his unhappy work life and the possibility of better health plus a freer life in Canada, led him to decide to emigrate. He resolved he would take Kathleen to Canada and start again, earning good wages and setting up a decent home for Kathleen. He made arrangements to go to Liverpool, possibly staying with sister Ellie, and there he would find work to help pay for his passage.
Father and daughter would leave 241 London Road, where they had few possessions, and Kathleen (then 17) was to move in with her aunt Mary Jane at her school for the blind at 48-49 Kenilworth Road, where she would also work. Hopefully she should have only been there for a few weeks, until Robert had sorted out the Canada trip.
In August 1910 Robert went to Liverpool to earn the fare for their trip to Canada. Kathleen watched his train go from St Leonards Warrior Square Station – and she never saw him again.
On 26 November 1910, Robert was admitted to Royal Liverpool Infirmary hospital, attached to the workhouse. The end came on 3 February 1911, when he died at the hospital of “cardiac arrest due to phthisis or pulmonary tuberculosis”. He was 40. He was buried in a paupers’ grave, along with 12 other people, which was not identified until 1968.
By chance, Kathleen found a publisher after Robert had died, and the first edition of RTP was issued on 23 April 1914, selling at the then-high price of six shillings (30p). The manuscript at that stage was heavily edited, with over a third of the text removed. But the book quickly became very popular and influential, prompting the first publication of the complete manuscript in 1955, and the publishing of well over a hundred editions in many different languages.
The main sources have been:
Ball, Fred C: One of the Damned, Lawrence & Wishart, 1979.
Hastings Museum and Art Gallery’s Tressell collection and permanent display, www.hmag.org.uk.
Hastings Reference Library (used by Robert Tressell) has a full collection of local newspapers and street directories – http://www.eastsussex.gov.uk/libraries/find/hastings.
Peak, Steve: Mugsborough Revisited, SpeaksBooks, 2011, via email@example.com and www.hastingschronicle.net. Much of the material used in this introduction comes from that book.
Alfred, David: The Robert Tressell Lectures 1981-88, WEA, 1988.
Ball, Fred C: Tressell of Mugsborough, Lawrence & Wishart, 1951.
Harker, Dave: Tressell: The Real Story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Zed Books, 2003.
Hastings Campus Library, University of Brighton, has a Tressell collection, www.brighton.ac.uk/hastings.
Hawthorn, Jeremy: The British Working Class Novel in the 20th Century, Edward Arnold, 1984.
Hopper, Trevor: Robert Tressell’s Hastings, Fanter Books, 2005.
Hunt, Tristram: Introduction to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Penguin Books, 2004.
Hyslop, Jonathan: A Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and the Empire: Robert Tressell in South Africa, History Workshop Journal (51), 2001.
MacMahon, Bryan: Robert Tressell, Dubliner, Kilmacud Stillorgan Local History Society, 2014.
Matthews, Mike: A Mugsborough Rebel: Alf Cobb, Christie Books, 2011.
Mitchell, Jack: Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Lawrence and Wishart, 1969.
Robert Tressell Workshop: The Robert Tressell Papers, WEA, 1982.
Sillitoe, Alan (1964), and Gary Day (1996): Introductions to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Harper Perennial, 2005.
TUC History Online has the complete manuscript viewable online, www.unionhistory.info/ragged/ragged.php.
www.1066.net/tressell is the website of the Hastings-based Robert Tressell Society. The site (run by Ion Castro) also contains much material on many other aspects of the town’s history.