Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell was the nom-de-plume of Robert Croker, latterly Robert Noonan, an Irish
Irish people
The Irish people are an ethnic group who originate in Ireland, an island in northwestern Europe. Ireland has been populated for around 9,000 years , with the Irish people's earliest ancestors recorded having legends of being descended from groups such as the Nemedians, Fomorians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha...

 writer best known for his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a novel by Robert Tressell first published in 1914 after his death in 1911. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature.-Background:...


Early life

Noonan was born in Dublin, Ireland, the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a senior member of the Royal Irish Constabulary
Royal Irish Constabulary
The armed Royal Irish Constabulary was Ireland's major police force for most of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. A separate civic police force, the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police controlled the capital, and the cities of Derry and Belfast, originally with their own police...

. He was baptized and raised a Roman Catholic. His father, who wasn't Catholic, had his own family, but attempted to provide for Robert until his death in 1875.

Noonan had, in the words of his daughter, Kathleen, "a very good education" and could speak a variety of languages. However, when he was sixteen, he showed signs of a radical political consciousness, and left his family, declaring he "would not live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlord
Absentee landlord
Absentee landlord is an economic term for a person who owns and rents out a profit-earning property, but does not live within the property's local economic region. This practice is problematic for that region because absentee landlords drain local wealth into their home country, particularly that...

ism". It was around this time he changed his surname from Croker to his mother's maiden name.

South Africa

In 1888, Noonan moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where, despite not having an apprenticeship, he became a painter and decorator
Painter and decorator
A house painter and decorator is a tradesman responsible for the painting and decorating of buildings, and is also known as a decorator or house painter...

. When he married in 1891, he was recorded as Robert Phillipe Noonan, Decorator. The marriage was an unhappy one, with his wife having numerous affairs after the birth of their daughter, Kathleen. They divorced in 1895, and Noonan acquired all the property, including their house in an affluent suburb of Cape Town.

Noonan and his daughter moved to Johannesburg
Johannesburg also known as Jozi, Jo'burg or Egoli, is the largest city in South Africa, by population. Johannesburg is the provincial capital of Gauteng, the wealthiest province in South Africa, having the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa...

, where he secured a well-paying job with a construction company. It was here that he learned the ways of the industry he would later write about in his novel, although Noonan's actual circumstances varied greatly from the proletarian characters of the book. After becoming Secretary of the Transvaal
South African Republic
The South African Republic , often informally known as the Transvaal Republic, was an independent Boer-ruled country in Southern Africa during the second half of the 19th century. Not to be confused with the present-day Republic of South Africa, it occupied the area later known as the South African...

 Federated Building Trades Council, he was able to afford to send his daughter to an exclusive convent school and also to employ a black manservant named Sixpence, of whom he was said to be "very fond".

In 1897, Noonan led a successful protest against the employment of black skilled labour. During 1898, he became a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the Centennial of 1798 Association, which commemorated the revolutionary nationalist
Irish nationalism
Irish nationalism manifests itself in political and social movements and in sentiment inspired by a love for Irish culture, language and history, and as a sense of pride in Ireland and in the Irish people...

 United Irishmen.

As a '98 Association member, Noonan helped form the Irish Brigades
Irish commandos
Two units of Irish commandos fought alongside the Boers against the British forces during the Second Boer War -Irish Transvaal Brigade:John MacBride, a friend of Arthur Griffith's, organised the Irish Transvaal Brigade...

, an anti-British force that fought alongside the Boers in the Second Boer War
Second Boer War
The Second Boer War was fought from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902 between the British Empire and the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State...

. At this point, accounts of his life differ. Some assert he took up arms and was interned
Internment is the imprisonment or confinement of people, commonly in large groups, without trial. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning as: "The action of 'interning'; confinement within the limits of a country or place." Most modern usage is about individuals, and there is a distinction...

 by the British until the end of the war, when he returned to Britain. Others say he left South Africa just before hostilities began in October 1899.


In any event, around the turn of the century, Noonan ended up in Hastings
Hastings is a town and borough in the county of East Sussex on the south coast of England. The town is located east of the county town of Lewes and south east of London, and has an estimated population of 86,900....

, Sussex
Sussex , from the Old English Sūþsēaxe , is an historic county in South East England corresponding roughly in area to the ancient Kingdom of Sussex. It is bounded on the north by Surrey, east by Kent, south by the English Channel, and west by Hampshire, and is divided for local government into West...

. Here, he found work as a sign writer, but at much lower wages and in far poorer conditions than he had experienced in South Africa. Kathleen was initially sent to boarding
Boarding school
A boarding school is a school where some or all pupils study and live during the school year with their fellow students and possibly teachers and/or administrators. The word 'boarding' is used in the sense of "bed and board," i.e., lodging and meals...

 and convent schools, but eventually could no longer afford them and attended state schools instead.

Noonan had to take part-time jobs in addition to his full-time position. He seems not to have joined a trade union. For a while, his political beliefs appeared to have moved rightwards, like many leading socialists
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 of the time, to a more social-chauvinistic
Chauvinism, in its original and primary meaning, is an exaggerated, bellicose patriotism and a belief in national superiority and glory. It is an eponym of a possibly fictional French soldier Nicolas Chauvin who was credited with many superhuman feats in the Napoleonic wars.By extension it has come...

 and anti-German
Anti-German sentiment
Anti-German sentiment is defined as an opposition to or fear of Germany, its inhabitants, and the German language. Its opposite is Germanophilia.-Russia:...


In sharp contrast to the days when he aided and perhaps fought with the Boers against Britain's imperialism
Imperialism, as defined by Dictionary of Human Geography, is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." The imperialism of the last 500 years,...

, he now was designing aircraft
An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air, or, in general, the atmosphere of a planet. An aircraft counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines.Although...

, which he hoped would be accepted by the War Office
War Office
The War Office was a department of the British Government, responsible for the administration of the British Army between the 17th century and 1964, when its functions were transferred to the Ministry of Defence...

. In 1905, his designs were rejected, and he turned leftwards
Left-wing politics
In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society...

 once again. Influenced by the Marxist-influenced ideas of designer and socialist William Morris
William Morris
William Morris 24 March 18343 October 1896 was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement...

, he joined the Social Democratic Federation
Social Democratic Federation
The Social Democratic Federation was established as Britain's first organised socialist political party by H. M. Hyndman, and had its first meeting on June 7, 1881. Those joining the SDF included William Morris, George Lansbury and Eleanor Marx. However, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's long-term...

 in 1906. The next year, after a dispute with his employer, Noonan lost his job. Despite the demand for his skills, his health began to deteriorate and he eventually developed tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he started writing, something he hoped would earn enough money to keep him from the workhouse.

He wrote under the pen name Robert Tressell as he feared the socialist views expressed in the book would have him blacklisted. He chose the surname Tressell as a play on the trestle table
Trestle table
A trestle table is an item of furniture comprising two or three trestle supports linked by a longitudinal cross-member over which a board or tabletop is placed. It is the earliest form of table, after the basic pedestal-style table known to be used in ancient times, and was a common structure in...

, an important part of a painter and decorator's kit. (Until the full manuscript was published in 1955, all copies of the book cited the author as Robert "Tressall".) He completed The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript was rejected by the three publishing houses. The rejections severely depressed him, and his daughter had to save the manuscript from being burnt. It was placed for safekeeping in a metal box underneath her bed.


Unhappy with his life in Britain, he decided that he and Kathleen should emigrate to Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

; however, he only reached Liverpool when he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse
Liverpool Infirmary
Liverpool Infirmary was founded in 1743, took 6 years to build, and was opened by the Earl of Derby on March 25, 1749. The first Infirmary stood on the site of the present day St George's Hall, and cost £2,600 to build. It was expanded in 1771....

, where he died of 'phthisis pulmonalis' (i.e. pulmonary tuberculosis) on 3 February 1911, aged 40.

He was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers opposite Walton prison
Liverpool (HM Prison)
HM Prison Liverpool is a categoryB/C local men's prison, located in the Walton area of Liverpool in England. The prison is operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service.-History:...

 in Liverpool. The location of the grave was not discovered until 1970. The plot is now marked at a cemetery at the same location, now called Rice Lane City Farm. A nearby road is named Noonan Close.

Posthumous publication

Kathleen mentioned her father's novel to a friend of hers, writer Jessie Pope
Jessie Pope
Jessie Pope was an English poet, writer and journalist, who remains best known for her patriotic motivational poems published during World War I...

, who recommended it to her publisher. In April 1914, the publisher bought the rights to the book for £25, and it appeared in Britain, Canada and the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 later that year, in the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 in 1920, and in Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 in 1925. The version as originally published was heavily abridged by Pope, with much of the socialist ideology removed. Pope's version ended with the novel's hero, Frank Owen, who taught that "money was the cause of poverty", contemplating suicide.

The original manuscript was subsequently located by Tressell advocate F. C. Ball and, after raising funds to acquire and re-assemble the original version, an unabridged edition was published in 1955. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a novel by Robert Tressell first published in 1914 after his death in 1911. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature.-Background:...

has won approval from the political left and some academics. It has been cited as a factor in the landslide Labour
Labour Party (UK)
The Labour Party is a centre-left democratic socialist party in the United Kingdom. It surpassed the Liberal Party in general elections during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-1931. The party was in a wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945, after...

 victory in 1945, and even for the election of two non-Labour-endorsed Communist
Communist Party of Great Britain
The Communist Party of Great Britain was the largest communist party in Great Britain, although it never became a mass party like those in France and Italy. It existed from 1920 to 1991.-Formation:...

 members of Parliament
Parliament of the United Kingdom
The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom, British Crown dependencies and British overseas territories, located in London...

 that same year.

Use of Tressell's name

Tressell's name has been used over the years by various groups and individuals, mainly in and around Hastings:
  • The Robert Tressell Workshop — a publishing concern based in Hastings.
  • Robert Tressell Close — a small residential street in Hastings named after the writer.
  • Tressell Ward — a political ward in Hastings.
  • The Robert Tressell Lectures — a series of annual lectures concerning not only The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but also other aspects of left-wing politics and sociology.
  • Tressell Publications — a small politically based publishing house.
  • Robert Tressell Halls of Residence — accommodation for students studying at University Centre Hastings
    University Centre Hastings
    The University Centre Hastings is a small higher education institute located in Hastings, England that is managed by University of Brighton. The centre was opened in 2003 in buildings previously occupied by BT.-The University Centre today:...


External links

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