The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell was the nom-de-plume of Robert Croker, latterly Robert Noonan, an Irish writer best known for his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.-Early life:...

 first published in 1914 after his death in 1911. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature.


Robert Tressell was the nom-de-plume of Robert Noonan, a house painter. Although born in Dublin (and baptised with the surname Croker), Noonan settled in England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 after living in South Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

 at the beginning of the twentieth century. He chose the pen name Tressell in reference to the trestle table, an important part of his kit as a painter and decorator. Based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse
In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment...

 if he became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing Marxist analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Noonan 's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses.

The novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of 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....

, where Noonan lived, although its goegraphical location is described in the book and is well away from the actual town of Hastings. The original title page of the book carried the subtitle: "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell."

He completed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript was rejected by the three publishing houses to which it was submitted. The rejections severely depressed Noonan, and Kathleen had to save the manuscript from being burnt. She placed it for safekeeping in a metal box underneath her bed.

After Noonan died of 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...

, Kathleen was determined to have her father's writing published and showed it to a friend, the 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...

. Pope recommended the book to her own publisher, who bought the rights in April 1914 for £25. It was published that year in much abridged form in the United Kingdom and in an even more abridged form (90,000 words, from the original 250,000), in 1918. It was also published in Canada and the United States in 1914, in the Soviet Union in 1920, and in Germany in 1925. The publisher removed much of socialist ideology from the first edition; an unabridged edition with Noonan's original ending was not published until 1955.

Plot introduction

Clearly frustrated at the refusal of his contemporaries to recognise the inequity and iniquity of society, Tressell's cast of hypocritical Christians, exploitative capitalists and corrupt councillors provide a backdrop for his main target — the workers who think that a better life is "not for the likes of them". Hence the title of the book; Tressell paints the workers as "philanthropists" who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.

The hero of the book, Frank Owen, is a socialist who believes that the capitalist system is the real source of the poverty he sees all around him. In vain he tries to convince his fellow workers of his world view, but finds that their education has trained them to distrust their own thoughts and to rely on those of their "betters". Much of the book consists of conversations between Owen and the others, or more often of lectures by Owen in the face of their jeering; this was presumably based on Tressell's own experiences.

Major themes

The book provides a comprehensive picture of social, political, economic and cultural life in Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 at a time when socialism
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,...

 was beginning to gain ground. It was around that time that the Labour Party
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...

 was founded and began to win seats in the House of Commons
British House of Commons
The House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also comprises the Sovereign and the House of Lords . Both Commons and Lords meet in the Palace of Westminster. The Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 650 members , who are known as Members...


The book advocates a socialist society in which work is performed to satisfy the needs of all rather than to generate profit for a few. A key chapter is "The Great Money Trick", in which Owen organises a mock-up of capitalism with his workmates, using slices of bread as raw materials and knives as machinery. Owen 'employs' his workmates cutting up the bread to illustrate that the employer — who does not work — generates personal wealth whilst the workers effectively remain no better off than when they began, endlessly swapping coins back and forth for food and wages. This is Tressell's practical way of illustrating the Marxist theory of surplus value
Surplus value
Surplus value is a concept used famously by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy. Although Marx did not himself invent the term, he developed the concept...

, which in the capitalist system is generated by labour.


The BBC made a TV production in the 60's staring Edward Fox
Edward Fox (actor)
Edward Charles Morice Fox, OBE is an English stage, film and television actor.He is generally associated with portraying the role of the upper-class Englishman, such as the title character in the film The Day of the Jackal and King Edward VIII in the serial Edward & Mrs...

 as Owen and Alan Wade as Bert the barrow boy. They featured on the front cover of the paperback.

A stage adaptation
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (play)
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a play by Stephen Lowe, adapted from the classic working-class novel, by Robert Tressell.It was first produced by Joint Stock in Plymouth on 14 September 1978, directed by William Gaskill...

, written by Stephen Lowe and directed by William Gaskill
William Gaskill
William 'Bill' Gaskill is a British theatre director.He worked alongside Laurence Olivier as a founding director of the National Theatre from its time at the Old Vic in 1963...

, was first performed by Joint Stock Theatre Company
Joint Stock Theatre Company
The Joint Stock Theatre Company was founded in London 1974 by David Hare, Max Stafford-Clark and David Aukin. The director William Gaskill was also an important part of the company. It was primarily a new work company....

 in Plymouth on 14 September 1978. It opened at the Riverside Studios
Riverside Studios
Riverside Studios is a production studio, theatre and independent cinema on the banks of the River Thames in Hammersmith, London, England. It plays host to contemporary and international dramatic and dance performance, film, visual art exhibitions and television production.-History:In 1933, the...

, Hammersmith on 12 October 1978.

A stage adaptation, written by Archie Hind
Archie Hind
Archie Hind , the author of The Dear Green Place, was a Scottish writer.-Life and work:The Dear Green Place was his only completed work , but it won four major awards and has been listed as one of the best 100 Scottish novels of all time...

 and directed by David Hayman
David Hayman
David Hayman is a Scottish film and television actor and director, best known for his role as DCS Mike Walker in ITV drama Trial and Retribution. He also a prominent supporter of the SNP's call for Scottish independence....

, was performed in 1984 by the Scottish agitprop theatre company 7:84
7:84 was a Scottish left-wing agitprop theatre group. The name comes from a statistic, published in The Economist in 1966, that 7% of the population of the UK owned 84% of the state's wealth....


A stage adaptation, by Tom Mclennan, was commissioned by the union, PCS
Public and Commercial Services Union
The Public and Commercial Services Union is the sixth largest trade union in the United Kingdom. Most of its members work in government departments and other public bodies although some work for private companies.- Membership and organisation :...

, for "Unions 08". The play is still running and on its third consecutive year of touring. The Tressell society said of the adaptation: “This is the best production of this important work we have ever seen.”

An adaptation was made by Above The Title Productions for BBC radio in 2008, produced by Rebecca Pinfield and Johnny Vegas, and directed by Dirk Maggs. Three 60-minute episodes were broadcast as the Classic Serial on Radio 4
BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 is a British domestic radio station, operated and owned by the BBC, that broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes, including news, drama, comedy, science and history. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is currently Gwyneth Williams, and the...

. Actors included Andrew Lincoln
Andrew Lincoln
Andrew Lincoln is an English actor, known for his roles in the TV series This Life, Teachers and Afterlife, and the films Love Actually and Heartbreaker...

 (Owen), Johnny Vegas
Johnny Vegas
Johnny Vegas is an English actor and comedian. He is known for his angry rants, portly figure, high husky voice and support of St Helens rugby league club. More recently he has moved into dramatic acting.-Early life:He was born in St Helens, Lancashire, the youngest of four children of Laurence...

 (Easton), Timothy Spall
Timothy Spall
Timothy Leonard Spall, OBE is an English character actor and occasional presenter.-Early life:Spall, the third of four sons, was born in Battersea, London. His mother, Sylvia R. , was a hairdresser, and his father, Joseph L. Spall, was a postal worker...

 (Crass), Paul Whitehouse
Paul Whitehouse
Paul Whitehouse is a Welsh actor, writer and comedian. He became known for his work with Harry Enfield and as one of the stars of the popular BBC sketch show, The Fast Show. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was in the top 50 comedy acts voted for by comedians and comedy insiders...

 (Old Misery), John Prescott
John Prescott
John Leslie Prescott, Baron Prescott is a British politician who was Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. Born in Prestatyn, Wales, he represented Hull East as the Labour Member of Parliament from 1970 to 2010...

 (Policeman), Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey is an English comedian, musician and actor. As well as his extensive stand-up work, Bailey is well known for his appearances on Black Books, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Have I Got News for You, and QI.Bailey was listed by The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy in...

 (Rushton), Kevin Eldon (Slyme), and Tony Haygarth
Tony Haygarth
Tony Haygarth is an English television, film and theatre actor.-Career:At the age of eighteen, Haygarth worked unsuccessfully as a lifeguard in Torquay, and also tried escapology, equally unsuccessfully...

 (Philpot). This adaptation was nominated for a Sony Radio Drama award in 2009.

In May 2009, BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 is a British domestic radio station, operated and owned by the BBC, that broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes, including news, drama, comedy, science and history. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is currently Gwyneth Williams, and the...

 broadcast a two-part sequel called Mugsborough 1917, which featured many of the cast from the previous year's production. The dramatisation was by Andrew Lynch and features the characters of Robert Tressell's novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, picking up the story 10 years on.

A stage adaptation, written by Howard Brenton
Howard Brenton
-Early years:Brenton was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, son of Methodist minister Donald Henry Brenton and his wife Rose Lilian . He was educated at Chichester High School For Boys and read English Literature at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. In 1964 he was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal...

 and directed by Christopher Morahan
Christopher Morahan
Christopher Thomas Morahan CBE is an English stage and television director and producing manager.-Training and career:Morahan was born in London in 1929, and was educated at Highgate School...

, opened at the Liverpool Everyman
Everyman Theatre
The Everyman Theatre stands at the north end of Hope Street, Liverpool, Merseyside, England. Established in 1964 in a former cinema, it encouraged local talent and played a part in the development of new artistes and writers. The theatre was rebuilt between 1975 and 1977, and was closed again for...

 on 17 June 2010 and subsequently transferred to co-producer the Minerva Theatre
Minerva Theatre
Minerva Theatre may refer to:*Minerva Theatre, Chichester*Minerva Theatre, Kolkata...

in Chichester as of 15 July 2010.

External links

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