“The workers produce Everything! If you walk through the streets of a town or a city, and look around, Everything that you can see—Factories, Machinery, Houses, Railways, Tramways, Canals, Furniture, Clothing, Food and the very road or pavement you stand upon were all made by the working class, who spend all their wages in buying back only a very small part of the things they produce. Therefore what remains in the possession of their masters represents the difference between the value of the work done and the wages paid for doing it. This systematic robbery has been going on for generations, the value of the accumulated loot is enormous, and all of it, all the wealth at present in the possession of the rich, is rightly the property of the working class—it has been stolen from them…”
For some moments an oppressive silence prevailed. The men stared with puzzled, uncomfortable looks alternately at each other and at the drawings on the wall. They were compelled to do a little thinking on their own account, and it was a process to which they were unaccustomed. In their infancy they had been taught to distrust their own intelligence and to leave “thinking” to their “pastors” and masters and to their “betters” generally. All their lives they had been true to this teaching, they had always had blind, unreasoning faith in the wisdom and humanity of their pastors and masters. That was the reason why they and their children had been all their lives on the verge of starvation and nakedness, whilst their “betters” —who did nothing but the thinking—went clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.
—Robert Tressell: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914)
“Robert Tressell” was the pen name of Robert Noonan, the illegitimate son of a Protestant member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and a Catholic mother, Mary Noonan. After some time in South Africa, he settled in London, where he worked as a painter. Following some political wanderings, he eventually became a socialist, largely influenced by the ideas of the artist and designer William Morris. He took up writing after developing tuberculosis, choosing the name “Tressell” as a play on “trestle table,” part of a painter and decorator’s kit.
He finished The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, (originally titled The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists) in 1910, but the book was rejected by several publishing houses. He died a year later at the age of 40 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. The novel was published posthumously through the efforts of his daughter, Kathleen; originally published in 1914 in an abridged version, with much of the explicitly socialist language edited out, the novel was eventually published in an unabridged edition in 1955.
George Orwell reviewed the original version of the book, praising its attention to “the actual detail of manual work and the tiny things almost unimaginable to any comfortably-situated person which make life a misery when one’s income drops below a certain level.” He called it “a book that everyone should read” that left one “with the feeling that a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive.”