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“An Epic Portrait of Working-Class Existence” Reminds us that Class is a Neglected Issue in Development Education

Stephen McCloskey

On 12 May 2024, Dublin hosted a festival celebrating a remarkable novel published more than a century ago and written by an author who died in anonymity without seeing his magnum opus in print.  The Robert Tressell Festival is an annual gathering organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to celebrate and debate The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a novel first published in an abridged version in 1914 and not published in full until 1955.  President Michael D. Higgins was among the political and trade union representatives who addressed the festival in 2024 and described the novel as ‘an epic portrait of working-class existence in the throes of imperialism’.  Although it has a working-class setting in the Edwardian period (1901-10), it depicts societal characteristics that have become all too common today: an all-consuming individualism, the ‘othering’ of migrants, the de-skilling and casualisation of labour, extreme poverty, and the loss of self-esteem, confidence and agency caused by unemployment.  It’s enduring relevance down the ages is because it wrestles with themes and social ills that remain unresolved and hotly debated, particularly the unjust social and economic relations created by capitalism and how they are addressed.  Tressell’s novel is concerned with the systemic causes of poverty and makes a bold and impassioned case for a ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’, a society based on equity, inclusion and opportunity for all.  It reminds us that class inequality is a strikingly neglected issue in the development education sector despite its much vaunted aim ‘to tackle the root causes of injustice and inequality’.

Who was Robert Tressell?

Robert Tressell lived a short but eventful life that is poured into the characters and plot of his book.  He was born in Dublin in 1870 the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a police inspector, but adopted the name Noonan after this mother Mary.  An able student who received a good education, Noonan was also a talented sign-writer, an occupation practiced in his novel by the passionate and articulate socialist Frank Owen.  By 1890, he had left the family home and moved to Liverpool but fell into crime before emigrating to Cape Town where he commenced working as a painter / decorator.  In South Africa, he became politically active as a trade union organiser and official of the Independent Labour Party. He also married and had a daughter, Kathleen, but the marriage failed and he returned to England with his daughter to work as a decorator in Hastings, named Mugsborough in the novel.  Noonan started writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists after he settled in Hastings and adopted the pseudonym Tressell – named after the decorating tool – to avoid rejection of the book because of his political activities. 

The novel was completed in 1910 but was rejected by three publishers, probably because the manuscript was written in longhand.  Noonan’s health collapsed from tuberculosis the following year while he tried to arrange passage to Canada for himself and Kathleen.  He died alone in February 1911 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.  He did not live to see the enduring and inspiring impact his novel had on working people.  When it was finally published in 1914 due to the persistence of Kathleen, the First World War dented its impact but during the 1926 General Strike it became known as the ‘Painter’s Bible’ and was admired by another fellow-traveller with the oppressed, George Orwell, who described it as ‘a book that everyone should read’.  It was even credited with Labour’s success in the 1945 general election.  The characters and story clearly resonated with working-class readers who recognised its authenticity and supported its call for social justice.

The philanthropists

The workers in the novel are described as ‘philanthropists’ because they give the value of their labour to their employers.  They are painters and decorators ‘sweating’ for a company called Rushton and Co, working on a cavernous Victorian house dubbed by the workers as ‘the cave’. This is an allusion to Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, in which captives chained in a cavern ‘do not yet realize that there is more to reality than the shadows they see against the wall’.  For Tressell, the workers in his novel were also captives trapped by their wilful ignorance and refusal to contemplate any form of alternative to the system that blighted their lives.  The philanthropists ‘were ready and willing to oppose with ignorant ridicule or brutal force any man who was foolish or quixotic enough to try to explain to them the details of what he thought was a better way’.  The novel brilliantly captures how economic subjugation and extreme poverty drains away the worker’s self-esteem and capacity for collective or individual action.  Their passivity has denied them understanding of the structural conditions that underpin their domination.

Tressell creates fully developed characters in the composition of the workforce casually hired by Rushton and Co to decorate ‘the cave’.  They include the socialist Frank Owen, named after the nineteenth century Welsh socialist, Robert Owen, and most likely modelled on Tressell himself.  Some of the names are perhaps a little too ‘on the nose’ such as the foreman, Alf Crass, forever ridiculing and dismissing his peers, and his acolyte, the religious hypocrite Jack Slyme.  The fifteen-year-old apprentice, Bert White is ‘bound’ into three years’ service by his mother in the hope that he will learn a trade but is mercilessly exploited by the devious general manager, Hunter, nicknamed Nimrod by the workers.  The veteran Jack Linden, at the end of his productive value to the employer, is finally dismissed and consigned to the poor house with his daughter, Jenny, forced into the spare room of another worker.  The novel neither sentimentalises the lives of the workers not spares us the horrors of their marginal existence without decent housing, clothing, food, education or income.  One of the workers succumbs to alcohol as a balm to the realities of life and another darkly ruminates on taking the lives of his family and himself rather than subject them to the continuing privations of life.   All of the workers live in fear of the ‘slaughter’; temporary or permanent dismissal when a job is complete or Winter arrives. 

Despite Owen’s best efforts, there is a lack of solidarity among the workers who consider a misfortune to befall a colleague, such as a work injury, as an opportunity for themselves to either take a job or secure their own.  One sentence seems to anticipate the cold individualism of neoliberalism:

“In order to succeed in the world it was necessary to be brutal, selfish and unfeeling: to push others aside and to take advantage of their misfortunes: to undersell and crush out one’s competitors by fair means or foul; to consider one’s own interests first in every case, absolutely regardless of the wellbeing of others”.

This results in the perspicacious Owen falling into despondency as he contemplates ‘the great barriers and ramparts of invisible ignorance, apathy and self-contempt which will have to be broken down before the system of society of which they are the defences, can be swept away’.

The great money trick

During one of their regular lunchtime discussions, the workers turned their minds to the causes of poverty.   Idleness, drunkenness, mechanisation, landlordism, famine, and over-production were all proposed as causes of poverty but Owen believed the answer lay in ‘private monopoly’ of the earth’s natural resources.  To demonstrate the point, he delivered a lecture, ‘the great money trick’, that amounted to Marx’s labour theory of surplus value.  He used slices of bread to represent natural resources turned into commodities by the workers and three knives as symbols of mechanisation and the means of production.  Rather than receive the full value of their labour invested in the commodities, the workers receive money which is worth a fraction of their labour, while the capitalist who did none of the work, consumes most of the profits.  The workers who ‘could not eat, drink or wear the useless money’ are forced to spend it on the ‘necessaries’ they need for life which they have produced and which are owned by the capitalist.  Moreover, the workers are maintained in such impoverished conditions that they are forced to accept the capitalist’s terms of employment knowing that the alternative is to join the ranks of the unemployed (surplus labour) ready at a moment’s notice to take their job at any cost. 

Like so many workers today, the philanthropists accepted the current system ‘as an established, incontrovertible fact that the existing state of things is immutable’.  And with that in mind, another lunchtime lecture in a chapter titled ‘The Great Oration’ charts the history of wage slavery from feudalism to early capitalism.  Unlike The Communist Manifesto in which Marx and Engels kept a judicious silence on the impact that their work would have on the world, Tressell sets out a vision for a ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ based on a socialist economic system of equitable distribution.  The lecture is delivered by the mysterious George Barrington, who we later discover is from a wealthy family and has immersed himself in the working-class to learn more about their condition.  He is possibly modelled on Friedrich Engels, another scion of the bourgeoisie who championed the cause of the proletariat.  In setting out the case for the state ownership of the means of production, Barrington says ‘It is surely justifiable for the state to do for the benefit of the whole people that which the capitalists are already doing for the profit of a few shareholders’.  He calls for a state landlord to ensure that citizens have adequate shelter and live without want and rejects the sticking plaster of charitable giving. 

“While charity soothes the symptoms it ignores the disease, which is – the PRIVATE OWNERSHIP of the means of producing the necessaries of life, and the restriction of production, by a few selfish individuals for their own profit”.

Barrington instead calls for a Co-operative Commonwealth ‘in which the benefits and pleasures conferred upon mankind by science and civilisation will be enjoyed equally by all’.  The ‘Great Oration’ is a tour de force which merits close attention by readers today as we continue to live in a world in which many essential services and rights remain aspirations. 

Weberian alienation

The book is a rich seam of many other issues closely related to working-class domestic life and labour.  Chief among these is the idea of ‘scamping’ or cutting corners by reducing the number of coats and literally painting over structural weaknesses long enough to get the job done and receive payment.  The men are denied pleasure from pride in their labour as they are forever harassed by Hunter / Nimrod to finish the job with the least amount of preparation and materials, in the shortest period of time.  President Higgins finds that this ‘capitalist work ethic… epitomises the general evolution to a Weberian alienation within industrial society’.  The book is also full of vivid and powerful descriptions of the workers’ domestic lives with their wives often burdened with the impossible task of making their paltry income cover basic necessities.  Mary Linden, Nora Owen and Ruth Easton are continually working at home, caring for neighbours and children, and providing mutual support.  When the men are laid off, their families fall into rental arrears and struggle to access food on ‘tick’.  Life becomes a perpetual struggle even when the workers are in full employment as their paltry wages fail to match even the most basic needs.  Meanwhile, we observe the political machinations of the local council dominated and controlled by the same capitalists that are ‘sweating’ workers and using municipal contracts and money to advance their business interests.  They are abetted by the local press - The Daily Obscurer, Weekly Ananias and Daily Chloroform - which keep their readers submerged in ignorance and compliance.  A farcical election between Tories and Liberals is fought between two sides of the same ideological coin during which the workers are entreated to ‘work hard in order that the Grand Old Flag might be carried to victory’. 


In an introduction to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Tristram Hunt finds that ‘The cold fury, the call to arms is what draws in reader after reader down the generations.  The book has an undimmed ‘rumbling volcanic anger at the embedded structures of inequality along with their willing collaborators’.  It’s unsurprising that in the age of the foodbank, rising homelessness and a cost-of-living crisis that Tressell’s novel remains a cultural touchstone.  In 2010, the playwright Howard Brenton adapted The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for the stage with performances mounted at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre and the Chichester theatre festival.  The timing of the revival was no doubt triggered by the 2008 global financial crisis when capitalism took its biggest fall since the Great Depression.  Reflecting on the book’s generational pull of new readers, Brenton suggested ‘that everything is different but nothing has changed.  We too are enmeshed in a feckless and dangerous capitalist system’. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just reported that poverty levels in Britain today are close to pre-pandemic levels with one in five people (22 per cent of the population) living in poverty, including 4.2 million children.  And in 2023-24, the Trussell Trust foodbank network in the UK distributed 3.12 million emergency food parcels, the highest number ever in a single year.  Poverty is not only rising but deepening with nearly four million people living in destitution meaning that they ‘cannot afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed’.  But rather than address the root cause of endemic poverty in the chaotic, crisis-prone neoliberal economic system embraced so recklessly in the brief but disastrous premiership of Liz Truss, immigration has repeatedly been used as the straw man of politics that is blamed for all our social ills.  This is one of the reasons why development education must end its silence on class as a leading determinant of disadvantage and cause of blighted, wasted lives.  In the first half of the twentieth century, Jack London and George Orwell immersed themselves in working-class life and reported from the coalface of poverty – literally in the case of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.  Where are the chroniclers of working-class life today willing to re-introduce class into the debate on poverty?  And when will development educators recognise that an awakening of class consciousness is a vital step in supporting learners’ action toward poverty eradication?  Reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will go a long way toward igniting that class awakening.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education and editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review

July 2024