The Ragged Trousered Unionists


by Andy Simpson

100 years ago, on the 3rd of February 1911, a remarkable man died.  His name was Robert Noonan.  Having decided to emigrate to Canada in search of a better life for himself and his daughter Kathleen, Noonan fell ill en-route while in Liverpool and died of tuberculosis aged just 40 years old.  Because he died penniless he was buried in an unmarked grave with 11 other paupers.

What was remarkable about Noonan?  Using the pen name Robert Tressell he had written a book quite unlike anything that had gone before, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’.  Tressell used his experience as a working man, he was a housepainter and signwriter, to write a novel about the struggles of working men and their families.   He intended his book to be read by workers everywhere and make them think for themselves and ask questions about why ordinary people were forced to live in the conditions they did.

Tressell was a socialist and had been involved in politics all his life.  When he lived in Hastings in Kent he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, one of the early groups in the Labour movement.  Tressel wanted to teach other people about socialism.  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is undoubtedly semi-autobiographical; the book’s main character, Frank Owen, is based on Tressell’s own working life and all the characters in the book would be based on people he knew.

In the novel Frank Owen constantly is at odds with his fellow workers as he tries to open their eyes and get them to better their situation in life, but they think their poverty is the natural order if things and that they should know their place.  They have an “it’s not for the likes of us” attitude to life.  Tressell’s book is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough where his fellow workers read newspapers called the Obscurer and the Daily Chloroform which are filled with stories that mislead them on every issue.  Sounds familiar?

I wrote this article because having read the book again after many years, the current situation in Scotland was in my head with every paragraph.  The prevailing mindset, particularly in the West of Scotland, of “I’ve always voted Labour” while for decades these communities have lived in perpetual deprivation, is precisely what Tressell fought against.

“As Owen thought of his child’s future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against his fellow workmen.  They were the enemy – those ragged trousered philanthropists, who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to their miserable slavery for the benefit of others, but defended it and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion of reform.  They were the real oppressors – the men who spoke of themselves as ‘the likes of us’ who, having lived in poverty all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for their children.” – Frank Owen.

Have you ever read a better description of the Unionist mindset?  I know the anniversary of Tressell’s death will pass virtually unnoticed for the simple reason that there isn’t a Labour party anymore.  We could argue for days about what it’s turned into.  But I’m sure Tressell would have seen these people for what they are.  What would he have made of a so-called Labour member taking a seat in the House of Lords?   I’m sure we can guess.

Another reason the book means so much to me is that all my working life I’ve worked in the building trade, and believe me, the characters in Tressell’s book are very much alive.  I’ve worked with them all, Misery the foreman, Crass the charge hand, and Rushten the firm’s director, the names speak for themselves.

In the book Frank Owen calls his fellow workers philanthropists because they give away everything they have.  So let us now point our fingers firmly at Scotland’s Ragged Trousered Unionists.  Scotland is a rich nation, a bigger oil producer than Kuwait.  All our natural resources should be used for the benefit of the people of Scotland, not to bankroll an empire in its final death throes.  Yet one in four of our children live in poverty and one in four of our pensioners live in poverty.

If you haven’t read this book I urge you to go and get a copy.  It’ll make you laugh, cry, and it will make you angry.  There’s so much more to the book than I have mentioned.

Even religion isn’t missed by Tressell.  He mocks the bosses who claim to be Christian while at the same time they grind their workers into the ground.  Those hypocrite followers of the poor carpenter he calls them.

But most of all if you know someone who votes blindly for a party that is happy for them to live in perpetual poverty, then tell them about this book.  That’s what Robert Tressell would have wanted.

“Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery, and is therefore the enemy of his own children.” – Frank Owen.

Tressell never saw his book published in his lifetime, it was rejected by several publishers, at one point they threw the manuscript in the fire.  Kathleen Noonan saved it and kept it in a box under her bed, she managed to get it published after her father’s death by selling the rights.  I read that she was still alive in the 1960s when the book was made into a play and televised with Edward Fox in the lead as Frank Owen.  Sadly she didn’t see the her fathers play as she couldn’t afford a TV.