The ragged trousered philanthropists

by Robert Tressell

Other authorsTony Benn, Lionel Kelly (Writer Of Added Commentary.)
Paper Book, 2012


'The present system means joyless drudgery, semi-starvation, rags and premature death; and they vote for it and uphold it. Let them have what they vote for! Let them drudge and let them starve!'There is no other novel quite like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. George Orwell called it 'a wonderful book'; its readers have become a living part of its remarkable history.Tressell's novel is about survival on the underside of the Edwardian Twilight, about exploitative employment when the only safety nets are charity, workhouse, and grave. Following the fortunes of a group of painters and decorators and their families, and the attempts to rouse their political willby the Socialist visionary Frank Owen, the book is both a highly entertaining story and a passionate appeal for a fairer way of life. It asks questions that are still being asked today: why do your wages bear no relation to the value of your work? Why do fat cats get richer when you don't?Tressell's answers are 'The Great Money Trick' and the 'philanthropy' of an unenlightened workforce, who give away their rights and aspirations to a decent life so freely.Intellectually enlightening, deeply moving and gloriously funny (complete with exploding clergyman), The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book that changes lives.… (more)



Call number



Ware, Hertfordshire : Wordsworth Classics, 2012.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
[The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist] by Robert Tressell is a unique reading experience, but one that I was thankful to finish. The misery and dejection of the working people is graphically described, but however accurate it may be the repetitive nature of much of it means that it can be a slog to
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read, However dispiriting this may be, it is the underlying message that most of them deserve to be half starved and destitute, for continuing to support the capitalist system that is most depressing. The Ragged Trousered philanthropists are the working men because in undisguised irony Tressell is saying that they are devoting their lives for the most deserving of charities: the rich.

The books final two sentences imagine a socialist utopia:

“The light that will shine upon the world wide Fatherland and illumine the gilded domes and glittering pinnacles of the beautiful cities of the future, where men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy. The Golden Light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of socialism”

But they deny all that has gone before and are really only the delirious dream of Owen the consumptive, socialist working class hero of the novel.

The novel which doubles as a socialist tract follows the working lives of a band of painters and decorators. They are driven and “sweated” to complete jobs in a cut throat competitive environment. Tressell himself was a sign writer and uses his experiences to give a first hand, blow by blow account of their working conditions; he tells of their struggle to clothe and feed themselves and of their desperately poor home life. The story of their continuous struggle to survive is interlaced with the Socialist teaching that could transform their lives. The original teacher is Owen who whenever he can; lectures his workmates on how a socialist system would be to the benefit of all. The reader follows Owen’s explanation of how the Capitalist money trick works, how it robs the workers of the fruits of their labours. Their are diagrams painted on walls, their are impromptu question and answer sessions, but through it all Owen struggles to make any headway, let alone make any converts. Later it is a socialist battle van visiting the town that provides a platform for the socialists and finally George Barrington (an independent man of means) makes an impassioned plea for Socialist change: in effect delivering a socialist manifesto.

The Socialist message is repeated and enhanced throughout the book, but it continually fails to impress the townspeople of Mugsborough. The working men continue to vociferously support the system which serves to enslave them:

“They often said that such things as leisure, culture, pleasure and the benefits of civilisation were never intended for ‘the likes of us’

They refuse to believe that changing the system would benefit anybody and perhaps after all they are right, because Tressells message that men/women do not deserve socialism and will not be ready for it for another 500 years; comes through loud and clear. Tressells book has been taught in schools and universities and was required reading for any would be socialist member of the British parliament, but those days are gone. After the recent Conservative success in the British Election this year, it would appear that either the working class has disappeared completely from the majority of the South and Midlands, or that they still believe that the knobs (rich and powerful) have a divine right to run the country.

Sir Graball d’Encloseland, Mayor Sweater, Councillors Rushton, Didlum and Grinder, along with Mrs Starvem, and Lady Slumrent ably supported by Rev Bosher run the Town of Mugsborough for all that it is worth and in effect take the book into the realms of a fable (although a very long one). In my opinion there is no doubt that the book could do with some serious editing, but as an example of a Socialist novel with a political message then it is in a class of it’s own. I can’t say I really enjoyed the book, but I liked what it said and so 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member missjones
The novel is an account of a year in the life of a group of housepainters in Hastings in the years before the First World War.
The central character of the book is a housepainter named Owen who tries to rouse his workmates from their political apathy to embrace Socialism as the solution to their
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impoverished and precarious existence.
Even if you don’t agree with the Socialist theory espoused in the book you are quickly drawn in by Tressell’s superb characterization and acute ear for dialogue. Anyone who has ever worked will recognize the characters and situations which are depicted so masterfully. Before I read the book I would never have thought that my working life would have anything in common with that of an Edwardian tradesman but the situations Tressell depicts are universal.
An excellent book which I couldn’t recommend highly enough.
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LibraryThing member KateRigby
This is a book I’ve wanted to read for literally decades and it was well worth the wait. That I should have read it at this time seems to be no accident. There is much relevance for society today with all the draconian cuts and culture of austerity we are now facing, further impoverishing the
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poor and enriching the wealthy. Although a work of fiction, the book is a valuable social document of the realities of Edwardian England for the poorest. Electric lighting was not commonplace (Tressell’s workers light lamps and candles at work and at home in the dark winter evenings), adequate clothing and protection against inclement weather was non-existent leaving the workers open to poor health and life-threatening diseases, there was no NHS, no unemployment benefit or welfare state and no workers’ rights or health and safety protection for workers.
The book begins with a group of workers who are working on the renovation of a house called The Cave under the auspices of their cut-throat employer Rushton’s (although as the book unfolds we find that Mr Rushton and his colleagues are relatively ‘good’ employers compared with others in the town of Mugsborough where the novel is set). Rushton’s underling is the appropriately-named Hunter (and as you read on you will find many an ironic or fun-poking name for his characters) who coerces and spies on his workers in the hope of catching them out doing something they shouldn’t so he can dismiss them and replace them with cheaper labour. And there’s always an army of half-starved ill-clad men hanging about desperate for work and willing to be paid less than the going rate than the ‘old hands’. This inevitably results in a working atmosphere of resentment, fear, suspicion and backstabbing among the men who are overseen by the foreman Crass. Crass is in many ways in an enviable position, though he has to do a lot of cozying up to the bosses. In turn, the workers themselves try to get into his good books to prevent themselves from being considered for dismissal.
Rushton, Hunter and many of the other town’s big employers are also influential in the business and religious affairs of the town.
When self-educated Frank Owen, tries to explain the causes of poverty to his fellow workers, he is mocked and ridiculed by most of them. They are resistant to change and opt for the status quo because they don’t believe in an alternative, in spite of their lot being a miserable one: their families half-starving and dressed in rags and dilapidated boots. However, Owen’s arguments – as well as those of one of his fellow workers, Barrington - are persuasive and the men cannot put together a cohesive argument against those of Owen.
All in all, Tressell portrays a rich portrayal of brutal working life and poverty as it was at the time and many of the tragedies that resulted. But there is also plenty of humour in the interplay of characters who are as alive and relevant today as they were then.
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
This book was written nearly a hundred years ago, but it doesn't have the sort of overly-descriptive wordy feel of other books from that era. Tressell has a straightforward, almost childlike style, and accordingly the story is very accessible and easy to read.

I would never consider myself a
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socialist (I have no left-leanings whatsoever!) so this book's great triumph is that it almost turned me red! The case that is made for socialism is compelling, you cannot but feel sympathy for the characters who are so badly treated by their employers, this maltreatment seemingly a direct result of the economic system in which they exist. In the 21st century, as we look back on, say, Eastern European history, we can see the flaws in the argument, yet when the activist arrived with his socialist propaganda I found myself mentally urging him on.

My main criticism of the book is its repetitiveness (how many times do we need to hear how a decorating job was bodged, paint 'slobbered' on the wall etc etc?) and lax editing. This said, the author surprised me right at the end with a scene so touching and yet delivered with such incredible simplicity that the tears were fairly rolling down my cheeks.

I'm still in favour of the free market, but I'm very glad to have read this book.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
This book is a bitterly savage satire on the social, economic and religious conditions in England during the early years of the twentieth century. In some ways this reminded me of Dos Passos's trilogy [U.S.A.]. Both books make it crystal clear why socialism, Bolshevism/communism, trade unions and
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anarchy were popular ideas in the years immediately preceding & following the Russian Revolution. However, Dos Passos's books were ultimately more optimistic than this one; despite the terrible conditions of American laborers, there was the feeling that Wobblies and/or the union organizers would eventually make life better. Tressell holds out no such hope - instead, he shows that the most downtrodden citizens are some of the strongest opponents to change.

I did find the names Tressell gave to the employers amusing: Mr. Oyley Sweater (as in one who sweats the work out of his employees); Mr. Grinder; Mrs Starvem; the painting firm of Dauber and Botchit; Snatchum the undertaker; and on the town council Dr. Weakling as the only one interested in helping others! Not to mention the workers' manager Hunter, variously called Nimrod or Misery.

While I believe that conditions for blue collar workers in the United States & England have improved, I found this idea that the workers firmly held to conditions that were ultimately responsible for their misery depressing because it seems so similar to the way lower economic classes in the U.S. responded to Donald Trump.

I also listened to the LibriVox recording; Tadhg's narration was wonderful -- this free public domain audiobook was of better quality than some commercial audiobooks!
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LibraryThing member epeeist
One of the saddest and most powerful books on the rise of socialism in Britain
LibraryThing member miketroll
This novel is an icon of socialist literature, revealing the essence of the leftist mind set: pious, didactic, simplistic, smug.

Tressell is especially fond of attacking the profit motive. This is absurd: who in this world engages in work with the intention of making a loss?
LibraryThing member HagbardCeline
One of those rare books that can really be life changing.
LibraryThing member unlikelyaristotle
This book is essentially a socialist manifesto. I picked it up for two reasons: I was told this was an English classic, which was slightly different because it revolves around the plight of the working class. Although I can think of several books which touch on this topic, none quite as
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emphatically as this one for sure. The other reason is that I have a lot of socialist friends, who insist that socialism and communism were different concepts, and I couldn't figure it out, so I realized this book would be a good introduction to understanding my friend's political perspectives.

Doubtless, this book provides a strong foundation for anyone who is thinking of joining the SWP, or any other socialist organization. It gave a stark contrast of the wealth disparity in England, highlighted the irony of the poorest of the poor slaving away to build gilded mansions for the Earls, Lords and other landed gentry of England. Another contrast which is not easily missed is showing the worst case scenario of capitalism, and providing the best case scenario of socialism. The way it was described in this book made a Socialist republic sound positively utopian! However, I do know that every system is flawed, no matter how well-intentioned their perpetrators are. I was not converted to Socialism by this book, but I am more convinced than before that there is something deeply wrong with the way our world is being run today.

As a novel, I found it extremely repetitive, and I might pass out from annoyance if I ever hear the phrase 'bare necessities of life' again. However, after some light research I discovered that the author was writing from real-life experiences, and so the reiteration came from a place of utter and real frustration with the status quo. Still, I thought that this particular idea could have been more articulate.

My favorite thing about this book was the theme of education. I completely felt for the writer when I could see the protagonists desperation about how the education of the poorer classes was slowly being driven out of them until they were reduced to semi-literate 'animals', as is described in the book. The fact that people use religion to push the agenda of a select few does make me feel incredibly sad and outraged, because religion is meant to be beautiful and common to everyone. C'est la vie, though!

The characters were lively, despite their wretched poverty, and I enjoyed trying to decipher their incredibly thick accents, which I don't think I could place to any section of England even if I heard it outright. I also loved the silly and meaningful names assigned to each character, particularly the names of the building firms!
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LibraryThing member bennyb
As someone with socialist sympathies this book appealed to my political sensitivity. I felt indignation at the hopeless predicament the proletariat in this novel were entrapped in and their inability to understand how they were being exploited by a self serving greedy elitist system, bar a minority
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of individuals who constantly throughout the book tried to explain in the most simplistic way, why they were all in "abject poverty" and how to make a fairer society for all, but were constantly mocked by the majority of the workforce. Even if your not a socialist, this book is worth a read. A genuine heart felt story.
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LibraryThing member Davidgnp
This biting and bitter social satire was declined by publishers in Robert Tressell's lifetime which says much about the prevailing social order that the novel criticises, for it is as uncomfortable for the establishment as it is powerful for the reader. It is now a century since it was written but
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the book (sometimes called the bible of socialism, sometimes the first working class novel) remains as broadly relevant today as it did in the period just before the First World War. Under the surface of apparent progress surprisingly litte has changed with respect to class distinction and social economic status in the western world: the rich still wax fat on the labours of the poor; politicians still rise to power on empty promises that are swallowed whole by a deluded electorate.

Robert Tressell was the pen-name of Robert Noonan. Fittingly the name was taken from the decorator's 'tressell' for Noonan was himself a decorator and signwriter. The central characters in his novel are a set of impoverished painters and decorators whose work and lives are examined in relation to each other, their struggling families and their grasping employers. The book is overtly political and occasionally doctrinaire - setting the principles of socialism (as a theoretical ideal) against the unjust realities of capitalism - but it also has a strong narrative and characterisation played out in credible if oppressive situations. There is humour too, which serves to season the prevailing mood of near-despair.

Tressell's only work may lack the subtlety of, say, George Orwell, but it greatly influenced Orwell and other political writers when they were finally able to read it. It is a pity that Robert Noonan died without knowing his ambition to be published would eventually be realised and unaware of how seminal his book, written in angry sincerity, would become. Even if he knew this, however, he would doubtless remain disappointed that socialism as he understood it has never genuinely been tried while, after flirting with mixed economies, most western nations have reverted to a capitalist system as virulent as the one he knew. Plus ça change.
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LibraryThing member Mockers
Stark political criticism and general wake up call to the masses! Workers of all nations... and so forth. Can be a difficult read and the characters are somewhat one dimensional. Lifts the lid on it's time though.
LibraryThing member captgeoff
A must for any budding socialst, read about the money trick etc. Set in a house renovation in Hastings early 1900s. An excellent introduction to socialst ideas.
LibraryThing member Clurb
A must-read for any would-be socialist. Tressell presents to the reader a scene of everyday society, with real characters and plot devices and imbues everything with a heightened sense of the politics underpinning it all.
LibraryThing member LibraryLou
Extremely interesting book. Gave me a real insight into work during the early nineteenth century, and of society at the time. Worth persevering with as it is very well written, if a bit repetitive of the point the author wants to make about the cause of poverty.
LibraryThing member wendyrey
I tried, I really tried but I could not finish this book - got about half way and retired defeated.
Working class life in the 19th century, poverty , class conflict and all.
Worthy but dull
LibraryThing member StEdwardsCollege
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells the story of a group of working men who are joined one day by Owen, a journeyman-prophet with a vision of a just society. Owen's spirited attacks on the greed and dishonesty of the capitalist system rouse his fellow men from their political quietism. A
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masterpiece of wit and political passion and one of the most authentic novels of English working class life ever written.
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LibraryThing member Mike-Fitzgibbons
A book that has stood the test of time. Almost the bible for left wind politics. One that inspires and at the same time is uplifting as the craftsman and the their masters come into economic conflict.
LibraryThing member eglinton
Overlong, under-edited, but very detailed and always interesting. The book works through the travails of workmen at the not very lucrative bottom of the Edwardian dynamic, and does so with the insight of one of their own. In parts dogmatic, in parts adopting the approach of rational inquiry, but
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always from a committed standpoint; such that when in Chapter 3 a baby shows up unquietly teething, you're already foreseeing the Dickensian scene of maudlin fate that will follow. Tressell’s motive is the “suppressor fury” (his phrase) - exposing the injustices and unfairness of these working arrangements, of the economy as it was, and is. His remedy is Marxist but not in the wearisome formula of a tract; the book is written in the prosaic profane discourse of workmen, and with real common feeling for their ways. Still, in the way of Marxists, he can be patronising in his insistence on received truth and on the delusions (false consciousness) of the men. Likewise, the author curls his lip at their diversions and pleasures - football, their “beano”, taking sides in elections, churchgoing. Overall an engaging read, and it is rather touching now to be reminded how keen the belief was (pre USSR) in the utopia of common endeavours and gains. There’s documentary interest too, as these workmen, housepainters mostly, are working on the very housing stock we now expensively cherish.
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LibraryThing member Pondlife
A socialist manifesto masquerading as a novel. It's too long, too repetitive, and very naive in hindsight now we have a few examples of 20th century communist states. Everything is black and white: good socialists, and bad capitalists. And the workers who don't agree with the socialist viewpoint
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deserve their fate according to the author. There are many strawman arguments put forward so the author can knock them down to show the superiority of socialism.

I was surprised to see no mention of the Labour party. This book was written around 1910, and the labour party would have stood for at least two elections by then and won a handful of seats each time. But you only hear about the tories and the liberals.

It's still an interesting book though, being one of the key texts on the development of British left-wing politics. And some of the concepts and thoughts are quite insightful. But it was a bit of a slog to get through. It's a shame, because with better writing, a tighter story, and less politicising, this could have been the British equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath.
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LibraryThing member Pyobon
Rather a polemic, but very readable, mainly for it's social history, but also for the clarity of its explanation of the roots of poverty
LibraryThing member wrichard
In early 20th Century Hastings a group of house painters work so that the wealthy don't need to do anything.

Much more interesting than that though
LibraryThing member mumoftheanimals
I have twice tried to read this book. Once when I was in my late teens and another in my 50s. Both times I have been unable to finish it. The plot is dreary and repetitive. Its analysis is simplistic and bitter. I think it is really only popular because we want it to be. It was written by a working
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class man who had first-hand experience of the class war and an insight into how they were and what they suffered at the turn of the century. He in turn makesx us suffer pages and pages of boredom.
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LibraryThing member tgamble54
Too long and political. Otherwise an interesting look at the lives of the working poor.
LibraryThing member RajivC
This is not an easy book to define, at a deep level.

There is very little drama, very little action that takes place in the book. What you have, is a series of little incidents and observations of the daily life of the English worker, and his masters in the early 1900's. The observations are minute
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and, it seems that when it was published, many workers identified themselves as the characters in the book - in the sense that they felt that Robert Tressell felt that they were writing about them.

It is also an early treatise on socialism, and the talks on socialism are pioneered by the main character - Owens, as well as another character - Barrington.

The characters of the owners, the 'rulers' and leaders of the town have been painted mercilessly, and what is amazing, is that you can picture these characters in many countries today.

There is a biting sarcasm throughout the book, and it is a social commentary of the times.

It is an extremely good, many-layered book, and is not a book that you should rush through.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to understand British society 100 years back and draw parallels in many societies today.

I also recommend this book to anyone who likes to read a book that is multi-layered and complex.
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Original publication date



184022682X / 9781840226829
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