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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: still a huge influence on socialist activism today




Next month will mark 101 years since the first publication of this socialist classic.


Next month will mark 101 years since Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was first published back in October 1914, but demand for the working-class novel continues undiminished.

Cited as a major influence on socialist activism and ideology throughout the 20th Century, the book is widely considered a classic and one of the most shared of all time.

And when we say ‘shared’ we don’t mean on social media - the novel is a ‘passalong’, one that tends to be read and then given to friends or colleagues for inspiration (something the late Tony Benn alluded to in the foreword he wrote for our edition of the book). 

The author Robert Tressell was the pseudonym of Robert Noonan, an Irish signwriter and decorator who travelled from South Africa back to England at the turn of the century and based the book on his life in the town of Hastings, where he lived.

The book was published three years after his death from tuberculosis and was his only novel. He received a pauper’s burial and was laid to rest with 12 others in Walton Park cemetery in Liverpool. 

Although he failed to find a publisher while he was alive, his daughter Kathleen granted Noonan’s wish to see the book in print after she showed it to her friend, the writer Jessie Pope, who approached her own publisher, Grant Richards. The version of the book that appeared was heavily edited with much of the political content removed and the ending changed, but it was still nevertheless a very influential novel which was reprinted frequently around the world, becoming known as 'The Socialist Bible'. Widely read by troops in WW2, it has been credited with being a major factor in the 1945 General Election, which saw Winston Churchill ousted and the first ever majority Labour Government sweep to power in  a landslide victory. 

It was not until 1955 that the fully restored version was published and it is on this which our edition is based. The novel itself follows the journey of Frank Owen through the fictional town of Mugsborough (a thinly-disguised Hastings) as he explores the hardships and plight of the working-class, set in the capitalist society of early 20th Century.

Noonan identifies the roles of the working-class against those that employ them to make the employers wealthy, which in turn makes the workers the philanthropists.

Although Frank argues his case to colleagues, it soon becomes clear that the majority of his companions have no desire to change and that, in fact, they believe they are part of a just system.

In turn, Noonan addresses the very nature and mindset of the working class against social and political change - those that are content and those that are dissatisfied, issues that many socialists still face today. 

Indeed, since Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory to become the new Leader of the Opposition the Labour Party has attracted more than 60,000 new members and as a result, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has once again been thrust into the spotlight - its message is a timely reminder of why the Labour Party and the Trade Unions came into being…

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If you are interested to read more about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the original manuscript can be viewed on the TUC’s Union History website here.

Further details of our edition, which includes a foreword from Tony Benn and an introduction and notes by the University of Reading’s Lionel Kelly, are here.

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