“The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist”
17 April 1870 – 3 February 1911
Robert Tressell the author of the famous book, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, was born Robert Croker in Ireland, an illegitimate child whose father nonetheless acknowledged him. Robert later changed his name to Noonan, his mother’s maiden name.
In 1888, he emigrated to Cape Town in South Africa where he earned a living as a painter and decorator. He married and his wife gave birth to a daughter, Kathleen. However, finding out that his wife had had a series of affairs, he divorced her and took custody of their child in 1897. They moved to Johannesburg and Robert became actively involved with the trades unions and politics. Around the time of the Second Boer War, Robert decided to relocate the family to England. Initially, life was good. Kathleen attended private schools and Robert found time to develop an interest in aviation, even designing and building a model airship that he hoped the War Office would be interested in. However, they rejected his proposal. He turned again to politics, joining the Social Democratic Federation.
After a dispute with his employer, he lost his job in 1907 and his health began to deteriorate. The recession and his ill health made it difficult to find work and he began to write to keep his daughter and himself out of the workhouse. His writing was heavily influenced by his experiences of the relationship between the employer and the worker and his socialist beliefs. He adopted the pen name Tressell (after one of the tools of his trade, the painter’s trestle table) to avoid getting blacklisted for his political views.
The resulting book was rejected by three publishers and Robert was on the verge of burning it in his despair. Luckily, his daughter Kathleen saved it and would later fight to get it published after his death. He was so disillusioned with life in Britain by this time that he decided to emigrate with Kathleen to Canada. He left her with her aunt in Hastings while he travelled to Liverpool to earn money for their passage, but no sooner had he arrived than his condition worsened. He was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary in November 1910 and died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 3 Feb 1911, aged just 40 years.
By then in extreme poverty, Robert was buried in unmarked paupers’ grave in Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, later known as Walton Park Cemetery, along with 12 other bodies. The location of the grave was unknown until 1970, but is now marked by a memorial stone, paid for by subscription and sponsored by Liverpool and Hastings Trades Councils in 1977. In keeping with Robert’s beliefs, his name is recorded alongside his fellow paupers.
His book was finally published as a result of his daughter’s determination, although only in an abridged format until 1955. It has been credited with playing a role in Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 and is still hugely influential today.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.