Whenever anyone asks me what my favourite book is, I answer without hesitation – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Noonan (pen name Robert Tressell).
Noonan was a house painter, and wrote the book in his spare time. It was written over 100 years ago, but the descriptions and story have a depressing familiarity. It could have been written last week. It tells the story of a house painter and his workmates, as they struggle to find work to stay out of the workhouse. They are the working poor, in some cases, dreadfully poor, and Noonan hides nothing from us. On the original title page, Noonan wrote “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.”
Noonan was a single father, and was afraid of the things he described in the book – not finding work, poverty, and ending up in the workhouse. It is semi-autobiographical, which makes it even more depressing than if it were true fiction. The horrors described in the book actually happened, and if you have every worked, you will probably recognise your boss, superiors or employer in some of the characters. I did!
The book explores the relationship between the working class and the employers and ruling class, and analyses the way the latter exploit the former. The “philanthropists” are the members of the working class who contribute to their own exploitation by siding with their bosses, accepting their lot and position in life, and helping to perpetuate their misery.
Noonan submitted the manuscript to three publishing houses, but it was rejected by all of them. He became so depressed, he tried to burn it by throwing it in the fire. Luckily, his daughter rescued it, and kept it under her bed.
Noonan died of TB in a Liverpool hospital in 1911 at the age of 40. He was penniless, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Liverpool. The grave was discovered in 1970 and is now marked. I visited a few years ago, and there were flowers by the gravestone. It’s a kind of pilgrimage site for local socialist and labour activists. Noonan never got to see just how popular and influential the book would become, especially to the labour and socialist movements in the UK. George Orwell called it “a book everyone should read”. It’s free on Kindle!