Sunday, February 03, 2008

1911: Robert (Tressell) Noonan Dies In Liverpool

Robert Noonan (better known by his pen name of Robert Tressell) died in Liverpool Royal Infirmary with his novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ (full text here) still unpublished. However, his work would live on long after him, and inspire generations of socialists with its simple but profound analysis that ‘money is the cause of poverty’.

Noonan came from a reasonably wealthy background. His ‘illegitimate’ protestant father was high up in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Robert was provided with what his daughter called “a very good education” and learned several languages. At the age of sixteen, his burgeoning radicalism became apparent when he declared he wouldn’t “live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlordism”. It was then he took the name Noonan from his mother’s side.

He then moved to South Africa, where he became a painter and decorator (frequently using a trestle table). After an unhappy and short marriage in Cape Town, he moved to Johannesburg, where he got quite a well-paid job with a construction company. Despite his relatively decent conditions, he picked up a lot of material here how the ‘logic’ of the profit system affects the construction trade, ammunition he would later use in his novel. In 1898, he helped form the ‘Irish Brigade’, which took up arms alongside the Boers and against the British in that bloody colonial conflict. It is unclear whether Robert himself fought, but somehow or other he ended-up in Hastings, Sussex by the turn of the century. There he became a signwriter, and suffered far worse treatment than during his South Africa work. His politics seemed to have turned rightwards at this time, and like many on the left he was taken in by anti-German propaganda. He even designed aircraft, but the War Office rejected his ideas.

It was at this point that Noonan became influenced by the ideas of Marxist crafts enthusiast William Morris (author of the utopian novel News From Nowhere), and joined the Social Democratic Federation. However, his health was beginning to fail, and he developed tuberculosis. He then wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but its 1,600 pages was turned down by three different publishers. Noonan became very depressed, and decided to emigrate to Canada. However, he only made it as far as Liverpool, and was buried in a mass paupers’ grave in Walton cemetery.

Noonan’s daughter showed the manuscript to the writer Jessie Pope, who submitted it to her own publisher, and the rights to a much abridged version were bought for £25. The combination of political analysis and pathos, with its cast of cast of working class ‘philanthropists’ and the ‘brigands’ who preyed on them, has won it a devoted following for almost one hundred years. Though conditions have improved for workers in Britain (thanks to dedicated struggle rather than the philanthropy of the brigands), the essential structure of capitalist society is the same, and many of the conditions described in Noonan’s book are very similar to those which workers in the majority world now face.

In 1999, my granddad - himself a veteran of workers’ struggles and an Old Labour-style socialist - gave me his old, battered, but much-loved copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As I read it, I found that Noonan had brought together many of the ideas I had been pondering for a while about the nature of capitalist society. By the tragic end of the final chapter, I had resolved to do what I could to help bring down the profit system.
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