"Every man who is not helping to bring about
a better state of affairs for the future
is helping to perpetuate the present misery."
On 3 February 1911, a 40 year-old signwriter and decorator called Robert Noonan died of tuberculosis in the Royal Infirmary in Liverpool. Without family or friends in the city, he received a pauper’s burial, and was interred in a public grave with twelve others in Walton Park cemetery. Three hundred miles away, in a deed-box in Hastings, lay the handwritten manuscript of his unpublished novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The story of how this book became a major influence on socialist thinking is rather more remarkable than his life.
Noonan’s origins were, for many years, shrouded in mystery but it has now been established that he was born in Dublin on 18 February 1870, and was the son of Mary Noonan. His father was named as Samuel Croker, a former member of the constabulary and later a resident magistrate at Ennis, County Clare. The birth certificate records his mother as Mary Croker, formerly Noonan, but they were not married; she was instead his long-term mistress, with whom she had up to seven children. Croker was eighty years old when Robert was born, and had previously fathered another six children with his wife.
Robert’s early years were spent in Dublin where Croker had provided a property and a £100 annuity for Robert’s mother. Samuel Croker was living in London in 1874 and it seems Mary Noonan, and presumably the rest of family, were living there when Croker died in January 1875. On 29 March 1875 Mary married Sebastian Zumbuhl, a Swiss cabinet maker and they remained in London up to 1883 before moving to Liverpool in 1884. Little is known of Noonan’s life during this period until on 10 June 1890 he is sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for burglary and larceny involving a quantity of silver and electro-plated articles stolen from the home of Charles Fay in Courtney Road, Great Crosby on the outskirts of Liverpool. Noonan is described as a signwriter, living in Queens Road, Everton.
On his release from prison, Noonan emigrated to South Africa where he found work as a decorator. On 15 October 1891, he married the eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Madeline Hartel in Cape Town and in September 1892 they had a daughter, Kathleen. By 1894, they had separated, probably because of Elizabeth’s infidelity, and Noonan moved to Johannesburg. In late 1895 Elizabeth became pregnant by another man and Noonan commenced divorce proceedings, obtaining an uncontested divorce in Cape Town in February 1897, when he was awarded custody of their daughter, Kathleen.
In Johannesburg, he worked as a sign writer and foreman for a large decorating company, and it was there that he first became involved in organised labour bodies, becoming Secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council in 1897. Noonan earned good money, and had a comfortable life, being able to send his daughter for a convent education, and live in good accommodation. During 1898 he became a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the Centennial of 1798 Association, which commemorated the revolutionary nationalist United Irishmen. He also became a junior foreman.
In May 1899, he attended the launch of the International Independent Labour Party. There was simmering conflict in South Africa at this time, which eventually erupted into the second Boer War later in 1899. Noonan helped form the Irish Brigades which opposed the British, and was ready to fight, but left for Cape Town before the war started, where he lived in some comfort with his daughter, his widowed sister, Adelaide, and her son. It was late in 1901 that they set sail for England.
The four of them settled in St Leonards in East Sussex. These were difficult times in the labour market, and although Noonan’s decorating skills enabled him to find work, his earnings were substantially less than they had been in South Africa. Over the next few years, Noonan was not politically active, but the worsening economic climate caused a steady decline in his income, and he became more vociferous in his socialist views. Not an orator by nature, he did little public speaking, but could argue his beliefs eloquently in conversation, and he attended meetings of the Social Democratic Federation in 1908-9. As his income declined, so did his health, so he cut back on his political activities and he started to set down his experiences and beliefs in the form of fiction. His book documented the struggles and deprivations of painters and decorators working in the fictional seaside town of Muggsborough, a thinly disguised portrayal of Hastings. He finished writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910; concerned at reprisals should he be identified as the author of such a controversial work, he adopted the pen name of Robert Tressell.
Failing to find a publisher, and in worsening health, Noonan set off to Liverpool in August 1910, apparently to make arrangements for him and his daughter to emigrate to Canada. He left Kathleen working at his sister Mary-Jane’s school in Hastings. In November, he was admitted into the Royal Liverpool Infirmary. His sister declined to lend his daughter the train fare to see him, and they learned by telegram of his death on 4 February 1911. None of the family contributed to, or attended the funeral, and he was laid in a pauper’s grave.
Kathleen’s wish to see her father’s work published was fulfilled after she showed the manuscript to a friend, the writer Jessie Pope. Pope approached her publishers, Grant Richards, who agreed to purchase the original manuscript for £25, on the basis that Pope would edit the book to their specification. The result was a substantially reduced version from which most of the political content was removed, leaving a tale of the working class (with a different ending) published in an expensive edition aimed firmly at the middle-class reader. Sales were promising at the outset, but declined after the outbreak of war. The publishers released a budget-priced but even shorter version in 1918, which reduced the original 250,000 word text to 90,000. Similar editions were released in the U.S.A. and Canada in 1914, the Soviet Union in 1920 and Germany in 1925. The 1914 edition was republished in 1935, but the book achieved greater prominence when Penguin produced a sixpenny paperback edition in 1940. Copies were distributed to the allied forces, and it is interesting to speculate if the novel, even in its much-reduced format, had any influence in the run-up to the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.
It was Fred Ball, Robert Noonan’s biographer, who tracked down the original hand-written manuscript of the book, from which he produced the first complete edition published by Lawrence and Wishart, the publishers for the Communist Party, in 1955. The book has achieved iconic status in socialist thinking, and has been acknowledged as a major influence during their formative years by many leading labour politicians and trade unionists. The manuscript itself is now in the care of the T.U.C. archive at the London Metropolitan Archive, and can be seen here.
Our edition uses the 1955 text, and was published by kind permission of the late Reg Johnson, on behalf of the Robert Tressell estate.
The cemetery where he was laid to rest was not located until 1968, and his grave not until 1970. It remained unmarked until 1977, when local trade unionists and socialists arranged for a granite stone to be put in place. The annual Bob Tressell festival begins with the laying of a wreath upon his grave.
[Thanks to the Bob Tressell Festival for providing additional information for this article.]
TITLES BY ROBERT TRESSELL