I’ve worked in the building industry for 32 years. I first read this book in 1981 and could identify with it as soon as I picked it up. Things in it, such as casualisation in the building industry, still happen.
On one occasion I was working on a hospital. After a couple of hours someone came up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re finished up mate, you’re sacked.”
I thought it was because of the blacklist, so I got my stuff and went downstairs. The foreman says to me, “Where are you going?”
I said, “That bloke there sacked me.” He says, “He is one of the patients—he sacked two last week.”
That is the chaos in the building industry.
Sometimes you turn up thinking you have a job and the boss simply says “We don’t need you”. It was a tap on the shoulder and an hour’s notice in 1904 and it still is today.
I identified with the book’s raw anger. Tressell describes how he wanted to stick a blowtorch in his foreman’s face. I’ve felt like that.
That’s not just youthful anger, because I still feel that anger today. It keeps me going.
I also recognised the despair and hopelessness of situation the main character, Owen, finds himself in—and how he was trying to get his message across to other working people. He sometimes blames them for their plight but he is very angry.
I’ve learned that management don’t like political discussion on a job. They would rather you talked about The X Factor or page 3 of the Sun.
In the book, as today, the bosses propagate the attitude that it’s foreign workers or foreign goods that take the jobs. That it is drink or promiscuity that are the problem. The same arguments from them come out time and time again.
Maybe it’s because I’m a building worker but I’ve met all the caricatures Tressell presents. There are the guys who like to go for a pint, who think by nicking a bit of overtime they are getting one over on the system.
Or characters like Crass who are bullies and grovellers. Or the hypocritical employer who puts on a nice face but gets the bullies, “Rottweilers”, to do their dirty work. That definitely still goes on.
I found it wonderful that I was not on my own. That somewhere in 1910 a man had the same feelings as me and could articulate them. I connected with it and I connected to the trade union movement because of it.
In contrast, I have seen grown men bring in a fish for the gaffer. Who in their right mind would bring in a fish to give to their boss?
They were carrying a fish about all day just hoping to see the boss. They hope he might give them some overtime, or not sack them, or just look at them in a nice way.
It’s soul-destroying. It’s not just building sites that are like that. You could be in a call centre or any workplace. What happened in Tressell’s novel is happening all over the world today. That’s why as socialists we have got to the keep the fight going.
He talks about the subjugation of women, press control—the paper the painters read is called the Daily Obscurer—imperialism, poor education, poor living conditions.
You don’t have to look too far to see all this today. Tressell says that people are kept like this to constantly involve them in this rat race under capitalism.
The system creates a selfish desire to stand on top of each other.
But we shouldn’t despair. I’ve known the difference we can make. Sometimes you win, you win another foothold, another yard. We can win.
As the Irish revolutionary James Connolly put it, “Our demands are most moderate. We only want the earth.”
My granddad got me a job on a building site when I was 17. By the end of the day I was knackered. He gave me a copy of what he called the painter’s bible—The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Since its publication, it has never been out of print. It has been passed from generation to generation, promoted by rank and file trade unionists.
The book is a huge swipe at the capitalist class. Tressell wrote it in response to a rising tide of Toryism.
It is a hard-hitting defence of trade unions, working class solidarity and socialism.
Tressell showed the exploitation of the working class brilliantly. In 1900, the average life expectancy of a manual worker was just 40 years of age.
The building trade was harsh, but for painters and decorators it was harder because it was seasonal work.
This is a poem that painters used to read:
The carpenter gets his bread and meat,
The bricklayer bread and cheese,
But pity the poor old painter
When the leaves fall off the trees.
Tressell died from tuberculosis—a disease linked to working conditions. And it goes on today. A fungus from wallpaper paste that grows inside the lungs is one of the biggest killers of painters and decorators.
What’s also brilliant about the book is the naked class hatred in it. Tressell mocks the bosses through their names: Mr Didlum, Mr Slumrent and Mrs Starvem.
He talks of a foreman who comes to work with a bowler hat stuffed with newspaper. It’s because workers try to throw bricks at him, so he had to have his own form of a hard hat.
One difficulty with the book is the weakness of socialist movement in Britain at the time. Two key socialist thinkers influence Tressell. One is William Morris, and he develops the idea of being a political craftsman.
Tressell produced trade union banners for instance, which is for the good. Through this, he was drawn into the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).
Its leader was Henry Hyndman and members included Eleanor Marx, Willie Gallacher and John Maclean.
As a populariser of socialism, it was brilliant. But the SDF was very sectarian and never intervened in struggles. It took socialism away from people and turned it into just an idea.
There is little spirit of working class resistance in the book.
But the book wouldn’t have survived for this length of time if it didn’t relate to workers. It’s an absolute classic and we should pass it down to future generations.
It’s a battle cry against capitalism.
The Great Money Trick
The novel is famous for “The Great Money Trick” Which uses slices of bread to show how capitalism works.
Owen, the socialist, takes the role of the capitalist class. Three of the decorators play the working class.
Owen cuts slices of bread. They represent raw materials. The workers are paid to change these into goods, which they do, cutting each slice into three blocks.
Owen pays them each one block of bread: a third of the value of the goods they made.
At the end the week the capitalist has two blocks, a worker has one. But then the worker has to buy the “necessities of life” for which Owen charges one block. So the workers end up with nothing.
They do it again. Owen’s blocks—his profits—pile up, while the poor stay poor.
Soon there is a glut of bread—overproduction. Without warning, Owen closes his factories.
The scene erupts into a carnival of protest, but suddenly the foreman bursts in. They go back to work.
Robert Tressell: Socialist, decorator and author
Robert Tressell was the pen name of Robert Noonan. He chose it as a trestle table is an essential part of a decorator’s equipment.
He was born in Dublin in 1870, but moved to South Africa and fought in an Irish brigade against the British in the Boer War.
In 1900 he came to Hastings in England. The town became the model for Mugsborough in the novel.
Tressell worked as a painter and decorator and joined the left wing Social Democratic Federation.
He wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910. This was, just as the mass strikes of the Great Unrest were starting, but the novel was set during the relative calm of 1904.
The workers are “philanthropists” because they give the value of their work away to their employers. They are forever having to suppress their creativity and botch jobs to keep costs down.
The system squeezes the humanity out of everyone, from the firm’s owner on down.
The first published version was heavily politically censored, which emphasised the pessimism of the book.
But the novel had a deep impact on the workers’ movement in Britain. It is often credited with winning Labour the 1945 general election.
A group of soldiers used their demob pay to buy the manuscript and an uncensored version was finally published in 1955.
See videos of the talks and Martin Smith’s demonstration of the great money trick at http://bit.ly/dooley-smith