Alan Morrison

The Primark Shirted Philanthropists: Paralells between 2006 and Robert Tressell's 1906

In 1906 Robert Tressell (real name Noonan) started writing his autobiographical novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, while working a fifty-six hour week as a painter and decorator in Hastings. In the novel Tressell’s alter-ego, Owen, attempts to convert his exploited workmates to Socialism, ultimately to no avail. It was completed by 1910 to be returned unread by the publishers because it was in long-hand. It was finally published four years after the author’s premature death, in 1914.

It is dispiriting to glimpse in a novel written at the turn of the previous century, passages of industrial parallel. Many of the book’s themes are perennial as the Socialist and Marxist ideas that inspired its ethical fibre. That this novel has over the past century gained a near Biblical status among the British Left further emphasises its timeless relevance. Some even cited it as contributing to the 1945 Labour election victory.

The book invites us into the dead-end existences of a group of painters and decorators whose employer, the exploitative private firm Rushton & Co., pits them against one another in an inexorable grappling for scant work placements which they’re encouraged to ‘scamp’ (i.e. rush) in order to maximise profits. Owen nicknames his workmates ‘the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ for submitting themselves unquestioningly to this cycle of pitiful wages, bouts of unemployment and poverty. Subsisting on ‘…block ornaments, margarine, adulterated tea, mysterious beer (p772)’, their lives are a collage of cheap tobacco and tubercular diets – the Pound Stretcher fare of yesteryear. Their only daily respites are short breaks sipping stewed tea from tins, sat on upturned pails occasionally used as makeshift soap-boxes by Owen for tub-thumping on the sanity of Socialism, which always falls on deaf ears: ‘…it was not as if it were some really important matter, such as a smutty story … something concerning football … or the doings of some Royal personage or aristocrat' (p748).

Our present ‘celebrity’-obsessed, Royalist society shows little has changed in terms of the British idea of ‘culture’. These ‘philanthropists’ rely for their opinions on the local tabloid rag, The Obscurer, which voices the jingoism of the Directors of the limited company that funds it: ‘The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of … the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving … the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.’ (p34)

One can see a parallel to the reaction of British tabloids such as The Daily Express to the proposals of EU Enlargement in April 2004: ‘Gypsies say they can't wait to arrive in land of dole and benefits’.

The derelict lots of the ‘philanthropists’ are depicted in 12 hour shifts decorating the freezing interior of a house referred to poignantly as ‘the Cave’, constantly stalked by their taskmaster foreman. Seems remote? One only needs to draw up the contemporary parallel of call centre staff having their work time monitored by their own computers (even logging out to go to the toilet) to see how this Orwellian practise has translated into the electronic age.

The employees of Rushton & Co. are liable to dismissal at an hour’s notice. This might no longer be the case today in permanent jobs, but it is still par for the course in temping placements where contracts can be terminated at less than an hour’s notice. Gate Gourmet’s recent instant sacking over loud-hailer of 160 Union-backed workers for striking over poor conditions, shows how even permanent contracts can be stripped of any rights on whims of private sub-contractors.

If I had been writing this article in the new Welfare State of the late 1940s I would be approaching it optimistically. Unfortunately I am writing in 2006, a time endemically tarnished by Thatcherism, the carrot-throwing regime – council house mortgages, utility shares etc. – that inspired yuppidom and the now institutionalised consumer culture, decadent trends Tressell relates as far back as 1906: ‘These wretches had abandoned every thought and thing that tends to the elevation of humanity … in order to carry on a mad struggle to acquire money which they would never be sufficiently cultured to properly enjoy.’ (1304-5)

The most depressing parallel between 2006 and 1906 is the cancer of privatisation: despite the much-needed surgery of nationalisation in the mid 20th century, this growth re-attached itself through Thatcherism. ‘The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. …’ (p397)

Today we see Private-Public Partnership infesting the NHS to the detriment of patient welfare and provision; and taking into account the rapid rise in prescription charges since 1951, we are pretty much back to 1906: ‘It happened that it turned out to be more expensive than going to a private doctor… The medicine they prescribed and which he had to buy did him no good…’ (p1673). Owen’s health problems are down to poor diet and industrial stress – with the present Government’s proposal to replace Incapacity Benefit with a new Workers Support Allowance and place employment advisers in GP surgeries, even the sanctuary of ‘the sick’ is to contract into a new set of pressures.

As recently as 2002 my father worked ten hour shifts as a security officer for a private firm. He was not allowed any sick pay and so often worked when he was ill. Assertions that slave labour is a thing of the past falls as much on my deaf ears as Owen’s attempts at Socialist conversion do on his workmates’. The recent introduction of a minimum wage (originally petitioned for by Keir Hardie as far back as 1892) does little to improve the lives of working people. It can be seen as another ‘carrot’, a meagre concession for the astronomical increases in private companies’ profits; but its benefits are barbed by annual increases in Council Tax and ‘public’ transport fares.

Our ‘public’ services are run by unaccountable private companies – like the novel’s Electric Light Company – , who siphon off profits to shareholders instead of investing in improving their ‘services’, and who surround themselves in a sub-contracting labyrinth, impervious to customer complaints. Our ‘democracy’ is – as Tressell’s Mugsborough (Hastings) – dictated to by tabloid tycoons and businessmen. The three main parties – like the novel’s Liberals and Tories – squabble over a capitalist centre-ground.

At least in 1906 Tressell’s generation had the hope of the Labour Representation Committee, which took 29 seats in Parliament along with the new title of the Labour Party that very year. In post-Thatcherite 2006, the Socialist optimism of Tressell’s vision – voiced in the book by Owen’s friend, Barrington – is put into a tragic context.

We have come full circle: weaned on carrots of credit, lotteries and loyalty cards, we are the Primark Shirted Philanthropists.

Alan Morrison © 2006

[All quotes taken from the Project Gutenberg website, the pagination corresponding with Robert Tressell’s original longhand manuscript]