An Irishman's Diary
A SMALL PLAQUE on the red brick wall above a bookie’s shop at 37, Wexford Street in Dublin’s south inner city, leads on to an extraordinary author’s life and the even more astonishing creation of a classic left wing novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, once again enjoying a renewed burst of popularity, writes HUGH ORAM
It was here in this house that Robert Noonan was born in 1870, the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, an elderly man who had retired from the Royal Irish Constabulary and who subsequently became a magistrate. The only trouble with Croker was that he had two “wives” and two families. Mary Noonan was his “liaison lady” and mother of four of his children, including Robert.
Little is known about Robert Noonan’s childhood years in Dublin, but at the age of 16, he rebelled against his family and its considerable income derived mainly from absentee landlordism and left home. Despite a lack of formal education, he spoke several languages. When he was 18, he sailed to South Africa.
In Cape Town, although he hadn’t been apprenticed, he started to make a good living as a painter and decorator. He married at the age of 21, but after the birth of a daughter, Kathleen, his wife embarked on several affairs and the marriage soon ended in divorce. Robert Noonan never remarried and his former wife, Elizabeth Hartel, subsequently died from typhoid fever, in 1895.
Robert Noonan was a temperamental man of many contradictions. He lived with his daughter in a wealthy suburb of Cape Town and employed a black manservant called Sixpence, of whom he was very fond. Yet he led protests against the employment of black skilled labour.
In 1898, he was active in the Transvaal in commemorating the United Irishmen and their rebellion in Ireland a century previously and then, with the second Boer war looming, he helped organise the Irish brigades there to fight on the side of the Boers against the British.
But by the time the war started, Noonan was on his way out of South Africa, bound for a new life in Sussex on the south coast of England. One of his sisters, Adelaide, and her son, Arthur, had joined Noonan in South Africa, and they accompanied Noonan and his daughter when they set sail for England.
Despite the then recession, he soon found work as a painter and decorator and he became renowned for his signwriting skills. He tried diversification in 1905, by offering the War Office a new airship design. When this offer was turned down, he smashed the model. That same year, he had a run-in with the local police, who had used gratuitous violence against his nephew, Arthur. The fine imposed on Noonan had a seminal effect on turning his politics leftwards.
A couple of years later, he walked out of his job with a local decorating firm in Hastings because he disagreed with his employer over the time he had taken over a particular job. Noonan managed to find other painting work, but his health began to deteriorate, as TB developed.
Soon unfit to continue as a painter and decorator, he started to write in order to keep out of the workhouse. Between about 1906 and 1910, he wrote his great novel of working class life, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
He described it as “the story of 12 months in hell, told by some of the damned”. Hastings, where he was then living, was turned into the fictitious town of Mugsborough. Much of the content was autobiographical and it was long known as “the painter’s bible” .
The handwritten manuscript ran to 1, 600 pages. The first three publishers he approached turned it down and Noonan, who had adopted the nom de plume of Robert Tressell as a pun on the word trestle, from his painting and decorating work, was only saved from burning the novel by the foresight of his daughter Kathleen. She kept it in a metal box stored under her bed.
Come 1910 and Noonan had decided to emigrate to Canada and he planned to send for his daughter Kathleen to join him there. He got as far as Liverpool, fell seriously ill and died in a workhouse hospital, in February, 1911. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, which lay undiscovered for years.
In 1913, his daughter Kathleen showed the manuscript of her father’s book to a writer she knew called Jessie Pope. In turn, Pope’s publisher took on the book and paid Kathleen £25 for the rights.
For the first edition, Jessie Pope edited the manuscript so drastically that all the socialist references were cut out. It also had the misfortune of being published close to the start of the first World War. A second edition was published in 1918, more successfully, and before long, it was also published in countries as diverse as Russia and the US. But for years, a typographical error remained in the spelling of the author’s name, giving it as “Robert Tressall” .
The unabridged version wasn’t published until 1955, but over the years, the novel, even in its emasculated state, had been an ongoing inspiration to the working class movement in Britain, credited with helping bring about the left wing Labour Party general election victory in 1945 and the subsequent formation of the welfare state.
Kathleen did go to Canada but eventually returned to England and lived long enough to see her father and the book assume celebrity status. The original manuscript was acquired by the TUC (Trades Union Congress) in 1958 and it can now be read online on the TUC website. In 1967, the BBC made a television dramatisation of the novel, but subsequently wiped the tape.
Today, as we live through another recession, this story of the hard times suffered by the working classes is once again enjoying great popularity, its resonances as strong now as they were nearly a century ago.
In Hastings, Robert Tressell is well commemorated, while in Dublin, in 2002, he was accorded his rightful place of honour in the Dublin Writers’ Museum and the first Robert Tressell festival was staged in Dublin the following year, 2003. It’s an amazing novel, today regarded as one of the great fictional works of left-wing literature, yet the man from Wexford Street, Dublin, who wrote it didn’t live to see it in print.