The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a rather unique English novel.
Written by the working man Robert Noonan under the pen name of Tressell before the First World War, it depicts the lives of a group of painters and decorators in the employment of Rushton & Co.
At the heart of the book is the socialist craftsman Frank Owen and it’s the lunch break political discussions which are most remembered by those that have read it.
Coming from a time when the Empire was at its height, it’s impossible to find in the book the Edwardian grandeur that history dictates to us.
The society depicted is rotten from the top to the bottom.
Distressing to read at times, the claustrophobic environment of the fictional Mugsborough leaves the characters trapped in alcoholism, bad health or debt.
All of which is linked to the ultra-exploitative economic system that the book rails against.
The interesting aspect of the book is the sheer pessimistic frustration – if not despair – of the socialist characters: the working-class they look to for hope are too ignorant for their own salvation.
It stands against rampant romanticism and naïve idealism that can be found in socialist historical culture.
What makes it a classic is not that it’s an example of a novel par excellence, because, if anything, it is badly written – characters with a lack of depth; a confused role for the narrative voice, and a deficient storyline structure are some of the faults.
But well over 100 editions have been printed and one million copies sold since it was first published in 1914.
In a story of the oppressed and the oppressor, everybody can recognise the vicious immorality of the boss Rushton and the foreman Hunter from their own workplace experiences.
It’s popularity over the decades testifies to its worth as different generations of readers found empathy with Owen’s plight and his political views – it speaks to people’s condition.
The political content has a resonance even in 2005 with the first debate amongst Owen and his workmates being immigration.
During the summer a bombshell was dropped: all royalties from the book has gone to Martin Seeker, a director of the Seeker & Warburg who bought the original publishing house The Richards Press in 1937.
After he passed away this financial legacy was passed on to his descendants with a particular granddaughter singled out as a key beneficiary.
Robert Noonan’s daughter, who was responsible for preserving the manuscript after he passed away in a workhouse in 1911, received £25 in return for signing away her rights.
She used the money to emigrate to Canada. A further £25 was paid as a goodwill gesture some six years later.
The fate of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is particularly galling as probably one of English literatures most famous blasts against exploitation has in turn been squeezed by the wealthy for every penny it has earned.
It was the last surviving relative of Robert Noonan, Reg Johnson, who first discovered the extent of the pillage.
Now 78, he was married to Noonan’s granddaughter and is keeper of many original documents connected to the author and his work.
Reg is unable to comment on the issue because of current legal proceedings but is keen to stress that his own interest is not due to a desire for personal remuneration.
The legal history of the document is very murky. It is impossible to even put a figure on the number of actual books sold, let alone the unpublicised dealings of Martin Seeker.
The key moment when the copyright could have been challenged was when the original Grant Richards license expired in 1964. Seeker them quietly renewed the copyright.
In all likelihood he just saw an opportunity to increase his hold on the book and grabbed it without fear of being opposed.
Kathleen Noonan, the authors daughter, originally passed on the manuscript three years after her fathers death to the journalist Jessie Pope.
It is Pope who is widely credited with editing it down to the abridged edition that existed until historian Fred Ball pieced back together the original document in the 1950s.
Although the cutting of novels in such a fashion was extremely common then, Jessie Pope’s Fabian Society membership does suggest the abridged edition was an exercise in liberal tinkering as much of the fire of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was removed.
Historian Fred Ball was instrumental in working with Lawrence & Wishart to bring out the unabridged version in 1955.
Trevor Hopper works with the Robert Tressell Centre in East Sussex in organizing an annual commemoration in Hastings, a town that much of the fictional Mugsborough was based on.
He’s less affected by recent news:
‘To me the only surprise is that it was published in the first place. He was a completely unknown author when he died. It was only really by luck that the original 250,000 word manuscript ever came into the hands of somebody willing to publish it.’
HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch, have put all payments on hold and state: ‘This is a very complex situation involving correspondence and contracts going back over 30 years. We are keen to get to the bottom of it to ensure that the money is paid to the right source.’
There is no indication that the matter will be resolved soon.
At least those with internet access can now view the 1,700 pages as they were originally wrote by the author.
Christine Coates, Librarian of the TUC Collections at the Metropolitan University, said of its attraction in their on-line catalogue:
“This is a book which changes lives and has had a profound effect on tens of thousands of workers since it was first published in 1914.
“I never fail to be surprised at the power of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the story of a group of painters in a small town on the south coast of England at the beginning of the twentieth century, to evoke immediate sympathy and support from readers around the world.”
Cleary, Martin Seeker and his family have never deserved a penny of the books money, and hopefully, once legal and moral justice has been achieved, an educational trust will be founded to promote the novel to a new generation of readers.