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Hastings celebrates Tressell

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - courtesy of

The work of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, was celebrated at a one-day festival held at the University of Brighton Campus in Priory Square, Hastings on Saturday the 13th July 2013.  Local author Leigh Kennedy went along to enjoy the event and review it for HOT.

Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book that means something to people, perhaps in different ways, but it is impossible to read without being moved by the daily struggle for existence of the workmen and feeling anger at their exploiters.  It is doubly affecting with the realization that the author, a house painter and artist, lived that struggle himself.  Though he was born in Dublin, real name Robert Noonan, his setting of ‘Mugsborough’ is recognizably Hastings and St Leonard’s, where Tressell lived and worked from 1901 to 1910.  The book was written locally but not published until 1914, by which time Tressell had moved on and died of tuberculosis at the age of 40, ending in a pauper’s grave in Liverpool.

In case the above puts you off – the book is not just a worthy read, but entertaining and bitterly funny throughout.  I like to imagine that Tressell enjoyed Dickens’s darkly comic social criticism.  Tressell’s main character is Owen, who indeed, is filled with thoughts of owing the butcher, grocer, landlord and such.  Those with power over the builders include Hunter, Sweater and Didlum, not only exploiting the working men, but whatever and whomever they can.  The corrupt local council have much more interest in their pockets than the welfare of Mugsborough. Hypocrisy in charity and religion is a biting theme throughout.

As a book-oriented person, I can’t think of many better ways to spend a day than in discussions of literature and authors, and this year’s Tressell conference was a real treat with sprinkles of local history and politics on top as well.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has inspired people to better the lives of labouring people since its publication, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the day began like a Labour Party meeting with a short address by the Hastings council leader, Jeremy Birch. Sarah Owen, Labour’s prospective local MP, followed with an impassioned speech about the Living Wage campaign – just the thing that might have eased the lives of misery for the Hastings labourers that Tressell had transformed into his fictional Mugsborough characters.

Local historian, Brion Purdey, was rather let down by the otherwise splendid venue at University of Brighton Hastings Campus, because the lights couldn’t be switched off without powering down the whole room.  We watched a murky set of projected photographs of Hastings in Tressell’s time, including buildings he had worked on himself.  However, Purdey’s knowledge of the subject and good-nature overcame the technical problems for a fascinating talk anyway, pointing out some of the locations for the novel, as well as the town at that time and some of the traces that Tressell, as the painter Noonan, left on the town.

Robert Tressell

Robert Tressell - photo courtesy

Scottish musician, Martin Chomsky, presented us with his proposal to turn RTP into a comic book, hoping to elicit some donations via Kickstarter, and to set a new generation of readers alight. Apparently the book is one of his obsessions, as he has also written a screenplay.  Irralie Doel brought a Liverpool aspect, describing empowerment through a women’s reading group there.  Interesting, but I felt was a bit off-topic…but… hey, good for them!  In the spirit!  Ann Kramer spoke dynamically about women’s legal and political situation of the period.  Peter Sinnott of the Communication Workers Union addressed us on the topic of the privatization of the Post Office. Mugsborough politicians loomed in my mind during his talk.

In addition to the events of the day, a bookstall sold local history books as well as Tressell Society postcards, key rings, etc.  And lunch – always one of my favourite activities! – with the airing of an old biopic of Tressell dramatizing scenes from the book as we munched and chatted.

At the end of the day, we were invited to take a walk with Trevor Hopper, author of Robert Tressell’s Hastings.  We paused briefly at The Clarence, now in the midst of the shopping centre, which used to be the meeting place for the Trades and Labour Council, then stopped at the Town Hall to recall the election speech in the book, then up to what used to be the Cricketer’s Pub, where a great deal of the book takes place. At the foot of the Noonan steps from Queen’s Road is the shop which was ‘Burton & Co.’ in the RTP.  After climbing up the steps to Milward Road, we stared up at the top flat where Tressell lived with his daughter, sister and nephew.  Marked with a plaque, the flat must have a grand view of the town, including the railway bridge featured at the end of the book, but it was easy to imagine the wind that they suffered as described in the novel.  Hopper conjured for us the tubercular Tressell first trudging up the steps after a day’s work, then up to the top of a tall house, only to be cold at home.

A rather reflective mood settled on the walking tour as we crossed West Hill with a peep at the Plynlimmon Road house where Tressell lived briefly. Everyone speaking of the author that day, expert or guest, seemed to view Tressell fondly, like an uncle that did good things but had a life that we all regret was too hard and ended too soon, never aware of his success.

But we ended with the time-honoured method of lifting the mood, whether a builder in Mugborough or a visitor from the twenty-first century – good company and a few pints in the pub.  Cheers!

I can hardly wait for next year:  it’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

  • Wind Angels, Leigh Kennedy’s most recent collection of short stories, was published in 2011 by PS Publishing and is available from Amazon.
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Posted 14:27 Thursday, Jul 25, 2013 In: Literature

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