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Robert Tressell

John Simkin

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Yesterday I visited the home of the last surviving relative of the great writer Robert Tressell. Reg Johnson is the husband of Tressell’s granddaughter. The rest of the family are now dead and he has responsibility for the Robert Tressell archives. For those who do not know the story Tressell was a building worker and trade union activist who experienced a long period of unemployment after the building recession began in 1907. He used the time to write the novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. There had never ever been anything like it. It was a book about the political struggles of the working class. What made it so unusual was that it was written by a member of that class. The book was so controversial that Tressell used a false name (his name was really Robert Noonan). Not surprisingly it was rejected by the three publishers who looked at the manuscript. Suffering from tuberculosis he died of bronchial pneumonia on 3rd February, 1911.

Tressell only had one child, Katherine Noonan. She had promised her father she would get it published. Although only 19 years of age she toured the publishers and eventually persuaded Grant Richards to take a risk on the project. He probably knew more than he let on and bought it for £25. The book became a bestseller all over the world. If she had taken a royalty she would have received over a million pounds before she died. Katherine never complained (she was not even able to watch the 1967 television production as she did not own a tv). Katherine was indeed a victim of the people Robert wrote about in his novel.

What was important to Katherine was that the book continued to be read. When she died this mission was passed on to her only child, Joan. She died three years ago and now her 80 year old husband has the job of looking after the family papers. (He could of course get a large sum of money for the papers from an American university but has decided to donate the materials to a public library so that they will be available to the general public)

At the meeting I was keen to find out if Tressell wrote anything else. Apparently he did but everything was stolen when Katherine was in Canada. The only thing that survived was an illustrated article entitled, The Evolution of the Airship (c. 1902). It has never been published but Reg agreed that it could be added to my website (in fact I have offered to create a website for the Robert Tressell Family Papers).

The first paragraph makes a prediction that turned out to be true: "The most, powerful navy that could be built, the strongest fortifications that the wit of man could devise, or the most numerous and efficient army in the world, would all be comparatively helpless and at the mercy of the nation possessing a fleet of airships so designed as to be capable of carrying quantities of high explosives, and really under the control of those who manned them."

For those who would like to read the illustrated article see:


By the way, Reg lives in Sussex and would welcome other historians to look at the archives. He would also be willing to go into schools to talk about Robert Tressell. Please contact me if you are interested in me arranging this.

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