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Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell

The author of 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' was born in Dublin on 17 April 1870. He was the youngest of five - or perhaps seven - children belonging to Samuel Croker and Mary Ann Noonan, and she had him christened Robert Croker in a Catholic church. Samuel was a wealthy, elderly, retired senior policeman and magistrate, but not a Catholic. Besides, he had a wife, and another family. But before he died in 1875 he provided for Mary and their children. Robert's daughter understood he had a 'very good education' until 1886, when he left home because he 'would not live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlordism in Ireland'. He seems not to have been apprenticed: yet from the age of sixteen he earned his own living; and at some point he began calling himself Robert Noonan.

Around 1888 he went to Cape Town, South Africa, and probably learned his trade. On 15 October 1891 Robert Phillipe Noonan, 'Decorator', married eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Hartel. They lived in Mowbray, a middle-class suburb, and Kathleen was born on 17 September 1892. But in 1894 Elizabeth probably had an affair, and Robert went away to work in Johannesburg. In December 1895 she definitely had an affair with Thomas Lindenbaum, a German-born head cart driver, and a child was born in August 1896. That November, after a failed attempt at reconciliation, Robert began divorce proceedings. The case was undefended; and in February 1897 he got his decree, all their property and the custody of Kathleen, who he took with him back to Johannesburg.

By then Noonan was working for a large and expanding decorating firm, Herbert Evans and Co., and getting high wages. He could afford to rent an apartment, board Kathleen in an expensive convent and speculate in mining ventures. He leased a plot of building land in an all-white enclave, but hired a black servant, 'Sixpence', of whom he was 'very fond'. Yet when he became Secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council, later in 1897, Noonan led a successful 'protest against the employment of black skilled labour'. During 1898 he became a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the Centennial of 1798 Association, which commemorated the revolutionary nationalist United Irishmen. He also became a junior foreman, and that experience may well have changed his life.

In May 1899, as Trades Council Secretary, Noonan went to the launch of the International Independent Labour Party, and was probably influenced by its reformist socialism. Later that year, as a '98 Association member, he helped form the Irish Brigades, ready to fight the British, and was 'very much opposed' to the imperialist war in principle. Yet he left for Cape Town just before hostilities began in October 1899, and seems not to have joined in the fighting. Kathleen followed soon after, and, together with Robert's widowed sister, Adelaide, and her son, Arthur, they lived in Rondebosch, a well-to-do suburb, until, late in 1901, they all set sail for England.

Before the Boer War ended in May 1902 the foursome were in St.Leonards, Sussex, living with Robert and Adelaide's sister, Mary Jane. A recession was underway, yet Noonan's skills eventually helped him to find work as a tradesman, though on much lower rates and under far worse conditions than in Johannesburg. At first Kathleen went to fee-paying schools, including a convent at Deal in Kent; but in 1904 she transferred to a state school, and Robert began doing part-time jobs at nights. He seems not to have joined a trade union, and he probably kept his head down politically. However, he may have been influenced by Robert Blatchford, a socialist who was moving rightwards towards a nationalist, anti-German position. Probably during 1905, Noonan offered an airship design to the War Office; but it was not accepted, and he smashed his model. In November 1905, after a brush with police on account of their gratuitous violence towards Arthur - which led to a court case and a fine - Noonan looked leftwards once again.

Like his hero, the socialist-turned-Marxist, William Morris, Noonan's politics and economics were welded together with high craft standards. In 1907 he had a row with his employer about taking too much time over a job, and walked out. His skills continued to be in demand, but his standard of living was deteriorating; and when he refused to set up in business for himself, as Adelaide demanded, she and Arthur left. During 1908-9 Noonan remained politically active, but his health got worse. 'Wun Lung', as he called himself, lost time at work, and the workhouse beckoned. Even so, politics remained important. He was no public orator, but he could win close-quarter arguments on the beach and at work, against all-comers. And he needed extra income. So he went to Social Democratic Federation meetings less often, and focused a good deal of his political energies on writing.

'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' was completed by 1910. Noonan signed it 'Robert Tressell', for fear of reprisals, but he failed to find a publisher. That August, leaving his daughter working (for her keep but no wages) at her aunt Mary Jane's school, he set off to Liverpool, supposedly to make arrangements for himself and Kathleen to emigrate to Canada. In November, after he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary, Mary Jane refused to pay Kathleen's fare so she could visit him. On 3 February 1911 a telegram informed her that he had died of 'phthisis pulmonalis' - a wasting of the lungs associated with tuberculosis - and 'cardiac failure'. Adelaide, Mary Jane, and another sister, Ellen, who lived in Liverpool, evidently did not get involved in the funeral arrangements, and he seems to have had no insurance. Consequently, Robert Noonan was buried in Walton Park Cemetery, opposite Walton Gaol, in a 'public grave', along with twelve other paupers. The name of the cemetery was not known until 1968, and the grave was not located until 1970. It remained unmarked until 1977, and today the gilding has almost weathered away.

Dave Harker, 29 May 2003

Dave is the author of 'TRESSELL: The real story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (London: Zed Books, June 2003. Paperback: 12.99/$25.00; ISBN 1 84277 385 2. Hardback: 50.00/$75.00; ISBN 1 84277 384 4).

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Japanese edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert Tressell and daughter, Kathleen
  Kathleen Noonan   Robert Tressell  
  Book review   Manuscript  
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