Book Review – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell


I chose to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists because my Mum read it at her book group and recommended it. I also found it as a free eBook on Kobo which helped! Mum didn’t really describe what it was about at all, and for that I am grateful. It was brilliant to discover the book as I read it. That said, this review is going to contain one or two spoilers. If you end up being a regular visitor to this blog, you may be able to allay this problem by reading the books at the same time as I do (or probably considerably faster!)

It appears to be fate that made me choose this as the second book to read for my blog. The book’s purpose is to illustrate the problems with the capitalist system in use in the early 1900’s. The descriptions of the issues, hardships and the socialist idea seen as the solution are the main reason for the book. This therefore pushed me further into asking questions about where we are in 2014, how far we have come and where we now need to go.
I want to keep this book review as just that, a review, so I will be creating various new pages to hold information about the topics listed below that have been highlighted or become part of my post consumer picture due to this book. These pages will not be blog posts as they will grow and be completed over time as I manage to work out what each one really means and how everything fits together. These will be linked from the main menu under the title “The ISMs”:-

  • Communism
  • Fascism
  • Capitalism
  • Consumerism
  • Socialism

The Book review

My edition of the book, as it appears there have been many, starts with a forward describing the way that the book was received and bought into published form. The forward is written by Jessie Pope. A background of where the book came from is neatly described in this Wikipedia article. The story of how the book was created and who Robert Tressell was is a fantastic tale in itself. 
Because the book is at least semi-biographical, I went to see if Google could find me a picture of the real Robert Tressell. I found one on a site containing Robert Tressell’s Biography. I have not read it all yet, but it looks very interesting now that I have read the book, here is a picture of the man himself taken from the biography.

No, really, now it’s the book review…

I was impressed with the quality of the writing in the book. It is succinct and easy to read, but with some astoundingly descriptive paragraphs. I got a real sense that I understood what it was like to be there, some of the character descriptions are amazing. Tressell practically details the length of their eyebrows and the depth of the lines on their face! These are strong descriptions that add to the story, not detracting from it as long descriptive passages sometimes can. I also found that the phonetic speech very well executed.

The book is a beautiful illustration of the way that the British Empire was created and run. We (humans) are not a nice race when we get access to power. You can see how the few oppress the many, and how that was maintained. The startling thing about this book is the way that it manages to articulate the problem. What could have been a very dry subject is given life through its characters. The wikipedia article says that the original manuscript was around 250,000 words. These were judiciously edited down before publication. I can imagine that the original version was slightly less accessible?

At the time the book was written there was already significant change underway. One that jumped at me from the depths of my memory (murky indeed!) was Bourneville. This is a village in England just outside Birmingham. It was created by the Cadbury’s family who were Quakers. They housed and fed their workers in the village, but they also educated them, provided recreational facilities and took the whole workforce on holidays. Bourneville was being built and completed at the same time that Robert Tressell was writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The stark conflict between the way that Cadbury’s were treating their workers and the way workers are treated in the book highlights how perception was changing.

I was surprised that a lot of the issues and how people dealt with them in 1910 have not changed to today. My previous blog post lists the notes I took while reading the book. Even references to how the newspapers work could have been a piece of contemporary writing! In other situations there were obvious and stark differences. I’m glad to say that a lot of the poverty and inequality described in the book has gone, at least in the first world. It is still there, but in a minority. The story of stuff brings back the fact that in a lot of cases we have just ‘off shored’ most of this poverty; out of sight, out of mind. I plan to investigate some of this myself a bit further into my post consumerist odyssey

I am actually going to shy away from diving into the detail of what the book is about, partly as I said at the start, so that the experience is preserved if you do read the book. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book that I didn’t expect. We know that it has been heavily abridged, but the edition that I read flowed well and gradually built towards a fitting and possibly predictable conclusion. I was taken along with the other Philanthropists as we were educated in how life should be, and how we were not just accepting a very bad deal, but defending the very people who perpetrated our destitution. At times this book does edge towards a magnum opus for socialism and looses some of its charm, but for a work that tackles this subject, and being as it was written by one who lived that life, it is a very readable book. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists provides a slice of life in 1910 while reminding us of how far we have come and how far we still need to go, even if that is not towards the Socialist utopia.

Rating: 7/10
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists on Good Reads

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