The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'. This series of blogs is from the notes I made from the book.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Frank Owen, the main protagonist argues that he and his workmates shouldn't condemn their employer for being selfish because the system demands it. "We must be selfish or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter. The more selfish we are the better off we shall be. In the 'Battle of Life' only the selfish and cunning are able to survive: all others are beaten down and trampled under foot...It is the system that deserves to be blamed…'
Owen calls for a better system. He asks of his workmate, Easton 'whether it's possible to arrange things that we may be able to live like civilised human beings without being alternately worked to death or starved?' Here Owen is calling on Easton to act for a better system rather than being defeatist and assuming things are beyond his control. He argues: 'If you were to commit some serious breach of the law, and were sentenced next week to ten years' penal servitude, you'd probably think your fate a very pitiable one: yet you appear to submit quite cheerfully to this other sentence, which is — that you shall die a premature death after you have done another thirty years' hard labour...when there's no work, you will either starve or get into debt. When —as at present — there is a little work, you will live in a state of semi-starvation. When times are what you call "good", you will work for twelve or fourteen hours a day and - if you're very lucky - occasionally all night. The extra money you then earn will go to pay your debts so that you may be able to get credit again when there's no work....If it were proposed to make a law that all working men and women were to be put to death - smothered, or hung, or poisoned, or out into a lethal chamber - as soon as they reach the age of fifty years, there is not the slightest doubt that you would join in the uproar of protests that would ensue. Yet you submit tamely to have your life shortened by slow starvation, overwork, lack of proper boots and clothing, and through having often to turn out and go to work when you are so ill that you ought to be in bed receiving medical care.'
Owen goes on to illustrate the rotting system using dilapidated house as an example. '..Suppose some people were living in a house...and suppose they were always ill, and suppose that the house was badly built, the walls were so constructed that they drew and retained moisture, the roof broken and leaky, the drains defective, the doors and windows ill-fitting, and the rooms badly shaped and draughty. If you were asked to name, in a word, the cause of the ill-health of the people who lived there you would say — the house. All the tinkering in the world would not make that house fit to live in; the only thing to do with it would be to pull it down and build another. Well, we're all living in a house called the Money System; and as a result most of us are suffering from a disease called poverty. There's so much the matter with the present system that it's no good tinkering at it. Everything about it is wrong add there's nothing about it that's right... We must get rid of it.'
Owen questions how it is that 'the benefits of civilisation are not produced in sufficient quantity to satisfy the needs of all? How is it that the majority of the people always have to go without the most of the refinements, comforts, and pleasure of life, and very often without even the bare necessities of existence?'
Owen illustrates this with the scenarios of those workers who thought they were lucky to work " two hours' overtime every night – till 7:30 – without stopping for tea. Most of these arrived home about eight, completely flattened out. Then they had some tea and a wash and before they knew where they were it was about 9:30. Then they went to sleep again till 4:30 or five the next morning.
They were usually so tired when they got home at night that they never had any inclination for study or any kind of self-improvement, even if they had had the time. They had plenty of time to study during the winter: and their favourite subject then was, how to preserve themselves from starving to death.
This overtime, however, was the exception, for although in former years it had been the almost invariable rule to work till 7:30 in summer, most of the firms now made a practice of ceasing work at 5:30. The revolution which had taken place in this matter was a favourite topic of conversation amongst the men, who spoke regretfully of the glorious past, and things were busy, and they used to work 15, 16 and even 18 hours a day. But nowadays there were nearly as many chaps out of work in the summer as in the winter…."
Owen goes on to say that "this beautiful ideal - 'Plenty of Work' - appealed strongly to the Tory workmen" who seemed "to regard themselves and their children as a sort of machines or beasts of burden, created for the purpose of working for the benefit of other people. They did not think it right that they should Live, and enjoy the benefits of civilisation. All that they desired for themselves and their children was 'Plenty of Work'. "
Owen observes how his fellow workers were for the most part "tame, broken-spirited, poor wretches who contentedly resigned themselves to a life of miserable toil and poverty….their servile lives were spent in grovelling and cringing and toiling and running about like the little dogs at the behest of their numerous masters. And as for the benefits of science and civilisation, their only share was to work and help to make them, and then to watch other men enjoy them..."
Owen sees how the men "hankered after a little pleasure, a little excitement, a little fun, and they found that it was possible to buy something like those in quart pots at the pub. They knew they were not the genuine articles, but they were better than nothing at all, and so they… bought beer ... and after a time their minds became so disordered from drinking so much of this beer, that they cared nothing whether the rent were paid or not…."
Owen further observes that his fellow workmen are able to "converse intelligently on any ordinary subject…until the topic of Parliamentary elections was mentioned… it then almost invariably appeared that they were subject to the most extraordinary hallucinations and extravagant delusions, the commonest being that the best thing that the working people could do to bring about an improvement in their condition, was to continue to elect their Liberal and Tory employers to make laws for and to rule over them! At such times, if anyone ventured to point out to them that that was what they had been doing all their lives, and referred them to the manifold evidences that met them wherever they turned their eyes of its folly and futility, they were generally immediately seized with a paroxysm of the most furious mania, and were with difficulty prevented from savagely assaulting those who differed from them….they were usually found in a similar condition of maniacal excitement for some time preceding and during a Parliamentary election, but afterwards they usually manifested...melancholia. In fact they alternated between these two forms of the disease. During elections, the highest state of exalted mania; and at ordinary times – presumably as a result of reading about the proceedings in Parliament of the persons who, they had elected – in a state of melancholic depression, in their case an instance of hope deferred making the heart sick…."
Owen notes that "Even under the present silly system of restricted production, with the majority of the population engaged in useless, unproductive, unnecessary work, and large numbers never doing any work at all, there is enough produced to go all round after a fashion. More than enough, for in consequence of what they call ; "Over-Production", the markets are periodically glutted with commodities of all kinds and then for a time the factories are closed and production ceases. And yet we can all manage to exist - after a fashion. This proves that if productive industry were organised on the lines advocated by Socialists there could be produced such a prodigious quantity of everything, that everyone could live in plenty and comfort. The problem of how to produce sufficient for all to enjoy abundance is already solved: the problem that then remains is - How to get rid of those whose greed and callous indifference to the sufferings of others, prevents it being done."
Owen is scathing of the "Disciples of Christ … who professed to believe that all men are brothers and God their father …who continue to organise "Rummage"and "Jumble" sales and bazaars, and to distribute their rotten cast of clothes and boots and their broken victuals and soup to such of the brethren as were sufficiently degraded to beg for them. The beautiful Distress Committee... had found that no fewer than 672 were deserving of being allowed to work for their living. The committee would probably have given these 672 the necessary permission, but it was somewhat handicapped by the fact that the funds at its disposal were only sufficient to enable that number of brethren to be employed for about three days. However, by adopting the policy of temporising, delay, and general artful dodging, the Committee managed to create the impression that they were Dealing with the Problem.
If it had not been for a cunning device invented by Brother Rushton, a much larger number of the brethren would have succeeded in registering themselves as unemployed on the books of the committee. In previous years it has been the practice to issue an application form called a "Record Paper" to any brother who asked for one, and the brother returned it after filling it in himself. At a secret meeting of the Committee Rushton proposed…a new and better way, calculated to keep down the number of applicants. The result of this innovation was that no more forms were issued, but the applicants for work were admitted into the office one at a time, and were there examined by a junior clerk... the clerk filling in the form according to the replies of the culprit.
"What's your name?"
"Where do you live?"
"How long have you been living there?"
"Where did you live before you went there?"
"How long were you living at that place?"
"Why did you move?"
"Did you owe any rent when you left?"
"What was your previous address?"
"How old are you? And when was your last birthday?"
"What is your trade, calling, employment, or occupation?"
"Are you married or single or a widower or what?"
"How many children have you? How many boys? How many girls? Do they go to work? What do they earn?"
"What kind of a house do you live in? How many rooms are there?"
"How much rent do you owe?"
"Who was your last employer? What was the foreman's name? How long did you work there? What kind of work did you do? Why did you leave?"
"What have you been doing for the last five years? What kind of work, how many hours a day? What wages did you get?"
"Get the full names and addresses of all the different employers you have worked for during the last five years, and the reasons why you left them?"
"Give the names of all the foremen have worked under during the last five years?"
"Does your wife earn anything? How much?"
"Do you get any money from any Club or Society, or from any Charity, or from any other source?"
"Have you ever received Poor Relief?"
"Have you ever worked for a Distress Committee before?"
"Have you ever done any other kind of work than those you have mentioned? Do you think you would be fit for any other kind?"
"Have you any references?" – and so on and so forth.
When the criminal had answered all the questions, and when his answers all been duly written down, he was informed that a member of the committee, or an authorised officer, or some other person, would in due course visit home and make enquiries about him, after which the authorised person or other person would make a report to the committee, who would consider it at the next meeting.
As the interrogation of each criminal occupied about half an hour, to say nothing of the time he was kept waiting, it will be seen that as a means of keeping down the number of registered unemployed the idea worked splendidly."
The author describes a situation where Owen has "not been doing very well during these last few months, although he was one of the few lucky ones who had had some small share of work. Most of the money he earned went for rent, to pay which they often have to go short of food. Lately his chest too had become so bad but the slightest exertion brought on fits of coughing and breathlessness, which made it almost impossible to work even when he had the opportunity; often it was only by an almost superhuman effort of will that he was able to continue working at all. He contrived to keep up appearances to a certain extent before Rushton, who, although he knew that Owen was not so strong as the other men, was inclined to overlook its a long as he was able to do his share of work, for Owen was a very useful hand when things were busy….He never had the money to go to a doctor or get advice, but earlier in the winter he had obtained from Rushton a ticket for the local hospital. Every Saturday throughout the year when the men were paid they were expected to put a penny or two-pence in the hospital box. Contributions were obtained in this way from every firm and workshop in the town. The masters periodically handed these boxes over to the hospital authorities and received in return some tickets which they gave to anyone who needed and asked for them. The employer have to fill in the ticket application form with the name and address of the applicant, and to certify that in his opinion the individual was a deserving case, "suitable to receive this charity". In common with the majority of workmen, Owen had a sort of horror of going for advice to this hospital, but he was so ill he stifled his pride and went. It happened that it turned out to be more expensive than going to a private doctor, for he had to be at the hospital at a certain hour on a particular morning. To do this he had to stay away from work. The medicine they prescribed and which he had to buy did him no good, for the truth was that it was not medicine that he – like thousands of others – needed, but proper conditions of life and proper food; things that had been for years past as much out of his reach as if he had been dying alone in the middle of the desert…."
Owen has a gloomy view of the future since "all around was the state of dreadful anarchy; abundant riches, luxury, advice, hypocrisy, poverty, starvation, and crime. Men literally fighting with each other for the privilege of working for their bread; and little children crying with hunger and cold and slowly perishing of want…the gloomy shadows enshrouding the streets, concealing for the time their grey and mournful air of poverty and hidden suffering, and the black masses of clouds gathering so menacingly in the tempestuous sky, seemed typical of the Nemesis which was overtaking the capitalist system. That atrocious system which, having attained to the fullest measure of detestable injustice and cruelty was now fast crumbling into ruin, inevitably doomed to be overwhelmed because it was all so wicked and abominable, inevitably doomed to sink under the blight and curse of senseless and unprofitable selfishness out of existence for ever, its memory universally execrated and abhorred.
But from these ruins was surely growing the glorious fabric of the cooperative Commonwealth…."
In summary, I found the parallels to what is going on today chilling...to think we made enormous strides in the twentieth century but now we see a turning back of the clock: people on JSA being humiliated and being thankful for being dragooned onto Workfare, the running down of the NHS, children living in poverty, the return of the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor and the worst aspects of Capitalism where inequality and greed is once again heading out of control.