Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Medical Classics

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e2440 (Published 04 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2440
  1. Andrew Moscrop, clinical researcher, Department of Primary Health Care, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 4UP
  1. andrewmoscrop{at}yahoo.com

Sixpence ha’penny an hour; one pound, one shilling, and eight pence a week: these starvation wages buy the lives of Robert Tressell’s working men, painters, and decorators, who live in poverty and constant fear of being “stood off” from the job. The novel’s proletarian protagonists eat bread and margarine, inherit cast off shoes, pawn their possessions, take in lodgers, or take cheaper lodgings to save themselves from destitution. And they die young, from accidents in the workplace or exhaustion in the workhouse.

“There’s always been rich and poor in the world and there always will be,” they opine, yielding to the exploitation of their back breaking employers, rack renting landlords, and the monopolists of local trade making inflated profits off their labour. All agree that, “the likes of us can’t expect to ’ave nothing better, and as for our children wot’s been good enough for us is good enough for the likes of them.”

The novel’s protagonist Frank Owen is angered by the condition of his fellow workers, by their acceptance of it, and by their lack of remorse about leaving this lamentable existence to their offspring. In discussions during tea breaks at work, Owen endeavours to explain the causes of their poverty, to convince his comrades, “that the system that produced such results was rotted and should be altered,” and to persuade them that socialism offers a viable alternative.

But the men are uninterested in Owen’s efforts to enlighten them. “Bloody rot, I call it . . . Wot the ‘ell’s the use of the likes of us troublin’ our ‘eads about politics?” asks one. “Argyfying about politics generally ends up with a bloody row an’ does no good to nobody,” concludes another. These workers are the “ragged-trousered philanthropists” of the book’s title: willing, apparently, to donate the products of their labour to their masters.

Ironic, unsentimental, yet empathetic, the book’s depictions of deprivation, the anecdotes, the working men’s vernacular, and their political inertia draw upon Tressell’s own experiences as a working class tradesman at the end of the 19th century. Tressell’s opinions are often voiced in the novel by Owen, whose observation appears to prefigure the establishment of Britain’s welfare state: “a very great number—in fact, the majority of people—lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave.”

In the absence of a national health system, each week the men put a few pennies in a hospital collection box and some joined a so called sick benefit club, similar to insurance. However, “Owen’s ill-health rendered him ineligible for membership of such societies” and medical readers will recognise tuberculosis in Owen’s haemoptysis, breathlessness, and exhaustion: the final tragic self fictionalisation of the author, who died of tuberculosis in 1911 aged 40, leaving a young daughter and his massive unpublished manuscript.

Health and social care have improved considerably since the novel was written, but gross inequities and the consequent health and social consequences persist. In the recent riots Tressell would no doubt have recognised the failings of capitalism and a society still segregated by class. In the speed of politicians to deny that these events were political he would have seen only their avoidance of responsibility.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2440

Footnotes

  • The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

  • A book by Robert Tressell

  • First published 1914

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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