Robert Tressell (17th April 1870 to 3rd February 1911)


Over the lockdown many politicians have been interviewed while sitting at home. Sometime their impressive collection of books sits in the background. They obviously buy books about their mentors and you can see the names on the spines: Marx, Castro, Thatcher, Attlee, Gorbachev, Gladstone, etc. I knew it wouldnít be long before I saw a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - a very left-leaning novel which has sold over a million copies and is still studied in universities. Here I am at the author's grave in Walton in Liverpool (he's about 50m from the prison wall.)


This one book has had more influence on the growth of the labour and trade union movement than Marx and Engels and was thought to be part of Labour's landslide victory in 1945. Itís been adapted for stage, television and radio. Itís even been performed at trade union meetings. The semi-biographical book was written by Robert Tressell (real name Robert Noonan) in 1914. Some people only have to write one seminal book and all others are superfluous. Robert wrote that one book. He was a George Orwell kind of writer but died before he could produce more fiction.


He was born in Ireland but spent most of his life in South Africa. He came to England to work as a painter/decorator on the south coast and wrote his seminal novel. Aged 36 he founded the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation. Heíd always been a socialist and while in Africa had been part of labour organisation and politics, campaigning for the small, the poor, the dispossessed and the overlooked. Aged only 40 his health began to deteriorate and he headed north to Liverpool to arrange emigration to Canada. Heíd got divorced and had one daughter Kathleen and was so exasperated by British life that he wanted a better life elsewhere. Reaching Merseyside he was admitted to the Liverpool Royal Infirmary and died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1911.


I soon found the grave in Walton Park Cemetery which seems to be part graveyard part farm. There arenít any burials nowadays and the cemetery is owned by Rice Lane City Farm (thereíre donkeys in some of the fields.) Robert's famous book means he gets quite a few visitors and thereís a sign telling you which grassy paths to traverse to find him. Heís buried in a field on his own though there're probably hundreds of paupers under the grass. Robert lay here in an unmarked grave for 60 years before he was found and a stone put over him.

I stood by the grave and heard some loud bangs from the prison across the road. Iím sure it was workmen with a nail gun but perhaps there was a juicy shootout. What would Robert make of the bookís success and the way itís influenced so many people? After writing it by hand ( all 1600 pages) three publishers rejected it and he was deeply disappointed. He was going to toss it onto the fire but his daughter saved it and kept it in a box under her bed.


This manís one book has inspired much: blue plaques, The Robert Tressell Workshop (a publishers), Robert Tressell Close in Hastings, Robert Tressell Walk in Lincoln, The Robert Tressell Lectures, Robert Tressell Halls of Residence at Brighton University and Tressell Ward (a hospital ward.) Blimey.


As I was leaving the farm a man with a bicycle asked me if I knew where the grave was. Itís difficult to explain so I took him there. He said heíd read it at as a schoolboy and it had "dug into me". Heíd cycled 40 miles to see the grave so I suppose it was true. Passing a nosey donkey I did a salute a left.