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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


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'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' follows the employees of a painting and decorating firm from the South of England circa 1906. The hardships of the working classes are thoroughly explored through a critique of the capitalist system that keeps them in a state of poverty. The central character, Owen, is an opinionated worker who conducts a series of lunchtime lectures, detailing how he and his fellow workers might improve their situation. Their bosses, local governors, church leaders and fellow workers unable to see the possibilities for self-improvement, all come in for scathing criticism as Tressell pushes the argument for a Socialist approach.


Tressell's descriptions of working life are spot on and there is a real sense of desperation and humiliation in the lives of these men who are trying so hard to find work so they can feed their families. The scenes where the men squander all their money in the pub every Friday, whilst their wives struggle to feed and clothe the children back at home, are particularly well written and moving.


But this excellent sense of time and place is too often lost in lengthy explanations of capitalist and socialist systems. Owen's lectures are passionate, but repetitive and whilst it's hard to argue with his logic, there is always the feeling that the whole thing is being compromised by over the top caricatures of the capitalists and their sympathisers.


I really enjoyed the book in terms of the historical perspective it gave on these men's lives and I thought it gave a passionate account of the need for a socialist uprising, without really delving into the mechanics of how this could be brought about amidst the apathy of the workers as a whole.

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