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- The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - 1/139 -
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressell
In writing this book my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working-class life - more especially of those engaged in the Building trades - in a small town in the south of England.
I wished to describe the relations existing between the workmen and their employers, the attitude and feelings of these two classes towards each other; their circumstances when at work and when out of employment; their pleasures, their intellectual outlook, their religious and political opinions and ideals.
The action of the story covers a period of only a little over twelve months, but in order that the picture might be complete it was necessary to describe how the workers are circumstanced at all periods of their lives, from the cradle to the grave. Therefore the characters include women and children, a young boy - the apprentice - some improvers, journeymen in the prime of life, and worn-out old men.
I designed to show the conditions relating from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely - Socialism. I intended to explain what Socialists understand by the word `poverty': to define the Socialist theory of the causes of poverty, and to explain how Socialists propose to abolish poverty.
It may be objected that, considering the number of books dealing with these subjects already existing, such a work as this was uncalled for. The answer is that not only are the majority of people opposed to Socialism, but a very brief conversation with an average anti-socialist is sufficient to show that he does not know what Socialism means. The same is true of all the anti-socialist writers and the `great statesmen' who make anti-socialist speeches: unless we believe that they are deliberate liars and imposters, who to serve their own interests labour to mislead other people, we must conclude that they do not understand Socialism. There is no other possible explanation of the extraordinary things they write and say. The thing they cry out against is not Socialism but a phantom of their own imagining.
Another answer is that `The Philanthropists' is not a treatise or essay, but a novel. My main object was to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally.
This was the task I set myself. To what extent I have succeeded is for others to say; but whatever their verdict, the work possesses at least one merit - that of being true. I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of. As far as I dared I let the characters express themselves in their own sort of language and consequently some passages may be considered objectionable. At the same time I believe that - because it is true - the book is not without its humorous side.
The scenes and characters are typical of every town in the South of England and they will be readily recognized by those concerned. If the book is published I think it will appeal to a very large number of readers. Because it is true it will probably be denounced as a libel on the working classes and their employers, and upon the religious-professing section of the community. But I believe it will be acknowledged as true by most of those who are compelled to spend their lives amid the surroundings it describes, and it will be evident that no attack is made upon sincere religion.
An Imperial Banquet. A Philosophical Discussion. The Mysterious Stranger. Britons Never shall be Slaves
The house was named `The Cave'. It was a large old-fashioned three-storied building standing in about an acre of ground, and situated about a mile outside the town of Mugsborough. It stood back nearly two hundred yards from the main road and was reached by means of a by-road or lane, on each side of which was a hedge formed of hawthorn trees and blackberry bushes. This house had been unoccupied for many years and it was now being altered and renovated for its new owner by the firm of Rushton & Co., Builders and Decorators.
There were, altogether, about twenty-five men working there, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers. New floors were being put in where the old ones were decayed, and upstairs two of the rooms were being made into one by demolishing the parting wall and substituting an iron girder. Some of the window frames and sashes were so rotten that they were being replaced. Some of the ceilings and walls were so cracked and broken that they had to be replastered. Openings were cut through walls and doors were being put where no doors had been before. Old broken chimney pots were being taken down and new ones were being taken up and fixed in their places. All the old whitewash had to be washed off the ceilings and all the old paper had to be scraped off the walls preparatory to the house being repainted and decorated. The air was full of the sounds of hammering and sawing, the ringing of trowels, the rattle of pails, the splashing of water brushes, and the scraping of the stripping knives used by those who were removing the old wallpaper. Besides being full of these the air was heavily laden with dust and disease germs, powdered mortar, lime, plaster, and the dirt that had been accumulating within the old house for years. In brief, those employed there might be said to be living in a Tariff Reform Paradise - they had Plenty of Work.
At twelve o'clock Bob Crass - the painters' foreman - blew a blast upon a whistle and all hands assembled in the kitchen, where Bert the apprentice had already prepared the tea, which was ready in the large galvanized iron pail that he had placed in the middle of the floor. By the side of the pail were a number of old jam-jars, mugs, dilapidated tea-cups and one or two empty condensed milk tins. Each man on the `job' paid Bert threepence a week for the tea and sugar - they did not have milk - and although they had tea at breakfast-time as well as at dinner, the lad was generally considered to be making a fortune.
Two pairs of steps, laid parallel on their sides at a distance of about eight feet from each other, with a plank laid across, in front of the fire, several upturned pails, and the drawers belonging to the dresser, formed the seating accommodation. The floor of the room was covered with all manner of debris, dust, dirt, fragments of old mortar and plaster. A sack containing cement was leaning against one of the walls, and a bucket containing some stale whitewash stood in one corner.
As each man came in he filled his cup, jam-jar or condensed milk tin with tea from the steaming pail, before sitting down. Most of them brought their food in little wicker baskets which they held on their laps or placed on the floor beside them.
At first there was no attempt at conversation and nothing was heard but the sounds of eating and drinking and the drizzling of the bloater which Easton, one of the painters, was toasting on the end of a pointed stick at the fire.
`I don't think much of this bloody tea,' suddenly remarked Sawkins, one of the labourers.
`Well it oughter be all right,' retorted Bert; `it's been bilin' ever since 'arf past eleven.'
Bert White was a frail-looking, weedy, pale-faced boy, fifteen years of age and about four feet nine inches in height. His trousers were part of a suit that he had once worn for best, but that was so long ago that they had become too small for him, fitting rather lightly and scarcely reaching the top of his patched and broken hob-nailed boots. The knees and the bottoms of the legs of his trousers had been patched with square pieces of cloth, several shades darker than the original fabric, and these patches were now all in rags. His coat was several sizes too large for him and hung about him like a dirty ragged sack. He was a pitiable spectacle of neglect and wretchedness as he sat there on an upturned pail, eating his bread and cheese with fingers that, like his clothing, were grimed with paint and dirt.
`Well then, you can't have put enough tea in, or else you've bin usin' up wot was left yesterday,' continued Sawkins.
`Why the bloody 'ell don't you leave the boy alone?' said Harlow, another painter. `If you don't like the tea you needn't drink it. For my part, I'm sick of listening to you about it every damn day.'
`It's all very well for you to say I needn't drink it,' answered Sawkins, `but I've paid my share an' I've got a right to express an opinion. It's my belief that 'arf the money we gives 'him is spent on penny 'orribles: 'e's always got one in 'is hand, an' to make wot tea 'e does buy last, 'e collects all the slops wot's left and biles it up day after day.'
`No, I don't!' said Bert, who was on the verge of tears. `It's not me wot buys the things at all. I gives the money I gets to Crass, and 'e buys them 'imself, so there!'
At this revelation, some of the men furtively exchanged significant glances, and Crass, the foreman, became very red.
`You'd better keep your bloody thruppence and make your own tea after this week,' he said, addressing Sawkins, `and then p'raps we'll 'ave a little peace at meal-times.'
`An' you needn't ask me to cook no bloaters or bacon for you no more,' added Bert, tearfully, `cos I won't do it.'
Sawkins was not popular with any of the others. When, about twelve months previously, he first came to work for Rushton & Co., he was a simple labourer, but since then he had `picked up' a slight knowledge of the trade, and having armed himself with a putty-knife and put on a white jacket, regarded himself as a fully qualified painter. The others did not perhaps object to him trying to better his condition, but his wages - fivepence an hour - were twopence an hour less than the standard rate, and the result was that in slack times often a better workman was `stood off' when Sawkins was kept on. Moreover, he was generally regarded as a sneak who carried tales to the foreman and the `Bloke'. Every new hand who was taken on was usually warned by his new mates `not to let the b--r Sawkins see anything.'
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