Tressell and Orwell, by Gerry Abbott

 Tressell and Orwell by Gerry Abbott

In 1906 or maybe the following year, a man who had been born in Dublin and christened Robert Croker began to write a story based on his own experiences as a decorator and signwriter. Having been born out of wedlock, he had adopted his mother’s maiden name Noonan and moved to Cape Town, where he learned and practised his trade. He married in 1891 and, after the couple divorced four years later, returned to England with his daughter Kathleen. Although he was  an intelligent man who could by now speak several languages, he could find employment only as a decorator and signwriter, a life of hard work and exploitation in sometimes appalling conditions. He called the story he had started The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists – ‘philanthropists’ because he and all such low-paid workmen were, as he saw it, donating large profits to their employers – and used the nom de plume Tressell because it was a homophone of ‘trestle’, the type of table used by decorators . When his manuscript had been rejected several times, he lost heart and started making arrangements to emigrate to Canada with young Kathleen, but on 3 February 1911 he died in Liverpool of tuberculosis and was buried there in a mass grave for paupers. Fortunately for us, Kathleen preserved his manuscript and managed to get the book published in 1914, since when it has never been out of print. What has never been acknowledged, however, is the influence this book had on the work of George Orwell.

In 1932, failing to make enough money and also smarting from a publisher’s rejection of his Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell went north to visit his sister in Leeds. Here, according to Crick (1980:137-8), a local librarian introduced him to Robert Tressell’s book and obtained Huxley’s Brave New World for him. Some years later while working in the BBC Orwell offered his opinion of Tressell’s work, which he said “has always seemed to me a wonderful book, although it is very clumsily written.” (Discussion with Desmond Hawkins, BBC Home Service, 6 December 1940). That “always” is interesting because it suggests that for eight years he had remained interested in Tressell’s work. Orwell’s last working day at the BBC was on 24 November 1943, and by 6 December he was already working on his masterpiece Animal Farm. On 16 December he wrote a letter to a Mr S. Moos, a Tribune reader, expressing his fear not of a hedonistic future, not of a Brave New World sort of civilisation, but of a “centralised slave state, ruled over by a small clique who are in effect a new ruling class” (Crick 1980: 322-323). By March 1944 Animal Farm was completed, and was published in Britain the following year. It was this book that in the Fifties inspired me to read Orwell’s work in its entirety. Coming across his reference to Tressell’s book I promised myself that I would read that too one day, but the decades passed. When I finally read it in 2010, page after page reminded me of Orwell.

Various authorities have identified several literary influences upon Orwell’s work (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Huxley’s Brave New World and Zamyatin’s We among others) but poor Robert Tressell seems to have been overlooked: for example, recent biographies by Crick (1980) and Bowker (2003) simply note Tressell’s book in passing, while neither Shelden (1991) nor Taylor (2003) even mentions it at all. My purpose here is to suggest that Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was at the back of Orwell’s mind when he wrote Animal Farm and may also have had some influence on his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Let us start by looking at Tressell’s cast of miserably paid, ill-fed and harshly treated decorators who are refurbishing ‘The Cave’ in Elmore Grove, Mugsborough. Of these sarcastically-labelled ‘philanthropists’ who provide profits for their capitalist superiors, the two most intelligent workers are Owen and Barrington, both of them mouthpieces for the author. Owen openly supports Socialism and is anti-imperialist. Addressing his xenophobic mates he sneers at their belief that the earth “rightly belongs to the British people” (p.23).  Barrington seems to prefigure Orwell himself in his ‘down and out’ role: confessing that he comes from a wealthy family, Barrington eventually explains (p.579): “I just wanted to see things for myself; to see life as it is lived by the majority.” He too is anti-imperialist, seeing  the Empire as deliberate exploitation:

“India is a rich productive country. Every year millions of pounds worth of wealth are produced by her people, only to be stolen from them … by the capitalist and official class. (…) They are poor for the same reason that we are poor – Because we are Robbed.” (p.477)

However, these two characters are exceptions. Tressell finds most of his workmates an unthinking bunch, “absolutely incapable of thinking of any abstract subject whatsoever” (p.204) who have accepted it “as an established, incontrovertible fact that the existing state of things is immutable. They believed it because someone else told them so.” (p.205)  On reading that sentence, I fancied I  could hear Boxer saying, “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right”; and later, when one of the men tells Barrington that the adoption of Tariff Reform “would bring black ruin upon the country –  he believed this because Mr Sweater had said so”, I  again seemed to hear Boxer.

Tressell often uses the horse as an image in his depiction of heavy labour. He explains why people take care of their horses:

If they were to overwork a horse and make it ill, it would cost something for medicine and the veterinary surgeon, to say nothing of the animal’s board and lodging. If they were to work their horses to death, they would have to buy others. But none of these considerations applies to workmen. (p.257)

On the other hand he admits with heavy sarcasm that, unlike the horse, the man enjoys “the priceless blessing of Freedom”:

He enjoys perfect Liberty. He has the right to choose freely which he will do – Submit or Starve. Eat dirt or eat nothing. (ibid)

Tressell then inserts a so-called parable which begins:

“I wish I could open your eyes to the true misery of our condition: injustice, tyranny and oppression!” said a discontented hack to a weary-looking cob as they stood side by side in unhired cabs. (p.263)

The general labourer Ted Dawson, too, is seen as a workhorse:

This poor wretch was scarcely ever seen without a load of some sort or other: carrying a sack of cement or plaster, a heavy ladder, a big bucket of mortar, or dragging a load of scaffolding on a cart. He must have been nearly as strong as a horse … (p.424)

The penny-pinching exploitation of the workmen is such that the reader is not surprised when an old rope that should have been replaced suddenly snaps and the painter Philpot, only 56 but worn out, falls to his death; nor when his body is snatched (like Boxer’s) and snatched back in a squabble about who gets the fees; nor when the conscientious painter Jack Linden, 67 but looking older, dies and is given a pauper’s funeral (pp.525-6).

These labourers toil like workhorses under a hierarchy of oppressors, chief of whom is Rushton, the owner of Rushton & Co., Builders and Decorators, Mugsborough, who spies on the men as he watches out for slackers. He is reminiscent of ‘Our Leader, Comrade Napoleon’:

He seldom spoke to anyone, but just stood there like a graven image, or walked about like a dumb animal – a pig, as the men used to say. This individual had a very exalted idea of his own importance and dignity. (p.379)

To keep the men hard at work when he is not present, he has the slave-driver Hunter (also known by the men as ‘Misery’). Hunter chivvies and bullies them, and sacks anyone who is too slow. His ill-mannered behaviour is described by one of the old painters:

“You know, I reckon if ole Misery ‘ad four legs, ‘ed make a very good pig,” said Philpot solemnly, “and you can’t expect nothin’ from a pig but a grunt.”

If the workers prefigure Boxer, then Rushton and his enforcer Hunter are surely ancestors, as it were, of the pigs in Animal Farm.

In Orwell’s ‘fairy story’, when the pigs commandeer all the milk and apples, food which should be shared by all the animals on the farm, the persuasive Squealer is sent to explain matters:

“Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brain-workers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples.”  

These brain workers also circumvent the original rule that forbids sleeping in a bed. Squealer is sent to explain why, and adds:

“And very comfortable beds they are too! But not more comfortable than we need, I can tell you, comrades, with all the brainwork we have to do nowadays.”

 Similarly, in Tressell’s story Rushton and Hunter claim as their due plenty of rest, as well as sufficient food and drink, because they are brain workers. For example, we are told why Rushton keeps Owen waiting for half an hour one morning:

Like the majority of people who do brain work, he needed a great deal more rest than those who do only physical labour. (p.136)

Along with his foreman Hunter/Misery (also known by the men as ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Pontius Pilate’) Rushton then estimates the cost of a decorating job:

Between them the two brain workers figured that fifteen pounds would cover the entire cost of the work – painting and decorating. (p.138)

When they decide to charge not fifteen but forty-five pounds, Tressell’s heavily ironic comment is:

The men work with their hands, and the masters work with their brains. What a dreadful calamity it would be for the world and for mankind if all these brain workers were to go on strike. (ibid)

To the labourers these brain workers surely exemplify Orwell’s ‘small clique who are in effect a new ruling class’, just as Napoleon and his henchmen do in Animal Farm, where they profit even from selling Boxer to the knacker’s to be processed into leather, dog-meat, glue and bonemeal. There are other profiteers and swindlers who (as in much of Dickens’s work) are characterised by their names, among them Didlum, Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Crass, Slyme, Sweater, Grinder, Snatchum and the firm of rival decorators Dauber& Botchit; but these are central neither to the story nor to my thesis.

More relevant for my purpose are occasional incidents that seem to be echoed in Animal Farm. For instance, having discussed the existing political system, Rushton’s workers conclude that ‘Nothing could ever be altered: it had always been more or less the same, and it always would be’ (p.280). Likewise, Orwell’s cynical donkey Benjamin has a long memory and knows ‘that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse – hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable  law of life.’ 

Furthermore, just as Owen suffers from a damaged lung but tries ‘to believe that when the weather became warmer he would be all right once more’ (p.579), so Boxer’s lung fails him and the farm animals hope that he ‘will pick up when the spring grass comes on.’  It may also be that Moses the raven, with his ridiculous vision of a Sugarcandy Mountain heaven is an echo of the Shining Light Chapel and the Church of the Whited Sepulchre and their hypocritical congregations. However, this would be an admittedly more tenuous link because whereas many of the farm animals believe Moses, Rushton’s workers deride Christianity’s concepts of an afterlife:

“If ‘evven’s goin’ to be full of sich b – rs as Hunter,” observed Easton, “I think I’d rather go to the other place.”

“If ever ole Misery does get into ‘eaven,” said Philpot, “ ‘e won’t stop there very long. I reckon ‘e’ll be chucked out of it before ‘e’s been there a week, because ‘e’s sure to start pinchin’ the jewels out of the other saints’ crowns.” (p. 145)

Another man adds that there has been a revolution in Hell: they have “deposed the Devil, elected a parson as President, and started puttin’ the fire out”. (ibid)

So much for comparisons with Animal Farm. What invites comparison with Nineteen Eighty-Four is the oppressive atmosphere in which all Tressell’s workers must operate. Individually, the incidents at first seem trivial. Hunter, for instance, doesn’t allow Philpot to work with the door shut. 

“You can do what you’re doin’ just as well with the door open.”  (p.39)

Then old Jack Linden, his pipe still in his mouth, is spotted by Hunter (Misery):

“I don’t pay you for smoking,” he said, loudly. “Make out your time sheet, take it to the office and get your money. I’ve had enough of you!” (p.47)

Soon we realise how threatening and persistent the atmosphere is:

During the next four weeks the usual reign of terror continued at ‘The Cave’. The men slaved like so many convicts under the vigilant surveillance of Crass, Misery and Rushton. No one felt free from observation for a single moment. (p.202)

Nor can the men even trust their own mates. Rushton issues a time sheet bearing a list of orders, one of which is : ‘Any man who is slow or lazy, or any man you notice talking more than is necessary during working hours, you must report him to Mr. Hunter’ (p.398). Even when the men are working on another house overlooking the town they believe that Rushton is sitting in his office watching them through a telescope. (p.397)

Finally, when young Bert runs his ‘Pandorama’ to give a sort of primitive slide show with a commentary, he comes to an election scene and explains:

“In the middle of the road we see a man lying on the ground, covered with blood, with a lot of Liberal and Tory men kickin’ ‘im, jumpin’ on ‘im, and stampin’ on ‘is face with their ‘obnailed boots. The bloke on the ground is a Socialist …” (p.305)

It is a scene that uncannily resembles the famous image of a future life under ‘a single hierarchy of oppression and propaganda motivated by a desire for power for its own sake’  which O’Brien presents to Winston Smith in Ninteen Eighty-Four: “If you want a picture of the future of humanity imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

With this distasteful image Orwell is representing one of the policies of Big Brother, of course. But Tressell’s work reminds us that to the victim who is cruelly overworked, constantly overawed, despicably underpaid and therefore pitifully underfed, it makes little difference whether the oppressor is a totalitarian state, a Fascist police force, a capitalist clique or the money-grubbing boss of a firm of builders and decorators.

Some of the resemblances that I have noted above may perhaps be discounted as merely coincidental. But old workmen who labour like horses; smug overseers who behave like pigs; inescapable surveillance and fear of betrayal by your fellow workers – these Orwellian components are all present in Tressell’s book and the similarities surely cannot be dismissed entirely. 


[I have supplied page references for a recent paperback edition of the Tressell book, but have not deemed it necessary in the case of Orwell’s well-known novels.]

Bowker,G. 2003. George Orwell. London: Little, Brown.

Crick, B. 1980. George Orwell: a life. London: Martin Secker & Warburg.

Orwell,G. 1945. Animal Farm.

    –           1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Shelden, M. 1991. Orwell: the authorised biography. London: Heinemann.

Taylor, D. 2003. Orwell: the life. London: Chatto & Windus.

Tressell, R. 1914. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. London: Harper Perennial (2005 paperback edition)

©  Gerry Abbott  2011

2 thoughts on “Tressell and Orwell, by Gerry Abbott

  1. I think Gerry’s comparisons are spot on and we should all be so grateful that, unlike Tressell, Orwell was not taken from us before his two masterpieces were published, and that he himself could get some pleasure/satisfaction from knowing that he had “made it”. Ironically, I suppose it could be argued that Tressell was not published in his lifetime because he did not have the contacts that Orwell had after Henley/Eton and the rest. Tressell didn’t take himself north; he was already there, so his worked lacked gritty glamour of Orwell’s adventure.
    Orwell’s opinion that “Ragged Trousered” was a “wonderful” book though “clumsily” written seems typical praise from him and I’m sure that the first description was the one he was emphasising in that way of his. Also, Gerry’s well-spotted use of “always” was not used by accident – Orwell really likes this book and would indeed borrow from it.
    In the late Sixties, when I was in the Young Communist League – a “progressive” against the “tankies”, I’m quick to add – “Ragged Trousered” took on an almost religious intensity on the Left and extreme Left. There was that mad purity of passion that was denied Orwell, who was telling those awful lies about Uncle Joe.
    Reading Gerry’s excellent piece shows what a shame it was that Orwell and Tressell were unable to meet. Would have liked to have been on the next table if that had happened! Thanks a lot, Gerry.


  2. I am sure Mr Abbott is right that Tressell’s book is one of the many sources that inspired “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. However two small points -as you might say typical of the footnote-writer. Orwell was not really ‘in the BBC’ – except in so far as he visited a recording studio for his discussion with Hawkins on 6 December 1940. He only joined the BBC on 18 August 1941. Secondly, it might be of interest that Orwell reviewed the Penguin edition of “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” in the “Manchester Evening News” on 25 April 1946 (see “Complete Works”, vol XVIII, pp. 255-7). Peter Davison


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