The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

The brilliant thing about book clubs is the encouragement and opportunity to read books outside your comfort zone – that’s how I found myself reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

It’s a thick book written over 100 years ago and viewed by some as a classic. It has much to say in favour of socialism and the edition I read had an introduction by Tony Benn. However it is possible to push the politics to one side and read it as a piece of social history.

The story centres around a group of painters and decorators living in poverty. They are in and out of work depending on the season and very badly treated by their rich, fat cat employers. Health and safety is non-existent and this is long before the safety net of the welfare state and the NHS. The book follows these wretched men and their families over a twelve month period, contrasting their circumstances with those of their bosses.
I found the first chapter hard going – there were far too many characters introduced all at once. But I persevered and the subsequent chapters focused in on individuals which made the going easier. I became fond of Owen, the deep thinker of the group, and young Bert, who worked for nothing in an exchange for an ‘apprenticeship’ which taught him only the skills of being a dogsbody. I also felt for their wives, who often went without food so that their children and husband could eat.

Verdict: It took me three weeks to read the book and only 30% of the book club members stuck with it all the way through. It made me incredibly glad that I wasn’t born 100 years earlier into a society that had to live hand to mouth. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not a ‘good’ read but I’m very glad I’ve read it – in the same way that I’m often very glad I’ve been to the gym even though pounding the treadmill or doing sit-ups was not a good experience.

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  1. #1 by lynnforthauthor on October 5, 2017 - 4:47 pm

    It was one of my dad’s favourite books and he was always urging me to read it. Sadly I never did. But thanks for this review. He had a hard youth and I can now see why he liked it so much.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on October 5, 2017 - 6:22 pm

      Yes, Lynn, I can see that anyone who’s struggled to make a living could relate to this. I hope your dad had an easier life as the years went by.

  2. #3 by Patsy on October 6, 2017 - 5:32 pm

    I’m almost sure I have this book somewhere (maybe on my kindle) but I haven’t read it. Sounds like I should give it a go if I’m ever in need of a reminder that my life is relatively easy.

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on October 6, 2017 - 7:27 pm

      If you haven’t got it, Patsy, it’s probably very cheap or even free on Kindle. And yes, a good reminder, that life is much easier for us today.

  3. #5 by juliathorley on October 11, 2017 - 12:44 pm

    I’ve never read it either. Is it that if we don’t read the classics (is this one?) for study we never get round to reading them at all? Who’s got time to dig out an Orwell when there’s a Lee Child waiting for attention?

    • #6 by Sally Jenkins on October 11, 2017 - 3:55 pm

      I agree Lee Child does make more compulsive reading than many of the classics. But perhaps it does us good to read something a little different every now and again?

      • #7 by juliathorley on October 11, 2017 - 4:03 pm

        Challenge accepted! I’m reading ‘The Child in Time’ at the moment (rather than watching it on TV), so when I’ve finished I’ll reach for something more cerebral.

      • #8 by Sally Jenkins on October 11, 2017 - 4:06 pm

        Good for you!

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