13 March 2017


24 Hours in Mugsborough

Mugsborough was a town of about eighty thousand inhabitants, about two hundred miles from London.  It was built in a verdant valley….. To the south, as far as the eye could see, stretched a vast, cultivated plain that extended to the south coast, one hundred miles away.  The climate was supposed to be cool in summer and mild in winter.

Or so Robert Noonan, who wrote under the pen name of Robert Tressell, would have us believe.  In fact, Mugsborough was Hastings, a borough on the south coast in the county of East Sussex, 53 miles south east of London and famous for a battle which took place eight miles to the north, at Senlac, in 1066.  The population at the 2001 census was 85,029, of whom 96% were white (British, Irish or other)…..

When Noonan lived here (1901 – 1910) the town was really a vast whited sepulchre; for notwithstanding the natural advantages of the place the majority of the inhabitants existed in a state of perpetual poverty which in many cases bordered on destitution.  Robert Noonan, the illegitimate son of Samuel Croker, a Dublin Police inspector, and Mary Noonan, was born in 1870.  In 1890 he emigrated to South Africa, where he worked as a sign writer.  He married and had a daughter, Kathleen, but his wife left him for another man, and eventually he and Kathleen returned to the UK to stay with his sisters in Hastings.  He was already affected by tuberculosis, but he found work, wrote his one novel, and became involved in political groups, until he decided to emigrate again, this time to Canada, in 1910.  Unfortunately, he died of bronchial pneumonia, aged just 40, in Liverpool and was buried in a pauper’s grave.  

I am not a stranger to the area; my mother’s parents lived near Robertsbridge until my grandfather’s death and then grandmother lived in Bexhill for some years before moving inland to Cripps Corner until her death. My parents were married at Seddlescombe, a couple of miles from Battle.  My aunt and uncle moved to Winchelsea when he retired, and later we brought our children to stroke skates in the Blue Reef Aquarium and to watch the fishing boats winched up onto the shingle by rusty bulldozers.  Now we are back as guests of friends who have moved to live in the Old Town.

But I had not connected Robert Tressell, nor his Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, with the town, until now, and over a hundred years since its first publication it comes to life anew, not because it is about Hastings, because it isn’t, but because somehow it makes more sense when you climb Noonans Steps to Milward Road, where the flat described at the end of the book looks out over the railway bridge.  Or where, at 241 London Road, a Tanning, Massage and Beauty Salon under the name of The Haven sports a blue plaque bearing the inscription: THE FIRST WORKING-CLASS NOVEL WRITTEN IN THIS HOUSE 1906 – 1910

There’s another plaque, on Plynlimmon Road, which commemorates Robert Tressell socialist reformer & writer; this was where he lodged with his widowed sister Adelaide and her son in 1901 (having first stayed with sister Mary Jane in St Leonards).  In July 2013  there was a one-day festival held at the University of Brighton Campus in Priory Square, to celebrate Tressell’s work, and some years before this the proud burghers of Hastings set up The Robert Tressell Society to provide an archive and information point for all those interested in Robert Tressell and his work (see http://www.1066.net/tressell/index.html).

There are some 48 plaques on buildings in Hastings, but Tressell is the only person to have two to himself.  Other famous residents include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who married Lizzie Siddal here (he has two but one is shared with Lizzie); Michael Faraday, Queen Adelaide, Prince Augustus Frederick (sixth son of George III and Duke of Sussex);

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (Victorian educationalist and artist, feminist, women’s rights’ activist, and founder of Girton College); Lewis Carroll (who often stayed here with his aunts, the Misses Lutwidge), Lucien Pissarro (whose beautiful painting All Saints’ Church, Hastings: Sun and Mist, 1918 is currently not on show at the Tate, which would have taken £150 off me had I posted a copy here….);  Katie McMullen, aka Dame Catherine Cookson (who ran a guest house here for sufferers from TB, epilepsy and other such illnesses from 1931 for many years); General Sir John Moore who fell at Corunna (Not a drum was heard) was billeted here in 1805; Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, set up his HQ over an Antiques Warehouse in 1806 and dined nearby at the Swan Inn; William the Conqueror lunched near here, and the Celebrated Movie Stars, Mr and Mrs Michael Mouse once spent their summer holidays here…... 

And among those who for various reasons (including the fact that some of them are still alive) do not (yet) seem to be plaqued (forgive me if I missed something) are: Teilhard de Chardin, Grey Owl, Screaming Lord Sutch, Suggs, Paula Yates, Emma Blocksage (bodybuilder Emma B), Edward Burra, David Hare, and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (2016) winner (Tightrope) and Man Booker Prize (2009) shortlister (The Glass Room) Simon Mawer….. with whom (and Connie) we stay.

Hastings is an attractive place, and apart from attracting all the above, the Normans built a castle here in 1070 and Eugenius Birch designed the 1872 Pier, which hosted stars such as the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s.  

Unfortunately, due to storm damage and lack of maintenance, it became unsafe and was sold off to a Panamanian offshore investment company Ravenclaw (not to be confused with one of Hogwarts’ Houses – at least I don’t think so….) who neglected it and ignored requests to take action; subsequently it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 2010.  In 2012 the Borough Council repurchased it and with the help of community shares and a dedicated charity the structure has been partially restored and it opened to the public again in 2016. 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists do not walk on the pier, nor is the sea a factor in their lives.  The only fish mentioned in the whole book are bloaters….  But the community is quite recognisable, when you give it thought.  One hundred and odd years ago there was no Welfare State, and the First World War was yet to reduce the ruling class to a shadow of its former self.  The post-war influenza epidemic was unthinkable, and further into the twentieth century the development of the unions, the Beveridge Report, the social levelling of the Second World War, and the landslide result of the 1945 election, which saw Clement Atlee become Prime Minister – all this was beyond the imagination of Edwardian Socialists.

Tressell portrayed the conditions of working people and their families with incisive realism, but also lampooned the excesses of the wealthy and skewered the hypocrisy of so-called Christians and do-gooders (the death by spontaneous combustion of Jonydab Belcher of the Shining Light Chapel on Monte Carlo railway station, after a rest cure paid for by subscription from the poor of the town, is a literary gem well in advance of Mr Creosote’s timely death in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life…..)

The book is about Tressell/Noonan’s experience, however, and actually the most telling thing about it is the apathy of his workmates, who insist on blindly accepting a system that not only perpetuates their pauperism but condemns their children to infinite suffering, always at the expense of a manipulating and thieving ruling class.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the story of twelve months in hell, told by one of the damned.  In his own preface, Tressell wrote that his intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working class life.  He also said that the subject of Socialism was incidental.  As a readable story of human interest it succeeds where few others have touched the happenings of everyday life so closely, but it falters when it tries to offer solutions.  

Overall it is agonising in its detail of poverty and destitution, and painful in its satiric depiction of the scheming, corrupt, greedy and depraved aldermen of the borough, though it is also extremely funny.  Howard Brenton, who adapted the book for the stage, wrote, in The Guardian in 2011, that in ‘The Great Oration’ [a key chapter, late in the novel] Tressell describes the creation of a new kind of state: the co-operative commonwealth.  It is a communist vision, utopian, even quaint, but deeply moving.  Writing a stage adaptation made me think, paradoxically, that everything is different but nothing has changed.  We too are enmeshed in a feckless and dangerous capitalist system.  Tressell’s wonderful book convinced me that it’s time to begin the struggle for the co-operative commonwealth all over again…..

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was not published while its author was alive.  Kathleen, Noonan’s daughter, managed to get a truncated version into print in 1914 (since when it has never been out of print), but it was not until 1955 that the entire work was made available.  Its influence has been immense – not only on writers such as George Orwell (both Animal Farm and 1984  are indebted to Tressell) and J B Priestley (I am guessing here, but I cannot think but that Mrs Birling of An Inspector Calls derives from the wives of wealthy citizens and retired tradesmen, richly dressed, ignorant, insolent, overbearing frumps, who – after filling themselves with good things in their own luxurious homes – went flouncing into the poverty-stricken homes of their poor ‘sisters’….. Some of these overfed females… belonged to the Organised Benevolent Society, and engaged in their ‘work’ for the purpose of becoming acquainted with people of superior social position – one of the members was a colonel, and Sir Graball D’Encloseland – the Member of Parliament for the borough – also belonged to the Society…..)

In Hastings, veering up the East Cliff on the steepest funicular railway in the UK, we can overview the Old Town and the Stade.  But to the east lies a problem, for the coastal path to Pett Beach and Fairlight was interrupted by a landslip at Ecclesbourne Glen in 2014 and so far little has been done to rectify the situation.  

The landslip occurred at the southern end of Rocklands Caravan Park, and it revealed some unauthorised developments previously hidden from public view, including the erection of a storage building without planning permission (for which the owners are now required to seek planning permission to keep the building) and that eight caravans have been sited on the lower part of the site without requisite planning permission (to which the council responded that the secluded location of the site means we have only recently become aware of these caravans….) In October 2014 Council Leader Jeremy Birch stated that, I am determined that we will learn the lessons of Rocklands…..  Sadly Councillor Birch died after a stroke in May 2015…..

There is something here that smacks of the Band of Brigands (The Forty Thieves) in the RTP…..

I suspect there may even be a closer resemblance in the question of the development of the Stade….  In the RTP Tressell makes much of the elaborate shenanigans the councillors get up to rid themselves of the burden of trying to maintain control of the electricity supply in the face of the quite extraordinary ploy of the gas company to site itself outside the Borough. 

In Hastings there has been ongoing controversy about the Jerwood Art Gallery [leased by a Lichtenstein registered entity] which is sited on the Stade (the shingle foreshore in Old Hastings).  The Save our Stade committee, on its Jerwood-No website, has this to say…..  A row over land ownership is costing taxpayers up to £20,000 a month.  Legal red tape surrounding the development of The Stade and the Jerwood Gallery means the electricity supply to the new cafĂ© and Stade Hall is running from two generators. And a third will shortly be needed to power the gallery.

The dispute, which has already cost taxpayers almost £100,000 so far, centres around who owns ‘a strip of land, around three square metres in size, where an empty electricity substation is based.  When completed this should provide power to the whole Stade development but UK Power Networks refuses to put in any of its equipment until legal difficulties have been resolved,’ Kevin Boorman, marketing and communications head for Hastings Borough Council (HBC), said.

One angry resident said: ‘It's a scandal as it has cost the taxpayers, so far, tens of thousands of pounds and someone needs to be accountable for what has gone wrong.’ The disputed piece of land is part-owned by the council and the Foreshore Trust, a charity that was set up in 1893 to run the whole of the town's seafront.

In RTP, in Chapter 30, The Brigands Hold A Council Of  War, where the issue is the loss-making electricity supply (which these capitalists own): Sweater laughed quietly: ….No.  What I propose is that we Sell Out.

Who’s to buy? Repeated Sweater, replying to Grinder.  The municipality of course!  The ratepayers.  Why shouldn’t Mugsborough go in for Socialism as well as other towns?

Another smart move concerning the town council and the sea front is Mr Grinder’s offer – on behalf of the ‘Cosy Corner Refreshment Company’ – to take the Kiosk on the Grand Parade.  Mr Grinder submitted a plan of certain alterations that he would require the Corporation to make at the Kiosk, and, provided the Council agreed to do this work he was willing to take a lease of the place for five years at £20 per year.  And, despite Dr Weakling’s observation that the alterations would cost £175 pounds and that the council would be out of pocket by £75 after five years, the move is agreed, as is Councillor Rushton’s suggestion that a shelter for 200 people be erected close to the Kiosk.  Again Dr Weakling objects, even suggesting that this was a put-up job,  but this provokes loud cries of ‘Withdraw’ ‘Apologise’ ‘Cast ‘im out’ and terrific uproar….

But this is Mugsborough, of course, not Hastings.  Never Hastings!

It would be most interesting to walk the front with Robert Noonan today, and to hear his thoughts on the state of the world.  He would no doubt be bitterly disappointed that capitalism is still the system and that The Golden Light is not yet diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism. He would, however, acknowledge that some things may be better for many working people, that the work house is no more, that children in poverty get free school meals, that retired workers receive pensions. 

He might not be surprised, however, that workers such as Crass still say things like, you know very well that the country is being ruined by foreigners….. and that such as Sawkins might chime in, Wy , even ‘ere in Mugsborough – We’re overrun with ‘em!  Nearly all the waiters and the cook at the Grand Hotel… is foreigners. And depressingly he might also not find it unusual that the papers his workmates read are filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.  These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners

And if Robert Noonan were to have read yesterday’s Observer (not the Obscurer!) he might sigh a little reading Tom Kibasi (Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and Chair of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice)’s piece on the challenges facing Britain today:  We are living at a moment when an old economic settlement is in crisis, but a new settlement has yet to be formed. It has been apparent since the financial crash of 2008 that there has been a serious breakdown in the economy; what is now becoming clear is that this is leading – and needs to lead – to a new approach to economic policy, with a new underpinning of economic ideas.

And he might shiver just a little reading that ex-Chancellor George Osborne has declared that he earned £800,000 for fourteen speeches in the last year and that he is also gaining £650,000 a year for working 48 days at Blackrock, the world’s biggest fund management firm.  And all this while drawing his MP’s salary and supposedly working full time.  As William Keegan said, some people are shameless.

In 1907, an article in the Nation stated that half the total national income of Britain accrued to one-ninth of the population, and that half the national capital belonged to one-seventh…. In yesterday’s Observer I read that in this country the richest 10% of households have incomes that are 11 times those of the poorest 10%.

Robert Noonan was not a blinkered idealist.  He recognised, with a great deal of frustration, the blind, stupid, enthusiastic admiration displayed by the philanthropists for those who exploited and robbed them; their extraordinary apathy with regard to their own interests; the patient, broken-spirited way in which they endured their sufferings, tamely submitting to live in poverty in the midst of the wealth they had helped to create; the callous indifference to the fate of their children, and the savage hatred they exhibited towards anyone who dared to suggest the possibility of better things, and this forced upon him the thought that the hopes he cherished were impossible of realisation. 

One character in the book, the ‘renegade socialist,’ says, and Tressell has Barrington repeat this: You can be a Jesus Christ if you like, but for my part I’m finished. For the future I intend to look after myself.  As for these people, they vote for what they want, they get what they vote for, and, by God! They deserve nothing better! 

It’s a sad, depressing reflection, echoed, perhaps, by Nick Cohen yesterday (though in a slightly different context): As I keep saying, the problem is not the liars, it is the millions who want to be lied to.

Robert Noonan died, depressed by publishers’ rejection of his book, in the Royal Infirmary, Brownlow Street, Liverpool, on February 2nd 1911. The death certificate described the 40-year-old as a Sign Writer (Journeyman) and gave the cause of death as phthisis pulmonalis - a wasting of the lungs sometimes associated with tuberculosis - and cardiac failure; yet the Sister told Kathleen that he died of broncho-pneumonia and No mention was made of T.B.

Robert Noonan was buried on 10 February 1911, in the Parochial Cemetery, Walton, which belonged to the Overseers of the Poor. Unlike most of the other twelve corpses in Plot T.11, a 25-foot deep public grave, his burial was under a Relieving Officer’s order, though a curate officiated.

The cemetery was not identified until 1968; the grave was not located until 1970, and it remained unmarked until 1977.  [Information from Dave Harker, TUC Online History, 2014]

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As a curious footnote to this story, in Hastings I come across a Freedom of Information request which asked for figures showing the Borough Council’s expenditure on Public Health Funerals in the last five years. Total amount spent 2011 – 2016 £182,409.22; amount recovered £98,114.20; therefore £84,295.02 monies still owed…..

There were 19 such funerals in 2016, at an average cost of £2,000 each.  The cost of just one of those has been recovered.

The poor are still with us.....

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Hastings is a fine place.  But perhaps it is time that Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists became a set text in schools.  It’s a faithful picture of working-class life… in a small town in the south of England and it’s far from irrelevant today…….

With very many thanks to Simon and Connie.

And please sponsor my upcoming 5 day 100 mile South Downs Way trek in aid of Alzheimer's Society....


  1. The poor are still with us. A recent estimate (Child Poverty Action Group, 2016) suggests that over 25% of all children in the UK grow up in poverty; and the gap in the wealth of the rich and the poor is bigger than ever. For some reason reading your piece (and noticing so many green lichen coloured roofs - could that have contributed to his TB? - 'The remains of the day' came to mind. Perhaps it was the fading glory of The Deluxe or the sign advertising 'Wedding Cakes, Soups...' and what else lies beneath? I remember visiting Hastings with you many years ago and thinking then it was a strange place tucked in tight between the cliffs and the sea. Plus ca change?

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