One hundred years of philanthropists

It’s now a century since Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was first published. In following the fortunes of men working in the construction and painting trades in the fictional town of Mugsborough, Tressell shows clearly how the true “philanthropists” in society are in fact the workers. There is an ironic description of their exploitation: by being inadequately rewarded for their labour, the surplus they produce is in effect a donation which sustains the extravagant lifestyle of their employer, who nevertheless has no reciprocal obligations towards them (see discussion of the “money trick” – chapter 21). No punches are pulled in describing an old man who had been engaged “in the philanthropic task of manufacturing profits for the sweaters [employers]. [He and his father] had been so busy running after work, and working for the benefit of others, that they had overlooked the fact that they were only earning a bare living for themselves” (p. 242). A lifetime of unemployment, casual and poorly-paid work had left him on the verge of destitution.

Not much seems to have changed 100 years later. Tressell describes constant insecurity about whether or not the men will be employed from one week to the next, anticipating concerns about zero-hours contracts. There are huge surpluses of labour (“if they work a man to death they can get another for nothing at the corner of the next street” – page 262), xenophobic remarks about foreign workers (page 17), rising demand for charitable assistance, exhaustive enquiries into circumstances of potential recipients of charity (page 592), housing costs which absorb more than a third of the income of tradesmen (p. 136), and so on.

In times of economic downturn the workers were driven to rely on a patchwork of small-scale charitable initiatives, often overlapping and competing either with each other, or undercutting other businesses (chapter 35). The book describes the Organised Benevolent Society which drew money from several sources (carnivals, weekly collections and churches and chapels, weekly collections in workplaces, processes of concerts, etc). The money was “devoted to the relief of cases of distress”, though the largest item of expenditure was the most deserving case, the general secretary, who was paid one third of the charity’s annual income. Tressell describes in minute detail the extent of work involved in assessing eligibility for assistance, “some cases taking several days”, with very few cash gifts being granted in order to guard against abuse. He saw such societies as preventing problems being grappled with in a sane and practical manner and argued that it would be far better to abolish charitable giving since “the community as a whole would be compelled to deal with the observed unnecessary state of affairs” that existed. Instead the philanthropic elites of the town did everything for the poor they could – with the exception of increasing taxes (“levy a halfpenny rate”).

Notwithstanding their straitened circumstances the workers themselves of course contribute to charity. When collecting their meagre wages (pages 224 – 25) there was always a hospital collecting box to which all donated even though it was not compulsory. The men felt under pressure to contribute though they well understood the demeaning character of the admission system for charitable hospitals and some considered that they should be “entitled to the attention of the hospital as a right”. This is in contrast to the enthusiastic portrait of support for the pre-NHS system offered by its supporters.

With the resurgence of the economic conditions described by Tressell, surely we can do a more systematic job of responding to need than the patchwork safety net available to his ‘philanthropists’? It is true that charitable organisations have moved beyond the amateurism and paternalism described by Tressell, but he would surely recognise the recent comment by Sam Younger, of the Charity Commission, that there remains concern about too many small and competing charities being set up. More generally, current moves towards local welfare funds suggest a further turning-back of the clock.

References: all quotes are taken from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (edited with an introduction by Peter Miles), Oxford University Press, 2005.


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