If you like Robert Tressell you’ll love Will Crooks

Posted on 22-10-2012

On BBC Radio 4 Analysis just now I quoted Robert Tressell to explain why important knowledge belongs to all of us.

“What we call civilization–the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers–is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal–he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.” (H/T Andrew Old)

I think that a good example of what Tressell meant can be seen in the character of Will Crooks. Crooks was born in East London in 1869. Shortly after, his father lost his arm in a workplace accident. The entire family were left in deep poverty, with the result that the young Will spent several months in a workhouse, separated from his family.  He began work at a very young age, but still found time to read.

” On my way home from work one Saturday afternoon I was lucky enough to pick up Homer’s ‘ Iliad ‘ for twopence at an old bookstall. After dinner I took it upstairs — we were able to afford an upstairs room by that time — and read it Iying on the bed. What a revelation it was to me ! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury to a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs and gods of ancient Greece.”

Crooks became just the fourth Labour MP when he was elected to Parliament in 1903.  His biography, From Workhouse to Westminster: The Life Story of Will Crooks, M.P., is by George Haw and has an excellent introduction by G.K. Chesterton.