Tristram Hunt and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

Posted on 20-10-2013

As well as being the new Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt is also the author of an excellent introduction to Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Hunt has also written elsewhere about this novel and its author, Robert Tressell – in an article here for the Guardian and another one here on his website.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist is often described as a working-class classic, and it has certainly been hugely influential – Hunt’s introduction details how many prominent Labour members and socialists of the 20th century described it as the book that changed their lives. Tressell drew on his own experiences as a skilled craftsman in writing the book, which is about a group of house-builders working in terrible conditions in ‘Mugsborough’, based on Hastings. The main character, Frank Owen, is based on Tressell himself. He is fiercely intelligent craftsman angered by the greed of his bosses, the stupidity of his fellow workers and the mendacity of the capitalist system they are forced to work within. He lectures his fellow workers at length about the way they are being exploited, and at times when you read his speeches to them you can almost feel the anger and despair shimmering on the page, so much that you want to get up and do something about it.  The only thing I can compare it to is reading one of Andrew Old’s blogs.

I’ve mentioned Tressell before on this blog to prove a point about the educational preferences of the early labour movement. Unlike some in the labour movement today, Tressell held explicitly ‘Arnoldian’ views about the importance of culture. This is from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

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.

This point, about the early labour movement’s attitude to culture and education, is elaborated on at greater length in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working-Classes. Hunt refers to this book in his introduction, and it is good to know that he has read it. The book shows beyond any doubt that high culture belongs to everyone, and that it is not defined or owned by the upper-class. As Rose says in his introduction:

If the dominant class defines high culture, then how do we explain the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts, not to mention the pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy?

And, if I can be allowed to quote myself, I add this in Seven Myths about Education.

 Among my own friends are many people from fairly modest backgrounds who I feel confident have a better understanding of high culture than Prince Harry, for example.

This point is important, of course, because today, too many people are willing to talk down to working-class pupils and assume that some knowledge doesn’t belong to them, isn’t relevant to them and will be too difficult for them to understand. Tressell and Rose recognise that that’s not the case. As Tristram Hunt clearly knows their work so well, let’s hope that he too will recognise this. Good luck to him.