Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968). rn The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

Robert Tressall

(The life-story of an English house-painter who died of consumption, leaving behind him a manuscript portraying the pitiful lives of the half-starved English artisans. Published in book form, it proved to be one of the literary events of the year 1914. In the character of “Owen,” the author here tells of his own efforts to awaken his fellow-workers in England)

TOWARD the end of March the outlook began to improve. By the middle of April Rushton and Company were working eleven and a half hours a day. In May, as the jobs increased and the days grew longer, they were allowed to put in overtime; and, as the summer months came round, once more the crowd of ragged-trousered philanthropists began to toil and sweat at their noble and unselfish task of making money for Mr. Rushton. Papering, painting, white-washing, distempering, digging up drains, repairing roofs, their zeal and enthusiasm were unbounded. Their operations extended all over the town. At all hours of the day they were to be seen going to or returning from jobs, carrying planks and ladders, paint and whitewash, chimney pots and drain pipes, a crowd of tattered Imperialists, in broken boots, paint-splashed caps, their clothing saturated with sweat and plastered with mortar. The daily spectacle of the workmen, tramping wearily home along the pavement of the Grand Parade, caused some annoyance to the better classes, and a letter appeared in The Obscurer suggesting that it would be better if they walked on the road. When they heard of this letter most of the men adopted the suggestion and left the pavement for their betters.

On the jobs themselves, meanwhile, the same old conditions prevailed, the same frenzied hurry, the same scamping of the work, slobbering it over, cheating the customers; the same curses behind the foreman’s back, the same groveling in his presence, the same strident bellowing from Misery: “Get it Done! For Gord’s sake, get it Done! ’Aven’t you finished yet? We’re losing money over this! If you chaps can’t tear into it we’ll have an Alteration!” and the result was that the philanthropists often tore into it to such an extent that they worked themselves out of a job, for business fluctuated, and occasionally everybody was “stood off” for a few days.…

They were putting new floors where the old ones were decayed, and making two rooms into one by demolishing the parting wall and substituting an iron girder. They were replacing window frames and sashes, replastering cracked ceilings and walls, cutting openings and fitting doors where no doors had ever been before. They were taking down broken chimney pots and fixing new ones in their places. They were washing the old whitewash off the ceilings, and scraping the old paper off the walls. The air was full of the sounds of hammering and sawing, the ringing of trowels, the rattle of pails, the splashing of water brushes and the scraping of the stripping knives. It was also heavily laden with dust and disease germs, powdered mortar, lime, plaster, and the dirt that had been accumulating within the old house for years. In brief, those employed there might be said to be living in a Tariff Reform Paradise—they had Plenty of Work.

At twelve o’clock Bob Crass, the painter’s foreman, blew a prolonged blast upon a whistle and all hands assembled in the kitchen, where Bert the apprentice had already prepared the tea in the large galvanized iron pail placed in the middle of the floor. By the side of the pail were a number of old jam jars, mugs, dilapidated teacups, and one or two empty condensed milk tins. Each man on the “job” paid Bert threepence a week for the tea and sugar—they did not have milk—and although they had tea at breakfast time as well as at dinner the lad was generally considered to be making a fortune.…

As each man came in he filled his cup, jam jar, or condensed milk tin with tea from the steaming pail, before sitting down. Most of them brought their food in little wicker baskets, which they held on their laps, or placed on the floor beside them.

At first there was no attempt at conversation and nothing was heard but the sounds of eating and drinking and the frizzling of the bloater which Easton, one of the painters, was toasting on the end of a pointed stick at the fire.

“I don’t think much of this bloody tea,” suddenly remarked Sawkins, one of the laborers.

“Well, it oughter be all right,” retorted Bert; “it’s bin bilin’ ever since ’arf past eleven.…”

“Has anyone seen old Jack Linden since ’e got the push?” inquired Harlow.

“I seen ’im Saturday,” said Slyme.

“Is ’e doin’ anything?”

“I don’t know: I didn’t ’ave time to speak to ’im.”

“No, ’e ain’t got nothing,” remarked Philpot. “I seem ’im Saturday night, an’ ’e told me ’e’s been walkin’ about ever since.”

Philpot did not add that he had “lent” Linden a shilling, which he never expected to see again.

“’E won’t be able to get a job again in a ’urry,” remarked Easton; “’e’s too old.”

“You know, after all, you can’t blame Misery for sackin’ ’im,” said Crass after a pause. “’E was too slow for a funeral.”

“I wonder how much you’ll be able to do when you’re as old as he is?” said Owen.

“Praps I won’t want to do nothing,” replied Crass, with a feeble laugh. “I’m goin’ to live on me means.”

“I should say the best thing old Jack could do would be to go in the workhouse,” said Harlow.

“Yes: I reckon that’s what’ll be the end of it,” said Easton, in a matter-of-fact tone.

“It’s a grand finish, isn’t it?” observed Owen. “After working hard all one’s life to be treated like a criminal at the end.”

“I don’t know what you call bein’ treated like criminals,” exclaimed Crass. “I reckon they ’as a bloody fine time of it, an’ we’ve got to find the money.”

“Oh, for Gord’s sake, don’t start no more arguments,” cried Harlow, addressing Owen. “We ’ad enough of that last week. You can’t expect a boss to employ a man when ’e’s too old to work.”

“Of course not,” said Crass.

Old Joe Philpot said—nothing.

“I don’t see no sense in always grumblin’,” Crass proceeded; “these things can’t be altered. You can’t expect there can be plenty of work for everyone with all this ’ere labor-savin’ machinery what’s been invented.”

“Of course,” said Harlow, “the people what used to be employed on the work what’s now done by machinery has to find something else to do. Some of ’em goes to our trade, for instance. The result is there’s too many at it, and there ain’t enough work to keep ’em all goin’.”

“Yes,” said Crass, eagerly, “that’s just what I say. Machinery is the real cause of all the poverty. That’s what I said the other day.”

“Machinery is undoubtedly the cause of unemployment,” replied Owen, “but it’s not the cause of poverty; that’s another matter altogether.”

The others laughed derisively.

“Well, it seems to me to amount to the same thing,” said Harlow, and nearly everyone agreed.

“It doesn’t seem to me to amount to the same thing,” Owen replied. “In my opinion we are all in a state of poverty even when we have employment. The condition we are reduced to when we’re out of work is more properly described as destitution.

“Poverty,” continued Owen after a short silence, “consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, they are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me there must be something the matter with your minds.”

“Oh, of course we’re all bloody fools, except you,” snarled Crass. “When they was servin’ out the sense they give you such a ’ell of a lot there wasn’t none left for nobody else.”

“If there wasn’t something wrong with your minds,” continued Owen, “you would be able to see that we might have ‘Plenty of Work’ and yet be in a state of destitution. The miserable wretches who toil sixteen or eighteen hours a day—father, mother, and even the little children—making matchboxes, or shirts or blouses, have ‘Plenty of Work,’ but I for one don’t envy them. Perhaps you think that if there was no machinery, and we all had to work thirteen or fourteen hours a day in order to obtain a bare living, we should not be in a condition of poverty? Talk about there being something the matter with your minds—if there were not you wouldn’t talk one day about Tariff Reform as a remedy for unemployment, and then the next day admit that machinery is the cause of it! Tariff Reform won’t do away with machinery, will it?”…

No one answered, because none of them knew of any remedy; and Crass began to feel sorry that he had reintroduced the subject at all.

“In the near future,” continued Owen, “it is probable that horses will be almost entirely superseded by motor cars and electric trams. As the services of horses will no longer be required, all but a few will die out; they will no longer be bred to the same extent as formerly. We can’t blame the horses for allowing themselves to be exterminated. They have not sufficient intelligence to understand what’s being done. Therefore, they will submit tamely to the extinction of the greater number of their kind.

“As we have seen, a great deal of the work which was formerly done by human beings is now being done by machinery. This machinery belongs to a few people; it is being worked for the benefit of those few, just the same as were the human beings it displaced.

“These few have no longer any need of the services of so many human workers, so they propose to exterminate them! The unnecessary human beings are to be allowed to starve to death! And they are also to be taught that it is wrong to marry and breed children, because the Sacred Few do not require so many people to work for them as before!”

“Yes, and you’ll never be able to prevent it, mate!” shouted Crass.

“Why can’t we?”

“Because it can’t be done!” cried Crass, fiercely. “It’s impossible!”…

There was a general murmur of satisfaction. Nearly everyone seemed very pleased to think that the existing state of things could not possibly be altered.