The first book I finished for my popsugar 2021 reading challenge is ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Trussell. My friend lent me this book so I decided to start the year by reading this for the prompt ‘a book about a social justice issue’.
The book follows a band of painter and decorators in the made up town of Mugsborough (based on Hastings and St Leonard’s where Trussell lived). It highlights the working conditions and living conditions of a range of characters, from the very rich to the very poor. Trussell was a socialist, and he wrote this book to try and persuade readers to the socialist cause. Consequently, there were passages devoted entirely to politics, and explaining how socialism could end poverty.
Boy, was it a tough read. Books about an ideology don’t tend to be known for their plot, and this is no different. But, that’s not the point. The point was to tell the story of the unacceptable poverty in the early 20th century. To draw attention to the fact that capitalist rich people exploited the workers that provided them with an income. That people clamoured to vote for corrupt politicians who lied and hoodwinked their way to office. Is it me, or do these issues sound all too familiar to us now in 2021?
One of the most pertinent parallels I noticed, given our current position in the midst of a global pandemic, was that of employers expecting employees to work in unsafe conditions or risk redundancy. Trussell was referring to practices such as using ladders without someone bracing them, working in damp, cold conditions or working whilst unwell and without adequate food or drink. Workers were often injured or even killed and scared to complain due to the constant threat of them getting the boot. Without work, they starved. So, they worked under horrendous hardships just to earn enough money for rent and food. Sometimes there wasn’t enough for both.
I read an article whilst I was reading the book, about employers forcing employees to go into workplaces that were not COVID safe, and how people were worried that if they complained, they would be made redundant. It echoed Trussell’s story so completely, that it made me feel angry that so little had changed.
Trussell’s socialist ideology was well founded and parts of it have found their way into modern life. We now have a National Health Service, welfare system and a plethora of health and safety and employment legislation. No longer do ten year olds work down mines, and people have to be paid a basic minimum wage (whether this amounts to a ‘living wage’ is still a matter for debate). This doesn’t mean that the gap between the richest and poorest is any less. It just means that it’s more hidden. Newspapers still regularly publish stories about disabled people who have died as a result of benefits payments being stopped. Rates of modern day slavery and domestic abuse are growing. Is this the society Trussell dreamed of when he scratched out these words whilst consumed by illness and working as a sign writer? I doubt it.
Although it isn’t an easy read, it’s a book I would encourage you to pick up, whatever your political persuasion. It’s a rare glimpse into the lives of the working class in 1900s, and I certainly learnt a lot about this period. Whatever conclusions you draw, it can be said that this was an influential book when it was published, and continues to be so today for highlighting the inequalities prevalent in society then and now.