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Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell

The author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was born at 37 Wexford Street, Dublin, on 17 April 1870. His mother, Mary Ann Noonan, registered the father as Samuel Croker, and, as ‘Maria Noon’, she had the boy christened Robert Croker in St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, on 26 April. The priest noted that the father was not a Catholic. In fact, he was an 80-year-old wealthy retired Resident Magistrate, and had a wife and six other children, including Samuel junior, then in his mid-thirties; yet Mary Ann had named Samuel senior as father of six of her children and registered a seventh in 1872.

In 1874, Samuel senior moved to London, but left Mary Ann substantial property in Dublin. He died at 91 East India Road, Poplar, in January 1875, and in March, in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Pekin Road, Poplar, she married Sebastian Zumbühl, a 26-year-old cabinet maker of 40 Upper North Street, Poplar, and the son of a Swiss farmer. Mary Ann gave her address as 91 East India Road, her status as a ‘widow’ (with ‘spinster’ crossed out), her age as ‘30’, her father as John Croker, a deceased ‘Army Pensioner’, and her birthplace as Dublin. In April 1881, Mary Ann, giving her age as ‘34’, and Sebastian lived at 27 Elmore Street, Islington, with two-year-old Leo, five-year-old Sebastian junior, a ‘Scholar’, and Robert, aged ‘9’, whose birthplace was given as ‘London’, though he was evidently not at school.

By 1890, one of Mary Ann’s daughters was a shipping agent’s servant in Courtney Road, Great Crosby, while her brother Robert lived not far away in Queens Road, Everton, Liverpool. In May, he was in Walton Goal, charged with ’Housebreaking and larceny’ at the Great Crosby house, and stealing ‘an electro-plated coffee service, tea-pots, cream jugs and other articles to the value of £50’ (worth around £4,800 today), while Frances Wilson of Perth Street, Everton, was charged with trying to pawn property she knew to be stolen. In June, ‘Robert Noonan’, a ‘sign-writer’, aged ‘19’ – though he had just turned 20 – tried to take all of the blame, but he and 25-year-old Wilson, who had no occupation, were sentenced to six months in prison.

Noonan was released late that year and soon sailed to Cape Town. On 15 October 1891 ‘Robert Phillipe Noonan’, a 'Decorator' of 78 Strand Street gave his age as ‘23’, though he was 21, when he married 18-year-old Elizabeth Hartel at the Protestant Holy Trinity Church. The couple lived in Rosebank in the middle-class suburb of Mowbray, and Kathleen was born on 17 September 1892; but in 1894, after Robert went to work in Johannesburg, Elizabeth probably had an affair, and late in 1895, Thomas Lindenbaum, a German-born head cart driver, paid her for sex. A child was born in August 1896 and in November, after a failed attempt at reconciliation, Noonan began divorce proceedings on the grounds of adultery. Yet he covered his tracks. In January 1897, he told the Commissioner for Mines that he had been born in 1871, his last place of residence had been Ireland and his date of arrival in South Africa and Johannesburg had been 15 August 1896. In February 1897, Elizabeth did not defend the divorce case, so Noonan got his decree, all their joint property and the custody of Kathleen.

In Johannesburg, Noonan worked for Herbert Evans and Co., a large and expanding firm, and he got good wages. He rented rooms in Pritchard Street and paid for Kathleen to be a boarder in an expensive convent. He became Secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council, and late in 1897, he led a successful 'protest against the employment of black skilled labour'. In 1898, when he became a junior foreman, he hired a black servant, who he called 'Sixpence', but leased a plot of building land in an all-white enclave. With John McBride, he joined The Transvaal Executive of the Centennial of 1798 Association, which commemorated the revolutionary nationalist United Irishmen; but in May 1899, he attended the launch of the International Independent Labour Party and was influenced by its reformist socialism. He was 'very much opposed' to imperialist war, and reportedly helped to form Irish Brigades to support the Boers in the event of hostilities; but in October, just before the war began, he left for Cape Town. Kathleen joined him, as did Adelaide Anne Rolleston, another daughter of Mary Ann Noonan, and her son, Arthur Herman, and they lived in the well-to-do suburb of Rondebosch.

In 1901, the foursome sailed to London and stayed there for a while, but then moved to St. Leonard’s in Sussex. They lived with another of Mary Ann’s daughters, Mary Jane Meiklejon, at 38 Western Road, but soon moved to 1 Plynlimmon Road, and then to 115 Milward Road by 1902. An economic recession was underway, but while Noonan's skills eventually got him a job, it was on much lower wages and under far worse conditions than in South Africa. At first, he sent Kathleen to fee-paying schools, including St.Ethelburga’s Girls High School, a Roman Catholic convent at Deal in Kent; but in 1904, she transferred to the coeducational and Protestant St Andrew's Public Elementary School in Hastings. Noonan lost his South African property in an undefended court case, and began doing part-time jobs at nights, but he seems not to have joined a trade union branch. He may have been influenced by Robert Blatchford, a socialist who was moving towards a nationalist, anti-German position, and probably in 1905, Noonan offered a model airship to the War Office, but they rejected it. In November, he tackled a policeman who was violent to Arthur and it led to a court case and a fine.

Like his hero, William Morris, Noonan combined socialist politics with high craft standards, but he resisted Adelaide’s pressure to set himself up in business, so she and Arthur left. In 1906, Robert and Kathleen lived in Warrior Square and then in St. George’s Road, Hastings, and by 1907 they were in the top flat at 241 London Road, St. Leonards. He had a row with his employer about the time it took to do a good job, and walked out, and while his skills were in demand, his standard of living deteriorated.

By 1908, Noonan was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and painted a branch banner. He was no public orator, but he could win close-quarter arguments on the beach against all-comers, and yet his chest got worse, and 'Wun Lung', as he called himself, lost time at work. By 1909, the dreaded Workhouse beckoned; so he painted coffin plates, went to SDF events less often and focused on writing. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was completed by 1910, and he signed it 'Robert Tressell', for fear of reprisals. His huge handwritten manuscript failed to find a publisher, and he could not afford to have it typed, so in August he left Kathleen with Mary Jane at 12 Upper Maze Hill, St. Leonards, and told her that he would go to Liverpool to make arrangements for them to go to Canada. Later, after years working as a nurse, she insisted that he ‘was not ill’ when he got on the train.

In Liverpool, Noonan lived at 35 Erskine Street, but in November he was admitted to the Royal Infirmary in Brownlow Street. On 3 February 1911, Kathleen received a telegram: ‘Your father died, 10.15 last night’. The Death Certificate described the 40-year-old as a ‘Sign Writer (Journeyman)’ and gave the cause of death as 'phthisis pulmonalis' - a wasting of the lungs sometimes associated with tuberculosis - and 'cardiac failure'; yet the Sister told Kathleen that he died of ‘broncho-pneumonia’ and ‘No mention was made of T.B’. Kathleen was working for her keep, but no wages, for Mary Jane, who later left £28,500 (equivalent to £1.5 million today), yet she refused to pay her niece’s train fare to Liverpool and told her to ask the Infirmary to make the ‘usual arrangements’. Ellen Maguire, another of Mary Ann’s daughters, lived at 12 Bright Street, Liverpool, but Kathleen believed she ‘did nothing’.

Robert Noonan was buried on 10 February 1911, in the Parochial Cemetery, Walton, which belonged to the Overseers of the Poor. Unlike most of the other twelve corpses in Plot T.11, a 25-foot deep 'public grave', his burial was under a Relieving Officer’s order, though a curate officiated.

The cemetery was not identified until 1968; the grave was not located until 1970, and it remained unmarked until 1977. The gilding on the tombstone was recently renewed, but Noonan’s bones still lie among rough grass, opposite Walton Gaol.

Dave Harker, May 2014

Further reading:

Bryan MacMahon, Robert Tressell, Dubliner (Dublin: Kilmacud Stillorgan Local History Society, 2014), is available from

Dave Harker, Tressell: The real story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (London: Zed Books, 2003. Manila: Ibon Books, 2004).

Fred Ball, One of the Damned. The life and times of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973).

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Japanese edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert Tressell and daughter, Kathleen
  Kathleen Noonan   Robert Tressell  
  Book review   Manuscript  
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