Robert Tressell centenary and the great money trick

This huge work – ‘The Great Money Trick 2011’ – by artist David Jacques is draped across the front of a listed building on Dale Street, Liverpool. It was specially commissioned by the city council to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Tressell (born Robert Noonan) died from tuberculosis in in Liverpool Royal Infirmary on 3 February 1911.  He was en route to Canada, and was buried in Walton Cemetery.

The artwork is part of  ‘City of Radicals’, a city-wide programme of events commemorating the 1911 General Transport Strike in Liverpool, a highpoint of working class solidarity which brought the city and its docks to a standstill that summer, now celebrated in banners that wave above the city streets but then crushed by troops sent into Liverpool by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, at the request of the Lord Mayor.

David Jacques’ installation is inspired by the history of trade union banners and the entrepreneur George Tutill, whose workshop from 1837 onwards produced over three quarters of British trade union banners, all made from pure silk woven by descendents of Huguenot immigrants in East London.  Tutill’s success lay in combining easily interchangeable templates of mottos, portraits and decorative elements to produce unique banners. ‘The Great Money Trick – 2011’ consists of letters and design motifs associated with traditional British trade union banners. Each letter is rendered on a leaflet or broadsheet which relates to instances of  direct action from the Levellers in the 17th century to present day actions.

The banner ‘s central reference is to a key chapter in Tressell’s book in which the protagonist, Frank Owen, attempts to convince his fellow workers that the capitalist system is the real source of their poverty and their exploitation. He has often tried in vain to convince his work mates on this point, but always finds that religion and education have led them to distrust their own thoughts. Much of the book consists of conversations between Owen and the others, which are often little more than lectures by Owen in the face of their jeering:

They blamed each other … but with the Great System of which they were all more or less the victims they were quite content, being persuaded that it was the only one possible and the best that human wisdom could devise. The reason why they all believed this was because not one of them had ever troubled to inquire whether it would not be possible to order things differently. They were content with the present system. If they had not been content they would have been anxious to find some way to alter it. But they had never taken the trouble to seriously inquire whether it was possible to find some better way…

In the famous ‘Great Money Trick’ scene, Owen divides up bread to explain to his mates how they are being exploited by the capitalist class.  ‘Money’, says Owen, ‘is the principal cause of poverty’:

‘Even if all the bloody money in the world WAS divided out equal,’ said the man on the pail, profoundly, ‘it wouldn’t do no good! In six months’ time it would be all back in the same ‘ands again.’

‘Of course,’ said everybody.

‘But ‘e ‘ad a cuff the other day about money bein’ no good at all!’ observed Easton. ‘Don’t you remember ‘e said as money was the principal cause of poverty?’

‘So it is the principal cause of poverty,’ said Owen, who entered at that moment…

‘Prove it,’ said Crass.

Owen slowly folded up the piece of newspaper he had been reading and put it into his pocket.

‘All right,’ he replied. ‘I’ll show you how the Great Money Trick is worked.’

Owen opened his dinner basket and took from it two slices of bread but as these were not sufficient, he requested that anyone who had some bread left would give it to him. They gave him several pieces, which he placed in a heap on a clean piece of paper, and, having borrowed the pocket knives they used to cut and eat their dinners with from Easton, Harlow and Philpot, he addressed them as follows:

‘These pieces of bread represent the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind; they were not made by any human being, but were created by the Great Spirit for the benefit and sustenance of all, the same as were the air and the light of the sun.’

‘You’re about as fair-speakin’ a man as I’ve met for some time,’ said Harlow, winking at the others.

‘Yes, mate,’ said Philpot. ‘Anyone would agree to that much! It’s as clear as mud.’

‘Now,’ continued Owen, ‘I am a capitalist; or, rather, I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me. It does not matter for our present argument how I obtained possession of them, or whether I have any real right to them; the only thing that matters now is the admitted fact that all the raw materials which are necessary for the production of the necessaries of life are now the property of the Landlord and Capitalist class. I am that class: all these raw materials belong to me.’

‘Good enough!’ agreed Philpot.

‘Now you three represent the Working class: you have nothing – and for my part, although I have all these raw materials, they are of no use to me -what I need is the things that can be made out of these raw materials by Work: but as I am too lazy to work myself, I have invented the Money Trick to make you work FOR me. But first I must explain that I possess something else beside the raw materials. These three knives represent–all the machinery of production; the factories, tools, railways, and so forth, without which the necessaries of life cannot be produced in abundance. And these three coins’–taking three halfpennies from his pocket–’represent my Money Capital.’

‘But before we go any further,’ said Owen, interrupting himself, ‘it is most important that you remember that I am not supposed to be merely “a” capitalist. I represent the whole Capitalist Class. You are not supposed to be just three workers – you represent the whole Working Class.’

‘All right, all right,’ said Crass, impatiently, ‘we all understand that. Git on with it.’

Owen proceeded to cut up one of the slices of bread into a number of little square blocks.

‘These represent the things which are produced by labour, aided by machinery, from the raw materials. We will suppose that three of these blocks represent – week’s work. We will suppose that a week’s work is worth – one pound: and we will suppose that each of these ha’pennies is a sovereign. We’d be able to do the trick better if we had real sovereigns, but I forgot to bring any with me.’

‘I’d lend you some,’ said Philpot, regretfully, ‘but I left me purse on our grand pianner.’

As by a strange coincidence nobody happened to have any gold with them, it was decided to make shift with the halfpence.

‘Now this is the way the trick works -’

Tressell’s book derived from his time working in the building trade in Hastings (as Robert Noonan).  It was published in 1914, after his death, and was described by Robert on the title page as ‘twelve months in hell, told by one of the damned‘.

Robert Tressell’s manuscript cover

Robert had died, aged 40, in Liverpool Royal Infirmary three years earlier from tuberculosis. There is now a plaque (below) on the old Royal Infirmary building in Pembroke Place which records this. Influenced by William Morris, he had joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The following year, after a dispute with his employer, he lost his job.

His health began to deteriorate and he eventually developed tuberculosis. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he started writing, completing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910. The handwritten 1,600-page manuscript (above) was rejected by three publishers. His daughter, Kathleen, had to stop him burning it. Robert left for Liverpool, determined to earn enough to book passages to Canada for them both to start a new life.  In Liverpool his health deteriorated and he died in the Infirmary.  He was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers in Walton cemetery. The location of the grave was not discovered until 1970. Subsequently, a memorial was placed on the grave (below).

To celebrate Tressell’s life, a series of events have taken place in Liverpool this week. On 3 February, trade unionists attended a wreath laying ceremony at the site of the old Royal Infirmary in Pembroke Place where Tressell died. Later, at Tressell’s grave in Walton, the leader of Liverpool City Council, Joe Anderson, joined a memorial service at the graveside.  In the evening Ricky Tomlinson and Johnny Vegas took part in a special event at the Town Hall – a performance of One of the Damned, written by local playwright Tom McLennan, about the final years of Tressell’s life and his struggle to get his novel published.

As Owen thought of his child’s future, there sprang up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against his fellow workmen. They were the enemy – those ragged-trousered philanthropists, who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to their miserable slavery for the benefit of others, but defended it and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion of reform. They were the real oppressors – the men who spoke of themselves as ‘the likes of us’ who, having lived in poverty all their lives, considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for their children.

Design painted by Robert Noonan - rescued from St Andrews Church, Hastings before demolition
Design painted by Robert Noonan – rescued from St Andrews Church, Hastings before demolition

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