Grave Stories

Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

One Date, Three Graves; Tales of Myth, Manipulation and Mescalin

I do not remember where I was when I heard that the Thirty Fifth President of the United States of America had been assassinated, but I do remember the subsequent media coverage of the death, the funeral, the arrest and shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the conspiracy theories, the conjuring of Camelot, and the strange outpourings of public adulation and grief. No wonder that two other notable deaths on 22 November 1963 passed virtually unnoticed.

John F. Kennedy (1917-63) was the son of Joseph Kennedy who had amassed a fortune through stock market manipulation, property deals and bootlegging. It was trust funds set up by his father that provided Jack Kennedy with financial independence and enabled him to run his successful campaign to become president, notwithstanding an undistinguished record in the Senate. His father’s contacts,  including the mafia boss, Sam Giancana, allegedly provided support following a deal with Joseph that if his son were elected he would “lay off organised crime.” Giancana’s control of the Teamsters’  Union and their votes, and judicious use of threats and fraudulent voting, helped deliver Kennedy’s narrow Presidential victory.

JFK’s time as president (1961-63) was defined by the fiascos and iniquities of a foreign policy engendered by Communist paranoia combined with arrogant Imperialism. In April 1961 he unleashed the Bay of Pigs invasion led by CIA paramilitary officers who tried to foment an uprising  to overthrow Castro’s government in Cuba. They were defeated in two days. There followed the equally unsuccessful Operation Mongoose characterised by terrorist attacks on civilians, the destruction of crops, mining of harbours and farcical assassination attempts directed against Castro. Abortive efforts  were made to keep this operation secret to avoid repercussions from the United Nations.

On Kennedy’s watch American involvement in Vietnam built up: military advisers were sent to the country along with political and economic support for the Diem regime  whose forces were funded and trained by the CIA . Under the crude social engineering of the Strategic Hamlet Programme   peasants were forcibly relocated away from Viet Cong influence and subjected  to brainwashing and surveillance with no freedom of movement. In January 1962 Operation Ranch Hand introduced herbal warfare including the use of Agent Orange. This aerial defoliation not only destroyed land and ecology but also led to cancers, birth defects and other long term health problems in Vietnam.

In April 1963 Kennedy cynically recorded: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the Communists and get the American people to re-elect me.”

It was an abhorrent record and, although still a child in 1963 with only a hazy knowledge of the full horror of American foreign policy, I sensed something wrong in the sycophantic media coverage and the deferential tributes. Though unfamiliar with the concept of establishment propaganda, the constant repetition of the Camelot myth raised my suspicions, and the uncritical public effusions of distress seemed fabricated. So I was surprised when, years later, accompanying more worldly Politics Students on an annual trip to Washington, they invariably showed enthusiasm for crossing the Potomac to Arlington to see the Kennedy grave. Challenged, they proved themselves well informed as to the noxious nature of the Presidency yet remained susceptible to the contrived allure of the Camelot myth.

The Kennedy Grave at Arlington Cemetery, Washington. Alongside Kennedy lies Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and two of their children.
An Eternal Flame burns at the Grave
The Grave looks out across the Potomac towards the Washington Monument

The second death on that November day was that of the academic and writer, CS Lewis (1898-1963). Amongst his sizeable output of fiction and nonfiction it is his children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, seven fantasy novels which have sold over 120 million copies and been translated into forty-seven languages,for which he is best remembered. Like most small children I was once enchanted by the world of Narnia; what imaginative child would not be thrilled at the prospect of entering a large wardrobe full of fur coats to discover a secret exit at the back  leading to a magical kingdom of ice and snow, mythical creatures, and talking animals. It is a cleverly woven story of wonder, mystery, and adventure. Lewis began to write it in the 1940s when children  came to his house in Oxford as evacuees from London, and the four siblings who discover the world of Narnia were based on them.

But it did not take me long to realise that behind the richly imaginative narrative lay a manipulative allegory, a Christian subtext with the lion Aslan a Christ like figure sacrificing himself to torture, suffering and humiliation to redeem Edmund who has betrayed his siblings to the White Witch. Aslan’s sacrifice vanquishes death, and he returns to life but only the trusting and unquestioning Lucy can see him;  the message at the heart of this proselytising text is the importance blind faith, obedience to an authoritarian moral system, and an acceptance that there are things one is “not meant to know.”

I may not share Philip Pullman’s view that this is “one of the most poisonous things I have ever read” but alongside the Christian propaganda aimed uncomfortably at young children, there is also a pernicious defence of established hierarchies and a tacit acceptance of violence. The racist disparagement of the Calormenes, and the unquestioning acceptance of class and gender stereotypes  is disturbing. The female character of the White Witch, responsible for its being “always winter and never Christmas,” personifies evil, and when Susan becomes too interested in nylons, lipstick, clothes, and boys she can no longer return to Narnia. Worse, as Pullman says, is the terrible myth that death is better than life, the idealised view of an afterlife upholding a reactionary idealised theocracy.

But just as the Camelot myth drew my students to Kennedy’s grave, so the magic I remembered in his stories enticed me to that of CS Lewis. I did not have high expectations for the graveyard of a Victorian church, located in an old quarry in an Oxford suburb, but Holy Trinity churchyard in Headington is a delightful place. I visited on the eve of springtime as the soft green shoots of snowdrops and hellebores were emerging, and it resembled more a country churchyard than a suburban one. The gnarled roots of an ancient yew circle the honey-coloured stone marking the grave of Lewis and his brother which bears a quotation from King Lear.

The Grave of CS Lewis At Holy Trinity Church, Headington
“Men Must Endure Their Going Hence”
Lewis’ mother had a calendar with quotations from Shakespeare, his father kept the leaf from the day she died, Lewis’ brother Warren had the quotation inscribed on the grave.

And I was reluctantly charmed by the Narnia window in the church

My third grave however houses someone who was aware and wary of the power of indoctrination and  conditioning, the uncritical conformity which media myths and social engineering, fairy stories and brainwashing can engender.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), writer and philosopher, had published his most famous work the dystopian Brave New World in the early 1930s but it was still very popular when my school friends and I discovered it in the 60s. Eagerly we debated his vision of an establishment controlling a docile population through a combination of drugs and entertainment, maintaining  economic and social divisions with neither alphas nor epsilons questioning their status but accepting a caste system, convinced that all was right with their world.

Paradoxically Huxley’s own experiments with mescalin recorded in The Doors of Perception (1954) led him to believe that the consciousness altering drug could also promote  enlightenment, and that drug taking could be a legitimate expression of intellectual curiosity, removing inhibitions and increasing awareness. In the 1960s this chimed with a youth subculture seeking social change and experimenting with psychedelic drugs and the hallucinogenic power of LSD, and Jim Morrison’s rock group – The Doors – took their name from the title of Huxley’s book. (He in turn had taken it from the visionary poet and artist William Blake: “if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”)

Ostentatiously clutching our copies of The Doors of Perception  was as close as we came in our provincial girls’ school to the drug subculture of the sixties. And if we perceived it then as a more glamorous world than our own and lauded Huxley for his avant-garde views yet when I reread his book recently I confess that I found it dull. Worse, it contradicted the scathing indictment of mindless acceptance and unquestioning obedience which he had wrought in Brave New World. Yet though this may have been disappointing, his grave was nonetheless the one which I approached with most respect for the memory of its occupant.

Huxley is buried in the Watts Cemetery, home of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, at Compton near Guildford in Surrey.

Alongside him are other members of his illustrious family including his father Leonard, biographer and editor.

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Jack Cornwell VC and the Battle of Jutland

An exhibition at Portsmouth Dockyard in 2016 marked the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War, was a multimedia presentation chronicling the only major sea battle of World War I. On 31 May – 1 June 1916 British and German dreadnoughts blazed at each other, through the poor visibility generated by mist, cloud, a dark evening sky, and an increasing volume of smoke from burning ships caught by gunfire. But while the exhibition captured the terrifying noise of constant bombardment, and the confusion and horror of intense shellfire, the claim that this battle won the war rang hollow.

Jutland was an indecisive disaster for both navies despite both claiming a victory: the German  fleet retreated, but Britain lost more ships and  twice as many men, the German dead numbering 2,551 and the British 6,097. The faith which both Britain and Germany had placed in their navies, building up immoderate numbers of battleships, proved unfounded.

Britain had been confident of victory over the numerically inferior German fleet. The huge losses suffered by her “invincible navy” led to so much criticism of the naval leadership that the Admiralty considered censoring and delaying the official report on the battle.

Moreover, when Kitchener, the then popular Secretary of State for War, drowned five days later when a German mine struck the ship on which he was travelling, and when losses on the Somme numbered 19,000 on the first day of the battle on 1 July, there was a clear need to staunch declining morale in Britain.

Jack Cornwell  was fifteen years old when he enlisted in the navy in 1915. He was trained as a gun sight-setter and assigned to HMS Chester which took part in the Battle of Jutland. The ship received seventeen direct hits in the battle. Many of the gun’s crew were killed instantly and others were mortally wounded. The Chester retired from the action and reached relative safety. Medical assistants sent on board found Cornwell, severely wounded with shrapnel and shards of steel penetrating his chest, standing in the shattered gun mounting. He died in Grimsby hospital two days later and was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother arranged for his exhumation and reburial near their home in Manor Park Cemetery, East London. It was another pauper’s grave.

Two months  later however, on 29 July,  Jack Cornwell was exhumed again and reburied with full military honours; it was the largest public event which took place during the war. Crowds lining the streets witnessed the coffin born on a gun carriage, with a naval band, boys from Jack’s old school and others from the Chester marching behind it. The local MP, Bishop and Mayor accompanied the coffin, a bugler sounded the last post, and shots were fired over the grave.

When the official report of the Battle of Jutland had been published in early July it had included an account from the commanding officer of the Chester which described Cornwell standing alone at his post awaiting orders until the end of the action. Writers on The Daily Sketch had uncovered the reference and turned it into a  front-page story with a photograph of Cornwell’s brother George dressed in a naval uniform. With other journalists they fomented public pressure for recognition of Jack’s bravery, criticising the navy for allowing a hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

After the military funeral, the Admiralty awoke to the possibility of boosting public confidence in the war, and providing the navy with some face-saving publicity after the disaster of Jutland, by awarding Jack a posthumous Victoria Cross. On 15 September Jack Cornwell became the third youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, awarded for a conspicuous act of bravery. The citation read: “mortally wounded early in the action… Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all around him. His age was sixteen and a half years.”

The court painter, Frank Salisbury, portrayed Jack standing at his post by the gun, and prints were distributed to schools accompanied by booklets entitled “Faithful Unto Death” which  used his death to encourage concepts of duty and sacrifice. Six days after the award of the VC  schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day. A Cornwell Memorial Fund was established, and fund-raising badges were sold to children for 1d each raising  £18,000 to finance a ward for disabled sailors at the newly established Star and Garter Home in Richmond. Patriotic propaganda wielded the emotive story of obedience, courage, selflessness, and honourable conduct  to boost flagging resolve.

In truth it is hard to imagine that the poor boy could have  done other than to remain at his post. On the deck of a severely damaged ship, surrounded by the dead and dying, himself seriously injured, possibly traumatised, frightened, and shell shocked, where could he go? Probably no more or less brave than any other sailor, the strongest impression his story leaves is that a child of sixteen should not have been involved in the fighting at all, and that  his memory was cynically exploited in the interests of war time propaganda, to deflect criticism of the conduct of the Battle of Jutland and to revitalize dedication to the war effort.


From 1915 onwards stone memorials had begun to appear commemorating the war dead and serving to promote military recruitment. London’s first memorial appeared on 4 August 1916 in the churchyard of St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate bearing the names of both Kitchener and Cornwell. A Pathe News of the time shows the Lord Mayor unveiling the cross and linking the popular ageing commander with the working-class boy hero as he reminds the assembled crowd that the cross drew together “the statesman-warrior”… and “a young, innocent and humble origined (sic) lad…cutting across all divisions of class and educational background in their sacrifice to a common cause.”  

The first World War One Memorial Cross to appear in London. St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate
Jack Cornwell is specifically remembered on the plinth,
as is Kitchener.

In 1920 pupils and former pupils of schools in East Ham placed a stone marker bearing a cross and an anchor on what had become the Cornwell family grave. With Jack were his half-brother Arthur Frederick, killed in action in France in August 1918; his father  who died in October 1916; and his mother who died in poverty in 1919.

Grave of John Travers (Jack) Cornwell, Manor Park Cemetery, East London

The grave carries a quotation from Ovid:

It is not wealth or ancestry

but honourable conduct and a noble

disposition that maketh men great.

The Ballad of Jack Cornwell by Charles Causley carries a less sententious and more poignant  message. Here are two  extracts:

The Gunnery Jacks all spoke

Their terrible words of gunpowder

And sentences of smoke.

The deck blew up like a candle,

I heard the Gunner’s Mate say,

It looks more like November the fifth

Than the thirty-first of May.

But the catherine wheels were made of iron,

The stars were made of steel,

 And downward came a scarring rain

The sun will never heal.

Death came on like winter

Through the water-gate.

All I could do by the forecastle gun

Was stand alone, and wait.


They gave me a second funeral,

I heard the rifles plain

And up in the wild air went the birds

As I went down again.

The great Sir Edward Carson,

First Lord of the Admiralty,

Asked men and women who grumbled

If ever they heard of me.

It was the second year of the war;

Thiepval, the Somme, Verdun.

The people were encouraged,

And the Great War went on.

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Children of the Second World War

Last week I watched Dramakarma’s production of Two Thousand Days at the Merlin Theatre. Dramakarma is a community-based project in Frome providing drama classes for young people and staging performances based on historical events in the town.

Two Thousand Days told the story of the evacuation of The Coopers’ Company’s School from Bow, in East London, to Frome in Somerset, where the school remained for the duration of  World War Two.

On 3rd September 1939 Britain and France had declared war on Nazi Germany; two days earlier Operation Pied Piper had been instigated. This undertaking, named ironically, if not inappropriately, after the menacing German folk tale, aimed to remove schoolchildren, and mothers with infants, from urban  locations, where there was a high risk of enemy bombing, to safer rural areas. During the first three days of the operation one and a half million people were moved, of whom 827,000 were school age children.

The government had decided to billet the evacuees in private homes rather than special camps. The hosts in reception areas were paid a weekly allowance but fined if they refused to take evacuees. The billeters, as they were known, were identified by the space available in their homes rather than by their suitability to care for children. Unsurprisingly, while some hosts were kind and welcoming, others were resentful. For some children, the experience was an adventure leaving them with fond memories of their surrogate parents with whom they retained contact. Others were miserable, homesick, and treated with indifference.

The Coopers’ Company’s School, founded in 1536, had remained in London even during the Great Plague, but on 1st September 1939 their pupils gathered at the school, each carrying one small suitcase, an overcoat, and a gas mask. Like all evacuees they marched to the local railway station and boarded trains to an unknown destination. Only after they had arrived was the school telegraphed and a notice pinned up telling parents where their children were.

Things did not always run smoothly, and the pupils, who were supposed to have been evacuated to Taunton, somehow found themselves in the Wiltshire hamlet of Ramsbury where the residents,  expecting a small number of women and babies, were faced instead with over 380 schoolboys. The cots which the villagers had decorated with pink and blue ribbons were superfluous to requirements.

After three weeks, during which they were accommodated in barns in Ramsbury and surrounding villages,  the school moved to the market town of Frome. Occupying  buildings previously used by Frome Grammar School which had moved to new premises, The Coopers continued in Frome for 2000 days, until 19 July 1945.

Dramakarma adapted the memoirs of pupils,*  and the effervescent cast of 13- 18-year-olds brought them to life. The memories were not always happy ones, and we witnessed the agony of children waiting in the community hall to be “picked” by the billeters, then facing callous treatment: locked out of their new “homes” during the daytime, and eating separate, inferior meals from their host families.

For most of the time however the mood, in line with the published reminiscences, was upbeat. Alongside their traditional curriculum the boys learned to repair shoes, they put on plays, and developed new skills as diverse as book binding and ballroom dancing. There may have been no gas, electricity or running water in some of their billets, but there were plentiful supplies of elderberry wine, and entertainment was to be had exploring the old quarry workings and, unknown to the schoolmasters and the billeters, midnight swims in the lake at Orchardleigh. They had close encounters with herds of bullocks on the country roads, sat on boxes playing chess on the frozen lake in the harsh January of 1940, and learned to wrap a brick  which had been in the fire all day in a cloth bag for warmth in bed at night.

Above all they had the most extraordinary freedom, trespassing cheerfully on the neighbouring estates, and on their bikes exploring the surrounding towns of Bath, Warminster, and Wells. When the bombing was not bad the headmaster allowed them to cycle home to London, a distance of some hundred miles, during holidays. Leaving Frome one Good Friday three lads cycled through the night without lights in the blackout, returning the following Monday. The unmitigated euphoria vouchsafed only to inadequately supervised teenagers, free to roam with their mates, radiated from the stage, and everyone came away from the production smiling.

It is a measure of the affection with which they came to hold Frome that the evacuees continued to visit the town throughout their lives, holding reunions,  looking up old friends and those who had welcomed them with kindness. In 1951 they donated two teak seats, set in St. John’s churchyard, to the town. When the the seats eventually fell victim of the weather,they replaced them in 1999 with a bench made of Portland stone.

Bench donated by the Coopers’ Company’s school

Given in gratitude to the people of Frome

who generously opened their homes

to schoolchildren evacuated from London

during the war 1939-45

Twenty Old Boys and the ninety-year-old former school secretary were present at the dedication ceremony. Few of them remain now, but Richard Beer, who first arrived in Frome as a twelve year old evacuee, was guest of honour when Two Thousand Days was first performed as part of the Frome History Festival in May this year.

It isn’t a grave, but the bench serves the same purpose, remembering the boys who for 2000 days made Frome their home, and the townsfolk who welcomed them, a life time ago.

*The Coopers’ Company’s School in Frome 1939-45 edited by George S. Perry.

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Tipu: The Sultan, his Tiger, and his Mausoleum

The Victoria and Albert has always been my favourite museum, and Tipu’s Tiger one of my favourite exhibits. Made from Indian jack wood carved and painted, the Tiger straddles a near life-size, red coated British officer. French engineers at Tipu’s court constructed the tiger’s mechanism which is operated by a crank handle causing the soldier’s arm to lift as he wails and squeals in response to the tiger’s mauling, while the latter grunts.

Tipu’s Tiger Savages a Redcoat

Tipu Sultan (Sultan Fateh Ali Sahab Tipu, 1751-1799), also known as the Tiger of Mysore (Sher-e-Mysuru), became the Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Mysuru in South India following the death of his father, Hyder Ali, in 1782. He fought against the  British East India Company in the four Anglo-Mysuru Wars, seeking to check the Company’s advance into southern India.

The tiger was Tipu’s state symbol: an apocryphal story has him face to face with one who pounced while he was out hunting; when his gun failed Tipu killed the tiger with his dagger. What is certain is that  tiger motifs and stripes decorated the walls of his palaces and the uniforms of his soldiers. In the summer palace, Daria Daulet Bagh, at Srirangapatna,  his golden throne set with rubies and diamonds stood on a life size wooden tiger and was embellished with tiger head finials. The hilts of his swords, his rings, his cannon, the pole ends of his palanquins all flaunted tigers. And in his music room sat the magnificent automaton.

Tipu had built his summer palace  after the Second Anglo-Mysuru War. Lavish decoration covers the interior with floral designs on the ceiling and murals of his campaigns on the walls. The depiction of the victory of Hyder Ali and Tipu over the English under Colonel Bailee at the battle of Pollilur in 1780 shows a nervous looking Bailee cowering in his palanquin despite being surrounded by his redcoats.

Scene from Second Anglo-Mysuru War
Bailee in his pallanquin surrounded by redcoats…
…but still looking very nervous

The Third War  however ended in defeat for Tipu when the Nizam of Hyderabad, seeing which way the wind was blowing, changed sides and signed a subsidiary alliance with the British East India Company. He is portrayed alongside a cow and a pig; the reference is not designed to be complimentary.

The Nizam of Hyderabad is pointedly portrayed accompanied by a pig and a cow

Tipu was forced, by the Treaty of Srirangapatna 1792, to  surrender half of his kingdom to British East India Company  and its allies, and  two of his sons were handed over to Cornwallis as hostages until he paid indemnities. A painting displayed in the palace, today a museum, shows the children with their custodian and Tipu’s Ambassador to France, Mir Ghulam Ali, who accompanied them to Madras (Chennai). Alongside are portraits of Tipu himself, one by  an unknown Indian artist and one  by Zoffany.

The sons of Tipu Sultan, accompanied by Mir Ghulam Ali, were sent to Cornwallis in Madras (Chennai) as hostages until Tipu paid indemnities to the British
Tipu Sultan painted by an unknown Indian artist
Tipu painted by Zoffany

Seven years later Tipu’s defeat and death at the hands of  the British  when they breached the city walls at  the Siege of Srirangapatna, brought the fourth Anglo-Mysuru war to an end. When his advisers urged him to escape via secret passages, Tipu responded: “Better to live one year as a tiger, than a thousand years as a sheep.”(or, in some versions, a jackal)

His death was celebrated with a public holiday in Britain, and the soldiers plundered his palace before the “formal” distribution of loot was organised by the “prize committee,” with the most senior officers  receiving the most valuable treasures. The magnificent Tiger Throne was broken up and the parts distributed to the Company’s officers. Some of the most precious items were sent to the British royal family, including three hunting cheetahs. The mechanical tiger was housed in the museum of the East India Company and when the company was dissolved, and the museum closed, its artefacts were divided between the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert. And so the tiger came to South Kensington.

Tipu’s body, recovered from where it lay near the Hoally Gateway of the fort, was buried beside his parents in the Gumbaz (mausoleum) which he had built for them. A majestic structure, built in the Persian style with an elevated platform supported by black granite pillars, it is surrounded by landscaped gardens.

Tipu’s body was found near the Hoally Gateway of the fort at Srirangapatna
Tipu’s Gumbaz (Mausoleum) at Srirangapatna

Tipu’s wife and sisters did not quite merit admission to the Gumbaz but are buried in the gardens.

Tipu’s Wife
One of Tipu’s sisters
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Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The bus headed  north from the centre of the city, and as it reached Walton the lack of investment in this deprived and battered suburb of Liverpool  was apparent.  Through the dirty windows  I watched the shuttered shops and red brick terraces passing by.  Walton is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a town in its own right but by the late nineteenth century it had been swallowed up by the advance of Liverpool. Not quite sure where I was going I got off at the Clock Tower. It is an impressive, if daunting and forbidding structure, built in 1868 as the centre piece of the Union Workhouse. In the twentieth century the workhouse became Walton Hospital. Since the latter was demolished the clock tower building alone remains looming over a new housing estate.

But this was not what I had come to see. I knew that somewhere nearby was the Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, opened in 1851  as the growing population overwhelmed the central churchyards, and that there  Robert Tressell was buried.

As I turned down Rawcliffe Road an unexpected delight awaited me, for the cemetery is no longer in use and has been taken over by the Rice Lane City Farm. The graves have been tidied up and the  farm,  established by the local community 40 years ago, is open to all every day of the year. Small children ran around delighted by the ducks, pigs, sheep, goats, and Ness, the donkey. Scattered groups sat in the weak spring sunshine eating picnic lunches, and Walton suddenly seemed a happier, more cheerful place.

But what of Robert Tressell? The man I was seeking was born in Dublin but emigrated to South Africa where he was employed as a housepainter and sign writer. Following a failed marriage, he returned to England with his daughter Kathleen, and they settled in Hastings where he pursued his trade. He was a founder member of the Hastings branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation but is most remembered for writing what has been described as the first working class novel in England: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It was as author of this book that Robert Noonan assumed the pen name Tressell, a word play on the trestle table with which painters work.

Set in 1906, the partly autobiographical novel is a clarion cry for Socialism. It describes a group of painters and decorators  employed to restore a house in a world of stagnant wages and soaring profits. The poverty and near starvation in which the workers live, without proper food and clothing for themselves or their children, in cold cheerless homes, a prey to sickness, the workhouse, and early death, contrasts with the wealth and ease which their employers enjoy. Such is the precarious nature of the workers’ existence that a man murders his children rather than see them starve, an incident which Tressell based on a real case.

Owen, the main character,  refers ironically to his fellow workers as philanthropists because they  hand over the results of their labour to their employer without question, accepting that there is a natural order of rich and poor, of rulers and ruled. They are working class Conservatives, voting in ignorance, relinquishing self-respect and dignity, accepting that they should have only the necessities of existence, that “leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food” are not “for the likes of them.”

Owen tries to explain Socialism to his fellow workers, to make them understand that the pathetic measures, such as smoking in the bosses’ time and minor pilfering, by which they attempt to “get some of their own back,” will change nothing. Revolutionary change, the proper valuing of labour power and the elimination of hereditary wealth is needed, he argues, to alleviate inequalities for good. But even Philpot, a good man who would happily pay another halfpenny on his rates to provide food for hungry school children,  cannot countenance the possibility of  changing the system.

Sometimes the novel becomes didactic as Owen lectures his fellow workmen on Marxist theory. At other times it is sentimental. But  the chapters which portray the men’s home lives, their troubled relationships, their children’s games, their friendships, their weaknesses, the accidents at work, the lure of the public house, and the annual beano, are vivid and real. And with echoes of William Morris, he portrays the frustrated craftsmanship with which the workers seek to express their personalities in lieu of the “scamping,” the cheap, rushed jobs required by their employers to maximise profits.

Tressell  hoped that by publishing the novel  he might convert his fellow workers and, knowing that he had tuberculosis,  provide money for his daughter if he died. But the handwritten manuscript was rejected unread. In 1910  he decided to emigrate to Canada in search of a better life, aiming to send for Kathleen once he was established. Aged forty, he fell ill and died of TB in Liverpool Infirmary while waiting for a ship. Kathleen had neither the money to pay for her father’s funeral nor the means to attend it. Tressell was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

In 1914 Kathleen sold the novel to a publisher; since then it it has never been out of print, and it is frequently credited with helping to win the 1945 election for Labour.

In 1970 the historian Alan O’Toole used cemetery records to locate the grave where Tressell lay with twelve other paupers buried on the same day. Local Socialists and Trade Unionists unveiled a stone  in 1977. Made of Swedish granite donated by Swedish Trade Unions, it bears a portrait of Tressell,  the names of the twelve others buried with him, and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming.

Robert Tressell’s grave surrounded by woodland on the edge of the cemetery,which now houses a city farm
Robert Noonan aka Robert Tressell
The stone bears the names of twelve others buried on the same day in a paupers’ grave
and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming

Through squalid life they laboured, in sordid grief they died,

Those sons of a mighty mother, those props of England’s pride.

They are gone; there is none can undo it, nor save our souls from the curse;

But many a million cometh, and shall they be better or worse?

It is we who must answer and hasten, and open wide the door

For the rich man’s hurrying terror, and the slow-foot hope of the poor.

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