Robert Tressell – The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists


1911 is an exciting time for literature, but I would venture that the most important event of the year was not Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s launch of the Futurist Manifestito, nor the publication of the first of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown novels, and not even Virginia Stephen, Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, John Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant all moving into a house at 38 Brunswick Square to start The Bloomsbury Group.

Instead let’s turn our eyes towards the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, where itinerant painter & decorator Robert Noonan died from pulmonary tuberculosis on the third of February, aged 40. In a box, hidden under her bed, his daughter kept his sole novel, then titled ‘The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists’, a semi-autobiographical account of his time working in Hastings. It had been rejected by three publishers, and he had wanted it burned. By chance his daughter met poet Jessie Pope, best known for stirring patriotic motivational poems issued during the first world war. He took it to his publisher (extensively Bowdlerized) and had the thing published. It wasn’t until 1955 that the original was reassembled from notes and scraps of paper which could easily have been lost a dozen times.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthopists, then, is a seminal work of socialist literature, and inspiration to generations of politically active people of all varieties. As such, I expected it to be more moralistic and preachy than it is, and was pleasantly surprised to find it full of complex characters who are far from ideologically pure. Even in the first chapter there is a debate about whether immigrants are to blame for stagnant wages which works effectively as a demonstration of the kind of “false consiousness” later described by Theodor Adorno, while remaining entirely convincing as a depiction of life as he lived it (and, more importantly maybe, a scene which could play out exactly the same way in the england of 2019.) The nearest parallel I can think of is Emile Zola’s Germinal – but Tressell cares more about his characters, he is not willing to give any of them quite as terrible an ending as he himself suffered.

The book is widely available (here for example) and for people who don’t feel like reading right this moment, here is a very good BBC radio dramatization featuring Andrew Lincoln, Johnny Vegas, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Bill Bailey, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon and John Prescott MP(!?)

It also appears to be available to download here –

Fire Escape

Civic disasters in the pre-regulation days of the early 20th century are on a scale I find hard to comprehend, but the thing that shocks the most isn’t the loss of human life, it’s the careless way it was thrown away.

The 145 lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York were largely caused by nobody having taken the time to think about them. The factory, located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, was a real sweatshop, the employees mostly young non-English-speaking immigrant girls, their workplace cramped lines of sewing machines. From four elevators, only one was in working order, and it was at the other end of a long, narrow corridor. There were no sprinklers, because the factory owners wanted to keep open the possibility of burning down their building for the insurance money, something they had done twice in the previous decade.

The fire started in a rag bin. An attempt was made to put it out, but the hose was rotted and the valve was rusted shut. As the fire rapidly spread employees were crushed in the stampede, the one elevator stopped working, and those lucky enough to find their way down a fire escape found a locked door at the other end. The fire brigade, when they arrived, could not help the workers trapped on the roof, their ladders only reaching to a floor below, and their nets breaking when multiple girls tried jumping into them.

These horrors turned out to be enough to turn public opinion firmly toward the regulation which would have saved the girls’ lives. You could perhaps say that it’s necessary for these things to happen for things to really change, but it would be better if we could find a way as a society to act before rather than after for once.

Two podcasts on the fire. This one from Stuff You Missed In History Class gives a great overview of the fire (and as always, too many ads) and this from 99% Invisible gives an insight into the ways that the risk of fire now informs building design.

The CoS Tapes #1 – Vess L. Ossman “A Bunch of Rags”

The CoS Tapes are a series of CD-sized compilations available to Centuries of Sounds Members. A donation $5 per month will give you access to these compilations and other member benefits. Join here.

Trailblazing artists are usually better-remembered than Vess L. Ossman. The first musician to make a ragtime record, the ‘King of the Banjo’, and one of the biggest names of the Edwardian era, Sylvester’s reputation suffered three blows in the post-WW1 era – his genre (ragtime) was superseded by a more inventive one (jazz) , his reign as the ‘King of the Banjo’ was cut short by the rapid rise of a rival, and most importantly perhaps, his instrument fell out of fashion, except in bluegrass music, where it was played in a very different way.

Vess was born in Hudson, New York in 1868, and spent the entirity of his adult life as a professional musician, recording for 25 years, and touring America and further afield for more than 30. His final recordings were made in 1917, but he continued to tour with his son, Vess L. Ossman Jr., until his death from an on-stage heart attack in 1923 at the age of 55.

Vess L. Ossman was the first musican I felt I’d “discovered” in my research – a bit of an arrogant framing, I’m afraid. In his lifetime Vess achieved international fame and recorded plenty of good music, much of it of great historical importance, but the ragtime banjo now seems like it should be an obscure footnote. it isn’t. With this compilation I hope to do a little to spread awareness of his legacy.

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Centuries of Sound is two years old now. I have made mixtapes / soundscapes for the years 1859 to 1909, plus 2016 and 2017. All of these will remain freely accessible without any advertising. But from the first of next month there will be a huge amount of other material available for anyone who becomes a member of Centuries of Sound on Patreon.

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Elsewhere in 1908

January 1 – Ernest Shackleton sets sail from New Zealand on the Nimrod, for Antarctica.

January 13 – A fire at the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown, Pennsylvania kills 170

February 1 – King Carlos I of Portugal and Infante Luis Filipe are shot dead in Lisbon.

February 12 – The first around-the-world car race, the 1908 New York to Paris Race, begins.

March 4 – The Collinwood school fire near Cleveland, Ohio kills 174.

April 20 – A rear-end collision of two trains in Melbourne, Australia kills 44 people, and injures more than 400.

May 14 – The Franco-British Exhibition, celebrating the ‘Entente Cordiale’ opens in London, on the site later used for BBC Television Centre.

June 30 – The Tunguska event in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia, Russian Empire, flattens 2000 square kilometers of uninhabited forest

July 3 – The Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire – Major Ahmed Niyazi, with 200 followers, begins an open revolution by defecting from the 3rd Army Corps in Macedonia.

July 13 – The 1908 Summer Olympics open in London

September 17 – At Fort Myer, Virginia, Thomas Selfridge becomes the first person to die in an airplane crash. The pilot, Orville Wright, is severely injured in the crash but recovers.

September 27 – Henry Ford produces his first Model T automobile at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, in Detroit, Michigan.

October 6 – The Bosnian crisis begins, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina.

November 3 – Republican candidate William Howard Taft defeats William Jennings Bryan, 321 electoral votes to 162, in the United States presidential election

November 6 – Western bandits Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are supposedly killed in Bolivia, after being surrounded by a large group of soldiers.

December 2 – Emperor Puyi ascends the Chinese throne at age 2.

December 28 – The 7.1 Mw Messina earthquake shakes Southern Italy, killing between 75,000 and 200,000 people.

Sound of Song on BBC4

For UK readers, BBC4 are now re-showing the 2015 series Sound of Song. If you are interested in the history of sound recording and the ways in which changes in technology led to vast changes in popular music in the 20th century (and, as you are reading this, I’m guessing you are interested) then it’s as good a place as any to start. The first episode even features the recording of a new wax cylinder, and a demonstration of the effects of microphones on singing technique. My only criticism is that too much was cut out, but the 100-hour documentary series I would like to see is probably not realistic on current BBC budgets.

Episode 1 can be seen here – – for the next 28 days. Further episodes will go up in the next few weeks.

Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows

An odd book, but not one I’m particularly fond of, The Wind in The Willows is a mix of Edwardian rapture at frolicking in the splendors of nature, the high-church volksgeist mysticism that was in vogue at the time and classic anthropomorphic children’s moral tales. It does sort of hang together, and there are many memorable quotes and characters, but reading it undigested makes me feel uneasy, like there’s an unpleasant aftertaste I can’t quite place.

The 1985 Cosgrove Hall adaptation is how I first knew the story, and it’s still easily my favourite version. It apparently features the work of a young John Squire as a background artist too, and is available on youtube in its entirety  (for now)


Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” – The first album?

I’ve always used the terms “album” and “LP” interchangeably, so it came as a surprise to find out that the former predates the latter quite considerably. We started talking about albums in the sense of ‘photo album’ or ‘stamp album’ as early as the 1850s, and the first ‘music albums’ were along these lines – large books for collecting sheet music. Then at another stretch (and another few decades) we have collections of 78rpm discs bound together as a book. And why would you want to do such a thing? To record an entire opera, of course.

It is unclear who it was that originally had this idea, but the oldest album to have survived appears to be this 1907 recording of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera “I Pagliacci,” starring Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Paoli, and supervised in its production by the composer himself. In its latest (2017) reissue it sounds simply stunning – a testament to both the careful production given to it at the time and the painstaking restoration work done last year. A treatment I wish a lot of other early recordings could receive.

Harvey Washington Wiley’s Poison Squad

A staple of weird history sites, the Poison Squad were a self-selected group of healthy young men who willingly ingested food laced with untested food additives including formaldehyde and Borax. From their brave efforts come the foundations of the US FDA.

Stuff You Missed In History Class have an episode about them, usual provisos about excessive advertising applies.

Atlas Obscura have a very informative article with some good original pictures.

Science History have a general biography of Harvey Wiley.

….and here’s a short video for anyone who doesn’t have enough patience for those.




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