12 August 2023
The Irish family story
of Robert Noonan,
author of ‘The Ragged
I was writing earlier this week about Seven Dials, an interesting and bustling area beside Covent Garden that was once a notorious slum in London that was once known as ‘Little Dublin.’
There are many literary references to Seven Dials, from John Keats to Charles Dickens, from the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan to the crime novels of Agatha Christie. I also discussed the references to the area by Robert Tressell in his politically influential novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
I read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists avidly in my mid-to-late 20s. But, until Charlotte introduced me to Seven Dials last week and I began to research the history of the area, I was not aware that that the writer Robert Tressell was born in Dublin.
So, when we were in Dublin earlier this week, we were staying on Camden Street, and I visited 37 Wexford Street where Robert Tressell was born Robert Croker on 18 February 1870. I am familiar with this part of Dublin: my grandfather Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921) was born 80 metres away at 7 Redmond’s Hill, between Camden Street and Aungier Street, Dublin, 2½ years earlier on 28 December 1867.
The writer known by the pen name Robert Tressell was known for most of his life as Robert Noonan (1870-1911), and he was known for a short time as Robert Zumbühl, using his step-father’s name. Yet he was born Robert Croker and he came from a family background that is almost as fascinating a story as any of his fiction. It is a story that took me back this week to streets in the area where my grandfather was born and brought back memories of childhood years near Cappoquin, Co Waterford.
Robert Tressell or Robert Noonan was born Robert Croker in 37 Wexford Street, Dublin. His father Samuel Croker was a former police inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary and a retired Resident Magistrate; his mother Mary Noonan gave Crocker as her married surname; but they had never been married.
Samuel Croker was then aged 79 or 80 and a member of the Church of Ireland; Mary was a Roman Catholic and had the child baptised on 26 April in Saint Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, within 800 metres or a 10-minute walk from Wexford Street.
Tradition says the Croker family of Co Waterford is descended from the Croker family of Lyneham in the parish of Yealmpton, near Plymouth, Devon. The family was living in Ireland from the late 16th century, and this branch of the family owned lands and estates in Co Waterford, including the Cappqoquin area, from the 1590s.
Members of the family included Samuel Croker-King (1728-1817), the first president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (1784-1785) and who is said to have saved the life of the child who became the Duke of Wellington. John Wilson Croker (1780-1857) from Galway was an MP and the Admiralty Secretary (1809-1830) Richard Welstead Croker (1843-1922) from Cork became ‘Boss Croker’ of Tammany Hall.
One branch of the family lived in Co Limerick, where John Croker bought Croom Castle in 1721 and rebuilt it. For over a century, the Croker family of Croom Castle provided the rectors and vicars in the parishes of Adare and Croom from the mid-18th until the second half of the 19th century.
Samuel Croker’s branch of the family in Co Waterford once lived at Cappoquin House. It was razed to the ground in the 17th century, and later became the site of Cappoquin House, the home of the Keane family. The memory of the castle survives in the name of Castle Street in Cappoquin.
Captain Samuel Croker was the elder son of Samuel Croker senior, and was born in Woodville. Co Waterford, in 1790 or 1791. He married Jane Usher Quin, a daughter of Arthur Quinn of Dungarvan, in the Church of Ireland church in Affane, 3 km south of Cappoquin, Co Waterford, on 4 September 1827.
Samuel was a police inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary from 1823. He was moved from Dungarvan to Carrick in 1830, and was posted to Cappoquin in 1837 as a sub-inspector. When he retired, he served as a Resident Magistrate first in Co Waterford and then in Ennis, Co Clare, from 1838 until he retired in 1843.
Sameul and Jane Croker were the parents of six children:
1, Samuel Croker (1828-1834).
2, Annie Elizabeth (1829-1880), she died on Easter Day 28 March 1880 and was buried with her mother in Mount Jerome.
3, (Surgeon Major) Arthur Robert Croker (1832-1900), of East Blachington, Sussex. He married Frances Smith in Llysfaen, North Wales, in 1866, and they were the parents of five children: Henry A Croker (born 1868); Jane Harding Croker (1874-1922), born Cork, died Southsea; Edward Ussher Croker (1875-1907), born Cork, died Fiji; Thomas Joseph Croker (1877-1956); and Anne Ussher.
4, John Wilson Croker (1834-1903), born Carrick-on Suir, died Dublin. He married Rebecca, Franklin of Limerick in Saint Anne’s Church, Dublin, in 1857.
5, Samuel Croker (1836-1889). He joined the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1846. This Samuel Croker served in the RIC in Queen’s County and prosecuted several cases in Maryborough up to the mid-1850s. He deserted in 1856, perhaps to join the army during the Crimean War, and later became a manager in the Bank of Ireland. He married Josephine Johnston on 25 November 1859 in Saint Thomas’s Church (Church of Ireland), Dublin. Josephine took Samuel to court in 1885, accusing him of assaulting her. He moved to Australia, and later returned to Ireland, penniless. Josephine moved to Canada, where she died in 1885. Samuel may have followed Josephine to Canada, but he died in Dublin on 1 January 1889 and was buried with his mother at Mount Jerome.
6, Melian (Minnie) Jane (1844-1908), born in Ireland, died in Birmingham; she married Richard Millington in Dublin in 1872 and they were the parents of a daughter Jane E Millington (born 1874).
After retiring, Samuel Croker also lived from the late 1850s with Mary Anne Noonan as husband and wife in Dublin. She may have been a teenager when they started living together, and they were the parents of at least seven more children when Samuel was in his late 60s and in his 70s:
1, Mary Jane (Jenny) (1858-1927), born in Athlone, Co Westmeath, married John Bean Meiklejon (1852-1925), a draper, and they lived in St Leonard’s.
2, Henry John Croker (1860-1935), born 8 August 1860, 47 Montgomery Street, Dublin, died London, baptised in the Pro-Cathedral.
3, Teresa Croker (born 1862), born Dublin, 17 February 1862, 18 Mabbot Street, baptised in the Pro-Cathedral.
4, Zellah Ellie Croker (1866-1946), said to have been born at sea in 1866, she married William Maguire in Liverpool and they were the parents of three sons, Francis, William and Leo Maguire.
5, Adelaide Anne (1867-1945), born 3 May 1867, at 53 Wellington Street, Dublin, and baptised in Saint Michan’s Catholic Church. She married a man named Rolleston, and they had a son Arthur Herman Rolleston.
6, Robert Philippe Noonan (1870-1911).
7, William Croker (born 1872), born at 25 George’s Place, Dublin, on 20 January 1872; on the birth regiester, Samuel’s occupation is given as sailor.
These seven children were all baptised Roman Catholics and in each case the baptismal register made no reference to the parents not being married to each other. Robert was the sixth of these seven children. He was baptised in Saint Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, on 26 April 1870 by Father James Baxter. The sponsors were Michael Noonan and Mary Joannah Croker. The birth certificate records his mother as Mary Croker, formerly Noonan, but they were not married.
Mary Ann’s last adress in Dublin was at 38 Bessborough Avenue, a small cottage off North Strand, Dublin.
Samuel Croker moved from Dublin to London in 1874, but he left Mary Ann with substantial property in Dublin, including a four-storey commercial building at 145 Great Britain Street. He died at 91 East India Road, Poplar, on 6 January 1875.
Less than four months after Samuel Croker died, Mary married again, or married for the firest tim as Mary Ann Croker. She was married on 29 March 1874, in Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Pekin Road, Poplar, to Sebastian Zumbühl, a 26-year-old cabinet maker of 40 Upper North Street, Poplar, and the son of a Swiss farmer. She gave her address as 91 East India Road, her status as a ‘widow’, with the word ‘spinster’ crossed out, and her age as 30.
She and Sebastian were the parents of at least two more children:
1, Joseph Sebastian Zumbühl (1876-1915).
2, Leo Zumbühl (born 1879).
Mary and Sebastian Zumbühl lived for a few years at 37 Fitzroy Street, London, later the home of George Bernard Shaw and his mother in 1881. Mary and Sebastian jad moved to Liverpool in 1884.
Meanwhile, Samuel Croker’s first wife and only wife and his legitimate widow, the former Jane Usher Quin, was also living in Liverpool. She died on 22 January 1887 at 32 London Grove, Prince’s Park, Liverpool and she was brought back to Dublin where she was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross.
Robert Noonan’s daughter Kathleen said he had ‘a very good education’ and could speak a variety of languages. It seems he may have had the opportunity of entering Trinity College Dublin. In his late teen he changed his surname to his mother’s maiden name and was recorded as Robert Phillipe Noonan.
But little is known of Robert Noonan’s early life during this period until 1890, when he was jailed for six months for burglary and larceny in Liverpool. At that time he was described as a signwriter, living in Queen’s Road, Everton.
On his release, Noonan emigrated to South Africa where he found work as a decorator. On 15 October 1891, he married 18-year-old Elizabeth Madeline Hartel in Cape Town and their they had a daughter, Kathleen was born in September 1892. By 1894, they had separated, and Robert moved to Johannesburg. Elizabeth became pregnant by another man and Robert Noonan obtained an uncontested divorce in 1897 and custody of their daughter.
Noonan became involved in the trade union movement and socialist politics in South Africa, although it is possible that Noonan acquiesced in a later notorious aspect of the labour movement in Johannesburg at this time: its support for movement towards racially-segregated workplaces.
He was the secretary of the Transvaal Federated Building Trades Council in 1897. In 1898, he became a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the Centennial of 1798 Association, commemorating United Irish Rising. He attended the launch of the International Independent Labour Party in May 1899. While he was living in Johannesburg he got to know some of the leading figures in Irish nationalism, including Arthur Griffith and Major John McBride, father of the late Seán MacBride.
But he left South Africa before the second Boer War started, and for a time he lived his daughter, his widowed sister, Adelaide, and her son in St Leonard’s, East Sussex. When he returned to England, he worked as a painter and decorator in Hastings and wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists between 1906 and 1910, ‘about exploitative employment when the only safety nets are charity, workhouse and grave.’
Robert attended meetings of the Social Democratic Federation in 1908-1909, and started writing his book, describing the struggles and sufferings of painters and decorators working in the seaside town of Muggsborough, a thinly disguised portrayal of Hastings.
He finished writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910 under the pen name of Robert Tressell. He failed to find a publisher, and returned to Liverpool that August, with plans to emigrate to Canada and his daughter Kathleen.
He died in the Royal Liverpool Infirmary on 4 February 1911. None of his family contributed to or attended the funeral, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Walton Park cemetery, opposite Walton Prison.
His daughter Kathleen sold his manuscript to Grant Richards for £25. The publisher described it as a ‘damnably subversive, but extraordinarily real novel.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been cited as a factor in the landslide Labour victory in 1945, and even for the election of two non-Labour-endorsed Communist MPs that year. It has been taught in schools and universities, and adapted for stage, television and radio, and readings have been performed at trade union meetings.
George Orwell regarded it as a wonderful book. Alan Sillitoe later called it ‘the first great English novel about the class war.’ Michael Foot praised its ‘truly Swiftian impact.’ Declan Kiberd has argued that Pádraic Ó Conaire’s seminal novel in Irish Deoraíocht has many parallels in its progressive socialism with The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.