12 August 2023

The Irish family story
of Robert Noonan,
author of ‘The Ragged
Trousered Philanthropists’

A memorial at 37 Wexford Street, Dublin, to Robert Tressell or Robert Noonan (1870-1911), who was born there as Robert Croker in 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

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, in 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The church ruins at Affane, 3 km south of Cappoquin, Co Waterford … Samuel Croker and Jane Ussher Quin were married there in 1827 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

The baptistry in Saint Kevin’s Church, Dublin, where Robert Noonan was baptised in 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

Walsh’s Hotel, Cappoquin, on the corner of Green Street and Barrack Street stands at the site of the former RIC barracks … Samuel Croker was an RIC inspector in Cappoquin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

Saint Kevin’s Church, Dublin, where Robert Noonan was baptised in 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

Cappoquin House, the home of the Keane family, stands on the site of Cappoquin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (76) 12 August 2023

The former Peel School was housed at No 17 Lichfield Street, Tamworth, in 1837-1850 … was this originally the private chapel of the Moat House? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (13 August 2023).

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

As I recently spent a number of days looking at the windows in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, I have been reflecting for the past week in these ways:

1, Looking at some other churches in Tamworth;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Did Sir Robert Peel pay to move the private chapel of the Moat House further east along Lichfield Street? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The supposed former chapel, The Moat House, Lichfield Street, Tamworth:

It is said locally, with humour that Tamworth once had as many churches as it had pubs. Over the past week I have been looking at a number of those churches, including Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, the former Methodist, Congregational and Baptist churches, and the former Quaker meeting house in Tamworth.

My photographs this morning (12 August 2023) are part of my search for a family chapel in the Moat House on Lichfield Street, the Comberford family’s Tudor townhouse in Tamworth.

For many generations, my family continued to regard Comberford as our ancestral home, despite some of the complicated details in our family tree. My great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), had a very interesting visit to Comberford and Tamworth at the end of the 19th or in the early 20th century. His visits included Comberford Hall and the Comberford Chapel, Saint Editha’s Church and the Moat House.

I first visited the Moat House in 1969 or 1970 and I have often been shown the panelling that was said to have hidden more than one ‘priests’ hole’ that allowed Catholic priests to escape searches of the house in Elizabethan and early Jacobean times when the Comberford family was recalcitrant in its recusancy.

A ‘priests’ hole,’ said to have been used by the Jesuits harboured in the Moat House by Humphrey Comberford, led to the River Tame. The river may have provided safe routes down to Wednesbury Manor or north to the homes of other Catholics among the Staffordshire gentry.

Although I have often seen the location of the supposed ‘priests’ holes’ in the Moat House, I was not aware until some years ago that there may have been a private chapel in the grounds of the Moat House. Until the late 17th century, members of the Comberford family used Saint Catherine’s or the Comberford Chapel in the north aisle of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, as the private family chapel, including for family burials and memorials. The Comberford family also had a chapel in Comberford Hall that continued in use until the mid-18th century, according to Staffordshire Church historian Michael Greenslade.

In a comment on a Tamworth Facebook page three years ago (2020), Andrew Hale suggested that the building at No 17 Lichfield Street that once served as the Peel School was originally a private chapel located in the original grounds of the Moat House.

He says the original bill for moving the building was paid not by the owners of the Moat House but by Sir Robert Peel, on condition that it was converted into a school.

Andrew Hale did his prize-winning history project on the Moat House and its history in 1978-1980 while he was at Wilnecote High School. His mother was the head chef at the Moat House for many years, and much his information came from the Peel trust and the owners of the Moat House at that time. His history project earned him the school history and research prize for 1980.

When Sir Robert Peel was moving his school from Church Street to Lichfield Street in 1837, Dr John Woody was living at the Moat House. The Woody family had been tenants of the Moat House, and they bought it in 1821 when parts of the Tamworth Castle estate were being sold off to clear the debts of the Townshend family.

If Sir Robert Peel moved the former chapel at the Moat House lock, stock and barrel to a new location a little further east along Lichfield Street for use as a school, was this the original chapel at the Moat House?

And does this explain some of its pre-Victorian details, including large the Gothic window in the gable and the lower Tudor-headed window and door?

The premises at No 17 Lichfield Street when it was a furniture shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 17: 14-20 (NRSVA):

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ 17 Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 20 He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’

It was whispered that the oak panelling inside the Moat House hid more than one ‘priests’ hole’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘A reflection on the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-13).’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Archbishop Linda Nicholls, who has been the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada since 2019.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (12 August 2023, International Youth Day) invites us to pray in these words:

We thank Lord for all youth workers and ministries within the worldwide Anglican Communion and all the young people in their care.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth … did it once have a private chapel? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)