We are working alongside Mid Pennine Arts to get some of Ethel’s poems on the poetry archive. Some of her work will be accessible via the Poetry Archive . This is an online resource where poems are read by the poets who wrote them – if they are still alive – or if not, by actors / people who can represent the authorial voice authentically. This is a fantastic resource so watch this space over the next few months for more updates!


Dominic and Martin had a good day on Friday last week – they were out and about visiting Lancashire Archives, Preston and Blackburn Library. With the help of Mary at Blackburn Library we were able to view and read up on Ethel Carnie through newspaper clippings from the early 1900’s – some of which you can see here: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth Newspaper Extracts

They also discovered a lovely picture of Ethel, some great poems and a fantastic book of children’s short stories which we hope to share with St Andrews Primary School and Oswaldtwisitle Civic Theatre.


For those of you that would like to know more – please see below for a brilliant summary of Ethel and her work. This has been shared with us by reading facilitator Janet Swan and the team at Mid Pennine Arts:

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Reader, writer, poet, pacifist, suffragist, Co-operator, educator, believer in the goodness of the human spirit and the powerful effect of beauty and freedom upon it.

In 1932, when Ethel Carnie Holdsworth was 46, she was described as “an ex mill girl who became a literary celebrity”: she had written 10 novels, 15 serials, 2 films plus short stories, essays and poems, mostly with the theme of injustice for women and for working people in general being at their heart, but also with a strong sense of nature and what working people were missing out on because of the slavery of working life.

Some facts of her life
Ethel Carnie was born on 1 January 1886, at 80 Roe Greave Road, Oswaldtwistle. Both her parents were cotton weavers. By 1892 she had moved to Great Harwood and attended the nonconformist Great Harwood British School. We know that she also used the Great Harwood Co-operative Lending Library throughout the time that she lived there and was extremely well read as a result. Here she talks of what it meant to find the time to read at the library (of which the newsroom was part): ‘As a half-timer, I have waited my turn in queues at the top of the newsroom stairs, and have often had to be content with four hours sleep’

In 1897, at just 11 years of age she started work as a half-timer as a “reeler” at Delf Road mill and from 1899 (aged 13), having been taught the art of “winding” she worked full time as a “winder” and later a “warper and beamer” at St. Lawrence mill. This she did until 1908 (aged 22), and Roger Smalley argues that she and other women would have been paid the same as a man at this time. Important to note the effect of this on her self image / self belief – especially as not only was she being paid an equal wage, she was also surrounded by other women who would have been earning the same. This may have had a very large impact on Ethel’s ability to write and ultimately be able to stand up and address large audiences.

But this wage was not always available. Ethel would certainly have known one of the many depressions that caused widespread hardship. In addition Ethel’s parents split up in 1901 so Ethel was also living in a single parent family with her mother and brother – now in Great Harwood.  She would also have known about the harsh conditions of working in the mill – but for Ethel there was an escape route  – she used her imagination to write poetry from an early age.

In 1905 Ethel attended Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and Independent Labour Party (ILP) meetings in Burnley and Blackburn. She no doubt attended many others because in 1908 she became a member of the ILP. Here she would also have heard songs and poems – useful for the working man and woman – many of whom didn’t read.

So Ethel wrote, and in 1906, one of her earliest poems The Bookworm (a rapturous depiction of “the world of books” and how the printed word could be used to enact change) and other poems were published in local newspapers (and later in pamphlets that were distributed in Lancashire mills e.g. Voices From The Loom). They drew the attention of W.H. Burnett from the Blackburn Society of Authors, who in 1907 sponsored 500 copies of her first book “Rhymes from the Factory”. Because of interest nationally and internationally, the first edition sold out within a month and soon republished.

By 1909 her work had been published in Women’s World, The Red Letter, Homer’s Weekly, The Co-operative News, The Millgate Monthly and Clarion as well as in local papers. A favourable review of Rhymes from the Factory in the magazine, The Woman Worker, prompted its proprietor, Robert Blatchford, to offer her a job on the staff of The Woman Worker and she accepted. After nine years at St. Lawrence mill she went to London to begin the most important part of her pre-war journalism – writing a column under the title The Editor’s Chair and other pieces.

Quote from one of her articles e.g. “For God’s sake, women, go out and play. Instead of staring round to see what wants polishing or rubbing, go out into the open and draw the breath of the moors or the hills into your lungs.  Get some of the starshine and sunlight into your souls, and do not forget that you are something more than a dish washer – that you are more necessary to the human race than politicians – or anything”.

After falling out with Blatchford (probably over matters of politics and representation), Ethel returned to East Lancashire. In 1911 a second collection of poems entitled Songs of a Factory Girl, and in 1913 a selection of children’s stories first issued as Books for the Bairns, but now collected under the title The Lamp Girl and Other Stories, were published. They were followed by her first novel, Miss Nobody, also in 1913, and a third volume of verse, Voices of Womanhood, in 1914. All were produced under difficult circumstances – between serving customers at the draper’s shop her mother had taken in Little Harwood, between lectures at Owens College, Manchester, where she registered as a non-degree student from 1911 to 1913, and between the creative writing classes she taught at Bebel House in London in 1913 and 1914. There were periods too when she went back to St. Lawrence mill or sold ribbons and laces at Blackburn market.

In 1915 Ethel married Alfred Holdsworth and they lived at 76, Garnett Street, Barrowford. From there Ethel became more active in the political hotspot of Nelson – for example in 1915 she chaired an anti-conscription rally and in 1917 addressed a rally of 20,000 people at a rally calling for an end to war. Alfred, who served in WW1 was reported killed in 1918, but later returned home having been a prisoner of war. We can imagine the emotional impact of this. During this time when Ethel thought she was a widow, she moved with her daughter Margaret to lodge with the Simm family in Blackburn, but later moved to Nelson where her second daughter was born.

In 1923 Ethel and her husband were publishing a radical penny monthly called The Clear Light – an anti fascist newspaper in which, for example she warned even at this time, of the power of Mussolini.In the early 1920s Ethel’s most famous book “Helen of Four Gates” (that sold 50,000 copies when it was first published) was made into a film – shot in the Hebden Bridge area. (See BFI website).

Much later Ethel and her children moved to Manchester. She continued to write poems and short stories till 1936 and then lived alone after the marriage of her daughter. Ethel died at Crumpsall hospital at the age of 76 (28 December 1962). It has been argued that Ethel faded from view because she lacked the support common for middle class writers. See Guardian Article: Neglected women writers: this is a class issue.

If you’d like to find out even more about Ethel, then here are some more great sources to take a look at:

Big Issue article by Nicola Wilson and work done by the Pendle Radicals project


We are pleased to announce the start of a new project: Finding Ethel- Archivists of a Lost Historical Figure. With great thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund (National Lottery) we will be able to work with partners including Oswaldtwistle Civic Theatre, Huckleberry Films and Janet Swan.  The project will focus on the literary work of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. The work of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth is significant culturally to East Lancashire and nationally as she was the first working class woman to be published in Britain. This project will use her writing to focus on the historical and cultural heritage of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Lancashire, and particularly in Hyndburn. The project is an opportunity to use this unique source to engage people with their heritage and learn about both the cotton industry and society at that time. It also looks at how many of the characteristics of her time still apply it to modern life today.

This is a really fantastic project and, if you would like to get involved, don’t hesitate to get in touch -we’d love to hear from you.