Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886 – 1962), grew up in East Lancashire. She is now best known as a working-class writer, feminist, and socialist activist, but she was first noticed as a poet, journalist and children’s writer. She is believed to be the first working-class woman in Britain to publish a novel and went on to publish ten novels during her lifetime.

Ethel Carnie was born into a weaving family in OswaldtwistleLancashire. She started working part-time work in the mill at age eleven and was in full-time employment from thirteen. In her later articles for the Woman Worker, she described her experience as “slavery”:

‘Factory life has crushed the childhood, youth, maturity of millions of men and women. It has ruined the health of those who would have been comparatively strong but for the unremitted toil and the evil atmosphere’

Ethel Carnie attended Great Harwood British School from 1892 until 1899 where she showed promise in composition and often had her essays read aloud to the rest of the class. She was a passionate reader and read widely at the Great Harwood Industrial and Co-operative Provision Society Reading Room. Even as a child, Ethel Carnie started composing poetry. In one of her very few pieces of autobiographical writing, she says that she expressed her thoughts in ‘rhymic forms’. She goes on to liken her writing to ‘a tune that one has once heard and liked [that] seems to haunt the mind and will not be dismissed until entirely mastered’. Her first book of poems, Rhymes from the Factory, was published in 1907, when Ethel was just 21 years old. When this was republished in 1908 she achieved national recognition. On the back of this success, Robert Blatchford, proprietor of The Clarion newspaper, offered Ethel Carnie a job writing articles and poems for The Woman Worker, in London, which she also edited between July and December 1909. Carnie was dismissed after six months however for reasons which remain obscure. It is possible that her increasingly political and feminist editorials may have caused Blatchford to reassess her input.

A second book of poems, Songs of a Factory Girl, was published in 1911, and her third and final collection of poems, Voices of Womanhood, followed three years later. Her themes relate to the things she had seen in life ‘the slavery of the factory system and of domestic service, women’ exhausted by work as well as family and domestic responsibilities, the unfairness experienced by sweated labourers and the harm this does to their souls as well as their bodies. Despite dealing with the some of the harshest concerns of everyday life, there are moments of light, as, she believed, it is this that we have to strive for if we are ever to conquer the dark. But what speaks most strongly is Carnie’s faith in human goodness and a determination to declare this on behalf of her class – to show that the fight was a just one. Spoken as they are in a collective voice, with honesty and integrity her poems are unique and startling.

Ethel Carnie was writing during a time of labour unrest and women’s suffrage agitation. As a member of the Co-operative Society, and the Independent Labour Party Ethel Carnie was strongly anti- capitalist. She protested against the introduction of conscription in WWI, addressed 20,000 women during the Women’s Peace Crusade and chaired local meetings of the British Citizen Party. During the 1920s she edited and produced The Clear Light, an anti-fascist journal, with her husband Alfred Holdsworth who she had married in 1915. Even in the early 1920’s she recognised the threat of Mussolini.

Dr Kathleen Bell is one of the leading figures in the campaign to introduce the work of the long-forgotten writer to a new generation. She writes that:

“at its best, Holdsworth’s poetry illuminates the gap between working-class people’s desire for liberty, often evident in their imaginative capacity, and the constraints and suffering of their lives”.

The novel This Slavery (first published in 1925 and now Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s best known work) was republished by Trent Editions in November 2011, with a critical introduction by Dr Nicola Wilson. Since 2013, independent publisher Kennedy & Boyd have been bringing Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s writing back into the public domain, with republications of Miss Nobody (1913; 2013), Helen of Four Gates (1917; 2016) and General Belinda (1924; 2019).

These new recordings have been commissioned by Pendle Radicals, in partnership with the Finding Ethel project, and made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  Pendle Radicals is a part of the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership.

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s reading was recorded in Lancashire on 20 February 2019 with Jules Gibb and Elizabeth Robertson giving Ethel voice.

Poems by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Faith - Ethel Carnie Holdsworth
Meadow Clock - Ethel Carnie Holdsworth
Power - Ethel Carnie Holdsworth
The Universal Life - Ethel Carnie Holdsworth
Why - Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Books by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth