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date: 04 October 2022

Holdsworth [née Carnie], Ethel [also known as Ethel Carnie Holdsworth]free


Holdsworth [née Carnie], Ethel [also known as Ethel Carnie Holdsworth]free

  • Nicola Wilson

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886–1962), by unknown photographer

“Rhymes from the Factory” (Blackburn: Denham, 1908)

Holdsworth [née Carnie], Ethel [also known as Ethel Carnie Holdsworth] (1886–1962), novelist, feminist, and socialist activist, was born at 80 Roe Greave Road, Oswaldtwistle, East Lancashire, on 1 January 1886, the elder child of the two children of David Carnie (1863–1934), cotton cloth looker, and his wife, Louisa, née Entwistle (1862–1931), cotton weaver. Both parents worked in Lancashire’s cotton factories; her mother had worked in mills from the age of nine. The Carnies moved several times with their young family, including to Rishton near Accrington, before settling, by 1892, in Great Harwood, part of the Blackburn and Burnley cotton triangle.

Ethel Carnie attended the British School in Great Harwood between the ages of six and eleven, when she started work half-time as a reacher at the Delf Road Mill. By thirteen she was working full-time as a winder at St Lawrence Mill in Great Harwood. In her later fiction and journalism, she was a critic of factory life that ‘crushed the childhood, youth, maturity of millions of men and women … who would have been comparatively strong save for the long hours of unremitted toil and the evil atmosphere’ (Carnie, ‘Factory Slave’, 214). Exposing the loss of childhood and lack of education for those forced to start in the mills from a young age, Carnie portrayed factory life as oppressive: ‘I hated the narrow, monotonous, long day … the torture of the turning wheels, the whirling straps, the roar and rattle of the machine’ (Carnie, ‘We Who Work’, 716).

Nevertheless, Carnie was brought up in a vibrant autodidact culture and she read widely, accessing books through Great Harwood’s Co-operative Lending Library. In one of the many articles she contributed to the Woman Worker newspaper, she shone a light on the varied reading cultures at work, where the ‘hands’ would hide different types of literature in tin weft boxes and read perhaps ‘two pages of pretty open print’ during the long working day (Carnie, ‘Factory Intelligence’, 219). She was also well-educated politically, attending meetings of the Social Democratic Federation with her father in Burnley, and joining the Independent Labour Party in Blackburn.

Carnie began to write poetry at an early age and by eighteen had published her first poem, ‘The Bookworm’, in the Blackburn Times. Encouraged by William Hall Burnett, the retired editor of the Blackburn Standard and Express and president of the Blackburn Authors’ Association, she published a small volume of poetry, Rhymes from the Factory, in 1907. In the following year a second, enlarged edition came out, bringing Carnie wider reviews and recognition. In July 1908 she was interviewed at home by the popular socialist author and proprietor of The Clarion, Robert Blatchford. Carnie was fined for taking unauthorized leave from her loom for this meeting, but Blatchford offered her a job on the Woman Worker and she joined his staff, writing also for The Clarion. She left the mill aged twenty-two to write full-time and moved to live in London.

The expansion of the newspaper and magazine market in the early twentieth century meant that Carnie could supplement her income with what she called ‘“bread-and butter” work’ (‘The Authoress’, 999)—submitting short stories, serials, poems, and essays to various publications. But by the end of 1909 her relationship with Blatchford had soured. It has been suggested that, as an adult suffragist and internationalist pacifist with close links to Marxists and favouring collectivism, Carnie opposed Blatchford on many issues, meaning ‘she was not his type of socialist’ (Smalley, 30). Losing her income from the Woman Worker, Carnie ‘took the line of least resistance and went back into the factory again’ (‘Ex Mill Girl’, 11), living in Great Harwood with her mother, who appears to have separated from her father.

The return to the factory was only temporary. Between 1911 and 1913 Carnie enrolled as a non-degree student at Owens College (part of the University of Manchester), where she later described feeling like ‘a duck in pattens [wooden clogs]’ (‘The Authoress’, 999). She lived for a while at the Ancoats Settlement and helped her mother with shop work in Ancoats. Her creative writing continued with a second volume of poetry, Songs of a Factory Girl (1911), followed by a collection of writing for children, The Lamp Girl and Other Stories (1913). Her first novel, Miss Nobody (1913), was published by Methuen.

As a result of her experience at Owens College and a course with the Workers’ Educational Association, Carnie’s views on formal education hardened and she began to call for ‘Armour not Culture’, criticizing the concept of ‘non-political, neutral-impartial education’ (Carnie, ‘The Class Struggle’, 4). In spring 1913 she moved back to London to teach creative writing at the short-lived Bebel House, a Working Women’s College set up by Mary Bridges Adams to give working-class women access to a political education, close to the Plebs movement and the Central Labour College’s programme of radical adult education. In an advert for the Rebel Pen Club of Working Women Carnie wrote that ‘What I feel is that literature up till now has been lop-sided, dealing with life only from the standpoint of one class’, and appealed to working women ‘to try to realise that though they are not Shakespeares, they are themselves, and can write something that Shakespeare couldn’t have written’ (Carnie, ‘Rebel Pen Club’, 31). Also in 1913 two of Carnie’s poems, ‘Possession’ and ‘On the Road’ (dedicated to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst respectively), were set to music by the suffragist composer Ethel Smyth and performed as part of her ‘Three Songs’ by the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1914 Carnie published her third volume of poetry, Voices of Womanhood.

On 3 April 1915, at Burnley register office, Carnie married Alfred Holdsworth (1885–1963), a fellow writer and poet who had travelled in Canada and New Zealand in his twenties, and had begun his working life as a cotton weaver, though at the time of their marriage was an insurance agent; he was the son of Edwin Holdsworth, cotton loom overlooker, and Margaret Holdsworth, cotton weaver. Carnie took her husband’s name in addition to her maiden name, publishing thereafter as Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and as Ethel Holdsworth. Both were opposed to the First World War and against compulsory military service, and Carnie Holdsworth became an organizer for the British Citizen Party (BCP) which campaigned against conscription. On 30 November 1915 she chaired a meeting of the BCP in Nelson which attracted a crowd of over 1000 people. In May 1916 they had their first daughter, Margaret. A conscientious objector, Alfred Holdsworth was refused exemption when conscription was introduced but accepted a non-combatant role and was sent to the western front as a teacher of typing in 1917. He went missing, presumed killed in action, but after the war was discovered as a prisoner of war and was returned to his family in 1919. Carnie Holdsworth fictionalized some of his experiences in her novel General Belinda (1924). The couple had a second daughter, Maud, born in 1920.

In 1915, shortly after her marriage, Carnie Holdsworth signed a contract with Herbert Jenkins, a popular publisher and library supplier, for her next book, Helen of Four Gates (1917), as well as her following six novels. Published anonymously in the midst of war ‘by an Ex-Mill-Girl’, Helen of Four Gates was a critically acclaimed bestseller in the UK and the USA, selling tens of thousands of copies, and was likened to Wuthering Heights and the work of Thomas Hardy. With the money she made from the book Carnie Holdsworth bought a house in Colden, a village on the moors above Hebden Bridge. Interested in placing the film rights, she answered a filmmaker’s advert for new material and in 1921 the film Helen of Four Gates was released. Directed by Cecil Hepworth and starring Alma Taylor, it was filmed on location in and around Hebden Bridge, with Lancashire dialect used in the intertitle captions (Fox, xxiv).

Carnie Holdsworth published a further five books with Herbert Jenkins: The Taming of Nan (1920) and The Marriage of Elizabeth (1920), which exposed the day-to-day hardships of life in Lancashire’s manufacturing towns; The House that Jill Built (1920), which advocated state payments to women as mothers and home workers through a plot in which a young woman attempts to do good by setting up a holiday home for tired mothers; General Belinda (1924), a comic picaresque in the Jeeves and Wooster style about the itinerant life of a maid-of-all-work that also highlighted the abuse and overwork rampant across domestic service; and The Quest of the Golden Garter (1927), a crime story.

Between 1923 and 1925 Carnie Holdsworth and her husband edited and produced the Clear Light, the organ of the National Union for Combatting Fascism, from their home in Slack Top, near Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge. Anti-fascist and anti-militarist, the journal was often distributed without charge and urged a united front of labour, communism, and anarchism against the growing threat of fascism in the 1920s, criticizing the intimidation of the Italian press after Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, and denouncing the British Fascisti. Struggling for funds, the paper folded in July 1925.

The novel for which Carnie Holdsworth is most remembered, This Slavery (1925), was rejected by Herbert Jenkins, probably because of its Marxist politics. Instead, This Slavery was first serialized in the Daily Herald then published in book form by the Labour Publishing Company, a short-lived arm of the Labour Party intending to make books of interest to the labour movement more widely and cheaply available (Wilson, xix). A powerful critique of factory life and ‘respectable poverty’ of ordinary households in the Lancashire mill towns (Carnie Holdsworth, This Slavery, 5), the novel also criticized the trade union movement for selling out to capitalism.

It is not clear how directly involved Carnie Holdsworth was with the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s, though her husband Alfred did join the party, and was also secretary of the local Labour Party. She gave interviews in the early 1920s in which she stated her affiliation ‘to the International Solidarity of the workers of all countries for the solving of the wrongs of poverty and war’ (‘Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’, Woman’s Outlook, 294). In 1924 she claimed to belong to no political group, but by 1927 had joined the Labour Party. She became active in the Workers’ Theatre Committee during this period.

Carnie Holdsworth wrote two further novels, Barbara Dennison (1929) and Eagles’ Crag (1931), both published by Stanley Paul. Her writing for newspapers and magazines continues to be discovered, with evidence that she sold the foreign and colonial serial rights to her work into the 1930s, though she appears to have published less in old age. She left her husband, Alfred, moving with her two daughters to live initially back with her mother in Barnoldswick, then later, by the mid-30s, to Crumpsall in Manchester. When she died, of heart failure, at Crumpsall Hospital, Manchester, on 28 December 1962, her reputation was already fading into obscurity. Her grave in Blackley cemetery was rediscovered in 2009.

A propagandist and genre novelist, willing to adapt her work to reach a broad audience, Carnie Holdsworth drew on industrial settings and popular romance. She experimented with different fictional forms, including detective fiction and the picaresque. Consistently, the political and socio-economic issues facing the lives of working-class characters form the heart of her stories, which aimed to educate through entertainment. As a writer she sought to challenge her readers, claiming ‘it is too easy to give people what they want. The difficult task is to teach them to want something better … to sting them into rebellion against poverty, to fire their hearts with a cause’ (Carnie, Women Folk, 163). She refused to glamourize or sentimentalize the lives of the working people among whom she lived. She defended her use of mill-girl romance in industrial stories and used her own life as testament for her political vision: ‘I see nothing in poverty but poverty’ (Carnie Holdsworth, ‘The Books They Write’, 6). Her significance can be understood in terms of a broader history of women’s working-class writing that originated in an oral tradition of so-called ‘factory singers’ (Boos), through labouring-class poetry and ‘newspaper novelists’ (Law, xi) of the provincial press. But Carnie’s Miss Nobody (1913) is widely believed to be the first novel in England published by a working-class woman.

Carnie Holdsworth’s reputation and her legacy, as with many working-class writers, have been recovered in waves. Forgotten in old age and the years immediately after her death, her biography was retrieved by Ruth and Eddie Frow (founders of the Working-Class Movement Library) in the mid-1980s, before more extensive research by Roger Smalley. Her literary legacy began to be assessed by socialist critics in the late 1970s, while more recently she has come to the attention of feminist critics and has been celebrated by community groups in Lancashire as a ‘Pendle Radical’. Several of the works of this rare and unusual working-class writer—feminist, socialist, pacifist—are now back in print.


  • R. Smalley, Breaking the bonds of capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (2014)
  • E. Carnie, ‘The factory slave’, Woman Worker (3 March 1909), 214
  • E. Carnie, ‘Factory intelligence’, Woman Worker (10 March 1909), 219
  • E. Carnie, ‘How colour is introduced’, Woman Worker (7 April 1909), 323
  • E. Carnie, ‘We who work’, Woman Worker (16 Sept 1910), 716
  • E. Carnie, Women Folk (23 May 1910), 163
  • E. Carnie, ‘Rebel Pen Club of Working Women’, Christian Science Monitor (10 Jan 1914), 31
  • E. Carnie, ‘The class struggle and “learning”’, Cotton Factory Times (6 March 1914), 4
  • E. Carnie Holdsworth, ‘The books they write’, Sunday Worker (26 July 1925), 6
  • E. Carnie Holdsworth, This slavery, ed. N. Wilson (2011)
  • E. and R. Frow, ‘Ethel Carnie: writer, feminist and socialist’, The rise of socialist fiction, 1880–1914, ed. H. G. Klaus (1987)
  • J. Martin, Making socialists: Mary Bridges Adams and the fight for knowledge and power, 1855–1939 (2010)
  • ‘The authoress of our new serial story’, The Co-operative News (21 July 1915), 999
  • ‘Ethel Carnie Holdsworth: a notable Lancashire woman novelist’, Woman’s Outlook (Sept 1920), 294
  • ‘Lancashire’s mill lass novelist’, World’s Work (May 1922)
  • ‘Ex-mill girl who became literary celebrity’, Yorkshire Observer (5 April 1932), 11
  • P. Fox, ‘Introduction’, in E. Carnie Holdsworth, Helen of four gates, ed. N Wilson (2016)
  • N. Wilson, ‘Introduction’, in E. Carnie Holdsworth, This slavery, ed. N. Wilson (2011)
  • G. Law, Serializing fiction in the Victorian press (2000)
  • F. Boos, Working-class women poets of Victorian Britain (2008)
  • ‘Poetry of the Lancashire cotton famine, 1861–5’,, accessed 30 March 2022
  • ‘Pendle Radicals’, Mid-Pennine Arts,, accessed 30 March 2022
  • Hebden Bridge Local History Society, Birchcliffe Centre, Hebden Bridge
  • Community History Department, Blackburn Central Library
  • Lancashire Authors Association Collection, University of Bolton
  • Accrington Library, Lancashire
  • census returns, 1891, 1901, 1911
  • 1939 Register



  • J. R. Brunton, Burnley, photograph, priv. coll., repro. in Smalley, Breaking the bonds of capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (2014), 22
  • Royal Studio, Blackburn, photograph, 1920, priv. coll., repro. in Smalley, Breaking the bonds of capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (2014), 76
  • photograph, repro. in E. Carnie, Rhymes from the factory, 2nd edn (1908), frontispiece [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Woman Worker (10 July 1908), 155
  • photograph, ‘Miss Carnie reading her stories to children at Bebel House’, postcard, 1913, repro. in Smalley, Breaking the bonds of capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (2014), 57
  • photograph, with Alfred Holdsworth, 1915, repro. in Smalley, Breaking the bonds of capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (2014), 2
  • photograph, repro. in Woman’s Outlook (Sept 1920), 294.
  • photograph, repro. in World’s Work (May 1922)
  • photograph, repro. in Yorkshire Observer (5 April 1932), 11
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