Pioneering young Lancashire writer who once outsold HG Wells

The literary prowess and achievements of a pioneering Lancashire woman who wrote about the hardships of working in the Great Harwood mills are being brought to acclaim.

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, a turn of the 20th century writer who documented what conditions were really like working in Great Harwood’s mills as a teenager, has come to the attention of local resident Scott Brerton. The young working class woman, born in Oswaldtwistle in 1888, began her working life in the mills of Great Harwood at the tender age of 11, but somehow managed to pen novels and poetry in spite of the challenges of her circumstances.

Despite the adversity of her humble origins, Ethel strove to become a writer and social campaigner, and had ten novels published during her lifetime. Although her work de ella has since been overlooked, the writer, one time journalist and children’s author is now being hailed as the first working class woman to publish a novel in Britain.

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Born into humble beginnings, as the daughter of a family of Oswaldtwistle weavers, Ethel was to move to Great Harwood with her family at the age of six, passing through Great Harwood British School to start her working life in the town’s Delph Mill aged 11, going on to work in the St. Lawrence Mill. Yet despite the odds, the young Ethel wrote poetry during her time working at the St Lawrence mill, somehow managing to see a book of poetry, entitled ‘Rhymes from the Factory’ published in 1907 , which reached national acclaim, with interviews in national newspapers and her published photo earning her the title ‘A Lancashire Fairy.’

A short lived career as a journalist followed, which some critics say may have been curtailed by her increasing political activism and strident editorials, but Ethel was undeterred and saw a second book of poems, entitled ‘Songs of a Factory Girl’ published in 1911, and a further book of poems, called ‘Voices of Womanhood’ published some three years later. She taught creative writing in London, before returning to her Great Harwood roots in 1913, when her first novel ‘Miss Nobody,’ was published, a rags to riches tale of a scullery girl who ends up owning an oyster shop.

Her children’s stories are said to have been inspired by Oscar Wilde, while sales of a gothic novel, entitled ‘Helen of Four Gates,’ published in 1917, outstripped the author HG Wells. Her best known work of her, however, is the novel ‘This Slavery’, of 1925, which tells the tale of a pair of unfortunate sisters thrown into unemployment following a fire at the mill where they worked.

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Scott Brerton, 43, who is standing as a Labor Party Hyndburn Borough Council candidate, for Great Harwood Overton, wants to shine a light on Ethel’s life and achievements, and says they have been vastly overlooked since her death. He told Lancs Live: “Ethel Carnie Holdsworth is someone who made a significant contribution to not just literature, but to society itself, as she was the first working class woman to have a novel published.

“She was brought up in Great Harwood from around the age of six from very humble roots, but sadly today, she’s been largely forgotten. When you think women didn’t get the vote until 1928, hers was a massive achievement against an awful lot of adversity.

“I just thought as someone with a daughter myself, it’s just a story that should be celebrated and can inspire young people from Great Harwood and Hyndburn to know that with hard work, determination and belief, you can go out there and achieve what at times seems impossible.” A prolific social campaigner as well as a writer, Ethel vehemently opposed conscription in World War I and produced an anti-fascist journal, while she also wrote sonnets opposing the imprisonment of rebels in Soviet prisons.



Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

She was married to Alfred Holdsworth and the couple lived in Hebden Bridge had two daughters, although she later divorced him, and was reported to have stopped writing after becoming depressed and anxious at the onset of World War II. She died in 1962 and is buried in Blackley Cemetery in Greater Manchester.

Her novel ‘General Belinda,’ which tells the harrowing tale of a woman forced into service after the death of her father, was republished in 2019. Scott added: “Quite a few people contacted me with ideas, and we’re going to try to bring her back to public consciousness.

“It’s just amazing how many people didn’t know her story and it’s just such a good one. From this little town, she made a big contribution. I’m reading ‘This Slavery,’ which is a semi autobiographical as its about working in the mill as a young girl at the age of 11, which is unbelievable when you think of working 12 hour days in what must have been quite difficult conditions .



Great Harwood resident Scott Brerton, pictured at the Memorial Park and Playing Fields in Great Harwood, Lancashire.
Great Harwood resident Scott Brerton, pictured at the Memorial Park and Playing Fields in Great Harwood, Lancashire.

“In a publication called ‘The Women’s Worker,’ she says, “If you ever took a stroll through a cotton factory whilst the “hands” were away in their homes having dinner, and were inquisitive enough to poke into the square, tin boxes that are for the purpose of holding weft, you would find a varied assortment of literature. You might find, deftly hidden (lest the eagle eye of the overlooker pop on them), Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Silas Hocking, Dickens, ‘Daily Mail,’ ‘Comic Cuts,’ and (sometimes) the ‘Clarion.’ Have you ever tried to read in the working hours of a factory? It is a weird experience.”

Scott added: “It’s that insight into the fact that there was education there, but it was almost self-education, really. Obviously, people left school at a young age, but there were these people devouring literature.

“I think that it shows that working class spirit, that you may be deprived of opportunity, but you can go out there and make that opportunity yourself; it shows that spirit of conviction and rising above adversity and going out there and succeeding, regardless. ”

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