Proud Greenfield family celebrate life of history making female author

ETHEL Carnie Holdsworth was described as a “forgotten working class heroine” during celebrations to mark her life and works.

But to a Greenfield family, Ethel, thought to be the first working class woman in Britain to publish a novel, has always had a special place in their hearts.

Indeed, they collaborated with research and creative project, Pennine Radicals, to provide information and documents about revolutionary Ethel, a former mill worker, who died in 1962, aged 84.

An alternative blue plaque was unveiled on International Women’s Day (March 8) at her former home in Heptonstall, near Hebden Bridge.

June Fletcher and Helen Bishop

The unveiling was part of a journey through Lancashire – Ethel’s birth place – and Yorkshire- to mark key moments and events in her life.

At each stop, volunteers read Ethel’s poems, inspired by the rhythm of the looms and key passages from her books and articles.

They also sung the songs that Ethel and her mill worker colleagues would have sung that depict Ethel’s beliefs in workers’ rights, equity, and fairness for women.

Attending the events were proud Saddleworth based mother and daughter, June Fletcher and Helen Bishop.

June was an aunt of Ethel’s daughter, Margaret Quinn (nee Holdsworth), who died in 1991.

Great Aunt Margaret

Helen, who sits on Saddleworth Parish Council as an Independent councillor, explained: “Margaret lived in High Crompton before her death where we used to visit her.

“She was my sister’s godmother and a grandmother figure to me. My grandparents died before I was born.

“Mum doesn’t remember meeting Ethel but we think she must have attended Margaret’s wedding even though she would have been quite young.

“Mum is pleased Ethel is getting some of the attention she deserves. The information she has will help to fill in some holes in the knowledge about both her professional and personal life.

Ethel with a book

“My Great Aunt was a kind, gentle, intelligent woman with a great literary talent herself. Mum has always been keen to see some of her work recognised too.

“She has letters, unseen poems, notes and other written works, newspaper extracts of Ethel’s from the time (1930s) and lots of personal items.

“She also has a scrapbook put together by Maud, Margaret’s sister, with a lot of their mum’s works in.

“The originals will stay in the family but copies will go to the researchers who are championing her resurrection as an important figure in early 20th century political and literary history.”

Pendle Radicals contacted the art collective -Rosie’s Plaques – to help identify uncelebrated female radicals, deserving of a plaque.

Of the 4,500 heritage blue plaques in the UK, less than 12 percent celebrate women.

Janet Swan, Project Lead on the story, said: “Ethel was remarkable as a writer, a woman and an activist. It’s time her name is celebrated and known more widely.”


Ethel published her first novel, Miss Nobody, in 1913 and went on to write a further nine. She also produced The Clear Light – an anti-fascist newspaper – with husband and poet Arthur Holdsworth.

A recently unearthed 1920s silent film is an adaptation of one of Ethel’s books, Helen of Four Gates.

It was a bestseller in the UK and in the US, and outsold HG Wells two-fold. The silent film had been lost for 80 years until recently discovered at auction.

Janet added: “Mill workers used to read secretly to steel themselves against the gruelling work of the mills.

“Reading opens doorways to new worlds and ideas and transports imaginations. Ethel’s books offered not just escapism but inspired working women worldwide.”

A single, remaining copy found on e-Bay of Ethel’s long-lost novel The House That Jill Built is being used to re-print the novel, due out later this year.

Oswaldtwistle born Ethel began working in the mills aged 11. She became known as the ‘Lancashire mill girl poetess’ after claiming the rhythm of the looms helped her write her poetry.

Ethel also helped other working-class women learn to read and write; to tell their stories in an era when women’s voices weren’t heard.

She was anti-war and anti-conscription in the build-up to the First World War.

At one anti-conscription meeting called by the British Citizen Party, and presided over by Ethel, she took refuge on top of a grand piano after a huge brawl broke out as the local Home Defence Corps tried to break up the meeting.

A local newspaper report described it as “one of the rowdiest gatherings in the history of Nelson.”

Janet added: “Ethel speaks to individuals, inspiring us to cherish our collective power and heritage.

“She would have us all doing something to work together instead of living with this huge gap in society exacerbated by the pandemic; those who use food banks versus those who have profited.”

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