Reclaiming a Working Class Heroine

Cause UK is working with the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership to help tell its remarkable stories. Creatives and researchers from the Pendle Radicals have been working to help reclaim the…

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Cause UK is working with the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership to help tell its remarkable stories.

Creatives and researchers from the Pendle Radicals have been working to help reclaim the activist, poet, and novelist, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, to reinstate her rightful place in history.

We achieved a full page feature in The Guardian to help tell this remarkable story: Campaigners push to revive fame of working class novelist.

In September, an alternative blue plaque for Ethel will be installed. Full press release below…

Alternative Blue Plaque Reclaims the Mill Poetess

An alternative Blue Plaque is due to be unveiled in Nelson to throw the spotlight on a forgotten working-class heroine.

Activist, poet, journalist and author Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886-1962), is believed to be the first working-class woman in Britain to publish a novel.

One of her books, Helen of Four Gates, was a bestseller in the UK and in the US, at the time outselling HG Wells two-fold. It was also adapted into a silent movie in 1920.

Jules Gibb, Pendle Radical volunteer, with the alternative blue plaque, photo credit Huckleberry Films.

Pendle Radicals, a research and creative project led by Mid Pennine Arts is exploring the stories of Pendle Hill’s radical thinkers and nonconformists. They contacted the art collective, Rosie’s Plaques, to help identify uncelebrated female radicals and trailblazers, deserving of a plaque.

A spokesperson from Rosie’s Plaques, said: “Ethel was remarkable as a writer, a woman and an activist. It’s an outrage her name is not celebrated and known more widely. We began Rosie’s Plaques to try and correct these injustices in history after finding out that of the 4,500 heritage blue plaques in the UK, less than 12% celebrate women.”

Pendle Radicals is supported by the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership, a National Lottery Heritage Funded project.

The team is liaising with academic Jenny Harper, who is undertaking a PhD to explore Ethel’s literary significance and track down her lost works.

Other academics helping reclaim Ethel include Dr Nicola Wilson, who championed the republication of Ethel’s fiction. 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.

The House That Jill Built is also considered the first novel to focus on women escaping domestic violence; a very modern topic in 1924. Ethel used the boom time in women buying and reading romantic fiction to bring socialist ideas to women, to help them to change their own lives.

The first edition of the book will be added to a few other similar items collected by enthusiastic academics and by Ethel’s niece, who owns first edition poetry and fiction books, complete with inscriptions, and never before seen letters and photos.

Pendle Radicals have also created a new podcast series about Ethel; as well as placing some of her poems in the Poetry Archive.

Writer, campaigner, activist Ethel (born in Oswaldtwistle) began working in the mills aged 11. She became known as the ‘Lancashire mill girl poetess’ by the local paper, after she claimed that the rhythm of the looms helped her write her poetry.

Ethel also helped other working-class women learn to read and write, and tell their own stories at a time when women’s voices weren’t being heard.

She was anti-war and anti-conscription in the build up to the First World War, and one of the first to realise the threat of Mussolini.

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.

Jules Gibb and Wendy Davison, Pendle Radicals volunteers, making the blue plaque, photo credit Huckleberry Films.

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

The reporter wrote: “Blows continued to be exchanged. Although the (male) speakers left the platform, the chairwoman stuck to her post, but later found it advisable to seek refuge on the top of a grand piano.”

Her politics, alongside the impact and mould-breaking significance of her writing, puts her on a par with the male writer, Robert Tressell, yet she hasn’t been as championed.

Janet Swan, Project Lead at Pendle Radicals on Ethel’s story, said Ethel would be a much-needed and inspirational figure today.

Janet said: “She 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.”


For media info contact Ann M: 0753 4892715

Notes to Editors

  • The Pendle Hill landscape partnership is led by the Forest of Bowland AONB.
  • The partnership aims to:
  1. restore, enhance and conserve the heritage and landscape of Pendle Hill
  2. reconnect people with their past and their landscape

III. bring the two sides of the hill together

  1. create a sustainable future for the environment, heritage and for visitors’ experience of Pendle Hill
  • The scheme was awarded a National Lottery grant of £1.8million by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in January 2018. These funds will be delivered from 2018-2022 and will be matched with a further £1m raised locally.
  • The scheme is made up of a dozen projects which safeguard the area’s wildlife and heritage and improve people’s access to this popular countryside area. We will do this by providing opportunities for training and volunteering; by supporting research and devising creative and digital interpretation to inspire a new generation about our heritage; by restoring important landscape features, and by working with communities to re-tell the stories of radical Pendle people. The scheme will increase pride in this special place and raise aspirations amongst communities, and it will bring in new investment to support the environment and the economy.
  • The Pendle Hill landscape partnership is supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Fund and by the Forest of Bowland AONB. Partners include representatives of parish councils, the landowning and farming community, Pendle and Ribble Valley Borough Councils, Lancashire County Council, statutory bodies, tourism businesses and volunteers.
  • Projects will be delivered by the AONB team, plus local delivery partners including In –Situ Arts, the Dry Stone Walling Association, Mid Pennine Arts and Ribble Rivers Trust.
  • The Pendle Hill LP covers 120 square kilometres, stretching from Gisburn down to Whalley, and from Clitheroe across to Nelson and Padiham.
  • The Hill is well known as a beauty spot and is heavily visited by residents of the local towns: it is a perfect place for walking and cycling. The area’s heritage is dominated by the story of the Pendle Witches, but there are lots more stories to tell including the founding of the Quaker movement, non- conformists and radicals, Roman and Bronze Age settlers, medieval farming systems and early industrial developments. The network of dry stone walls and hedgerows give the area a distinctive feel, and the landscape is also important for its wild moorland, rare birds and woodlands.
  • For further information contact the LP Scheme Manager on 07891 537835 / 01200 420420
  • Visit the project website at or visit our Facebook page ‘Pendle Hill Project’ for up to date news and views.

About the National Lottery Heritage Fund

Using money raised by the National Lottery, we Inspire, lead and resource the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future.

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