Ethel on International Women’s Day (with Some Inspirational Women)

A Week in Lancashire Part Two

PhD researcher and Radicals collaborator Jenny Harper had a very busy week on her first study visit to Lancashire.  It started with a delve into some precious public collections, which you can read about HERE, followed by a rather special ride on a charabanc!

My packed week of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth-related activities continued with a ride on a charabanc (vintage bus) arranged by cultural partner Mid Pennine Arts through its Pendle Radicals project. PhD work isn’t just about archival research, it also involves connecting with a wider research community, and learning from existing experts in the field. The charabanc event was a great opportunity to do this. The tour marked International Women’s Day on March 8th and was a day-long celebration of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s work and life, including visits to many of the locations across East Lancashire (and a bit of Yorkshire), that were of importance to her.

Carnie Holdsworth was a remarkable woman, a best-selling author and a significant figure in regional social history. Despite this she has never been awarded a blue English Heritage plaque, and the day gave us an opportunity to commemorate her achievements accompanied by one specially created in collaboration with Rosie’s Plaques. It was fabulous to meet many of the women (and men of course), who have been involved in the Carnie Holdsworth project and they are very much an irrepressible and inspirational collective. There was a great atmosphere on the bus as socialist verse was sung. Political allegiances proved particularly useful at one confusing junction, as a stirring female chorus went up of ‘go left, always go left!’

Our venture started in Great Harwood where Carnie Holdsworth attended the British School until the age of eleven when she left for mill work. Nearby stands the Co-operative Society Library where she first developed her love for reading. The library was well stocked with texts, which according to Roger Smalley included many ‘books of literature, philosophy and politics’ which are referred to in her writing. The library kept volumes by eminent socialist thinkers such as William Morris, Edward Carpenter and John Ruskin, and their influence upon Carnie Holdsworth’s own work is clear.[1]

Back onto the bus, and onwards, past Nelson Train Station where she famously saw her husband Alfred off to war whilst carrying the red flag. Both were staunch pacifists and objected politically to the military conscription of WW1. Additional songs and readings were performed at Victoria Park in Nelson, the location of a huge anti-conscription rally at which Carnie Holdsworth spoke.

After successfully navigating narrow roads and steep inclines, our indomitable group arrived at Unity Hall in Nelson for a delicious lunch and a welcome cup of tea. Formerly known as the Independent Labour Party Socialist Institute, this historic building was a hotbed of political working-class activity in the early 1900s. Its foundation stones were laid in 1907 by ILP luminaries Katharine Bruce Glasier and Selina Cooper and the Socialist Sunday School based here had a copy of Carnie Holdsworth’s Rhymes from the Factory in its collection.[2]

Refreshed and ready once more for the open road, we travelled into the land of the white rose to make our final stop. Carnie Holdsworth and her husband Alfred lived at Slack Top, Heptonstall between 1922 and 1928, and edited their anti-fascist periodical The Clear Light from their home. Our group received a warm welcome from the house’s present residents, Sue and Irene, who share the Pendle Radicals passion for the subject of our day. The Clear Light was highly propagandistic and sought to educate and enlighten the oppressed working classes. It included articles on the inequalities of the political system and letters from like-minded supporters. Since the couple held an anti-capitalist worldview, there was no advertising within the pages of the periodical and subscriptions were cheap when copies weren’t given away for free.[3] Towards the end of the 1920s the tone of The Clear Light became increasingly anti-fascist, reflecting Carnie Holdsworth’s growing concern as authoritarian political groups rose to power across Europe. There is a beautiful picture window at the house with far-reaching views across verdant hills and given her love of nature it’s likely that she sat here whilst writing, the scenery perhaps providing some sort of relief from the anxieties of the time. As a century later, oppressive regimes once again exert their influence across Europe, it’s tempting to wonder what inspirational women like Carnie Holdsworth would have thought. Certainly, her voice remains as important as ever as we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2022.

I am always eager to collaborate on anything Ethel Carnie Holdsworth- related and can be contacted at j.harper@pgr.reading.ac.uk.


You can view a film made about the day HERE by our filmmakers Huckleberry Films, who also took the above photographs.


Jenny Harper SWW DTP PhD researcher working with Pendle Radicals and Mid Pennine Arts, supervised by Nick Hunt, Dr Nicola Wilson and Dr Simon Rennie.

[1] Roger Smalley, Breaking the Bonds of Capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (Regional Heritage Centre, Department of History, Lancaster University, 2014), p. 12.

[2] Smalley, Breaking the Bonds, p. 64.

[3] Roger Smalley, ‘The Life and Work of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, with Particular Reference to the Period 1907 to 1931’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, The University of Central Lancashire, 2006), p. 228.

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