Book review: This Slavery by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Original cover of This Slavery published 1925

This Slavery by  Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (Trent Editions, 2011)  ISBN 9781842331415

What do you think about when the words “working class family” is mentioned? Ricky Tomlinson in “The Royle Family”?  Or a scene from “Coronation Street”. There are very few positive images of what it means to be working class and perhaps this  is due to the fact that there is still  little written, either in books or in the media, by people from that background.

The recent republication of This Slavery by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth shows a different world to the usual portrayal of somebody who didn’t get an education beyond the school leaving age, works in a factory  and lives with their family in rented  housing.  Written in 1925,  and set in her home town amongst  the cotton mills in Lancashire, the author  shows that working class people can be political, can be feminist, can  be active in campaigning for  a better world and can  enjoy  classical music and  poetry

Ethel Carnie was born in 1886  in Oswaldtwistle near Blackburn. Like her family and friends she went to work in a mill at aged 11 years, whilst going to school on a half-time basis. At 13 years she went into the mill full-time as a winder. Working ten hours shifts she was self taught through using the local Co-operative library, her reading ranging  from Dickens to the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.  She started to write  poetry and eventually had some  published in the local paper. Spotted by socialist author Robert Blatchford she eventually left the mill and took up a writing career. She wanted to write  books about her own class; “What I feel is that literature up till now has been lopsided, dealing with life only from the standpoint of one class.”

In This Slavery  Ethel wrote from her own experience of the factory system and the specific viewpoint (although not the only one) of the lives of women.  Set before the First World War it’s the story of a family of women cotton workers (the Martins)  and it is    through their story, and the effects of poverty  and unemployment that Ethel educates the reader in the historical traditions of why there was a vibrant labour movement during this period.  It is not a story of victims but  of real  people: women and men who took militant action against the factory system.

What I like about the book is the anger felt by the Martin sisters; Hester and Rachel. Rachel becomes active in the fight against the factory owners; “So long as this system remains as it is I’ll attack it.” Her sister, Hester, on the other hand,  decides to marry a factory owner to escape poverty; “I am tired of being a slave. I don’t want to spend my life like my mother has spent hers” Although the sisters then end up on different sides during the dispute the story shows how they both struggle in their own ways against two systems of slavery; the factory and prostitution (ie marrying a man to escape poverty).

This Slavery is very much a polemic. Ethel spent her life campaigning for justice and specifically the rights of working women.  Some of the language seems old-fashioned and reads like a political tract but running through the book is a sense of anger at a system that makes slaves of people who are denied not just bread but any  roses. In many ways it’s a story for 2012, showing that even the poorest people can make changes to the lives they live,  not just as individuals but also  in society generally.

Dr Nicola Wilson (post-doctoral researcher at the University of Reading) has written an introduction to this edition. She will be speaking about Ethel at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford for International Women’s Day on 10 March  at 2pm. Further details go here
Please also note the following events.

Sunday 4 March 2012 IWD March against the Cuts  1pm Assemble All Saints  Park, For more information please go here.

Sunday 11 March 2012. “Votes For women” history walk led by Michael Herbert. Meet outside the Town Hall in Albert Square at 2pm. £6/£5. This will include both the  suffragist and suffragette campaigns 1868-1918. More information,

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in biography, book review, labour history, novels, poetry, Socialism, trade unions, women. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book review: This Slavery by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

  1. Jen Morgan says:

    That’s reminded me that the first time I went to the Working Class Movement in Salford was to read stuff by Carnie, it was her jounalism pieces in the Woman Worker, I think. And that paper was edited by Robert Blatchford, whose newspaper the Clarion inspired the lifestyle activities detailed in our current exhibition–a-paper-a-movement-a-way-of-life/

    Funny how lots of things in the library are interlinked

  2. Louise Raw says:

    Slightly ashamed to say I’d not heard of this book. Now I want to read it!

    Well done, L.S., for a well-constructed review bringing this to wider attention. There’s a surprising dearth of this kind of material actually written BY working class women. It’s important on many levels, and vital grist to the, er, mill, for those of us who believe the industrial working classes at this time were more than capable of coming to their own political conclusions. Almost like normal people! Weirdly this is still quite a controversial view in some quarters…

    • I love the way you write! And the book is much more than my 500 words could summarise. Ethel talks about the global labour movement, the role of unions, religion etc etc… Its all there! Hopefully Nicola will continue her research and produce a book about Ethel. I didnt know she set up the first anti-fascist organisation called “Clear Light” – you may know about it? BX

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