Winifred Holtby: A Short Life Well Spent

Winifred Holtby

When I was packing for my holiday I needed to choose some holiday reading. There was an enticing display of detective novels in the bookshop, but I saw a copy of ‘South Riding’ a novel by Winifred Holtby on the shelves.

I had read this about twenty years ago and saw the television version of the novel. I had enjoyed these and I decided to give ‘South Riding’ a go and to find out more about the life and work of Winifred Holtby who was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

She was born in 1898 and lived for only thirty-seven years. Her home was in Rudston and her father was a prosperous farmer. Her mother Alice was the first woman alderman in Yorkshire. She was a clever, imaginative child who wrote stories and poems at an early age and attended school in Scarborough. Just before the end of the Great War she served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Army Corps for a year and then went up to Somerville College in Oxford in 1919.

Whilst at Oxford she met Vera Brittain, famous for writing ‘Testament of Youth’ an anti-war autobiography. Their friendship lasted all their lives and Winifred lived with Vera and her family for many years. She, like Vera was a pacifist and lectured for the League of Nations. In order to finance her writing Winifred became a journalist who wrote for The Manchester Guardian and the feminist journal Time and Tide. She was also a socialist and after spending some time in South Africa campaigned for the right of black workers to belong to a trade union. She was in fact a ‘new woman’, respected for her journalism and social reforming.

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Winifred Holtby is known today chiefly for her novel ‘South Riding’. Hull Library has all her letters and documents and in 2015 celebrated her life with a special exhibition of her life and work. However, she did write a number of novels before ‘South Riding’ was published.  I have read most of her early novels including ‘Anderby Wold’ and ‘hand of Green Ginger’. These to me are precursors of South Riding and many of the themes of her books such as the changes to the lives of agricultural workers when they are unionised and the struggle for better lives for women run through all her novels. ‘South Riding’ is a thinly disguised East Riding.

Characters in this book include a strong woman, Sarah Burton, who is headmistress in Kiplington Girls School, trying to encourage her girls to be independent and ambitious and a number of local councillors who are either benefiting their voters or involved in bribery and corruptions. Mrs Beddows, a disguise of her mother and Jo Astell, a socialist are concerned with social reform, while others are involved in making money for themselves. The declining influence of the landed gentry is represented by Robert Carne who also provides the love interest in the novel.


About three years before the publication of the masterpiece, Winifred became ill with Bright’s disease and it was a race against time to finish writing ‘South Riding’ which was published in 1936. She died in 1935 and never saw the great success of her novel. It was very popular and a film and radio and television programmes were made of the book. When I was on holiday in Scarborough I visited Winifred’s memorial in Rudston Churchyard. I thought of how much life she had packed into thirty seven years and how much more she could have done if she had lived longer.

She was a Yorkshire woman of whom we can be proud.




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