Discover the incredible story of local journalist, political activist, social rights campaigner and author Winifred Holtby in our Story from the Strongrooms:
Winifred Holtby was born at home at Rudston House on 23 June 1898, in the East Riding village of Rudston near Bridlington. She was initially educated at home by a governess, Miss Maude Nudd, and later attended Queen Margaret’s School in Scarborough. She was a literate child and enjoyed writing from a young age. In 1911 Winifred’s mother had Browns of Hull print a book of her poetry, My Garden and Other Poems. She won a scholarship to study at Somerville College, Oxford, and while at college Winifred became friends with Vera Brittain.
Today we are more familiar with Winifred Holtby’s literary works, but in her lifetime she was better known as a journalist, political activist and social rights campaigner. Holtby travelled all over Europe lecturing for the League of Nations Union as well as writing in support of women's rights. When women got the right to vote in 1928, she produced A New Voter's Guide to Party Programmes aimed at helping new women voters find their political feet. Holtby voted Labour, canvassed for Labour candidates, gave speeches and wrote articles for the left-wing journal New Leader.
In 1926 Holtby toured South Africa studying the conditions and problems of native Africans. The novel Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933) was written as a result of this interest; it examines the striking differences between the African way of life and the European "civilised" way of life. Holtby also became very active in helping fund the work of William Ballinger, a Scotsman working in Africa to improve conditions for native South Africans, by providing education, grants and sponsorships. This support was not just limited to campaigning and writing letters of appeal for funds, but direct funding from her own pocket.
Winifred collapsed whilst campaigning for the Labour Party in the 1931 General Election, and after a second collapse in 1932 she was diagnosed with Bright’s disease and given two years to live. The last two years of her life became a frenzy of work, continuing with her journalism, publishing two more books in 1934: Truth is not Sober and Women and a Changing Society, and of course working on what would become her most famous novel, South Riding. Winifred Holtby died in a London nursing home on 29 September 1935.
A memorial service was held on 1 October 1935 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London, followed by a funeral service and burial the following day at Rudston Church. Winifred Holtby left two books to be published by her literary executor Vera Brittain. These were South Riding (1936) and Pavements at Anderby (1937). Holtby bequeathed her royalties to Somerville College.
Records held at Hull History Centre
The History Centre holds Winifred Holtby's papers (ref L WH), and the substantial collection includes letters, manuscripts, newscuttings, photographs, books and paintings.
Download our leaflet Discovering Winifred Holtby at the Hull History Centre (PDF, 0.9MB) for a quick reference list of collections and books written by and about Winifred Holtby.