Winifred Holtby was born on 23rd June 1898 at home
in the East Yorkshire village of Rudston. She was education at home
by a governess, at Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough and
Somerville College, Oxford. A literate child in 1911 Holtby’s
mother had Browns of Hull print a book of her poems My Garden
& Other Poems, Holtby was just thirteen.
Today we are more familiar with 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.
Holtby collapsed whilst campaigning
for the Labour Party in the 1932 General Election; after a second
collapse in 1933 she was diagnosed with a kidney 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. Holtby died in a London nursing home on 29 September
1935. A memorial service was held on 1st October 1935 at St.
Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London, followed by a funeral
service and burial the following day at Rudston Church. 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
Details of Winifred Holtby related collections held at the
History Centre and a select bibliography are also available.