Ethel Carnie and Ethel Mary Smyth’s ‘3 Songs’ (1913)

My post on ‘William Hall Burnett and the mill girl poet, Ethel Carnie’ elicited a comment from Helen Pankhurst, friend of my daughter Claire Burnett.  Helen is the great- granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the grand-daughter of Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) and Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) was her great-aunt – all pioneers in the Woman’s Suffragette Movement. Helen’s comment – “Really interesting, hope some of Ethel Carnie’s writing, particularly her poems, are brought back into the limelight” – reminded me that two of Ethel Carnie’s poems had been set to music by Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944) and this is the subject of this post.

Claire and my grand-daughters have for many years now, joined Helen dressed up as suffragettes, on the marches she is involved in, ahead of International Women’s Day, marches now called #March4Women and organised by CARE International.


Ethel Smyth and ‘3 Songs’

Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1844) joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a suffrage organization in 1910 giving up two years to devote herself to the cause and a year later she composed a song ‘The March of Women’, based on words by Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952)[1], which she dedicated to the WSPU.  In January 1911, the WSPU newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ described the song as “at once a Hymn and a call to battle”[2]. She was one of the 109 members of the WSPU who responded to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to break a window in the house of any politician who opposed votes for women. She was arrested and served two months in prison and when her proponent-friend, the celebrated English conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham (1871-1961) went to visit her, ‘he found suffragettes marching in the quadrangle and singing, as Smyth leaned out a window conducting the song with a toothbrush’.[3]

Ethel Carnie and the suffragettes There is no clear evidence that Ethel Carnie was much involved ass members of the WSPUwith the suffragettes, as Roger Smalley writes[4]:

‘Initially Ethel Carnie sympathised with the WSPU and expressed a keen desire to meet Annie Kenney (1879-1953 – See POSTSCRIPT BELOW). However, Ethel’s daughter Margaret was adamant that her mother took no part in the militant suffragette movement because of her hatred of violence, so this admiration of Annie Kenney is perhaps based on the dramatic impact of her Free Trade Hall gesture,[5] the fact that she was one of the working-class members of the WSPU, having worked fifteen years in a textile mill, or her support for the Bebel House project, which was ignored by other members of trade union, Labour and suffrage groups.  Ethel Carnie never commented on the suffragette hunger strikes which began in 1909 when she was in London writing for The Woman Worker, but she did criticise the WSPU campaign of violence’.[6] There were many working class members of the WSPU but few were involved in the leadership.

Many of Ethel’s poems are directed at the evils of capitalism -but she does not issue a call to the barricades for she still believes that it can only be a matter of time before oppression is rejected naturally – ‘the little tinkling lowly mountain stream’ of socialism ‘is swelling to a river. . . rushing on to meet the sea’[7]. However, a later poem, included in in her second book of poems.  Songs of a Factory Girl’ showed a hardening of attitude and is appropriately named ‘The Marching Tune’


THE beat of the drums.
And the sheen of the spears.
And red banners that toss like the sea.
Better far than the peace
That is fraught with deep death
To the wild rebel soul set in me:
Better pour out the blood in a swift crimson flood,
As to music we march to the grave,
Than to feel day by day the slow drops ebb away
From the chain-bitten heart of a slave.

0, to fight to the death,
With a hope through the strife
That the freedom we seek shall be ours,
Better far than despair
And the coward’s weak words
Trembling back from the front of the Powers.
Better do, dare, and fail, than shake like a leaf pale
In the breath of the wild autumn wind:
Better death on the field with an honour bright shield
Than the soft bed that coward souls find.

0, we leave hearth-stone warm
For the rain-beaten roads.
And our arrows are hung at our sides:
Freedom dearer to us
Than the home that we leave,
Or the warm, clinging arms of the bride.
For our children’s fair eyes, like the blue of the skies
Foemen’s gleaming with hate, chill as steel;
For the Mother-love touch that which smites over-much
Till the life, stricken deep, earthward reels.

We have waited so long
We can wait now no more,
And we march forth, our Freedom to meet;
Keeping step to a tune
That is brave as our hearts.
Whilst the stones clatter loud to our feet.
Can we fail when we fight for the sake of the light
From the hearths where our cradles have stood?
For the fathers long dead, for the races ahead
That shall spring up like flowers from our blood?

It was this poem which was set to music by Ethel Smyth as the third part of ‘3 Songs for Mezzo soprano or high Baritone’ published in 1913. The title used by Ethel Smyth was ‘On the Road’ and it was dedicated to Christabel Pankhurst. The first song in the sequence was based on a poem, ‘The Clown’ by Maurice Baring (1874-1945) and the second on another poem by Ethel Carnie, ‘Possession’ – which was dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst.


THERE bloomed by my cottage door
A rose with a heart scented sweet
O so lovely and fair, that I plucked it one day;
Laid it over my own heart’s quick beat.
In a moment its petals were shed,
Just a tiny white mound at my feet.

There flew through my casement low
A linnet who richly could sing;
Sang so thrillingly sweet I could not let it go,
But must cage it, the glad, pretty thing,
But it died in the cage I had made.
Not a note to my chamber would bring.

There came to my lonely soul
A friend I had waited for long;
And the deep chilly silence lay stricken and dead,
Pierced to death by our love and our song.
And I thought on the bird and the flower.
And my soul in its knowledge grew strong.

Go out when thou wilt, O friend —
Sing thy song, roam the world glad and free;
By the holding I lose, by the giving I gain,
And the gods cannot take thee from me;
For a song and a scent on the wind
Shall drift in through the doorway from thee.

Roger Smalley [8] comments about the poem ‘Possession’ – Ethel so often uses images from nature to symbolise freedom that I think she uses flowers and birds here to show the narrator what freedom means, so it is the ‘friend I had waited for so long’ in this case. The hope is that she can release its power to comfort others.  Unnamed, but implied here as in all her work, is freedom’s opposite, capitalism, selfish and oppressive. By offering the ‘friend’ to those in need she is not sacrificing her own welfare, for freedom is selfless and all embracing.


POSTSCRIPT.  During the course of my researches for this post I found a delightful book first published in 1924 and titled ‘A Militant’ written by Annie Kenney; who like Ethel Carnie worked in a Lancashire cotton mill from an early age. It is describes her work for the Militant Party and in particular her friendship with Christabel Pankhurst. it was reissued in 1994 by Routledge/ Thoemmes Press in the series on the History of British Feminism.




[4] Smalley, Roger. The life and work of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, with particular reference to the period 1907-1931 PhD, University of Central Lancashire, (March 2006) pages 62-63

[5] The disruption of the Liberal Party meeting in Manchester in 1905 by Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kennet followed by imprisonment and hunger strikes

[6] The Woman Worker, 22 September 1909, p.276

[7] Smalley, Roger ‘Breaking the Bonds of Capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886-1962), Regional Heritage Centre, Department of History, Lancaster University (2014) p. 40

[8] Personal Communication 21 November 2017


  1. Claire Burnett

    I read ‘A Marching Tune’ with such pleasure and it brought back so many memories of the March4Women (known in the past as ‘Walk in Her Shoes’) Care UK marches I’ve been on with my girls over the past few years. Dressing up as a suffragette is a powerful experience – literally we feel the mantel of history upon us and the pride of what our ancestors have achieved but also how much further there is to go. I feel so proud that my Great Great Grandfather was part of helping a female poet’s voice be heard and that my father is in turn allowing her voice to speak out again through this blog.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.