William Hall Burnett and the mill girl poet, Ethel Carnie

This post describes the relationship between William and the mill-girl poet Ethel Carnie. I am grateful for the interest shown by Roger Smalley and for sending me copies of material concerning Ethel Carnie and William from the Blackburn Library (see Bibliography).  Roger has documented the political life of Ethel Carnie in ‘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).

Ethel Carnie as a young woman


Articles examining the poetry of Ethel Carnie attribute her early recognition to “middle-class male mentors W. H. Burnett and the editor of ‘The Clarion’, Robert Blatchford [1] and to the “imprimatur of middle-class male sponsors and editors”.[2]  The relationship with Robert Blatchford is well documented[3] although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford [4] makes no mention of Ethel Carnie.  This post focuses on the less well documented relationship with her first sponsor William Hall Burnett. When both men met Ethel they would certainly be regarded as middle-class but their early life experiences were far removed from middle-class.

Robert Blatchford was born in 1851. His parents were both provincial actors; his father died when he was two and at fourteen he was indentured to a brush maker in Halifax, Yorkshire.  At the age of 20, one year before the end of his indenture he ran away to London and enlisted in the 103rd Regiment of Foot (the Royal Bombay Fusiliers) which had recently returned from India. He was promoted to sergeant finally leaving the service in 1878. In 1900 when he first met Ethel Carnie he was joint owner and editor of the socialist weekly ‘The Clarion’.

William Hall Burnett was born in 1840 in the market town of Stokesley, North Riding of Yorkshire, the fourth illegitimate child of Hannah Burnett who was variously employed as a washerwoman and an agricultural labourer. He was baptised William Burnett but in his teenage years adopted Hall as his middle name; in recognition that his biological father was Thomas Hall, a handloom linen weaver.  A contemporary account[5] describes William’s early life,

“His parents being poor, his early education was necessarily limited, so that his intellectual attainments are entirely due to his own indomitable pluck and perseverance. He was a protégé of William Braithwaite, the well-known printer, and friend of many celebrated authors, Inwards, Walker Ord, Tweddell, Heavisides, Prince, Cleaver, Rogerson, etc. He developed early & penchant for elocution, so much so that he had recited to considerable audiences before he was ten years of age. By the time he had attained 13, he was at business, had taught himself ” the winged art,”[6] and was acting as correspondent at Stokesley for the York Herald, remaining on the staff for ten years. At 15 he went to Middlesbrough as turn-over apprentice on the Middlesbrough News, of which journal he was appointed editor at the age of 19.”  William moved with his family to Blackburn at the end of 1887, where he became editor of the Blackburn Standard and Express, a well recognised Conservative paper in the town”.

Ethel Carnie was born on New Year’s Day, 1886 in the Lancashire village of Oswaldtwistle, the daughter of David and Louise Carnie.  Both parents were cotton weavers and when she was five years old, the family including her brother Rupert moved to Rishton and subsequently to Great Harwood where she was sent to the local British School, both places being to the north-east of Blackburn.  An account of her early life was written by P.E.M. (the initials of Priscilla E Moulder, herself an ex-factory worker and journalist);

“While at school her composition attracted the attention of teachers, melting used to read it aloud for the benefit of the rest of the class, as an example of what composition should be. In her school days the girl could not be described as a brilliant scholar, but she learnt easily, and was always fond of poetry. Time went on, as time has a knack of doing and at the age of eleven Ethel Carnie was working ‘halftime’ as a reeler in the nearest cotton mill. At twelve she was taught the art of winding and went ‘full-time’ at thirteen, at which age her education was supposed to be finished.  Ethel remained a winder up to the age eighteen, then she became a warper and beamer…..While still a winder in the factory Ethel had composed many odd verses, and at eighteen she published her first poem in the pages of the Blackburn Times” [7].

When William met Ethel Carnie he had retired as editor of the Blackburn Standard and Express, but by no means from active life. In 1903 he was elected as the first President of the Blackburn Authors’ Society and could, for what it is worth, be regarded as conservative middle-class, albeit a ‘one-nation’ conservative.  The assertion by Alves that he was “not a poet himself” misses the core of the relationship that he had with Ethel Carnie – that they shared a love of poetry. He was indeed a published poet [8], and in common with editors of many contemporary provincial newspapers used his role to encourage poets writing both in plain English and north country dialects.

It was Ethel Carnie’s first published poem entitled ‘The Bookworm’ in the Blackburn Times[9] (1904) that caught William’s eye and in his capacity as President of the Blackburn Author’s Society as Moulder recounts he “went see the girl and invited her to bring a few of her poems to the next meeting of the society.  The girl did so in great fear and trembling….small wonder that the assembled members of the Blackburn Authors’ Society could scarcely believe that the poem was the original work of a factory girl” 7.  Some verses

William’s support did not stop there and after the meeting “he mooted the idea of a book”[10] and wrote a lengthy article in the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, entitled ‘Ethel Carnie as a Poetess’[11].  He starts his article with reference to some verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (1807-1882) poem ‘Nuremberg’:

‘As the weaver plied the shuttle, wove he too the mystic rhyme,
And the smith his iron measures hammered to the anvil’s chime;
Thanking God, whose boundless wisdom makes the flowers of poesy bloom
In the forge’s dust and cinders, in the tissues of the loom.

Reference to this poem links him both to Ethel who described ‘The Bookworm’ as being “composed one morning while working at her frame”[12] and to his putative father, John Hall a handloom weaver from Stokesley. It also reflects his interest in the work of James Sharples,[13] Blackburn blacksmith and artist whose engraving of ‘The Forge’ he sought to promote on his visit to John Ruskin at Brantwood in 1893 [14]. Ethel Carnie used these verses in the frontispiece of her first book of poems published early the following year. William shows characteristic enthusiasm saying “We think we have found a new singer, and were prepared to put our judgement to the test, and the reader shall be the judge” and after describing the circumstances of her upbringing rather prophetically says, “What might such a singer accomplish if she had more leisure than hard factory work affords?”. A full exploration of William’s article and its comments on Ethel Carnie’s poetry has been published by Roger Smalley in his PhD and in his life of Ethel Carnie (2014)

The book of poems which he suggested after the meeting of the Blackburn Author’s Society was eventually produced in March 1907 under the title ‘Rhymes from the Factory’. Five hundred copies were printed by R Denham and Co Ltd of Blackburn and priced at 6d each. A few days earlier on Sunday 24th February 1907 William wrote in Ethel’s scrap-book a short poem, ‘Evening Shadows’:

‘When evening shadows fall
Upon my wearied soul,
If all my friends be true
I shall not greatly rue:
If kith and kin be kind
I shall not greatly mind’

The melancholic opening lines suggest that whilst William’s life was in its later stages whilst Ethel’s was just beginning but that friends and family meant much to him was the solace that helped his ‘wearied soul’ through the death of his wife in 1897 and two of his sons, Bertie Hadrian at the aged of five and John St Alban a promising young journalist at the age of 20 from tuberculosis.

The first edition of ‘Rhymes from the Factory’ was greeted in a rather condescending manner in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of Friday 1st March 1907, ‘The small collection of poems entitled “Rhymes from the Factory” …by Ethel Carnie, is worthy of all praise, when it is considered that the writer is a mill girl.  The “The Bookworm” is one of the best pieces, but “To the Bust of Mozart”, “Last Days of Pompei” and “Time” are also noteworthy.’

However, the book was generally well received and as Ethel recounts in the preface to a second edition, “Within a month of publication the first edition of my verse, 500 copies were sold out’ and ‘This has determined me to publish a much larger edition. 1000 copies, containing my former poems with emendations and additions”.  This second edition was published by R Denham and Co Ltd together with the Shackerley Literary Agency.  The Shackerley Literary Agency, Southport was an imprint used by William to publish a number of pamphlets and a small book entitled ‘A few Specimen Poems and Aphorisms’. The name was taken from a farm house that he lived in for a short time at Mellor near Blackburn and indicates that he may have partially financed this second edition.  This second edition contained, as had the first edition a dedication “to my esteemed friend W H Burnett as a small token of sincere gratitude and respect”.

With the second edition of ‘Rhymes from the Factory’, the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser had changed its tune saying “That there should be required a second edition Miss Ethel Carnie’s “Rhymes from the Factory” (Blackburn: R. Denham and Co., is. net) is proof of the existence of discriminating love of poetry which judges work on its intrinsic merits. With outside aid Miss Carnie has won for herself a worthy place among the poets of the people. Her songs and lyrics are full of music and beauty and are models of artistic style. In the whole volume is no careless paltry line, and that compositions of such grace should come from a Lancashire cotton factory is a fact of which all Lancashire people will be proud. Miss Carnie has honoured herself and her county”.  There is not much doubt that William would have remembered how being the protégé of William Braithwaite the Stokesley Publisher/printer had helped to open many doors to him as a very young man and would have provided the ‘outside aid’ in the form of ‘much kindly encouragement’[15]

There is not much evidence that Ethel and William met much after his involvement through the Shakerley Literary agency in the publication of a second edition of ‘Rhymes from the Factory’. Her second book of poetry ‘Songs of a Factory Girl’ was published in April 1911 and ran to four editions in November 1913 she published her first novel ‘Miss Nobody’ and in April 1914 a third book of poetry, ‘Voices of Womanhood’ which included a moving dedication to ‘Mr W. H. Burnett, Editor of late “Blackburn Standard and Express” and one time of Blackburn Authors’ Association’ – a fitting epitaph to William himself, who died in 1916 and to his relationship with Ethel Carnie, the Mill Girl Poet.

Dedication of ‘Voices of Womanhood’ by Ethel Carnie (1914)

[1] Alves, Susan  “‘Whilst working at my frame’: The Poetic Production of Ethel Carnie” Victorian Poetry, 38, Spring 2000:77-93

[2] Johnson, Patricia E. “Finding Her Voice(s): the Development of a Working Class Feminist Vision in Ethel  Carnie’s  Poetry”  Victorian Poetry 43, Fall 2005: 297-315

[3] In Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethel_Carnie_Holdsworth (accessed 24/10/2014)

[4] Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford  (1851-1943):doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31924

[5] Andrews, William,  North Country poets – poems and biography (1888)

[6] Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/222322
Fraser, Carolyn ‘The Winged art’  http://www.carolynfraser.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Fraser_Uppercase_8.pdf           The term the ‘winged art’ was used to describe a system of shorthand, the second edition of which was launched by Sir          Isaac Pitman on the 10th January 1840 to coincide with the introduction of the penny post, which assisted the
distribution both of its publication and of the copious shorthand correspondence which increasingly linked the system’s

[7] Factory Girl Poet: Ethel Carnie, The Millgate Monthly (a publication of the Manchester Co-operative Society), November
1909 (written by P.E.M. , Priscilla E Moulder)

[8] Hull, George  Poets and poetry of Blackburn, (1902) Blackburn, J & G Toulmin, Printers, “Times” Office, Northgate
This volume contains a portrait of WHB that covers the period from his birth in 1840 through to his retirement as editor
of the Blackburn Standard.  Three poems, On the unveiling of a window dedicated to St Michael and all angels, Mary’s in
the Shippon, A Mellor Fields’ Ballad and Stokesley and Far out to sea, A lyric.

[9] ‘The Bookworm’ published in The Blackburn Times (1904)

[10] ‘The Authoress of our new serial story’  Co-operative News, July 24th 1915

[11] ‘Ethel Carnie as a Poetess’, W H Burnett, Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, 10 November 1906 p9

[12] Blackburn Times June 1908

[13] James Sharples (1825-1893): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/252241

[14] Blackburn Standard, 9th September 1893

[15] “Miss Nobody” – and its Author, The Wheatsheaf, November 1913 p 85-86



  1. Claire Burnett

    A wonderful testament to William Hall Burnett and his enlightened attitude to supporting a
    female poet of the age.

  2. Helen Pankhurst

    Really interesting, hope some of Ethel Carnie’s writing, particularly her poems, are brought back into the limelight.

  3. john burnett

    William never forgot his roots the type of man who would help where he could. I am proud to be a family member.


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