Rhythm of The Looms by Scott Robertson and Janet Swan

A series of Jacquard Loom punch cards in use at Queen Street Mill

Our soundscape was originally inspired by punch-cards from Jacquard Looms. These were an early form of computer that gave cotton looms their patterns and instructions. Our piece combines the hypnotic sound of these looms (recorded on site at Queen Street Mill, Burnley) and snippets from the ground-breaking poetry of local “mill girl” – Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

The soundscape cross-references the 1975 film Humain Trop Humain – making the comparison between the automations of machines and humans, and their compartmentalised tasks, interspersed with themes of ‘downtime’ and imagination that Carnie Holdsworth fought to establish for her people – workers of the early Twentieth Century (and especially women).

All these themes have been brought together in an energetic digital representation using Pro Tools Avid mixing software.

Listen to the soundscape and find out more about Ethel Carnie Holdsworth below.

Activist, poet, journalist and author; Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886-1962) is believed to be the first working-class woman in Britain to publish a novel. Although she was a “mill girl” from the age of 11 to 25, she was famous in her own time – reputed to have sold somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand copies of her book Helen of Four Gates when it was published. Her success came from knowing how to portray her people with boldness and the close detail of their lives. Talking in 1920, Ethel claimed that her authentic portrayal of the mill community ‘has been bred into her, through sharing their lives, their labours, they joys and sorrows, standing at the loom in a factory, living with them in tiny houses in poky streets’.

This authentic experience was first heard in Ethel’s poems, mostly written in her teens and early twenties and many of them written “while standing at my frame (loom)”. But there is more here than just representation. Ethel was a radical thinker and wanted to put right the injustice that she saw. ‘Factory life has crushed the childhood, youth, maturity of millions of men and women. It has ruined the health of those who would have been comparatively strong but for the unremitted toil and the evil atmosphere’.

In our soundscape “Looming”, we hope we have given voice to the impressions that would have affected Ethel and the causes that were close to her heart: Her time spent in London when working on “The Woman Worker” magazine; the experiences from her life in and around the cotton towns of East Lancashire and her desire for justice and freedom from a life lived solely for the profit of others.

While her name and reputation were long neglected, they are now being recovered locally and nationally. Find out more about Ethel Carnie Holdsworth from the Pendle Radicals Project led by Mid Pennine Arts.

London has bread to earn, and wealth to pour,
Prayers to be muttered, lies to sell as truths,
And like an ocean sends her mighty roar
Of sound through the world

– A Crying Child in London, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

In the poem A Crying Child in London we hear the words “bread to earn”.

In times of great need, there is always great hunger, and human beings become obsessed with food. This theme is played out strongly in much of Carnie Holdsworth’s work, including her most well-known novel – This Slavery. But in this poem, bread means so much more than food. ‘London’ in this poem represents the pinnacle of capitalism and so London, in its busy-ness, is not interested in the hungry: bread now represents money. But could this be money that is crying for justice and a different way for humans to live?

How long the day has seemed to heart and rain,
And weary foot that trudges o’er and o’er
A little space of carpet strewn with crumbs
And hands that ever ply the same old task!

– Weariness, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

In the poem Weariness we hear the words “Hands that ever ply the same old task!”

With these words, we can almost hear this woman becoming an automaton – be this in factory work, or in the work that she then has to put into keeping home and family together after a long day in the mill.

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