Book interview: Ilkley-based author Jenny Holmes

Jenny Holmes. PIC: Adrian Murray
Jenny Holmes. PIC: Adrian Murray
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Ilkley-based author Jenny Holmes’ latest novel is set amongst textile workers in the mills of Bradford in the 1930s. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston.

“I have written about places all over the world but this time I wanted to get back in touch with my family roots,” says Ilkley-based author Jenny Holmes whose latest book The Mill Girls of Albion Lane is set in Bradford in the early 1930s.

It is a wonderfully evocative and ultimately uplifting novel that revolves around the Briggs family – with its central character Lily, the conscientious eldest daughter, who works hard at Calvert Mill to make ends meet and to take care of her parents Walter and Rhoda and younger siblings Margie, Evie and Arthur.

Theirs is a tough life but, despite their struggles, they make the best of what they have and find ways of enjoying themselves. For Lily this means Saturday nights at the dance hall and dressmaking with her two best friends, Sybil and Annie – and the beginnings of a tentative romance with childhood friend Harry Bainbridge.

For Holmes, who was brought up in Harrogate, the main inspiration for the novel was her mother’s family who lived in Beckwithshaw in North Yorkshire. “As a child I had heard memories of my mother’s generation’s childhood during the 1930s and 40s,” she says. “So I thought I would begin the novel before the Second World War during the hardship of the Depression and make it a really solidly Yorkshire-based story.” She says she was particularly inspired by an aunt who worked as a milliner and other female relatives who were seamstresses and upholsterers.

“There was a lot of needlework going on,” she says, laughing. “They were so skilled and enterprising and just pulled themselves up and thought they would just get on and make things better.”

In many ways the book is a celebration of Yorkshire grit and in particular the stoicism of the women who made up the majority of the workforce in the mills. Lily is a prime example – she retains her dignity, spirit, independence and sense of self in very difficult circumstances – and is an amalgamation of several of Holmes’ relatives. “She is a mixture of people, really,” she says. “Her determination and her refusal to be broken, that’s very much a characteristic of the women in my family.” The characters are also, in true Yorkshire fashion, refreshingly plain-speaking. “The very few disagreements I have with my editors is to do with the characters being too blunt,” says Holmes. “They want to take the edge off, but I always say ‘that is the way it is here’, what you see is what you get.”

For the detail of what it was like to work in the mills at that time – which is beautifully realised in the novel – Holmes did a lot of research and reading, including visiting the Industrial Museum in Bradford where textile machinery is on display. “I also got in touch with local history groups and looked at verbatim accounts by people who lived through the 1930s,” she says.

“There were accounts of girls going to work in the mills at the age of 14 and having to crawl under the machines to pick up the scraps for 10 shillings a week and the fact that the machines were so loud they had to lip-read. I also used memories of what my aunts would tell me. I had one aunt, for example, who worked in a pharmacy in the 1930s – she had endless tales to tell.”

These women were of the generation whose prospects of marriage were greatly diminished due to the fact that so many of their male contemporaries died in the First World War, so they expected to make their own way in the world.

The book, which is in the Bookseller’s Top 20 Fiction Heatseekers list, is one of a trilogy. Holmes has already completed the second – about shopgirls – and is currently working on the third, about midwives. “It is looking at what happened to women in these communities before the NHS when they were looked after by neighbourhood midwives,” she says. “The book is set on the cusp of change and explores the conflict between the old ways and the new ways.”

* The Mill Girls of Albion Lane is published by Corgi, priced £5.99.

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