Mrs Holtby

©Winifred Holtby Collection, Hull History Centre (2)
Alice Holtby ©Winifred Holtby Collection, Hull History Centre[1]
Mrs Alice Holtby, 74, (1858/9-1939) was an active local politician in Yorkshire, and in 1934, the year after the dinner, become the first woman to be elected an Alderman of East Riding County Council. A strong willed woman, she opposed the publication of her daughter Winifred Holtby’s masterpiece, South Riding, – the main objection being that much of the inspiration for this fictional story was drawn from Alice’s own life and family – leading to tension between mother and daughter. She was joined at the table by her adopted daughter-in-law Edith de Coundouroff and two guests of Winifred, a small family and friends table perhaps reflecting that only a dozen days earlier Alice had laid her husband to rest in Bridlington churchyard.


A simple choice: either next to  Edith de Coundouroff and beside one of the guests of her daughter Winifred, or between the two guests. It hardly matters for a small table of four. Perhaps one day we will know who the two guests were, if some diary emerges of the time. It is likely that this is a table organised by Winifred for her mother and Mrs de Coundouroff with two spare places to be filled near the time or on the night.


In addition to being in mourning, and the tension over Winifred’s book (not yet published), there was also great concern at this time over Winifred’s health. Winifred died in early 1935. The dinner may well have been a time for dinner guests to extend their condolences to Alice, in person, for the death of her husband. Awkward timing or an opportunity to keep the ball rolling?


Alice Winn was born in 1858-9, in East Witton, Yorkshire, the fourth child (and third daughter) of Anne Robinson (1824 – 1901) and Yorkshire farmer Christopher Winn (1819 – 1882). She earned her living as a governess in her early years on the farm of William Buttle, of Thirkleby-in-Malton, Yorks, who had five daughters. In 1893, after a twelve year courtship, Alice  married David Holtby, also a farmer.[2] They had two daughters, both born in Rudston, East Riding, Yorkshire – Grace, born in 1896 and Winifred, born in 1898. Grace married the Hull medic Dr. P Morrison Tolmie, they had two daughters, but Grace died after a short illness on 10th March 1928.[3]

Having been serving on the East Riding War Pensions Committee since 1916, Alice joined the East Riding Council in 1923 as the representative of Cottingham. She served on a number of committees included the Mental Hospital Committee, Care of the Mentally Defective, Public Health and Housing, Education Committee, East Riding and City of York Joint Sanatorium Committee and subcommittees such as the County Libraries and Higher Education.[4]

Her husband David died on 8th March 1933, almost 5 years to the day after their daughter Grace. David’s funeral took place on Saturday 11th March, 12 days before the dinner.[5]


“What Alice did next” is indeed an important part of her story, albeit just for her last six years. First, in early 1934, on the death of a councillor, she became the first woman Alderman to be appointed to the East Riding Council. Then, after Winifred’s early death in 1935, Alice resigned from public life and from the Council (though this was not due to happen until 1940) and left Cottingham for Harrogate, to look after Winifred’s affairs. Her first challenge was the publication of South Riding. We will let Shirley Williams and Vera Brittain continue the story:

Vera Brittain’s daughter Shirley Williams explains:

“Mrs Holtby and other members of her extended family detested the exploration of their lives and their public work. Descriptions of illness, poverty, death, desire and love, the companions of human existence, were eschewed as intrusive, even vulgar. Winifred’s touching, indeed beseeching prefatory letter to her mother, Alderman Mrs Holtby, tells the reader about the gulf of incomprehension between mother and daughter.” [6]  

It was Vera Brittain who edited South Riding, after Winifred’s death, and ensured that it was published, working to overcome Alice’s opposition. On Alice’s death Vera wrote:

“Once I knew her. I understood how much her younger daughter had inherited her strong spartan optimism, her warm-hearted generosity, and her positive, irrepressible vigour. In spite of the years that divided herself and Winifred, and the different outlook of their generations, so deep a temperamental sympathy existed between them that their relationship was always one of unbroken harmony. Winifred Holtby always denied that Alderman Mrs. Beddows of “South Riding” was Alderman Mrs. Holtby. but it was undoubtedly the part played by her beloved and admired mother in Yorkshire local government which inspired the theme of her last and greatest novel”.

Photo by Lafayette
Alice and her daughter Winifred, photo by Layafette ©Winifred Holtby Collection, Hull History Centre[7]
The Hull Daily Mail described the relationship carefully:

“There was a deep temperamental sympathy between mother and daughter, in spite of the fact that 40 years separated their ages. Winifred invariably submitted to her mother the manuscripts of her novels and short stories, and Mrs Holtby suggested alterations when she considered them necessary. Indeed, it is thought that much of the knowledge of municipal politics shown in “South Riding,” which was Miss Holtby’s last and most successful novel, came from the late Mrs Holtby. The great energy of Mrs Holtby caused her to outlive all her family, despite the sorrows she suffered by the deaths of her husband and both daughters”.[8]

letterstoafriendAlice then edited and published Winifred’s Letters to a Friend, her daughter’s correspondence with the South Africa based writer Jean McWilliam who Winifred had first met when serving in France during the War.

Alice died aged 80 in Harrogate on 31st July 1939, the day that Vera Brittain finished the manuscript for her biography of Alice’s daughter, Winifred. The Hull Daily Mail wrote: “Mrs Holtby always took a kind interest in public work and will be remembered by scores for her efforts to relieve suffering and sorrow during the war years, during which period she was identified with the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association.”[9]

One month later Britain declared war on Germany.


[l] ©Winifred Holtby Collection, Hull History Centre

[2] Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship, The Story of Winifred Holtby, Macmillan, 1940, p13

[3] Hull Daily Mail 11.1.1928

[4] Hull Daily Mail 21.4.1936

[5] Driffield Times, 18.3.1933

[6] Shirley Williams (2011), The tragic story of South Riding, The Independent 19.2.2011 – the article is an extract from Shirley Williams’ contribution to the 2010 Virago edition of South Riding.

[7] Photo by Lafayette ©Winifred Holtby Collection, Hull History Centre

[8] Hull Daily Mail 1.8.1939

[9] Hull Daily Mail, Funeral Alice Holtby, 3.8.1939

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