William Holt was born in Todmorden, in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, in 1897, the eldest son of a coal merchant. At the age of 13, whilst working in a cotton weaving shed, he taught himself several languages. ‘Billy’, as he was universally known, would go on in life to travel extensively and had numerous jobs and roles, including (not in chronological order): deck hand, false teeth salesman, editor and newspaper correspondent (during the Spanish civil war), soldier, lumberjack, coal merchant, weaver, auto-biographer, NUWM organiser, Communist town councillor, teacher, film stunts-man, language teacher, novelist, artist, BBC broadcaster and probably much more! Holt also pioneered a motorised library service and developed a ‘model’ farm.
In 1900, little Billy was living at Holt’s Botanical Brewery in Stoney Lane, Charlestown. He was the product of a typical northern working class, non-conformist background. Billy’s father played the fiddle in the Wesleyan Chapel choir and socially through traditional folk songs. At the age of twelve Billy Holt became a half timer, that is to say he worked half the time at a textile mill and spent the other half of his time at school, a standard practice for most working peoples’ children at the time. He was largely self-educated.
Holt served in the armed forces in World War One. Unusually, as a working class Yorkshireman, he was one of the few ordinary soldiers from a working class background who were selected for officer training. He seems also to have spent some time at TrinityCollege, Oxford. On Armistice Day the former staunch temperance member, brought up in a temperance family, broke his leg falling out of a window after celebrating the end of hostilities with such alcohol-induced exuberance that he fell out of a window and broke his leg. Invalided back to Todmorden, in 1920 he married Florence Silman, a Barnsley girl who had moved to Todmorden to work in its local mills, Despite Billy’s world-wandering, they would go on to have four children together.
He then travelled the world as a ships deck hand, during the course of which he visited the young Soviet Union. Back in the CalderValley he established a holiday camp, one of the very first, at Hardcastle Crags. He was then involved in selling coal door-to-door. In 1927, he established a local branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, and seems to have joined the Communist Party soon after.
Todmorden was then a significant centre of industrial workers in the textile industry; it actually had the largest weaving shed in the world. Billy’s protests against the Means Test led him to spend nine months in Wakefield Prison. He first fought for a seat on his local council from his prison cell, narrowly failing to unseat the deputy mayor who was one of the magistrates who had sent him there! He was then rapidly elected as a Communist Councillor for Todmorden in 1929 and again in 1933, being the only elected Communist Councillor in West Yorkshire during this period. In 1932 he was arrested after a march in support of increased relief for the unemployed and was sentenced to nine months in Wakefield jail.
Some of his fictional writing contains significant elements of autobiographical experience. His `Backwaters’ (1934) features a young Lancashire weaver who emigrates to Canada. There, just as Billy did, he works in lumber camps before returning home and joining the Communist Party. The novel includes a comic account of the Party in Todmorden, but locally he is mainly remembered as a ‘colourful local character’. Briefly the editor of the Todmorden Gazette, he was war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War for the Daily Dispatch. He then went to the Soviet Union again (some sources say for the first time) and also lived with a holy man in a cave in India. At the end of the 1930s, he started `Books On Wheels’, a mobile private library, which used vehicles consisting of half motorcycle and half van, made in Halifax possibly by Crofts Engineering. He then started a bigger concern British Mobile Libraries based in Manchester.
During the Second World War Holt undertook freelance radio broadcasting for the BBC Overseas service and later spoke on Industrial issues; Holt being a rarity at the BBC with his discernible Yorkshire accent. Many of the programmes he voiced were broadcast in America and elsewhere. This was a time when it was an extreme rarity, outside of comedians, to hear any accent on radio other than that of the upper-class. His children helped make one broadcast to America, speaking of how children coped with wartime Britain. Even his wife, Flo, also made a couple of broadcasts, with others. In 1949, Billy was voted by listeners a Radio Personality of the year. But his radio career ended in the early 1950s when his contracts were not renewed, it is believed because of the McCarthyite pressures that arose during the cold war.
At around the age of 60, he took up his new career as an itinerant author. When he was 66, he made a trip across Europe on Trigger, an Todmorden aging ex-rag-and-bone white-grey horse he had rescued for £5. He first rode the horse the length of Britain and then wider, turning these travels into many books, his most famous being “Trigger goes to Rome” published in 1964. A Yorkshire TV documentary of his life was made in 1969, `The All or Nothing Man’.
Left: Holt at the time he was a member of the Daily Worker Editorial Board in 1948
As a painter, Billy Holt worked in a bold, dramatic style. His huge visionary works, `Christ Overcoming Space and Eternity Diadem’, and `Consider the Lilies’ (depicting hymn-singing weavers), attempt to show the triumph of man’s spirit over mass production. But it is as a writer that he is most widely known. During his life – he died in 1977 – he received praise from J B Priestley, H G Wells, Ted Hughes and others. The fiercely independent Todmorden spirit was ever-present in Billy Holt’s writings:
`Under a Japanese Parasol (1933)
`I was a prisoner’ (1934).
`I haven’t unpacked’ (1939)
`I still haven’t unpacked’ (1953)
`Trigger in Europe’ (1966)
`The price of adventure’ (1943)
`The weaver’s knot’ (1956)
`The wizard of Whirlaw’ (1959)
Graham Stevenson and Michael Walker
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