Billy Holt (1897–1977) - writer, artist, traveller and broadcaster - is mainly remembered as a ’colourful local character’. His writings describe the 1920-30s mill-town environment of the Calder Valley.
The Hebden Bridge Web has been contacted by Dutch teacher Frans van Schaik with his personal memories of Billy Holt. The Hebweb already had pieces by Roy Stockdill and Billy Holt’s son. We’ve gathered these together as one feature. Let us know if you have any memories of Billy.
Memories of Billy Holt by Frans van Schaik
I just happened to come across your article titled Billy Holt [see below, piece by Roy Stockdill] and I read you’d be interested to hear from people who had met William (Billy) Holt and who had copies of his books.
This may sound
summat odd to you, but I’m never quite sure when I’m surfing the Internet whether I’m indeed just looking for the information I require about Britain, its culture and history at that moment or whether I’m hoping, subconsciously, for more information about William Holt, but I do notice that at times when my interest in British history and culture is peaked at times and I start looking on the net, the image of William Holt always does seem to pop up quite regularly. You can imagine therefore the surprise when I read your article on this site. The man, after all, made an indelible impression on me when I was still but a young boy…
Let me explain what I mean:
My name is Frans van Schaik, Dutch, 54, teacher of English and a fulltime International coordinator at Horizon College, a secondary vocational college in Hoorn, The Netherlands, a small town from which in the early 1600s the Dutch merchant fleet, the East Indian Trady Company (VOC), left for its voyages to the East Indies.
When I was a young lad of 19 I volunteered from The Netherlands (Utrecht at the time) to work for an organization called Birmingham Young Volunteers (BYV) as I wished to work in the UK during that summer. For some odd reason when my genes were handed out, they tended to contain more British than Dutch features.
Anyway, BYV would organize short holidays for youngsters from deprived areas and often severely traumatic,social backgrounds. I was accepted and worked for them for three weeks in Pembrokeshire on the Welsh coast after which I was invited by a good friend of mine to come and stay with her in Todmorden. Her name was Ms Tina Carr who lived halfway up Kilnhurst Lane, a beautiful 500 years’ old stone cottage and whose house was often frequented by her then 75 year old neighbour… a Mr William Holt. In fact I even think that Tina rented her lovely cottage from William Holt. Also, for all I know, as we unfortunately lost contact with each other after a few years, Tina may still live there. If she is I would love to get in touch with her, for old times sake…
At the back of her house Tina had a vegetable patch from which you could see William’s house and on a higher, somewhat steep slope or incline behind his house one could clearly see Trigger who would graze happily but who threw anxious glances down the hill now and then to make sure that William hadn’t gone off on one of his many ventures. As if Trigger would need to worry about that: when helping Tina’s boyfriend (David Carr) out with the vegetable patch, I saw that William would go up to Trigger very regularly to put its worried mind at ease. It was obvious these two shared a tremendous friendship and love between them.
I was introduced to William’s house, Kilnhurst, a few times where I admired his immense and immensely impressive paintings which to me at the time resembled those of William Blake. Each nook and cranny of his house was filled with tangible items from his past, each inviting another long and mesmerizing tale of the past. How I loved these stories that threw my young mind in an uproar: did I feel fortunate on the one hand to be made part of his adventures, his wisdom and boundless energy, on the other hand it made me feel small, insignificant and humble, but William assured me that anything and everything is possible if one would only set one’s mind to it.
What I remember most about this rare, remarkable character, are William’s passion, his strong belief in what was right and wrong and the seed of creativity that is sown in all creatures on this earth ready to exploit. And that it was up to us to nurture the seed , to make it grow, blossom and to use it to fight all the many wrongs in this world. We would spend many an evening in front of the open fire listening to William, enthralled by a never-ending flow of tales and anecdotes. (Having said that, I can’t quite remember whether this was at Tina’s house or not, but that’s besides the point). With increasing fervour and passion he would verbally paint his trips to Europe with Trigger and how he earned his money painting and writing as he went along. Any listener couldn’t help but become part of the army in the trenches in WW1, the Spanish war, fighting for what they believed was the only truth, alongside renowned writers such as George Orwell.
His visit to Russia and his quaint relationship with an equally quaint or just very queer Aleister Crowley who worshipped the devil. Renowned also was William’s credo that “iron bars do not a cage maken” and that within ourselves the power lies to always do what you think is right… I also remember that he invented the first weaving bobbin and that he ran, literally, a mobile library, but about this I’m not sure anymore. It’s after all 35 years ago that I met this man who would certainly change my life for ever. I do also remember his few and short stories about his wife, Flo (Florence) whom he also loved with equal passion as he did his adventures.
I just couldn’t believe my good fortune being in Todmorden and feel part of the circle of William’s friends. To be in the close vicinity of such a famous man who described himself as “a non-conformist who couldn’t even conform with non-conformist views”, (as he was quoted on the back of his book: “I was a prisoner”.
Although it’s true that I have never pursued the quest for historical knowledge as fervently as he would have liked every human being to, William instilled in me a great interest in the (cohesion of) historical events, in a wide pallet of arts and a strong awareness of the pains of social injustice.
In fact, I wanted to remain close to William and for a while I even contemplated moving to Todmorden and taking up a teacher training course at Bingley College and possibly stay around to teach in the UK, close to places like Haworth where the Bronte sisters were born and where they wrote some of their wonderful novels that would delight and educate people of all ages, then and now still. Already I fashioned myself on a motorbike across the moors on my way to Bingley College.
Apparently I hadn’t been impressed sufficiently to take that jump although lack of (a lot of) money for accommodation and college fees, was a strong advocate for keeping it simple and returning to The Netherlands. I did however, take every opportunity during my study to visit Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall, and Wales to obstain credits there. I even played for the Welsh National College football team for 2 years and although I never mastered its wonderfully mysterious and enigmatic language, I still do feel at home in Wales as soon as I see the Croeso y Cymru signs before the Severn Bridge across the River Severn.
However, I’m straying: William had only just met a rich breweress from Shrewbury I seem to remember, although during my 2 months’ stay I would only meet her once and very briefly at that, when Tina and I shared some delightful moments with William and his new love, (whose name eludes me) in a pub called the Grapes on the main road in Todmorden. (I don’t think the pub is still there, as Google Earth couldn’t find it).
It was a special occasion, because William didn’t go out that often if at all in those days. But, he was terribly in love and the breweress had a will of her own… which may explain why the future marriage wouldn’t last longer than 6 months or so.
Anyway, William now came across an important crossroads where decisions were called for: how to divide the time between his wife-to-be and Trigger? William made a choice that he would come to regret later, but the butterflies circling his heart clouded up that vision until it was too late: in his early days of courtship William decided that he should spend more and more time with his newly-acquired love in Shrewsbury, i.e. without Trigger whom he’d leave behind to graze upon the steep incline and who would visibly mourn its master’s absence.
And, finally reaching the climax of this story, mourn Trigger would and I swear that I witnessed one of the most emotional moments of their lives and mine when master and horse were reunited:
After one of his short though many visits to Shrewbury, William came home eager to share his renewed energy and love with his trusted, four-legged friend. How Trigger would share the force of the butterflies’ wings beating around William’s heart, how he would take delight that at his age William had been fortunate enough to find a new love.
He walked to the bottom of the steep slope and shouted Trigger’s name, but alas????? no response from the top.
Where was I that I could witness what was to unfold in front of my eyes? I was working on Tina’s vegetable patch when I saw William opening the French doors to his garden and walking to the slope on top of which Trigger would normally start his descend to meet his trusted, two-legged friend. This time, however, Trigger was not in sight. One could see that this puzzled William profoundly: was something wrong?
I rested a while, leaning on my spade and my position gave me a perfect view of both horse and master. William, anxiously looking up, couldn’t see Trigger who would in any other circumstance have jumped in his master’s arms, so to speak. Not this time, however: Trigger stayed away from the edge far enough for William to have to climb towards the top. William was about halfway up, now a very apprehensive note in his voice while repeatedly shouting out Trigger’s name. This note eventually may have softened Trigger’s hard feelings of indignation, for it moved not only closer to the edge, but it also started walking down the hill now visible for William who hastened his steps to give Trigger a loving embrace.
I had put my spade down as I had intended to say hello to William and to take a few quick photographs of them getting together again with my small pocket camera, but suddenly I stopped realising that from where I was, by this time about 20 feet away, I was witnessing a most unique reunion of two creatures, one of which realised that he had let another love come in between, and him and his best friend, and the other one who realised that perhaps he hadn’t been neglected after all: closer and closer the two came towards each other: William looked at Trigger and Trigger looked at William and just as they reunited halfway up the hill, I saw that both had tears streaming down their faces. Before William embraced Trigger and Trigger pushed its wet nose lovingly in William’s neck, a short, almost supernatural moment had passed in which man and beast both seemed to struggle with the question of how they had possibly been able to stay apart for such a long time and what pain this had caused them both! It was at this time that I took my photographs. These unfortunately never quite captured the tears on their faces, but I assure you that I know what I saw that day, a moment that will keep the butterflies flutter around my heart whenever I think back to William Holt and his one and only true mate, Trigger.
The story comes to a rather disappointing end: I have moved house very often since that time and although the photo album was never forgotten, I simply cannot find it anymore whereas I’m sure that one day the choc-a-bloc attic will cough up this treasure again. When it does I will scan them and send them to you, so that you can verify those very special moments for yourself.
On a brighter note, when I left Todmorden after two months July 1975, I bought 5 of William’s books, each with a personal note :
- I was a prisoner For Frans van Schaik at Kilnhurst, Todmorden
31st July 1975, (signed) William Holt:
Stone walls do not a prison maken, or iron bars a cage
- Rucksack reflections For Frans van Schaik at kilnhurst, Todmorden
31st July 1975, (signed) William Holt:
This book that was born in a rucksack!
- I haven’t Unpacked and The Weaver’s Knot For Frans van Schaik 31st July 1975, (signed) William Holt:
Prove, not solve the mysteries
- Trigger in Europe For Frans van Schaik at kilnhurst, Todmorden
31st July 1975, (signed) William Holt:
None are closer than a rider with his horse
Frans van Schaik
1695 HW Blokker
Billy Holt by Roy Stockdill
I imagine few of you will have heard of the Todmorden author William Holt — Billy, as he was always known — but when I was a boy 40 years ago in the Calder Valley he was a famous local character.
For Billy Holt wrote books and then travelled widely throughout Britain and Europe selling them himself — from the back of a horse! Wherever he went he always rode a white/grey horse called Trigger that he bought in the 1950s for £5 when he saw it pulling a rag and bone man’s cart through the streets of Todmorden. The horse carried him thousands of miles and became as famous as Holt himself. One of his books, Trigger in Europe, chronicled the pair’s remarkable journey through France, Italy, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Please don’t ask me how he managed to get the horse across so many borders that presumably even in those days had laws about the movement of animals, because it is many, many years since I saw the book — and if anyone has a copy that I could beg, steal or borrow I would be hugely grateful!
I can recall Billy Holt tying Trigger up in the stable of my parents’ pub at Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge, as he was a friend of my folks and always called on us whenever he passed through the village on one of his journeys, Todmorden being only about 6 miles away. He travelled the length and breadth of Britain on the horse, selling his books as he went. My parents always bought his latest book but, as is the way of these things, they have long since disappeared and I expect are long out of print. He may even have published them himself, as well as selling them on horseback, I cannot recall. Later when I joined the local newspaper in Halifax, he often figured in its pages.
Billy Holt was born during the 1890s and was working in the mills at the age of 12. He was largely self educated and the product of a typical northern working class, non-conformist background, his father being an itinerant fiddle player who played folk music and also for a Wesleyan chapel choir. Holt fought in the First World War and was one of the few ordinary soldiers from a working class background to be chosen for officer training. However, despite being brought up in a temperance background, he celebrated the end of hostilities rather too well, fell out of a window and broke his leg and was invalided back to Todmorden. He sold coal door to door, became a Communist (having visited Russia soon after the Revolution), got thrown into jail for political activities and fought an election for the 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 married a Barnsley girl who had moved to Todmorden to work in the mills, but their marriage was very much an “absent” one, for Billy Holt spent most of his life travelling. He became a war correspondent and covered the Spanish Civil War for a British newspaper, went to Russian again and also lived with a holy man in a cave in India. During World War II he was enlisted by the BBC as a broadcaster and made many broadcasts — including to America and other countries — in his Yorkshire accent (a rarity in the heavily upper-class accented BBC in those days). In the 1950s, already near or around 60, he took up his new career as an itinerant author. He saw Trigger pulling a rag and bone coat through Todmorden one day and, thinking it looked deeply unhappy in its blinkers and pulling the cart, he decided that both he and the horse needed a new adventure, so he bought it for £5. Trigger, like Billy Holt, must have lived to a ripe old age, for I can recall him visiting my folks’ pub with it in the mid-1950s and it was still alive in the mid-70s when the book from which I am gleaning some of this information was first published.
Holt lived for a while with an artistic, Bohemian set in London, among them Aleister Crowley, the infamous devil worshipper. His perapetic lifestyle did not lend itself to a successful marriage and his first wife divorced him quite late in life. He returned to Todmorden and married in old age for a second time to a brewery heiress who had written to him, admiring “Trigger in Europe.” The marriage lasted about six months and when he divorced again at the age of 80 he let his wife have the house and moved into the barn with Trigger!!! Holt wrote 10 books, both autobiographical works and novels, including I Haven’t Unpacked, I Still Haven’t Unpacked, Trigger in Europe and The Weaver’s Knot. I would be glad to hear from anyone else who remembers William Holt or who has copies of his works.
First published on the Hebden Bridge Web in 2000
Memories of my Father, William Holt
Between 1933 and 1939, William Holt wrote 5 books, started Books On Wheels which used vehicles consisting of half motorcycle and half van, made in Halifax. I think the manufacturer was called Crofts Engineering. He then started a bigger concern British Mobile Libraries based in Manchester as well as being War Correspondent in Spanish Civil War. My father visited Russia only one time.
A point of interest — when he was freelancing with the BBC, my sister Silvia and I made a broadcast to America to tell them how children coped with wartime Britain. Also my mother did a couple of broadcasts from London with people like Freddie Grisewood and A.G. Street. Also Mary Adams.
In 1949 father was voted a Radio Personality of the year. His radio career ended in the early 1950s when his contracts wre not renewed. This happened during that infamous period of the anti communist McArthy hearings in America. Draw your own conclusions.
He then wrote I Still Haven’t Unpacked, Wizard Of Whirlaw and Weavers Knot which many people may not know was written as one book and had to be split into two to get the Weavers Knot published. Then of course, came Trigger In Europe.
My father visited India to arrange production under license of the shuttle he invented and he made history by engaging in a Gandhi style fast on the steps of the biggest bank when the currency regulations would not allow him to bring the money out of India. He also visited a friend in Kashmir, an English lady he had known since 1940. He also painted in India using vivid colours because he was stunned by the light created by the sun and soil colours contrasting with skin colours and clothing. He never mentioned in our many conversations, living in a cave with a holy man.
When my father took his second wife Kilnhurst had been disposed of so the question of her living there could never have arisen.
I could go on writing for a long time as I have many memories but I am under some pressure from my children to write my own memoirs and will get organised soon.
One thing I must say is that growing up in the shadow of a man such as my father was not easy. Each of his successes came at great pain to the rest of the family and I have always been surprised that no would be historian has addressed this issue. By all means keep his memory but remember his wife and family too.
If there is any area I have touched on you would like clarified or expanded on please advise and I will try to help.
Hawden Hall Holiday Camp was started by my father on his return from hospital after the 1st world war. I work it out as 1919. He invested about 80 pounds ran it for one season and sold it for 300 pounds and went to Spain. This is long before I was born but it is documented in “I Haven’t Unpacked” page 89 & 90. He describes it as “two ruined cottages and an old barn”. I have visited this site in my youth and remember it as being on the left of the river as you travel upstream. It could also be approached down a path from the Heptonstall side. Hope this helps.
If you have any memories of William Holt, please email us.