Winifred was born at Rudston House in the Yorkshire village of Rudston, five miles from Bridlington, a long-established farming community dating back to Roman times. She was the youngest daughter of Alice Winn and David Holtby.
One of Winifred's earliest known attempts at writing poetry, was at the age of eight. In 1909, Winifred was sent to Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough where she wrote for the school magazine. A literate child, she read Shakespeare, Dickens and Bronte and in 1911 Winifred's mother had Browns of Hull print a book of Winifred's poems My Garden & Other Poems, Winifred was just thirteen.
When war broke out in 1914 Winifred was still at school. But in December 1914, when Scarborough came under fire from two German warships, she wrote a letter to a friend about her experiences and it was the clarity of her writing that encouraged the local paper to publish the letter in full in January 1915. She was to later draw on this experience for her 1924 novel The Crowded Street.
In 1917, despite winning a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford Winifred decided to volunteer as a VAD in London (releasing qualified nurses for service in France). She returned to Oxford for a short time but again volunteered, this time for the WAAC and was posted to France in 1918. On demobilisation in 1919 she returned to Oxford to finish her studies. She read for a degree in Modern History, and graduated in 1921.
It was at Oxford that Winifred met fellow student, Vera Brittain, who was to become her lifelong lover and after graduation they took a six-week holiday in Europe, before coming back to embark on their individual literary careers. On her return to England, Winifred began writing and during this period completed her first novel Anderby Wold (1923) as well as moving into a flat in Bloomsbury with Vera Brittain.
At home in Cottingham, Alice Holtby was making her mark in local politics, becoming the first female County Councillor of the East Riding County Council. One of many events Winifred would later use in her novel "South Riding".
In 1925 Winifred wrote another novel, The Runners, based on the life of John Wycliffe, but this was rejected by the publishers and never published. Despite this setback, Winifred worked hard becoming a prolific journalist, writing for a wide range of newspapers and journals. One paper that was to figure prominently in Winifred's career was Time & Tide, an independent paper run by, written for and read by women. It was with Time & Tide that she made an early impression, becoming its youngest Director at the age of 28, whilst continuing to write for other journals.
A year later, in 1927, her novel Land of Green Ginger was published and during the next four years she worked hard to consolidate her position as a journalist and lecturer of repute, often referred to as the most brilliant journalist in London.
Not just a writer, Winifred travelled all over Europe lecturing for the League of Nations Union as well as continuing to write in support of women's rights. When women got the right to vote in 1928, Winifred produced A New Voter's Guide to Party Programmes (1929) aimed at helping the new women voters find their political feet. Winifred voted Labour, canvassed for Labour candidates, gave speeches and wrote articles for the left-wing journal New Leader. She also taught for a short while, later using the experience for the character of Sarah Burton, in South Riding.
Winifred accepted an invite from her friend, Jean MacWilliam, a headmistress at a school in South Africa and in 1926 toured South Africa studying conditions and problems of native Africans. This question of racial discrimination made her determined to visit West Africa, but she died before this was possible, but did write the novel Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933).
She was also became very active in helping fund the work of William Ballinger, a Scotsman working in Africa to improve conditions for native South Africans, by providing education, grants and sponsorships. Winifred's support was not just limited to campaigning and writing letters of appeal for funds, but direct funding from her own pocket.
It was whilst helping Labour Party candidates campaign in the General Election of 1932 that Winifred first collapsed. At that time she was told it was exhaustion due to overwork. 1933 also saw the publication of The Astonishing Island a satire on English customs and ways of life. But a second collapse followed the first and tests showed she was suffering from a kidney disease, the long-term result of childhood illnesses.
Initially only given two years to live, she undertook an intensive and painful treatment which gave her an extra eighteen months of life, only her closest friends and family aware of the severity of her state of health. This borrowed time became a frenzy of work in which, as well as continuing with her journalism, she produced two more books during 1934 Truth is not Sober and Women and a Changing Society. She also worked on her last and it is said, her best work, South Riding, completing the novel a mere month before she died in London.