I first became aware of Alfred Williams when, for my ninth birthday I received a copy of his book Life in a Railway Factory which was originally published in 1915. As part of the day, I was taken to Swindon to see the railway workshops (alas, from the outside) and treated to a tea in High (Old) Swindon not far from where Richard Jefferies once lived.
My father noted that Alfred Williams had been at the railway works for many years before being retired medically, and had been the author of many books during his short lifetime. As with most nine year olds, I let it go in one ear and out of the other, although I enjoyed reading my book.
To be truthful, I forgot about Alfred for many years until a trip to Hungerford a few years ago. For some reason, my wife and I found ourselves in Eddington where we met and chatted with an elderly gentleman who told us about the floods in the area. He also mentioned that a certain Mary Peck had married Alfred Williams the writer from South Marsdon at St Saviours Church in the early years of the century. Although he was too young to remember the event, his family knew the Peck family at the time.
This re-ignited my interest in Alfred, but it was to be another twenty years before I was able to investigate his history more thoroughly. Although he is less well known than Richard Jefferies, he is very much a Swindon writer even though like Jefferies, he lived in a village a little distant from the main town.
When you think of Richard Jefferies, you think of Coate and Coate Water.
When you consider Alfred Williams, you think of the pretty village of South Marsdon.
However, unlike Shakespeare’s Stratford and the Bronte’s Haworth, if you visit South Marsdon, there is little to say that Alfred was born lived and was buried there apart from a couple of plaques on houses he lived in.
On a visit to his grave this summer, I found it sinking slightly into the ground and a little neglected. It was all a little sad for a Wiltshire writer and poet who deserves to be ranked alongside Richard.
Alfred Owen Williams was born in Cambria Cottage (which was one of the four houses in South Marsdon that he lived in ) on the 7th February 1877. His early years were quite eventful, he nearly drowned twice and was knocked down by a cart. However, Alfred was made of stern material and survived.
The years (1882-83) were traumatic for the William’s family. Alfred’s father, Elias left the family and because of debts connected with his failed business, Cambria Cottage was repossessed. The family was forced to move some seventy yards down the lane to Rose Cottage where his mothers parents lived. Alfred was to spend the next twenty years there.
He started part time at the South Marsdon School aged eight. The school was still going strong at the time of my recent visit and had not changed greatly since Alfred’s day. The rest of his time he spent helping in the fields.
Alfred also developed a fascination with steam and with some of his early earnings he purchased a model steam engine which he loved to play with. When he was about ten he was dared to lay between the rails on the main London to Bristol railway line. A goods train passed over him and luckily, he was unharmed. It was a dare he would never repeat.
As with a lot of children, Alfred had an interest in the railway which was not far from his home. He became friendly with the engine drivers and was sometimes given rides in the cab. This was the beginning of Alfred’s long connection with the railways of Swindon.
In 1891 he met for the first time his future wife Mary Peck, who hailed from Eddington just across the river from Hungerford. Despite extensive researches, I have not be able to locate where the Peck family lived although, they would have been very familiar with Hungerford. Alfred would have also known our town at the time. It was in this year that Alfred ceased his agricultural work and joined his elder brothers Edgar and Henry at the Great Western Railway Works in Swindon. They all walked the eight or so miles there and back each day. Having tried this myself one-way on a leisurely Saturday, I can confirm that it was quite a walk especially after a hard day in the factory.
He started work in the Stamping Shop in the May of 1891 and it was his employment there that gave him the name of The Hammerman Poet. It was around this time that Alfred began to write poetry and to paint which was to set him apart from his fellows. During this period Alfred tried to join the Navy and the Metropolitan Police but he was rejected on medical grounds. It appears he suffered from varicose veins.
At the age of nineteen, Alfred began to exchange books with a local member of the clergy. He was an avid reader and according to Alfred’s excellent website (more later), particularly liked Sweetness and Light by W M Thompson as well as various Shakespeare plays. A love poem he wrote at the time (happily preserved) to Mary was, according to Alfred, his first written poem. He cut a strange figure at the railway works reading a great deal, especially in his lunch hour.
Alfred was now in his early twenties and this was an intense time of self education. He enrolled on a four year correspondence course with Ruskin Hall in Oxford and at this time, started to teach himself Latin.
In 1901, ten years after their initial meeting, Alfred became engaged to his Mary. There was a little opposition from her family but this soon faded.
Alfred and Mary were married at St Saviours Church in Eddington on the 21st of October 1903. They honeymooned in Torquay where almost to the day, seventy five years later, my wife and I spent our honeymoon. Alfred, at the time of his marriage, left Rose Cottage and moved into Dryden Cottage opposite Cambria Cottage where he was born. They were to live in Dryden Cottage for the next fifteen years.
In 1904 he completed Sardanapalus (after Byron) which was rejected by the publishers. However, he was given encouragement noting that the readers admired it. Alfred was submitting various works at this time but none were published at first. This included his first book of poems, Gift to Eros. He did however, have two of his poems printed in New Songs in 1907. It was about this time that Alfred began to be noticed and he received his first payment for three articles for The Young Men’s Magazine.
In 1909, Alfred met Edmond Fitzmaurice from my home town of Bradford on Avon. Edmond was to be an influence both financially and otherwise on Alfred’s literary development. The previously unpublished Gift to Eros was retitled Songs of Wiltshire. He also found time to read Richard Jefferies memorable Story of my Heart. Alfred’s poetry was very much of its time (although very readable, even today). He had little time for the modern poetry which he considered muddled.
In 1910, Alfred delivered lectures in Swindon and London. It was while in London that he met a reporter from the Daily Mail who suggested that he write a book about his experiences in the Swindon Railway Works. This was the genesis of his most famous book, Life in a Railway Factory. He was beginning to realise that he would never earn enough through his poetry so he decided to turn to prose. It was also becoming obvious that the conditions of his job were beginning to have a serious effect on his health.
Life in a Railway Factory was a very candid account of his place of work and would have had a detrimental effect on his employment if it had been published at the time. He was also writing A Wiltshire Village about life in South Marsdon. When he finished this book, Alfred fell ill with a bronchial condition and depression. He was also having financial problems which were to trouble him on and off for the rest of his life.
In 1913, he published Cor Cordium (which I read quite often). Alfred was at this time becoming nationally known and respected in literary circles.
He also published Villages of the White Horse but the dark clouds were beginning to build.
In 1914, after an illness diagnosed as acute dyspepsia, he was advised by his doctor to leave the railway factory. Initially, he ignored his doctors advice but the illness was having an adverse effect on his life. His friends generously contributed to a holiday for Mary and Alfred and he spent a fortnight in Ilfracombe and a week in both Aberystwyth and Pwllheli. Alfred was also writing Round About the Upper Thames.
Due to his circumstances there were attempts to get Alfred nominated for a pension. This went as far as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Alfred was a proud man who did not want to receive charity noting; So long as I can get pure air and a crust of bread that is all I want. He was warned by his doctor that he would be dead in six months if he did not leave the railway works. This he did in September 1915. The following month, Life in a Railway Factory was published and although causing ripples, the actual sales were rather disappointing.
Alfred spent much of his free time collecting folk songs, mainly on his bicycle (against his doctors advice). Although rewarding, his financial affairs were in dire straights and both he and Mary appear to have suffered as a result. However, out of the blue in September 1916, Alfred was passed fit for war duty and in the January of 1917, Alfred found himself in Ireland. He also spent some time in Scotland. He had expected to go to France, but in the end, he was posted to India. His ship, the Balmoral Castle was attacked by submarines, but was not sunk thankfully. He was writing Boys of the Battery at the time.
After a brief spell in South Africa, he arrived in India in November 1917 and soon became fascinated with its history and culture. He was by now working on a book called Indian Life and Scenery. Like many, he became ill with fever. As things worked out, he found himself in Ranikhet which, as you will see, will have a connection with a small Wiltshire village many thousands of miles away. He was captivated with India and noted that if he were younger, he would have invited Mary to join him. He also saw the Taj Mahal.
It was during his stay in India that he was informed by Mary that they would have to move house as Dryden Cottage had been purchased by a local farmer who had decided to live in it.
After three weeks leave, during which he explored more of India, he left in October 1919. He arrived back in Wiltshire the following month. Due to the situation with Dryden Cottage, Alfred had decided to build his final home, Ranikhet. He was helped in the building costs by a government subsidy as well as help from Edmund Fitzmaurice. Alfred and Mary moved into Ranikhet in January 1922. Although this should have been the start of the good times, it proved totally the opposite.
The fruit and pea growing business he and Mary set up went badly, mainly due to the poor weather. He received small royalties from his books but they had little to live on. These were very hard times. In the next few years things did not really get better. Alfred was still writing, but it was a battle to survive for he and Mary were both in poor health.
As the decade ended, he finished his Tales From the Panchatantra which did not find a publisher. He was always prone to depression and lapsed into acceptance of failure. Alfred became resigned to the hard life he and Mary were suffering.
In the November of 1929, Mary was taken ill with what was thought to be an ulcerated stomach. It was later diagnosed as cancer. For Alfred this was the beginning of the end and he noted at the time;
Without her I see no value in anything but a life of emptiness.
I could never give my beloved girl any comforts.
For 15 years I have been fooled by promises.
My dearest has to go the hard way to death without seeing any of our hopes realised.
The pity of it quite overwhelms me.
As Mary’s health got worse, Alfred really gave up caring about his own welfare. He was described as being like a maimed bird. The tragedy was in full swing and Alfred was unable to control it.
He cycled to Swindon twice a day and this was to take a toll on his already weak constitution. After a visit to friends on the 9th of April 1930, an emotional Alfred returned to Ranikhetin in very poor condition, suffering severe chest pains. The following day he collapsed and died of heart failure. He was only 53.
Mary, although terminally ill, returned home to Rankihet to witness his funeral procession on the 15th of April 1930. She joined Alfred soon afterwards, passing away on the 29th May 1930. They were buried together in the churchyard at South Marsdon.
In the summer of 2011, I visited South Marsdon to see what traces of Alfred Williams still remained some eighty years after his death. I was quite surprised to see very little had changed and indeed, if Alfred and Mary ever came back, they would recognise it instantly. Cambria Cottage, Rose Cottage, Dryden Cottage and Rankihet are still there (although Rankihet is almost obscured from the road by bushes and trees).
Externally, these cottages have changed little from the historical photographs you can find on the internet. Obviously, as they were private residences, I did not explore them, but if you stand between Dryden and Cambria, you can see each of the four places where Alfred lived. In theory, his life was fenced within a very small area, although his books have no such boundaries.
To find Alfred and Mary’s grave, you must pass Rose Cottage and head for the church. Their place of rest is on the left as you enter the graveyard, about thirty yards from the path near the wall. As I noted earlier, the ground near the grave has subsided a little so their grave is at a shallow angle. It is indeed a restful place and you sense, as you do in the village, the presence of Alfred.
I am indebted when researching this article, to the excellent Alfred Williams Heritage Society website which is treasure trove of information about all aspects of Alfred’s life and his works.
In 1945 Leonard Clark published a fine biography of Alfred Williams which is an excellent read. As with a number of Alfred’s books, it is a little hard to find although, if you look hard enough, you will find them. Swindon Library has a fine collection of books by both Alfred and Richard Jefferies and these are worth checking out.
Usually, a town is lucky to have one major literary connection but Swindon has two. Whilst Alfred and Richard were born years apart, they both had connections with Wiltshire villages only ten or so miles apart. It is indeed a rich heritage.
Taking Leonard’s 1945 book as a source, I have listed Alfred’s published works below. I apologise for any omissions.
Songs In Wiltshire (1909)
Poems in Wiltshire (1911)
Nature and Other Poems (1912)
A Wiltshire Village (1912)
Cor Cordium (1913)
Villages of the White Horse (1913)
Life in a Railway Factory (1915)
War Sonnets and Songs (1915)
Round About the Upper Thames (1922)
Folk Songs of the Upper Thames (1923)
Selected Poems (1925)
Tales from the Panchatantra (1930)
Tales from the East (1931)