In a town quick to celebrate a working class hero, until recently Swindon lagged behind in its recognition of Alfred Williams. However Graham Carter, John Cullimore and Caroline Ockwell, founders of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, are working tirelessly to bring this extraordinary man to the attention of a whole new audience of admirers.
Alfred Owen Williams was born on February 6, 1877 in the small Wiltshire village of South Marston. The 1881 census records the family living at Cambria Cottage - his parents, Welsh born carpenter Elias, and local girl Elizabeth with their seven children, Ernest 10, Edgar 8, Elizabeth 7, Henry 5, Alfred 4, Charlotte 2 and one year old Ellen.
The following year Elias deserted the family leaving Elizabeth with another child and a pile of debts. He turned up in Llanrwst, Denbigh in 1891 where he is working as an agricultural labourer 'residing' with Superintendent Thomas Hammonds at the Police Station, described as a 'stranger.'
Young Alfred began part time work on a local farm aged just eight, leaving school three years later to work full time at Longleaze Farm, South Marston. In 1892 he joined his two elder brothers at the GWR Works, working first as a rivet hotter, then a furnace boy and eventually a drop stamper.
"A drop-stamp, or drop-hammer, is a machine used for stamping out all kinds of details and uses in wrought iron or steel, from an ounce to several hundredweights," Williams later wrote. "Three hands are employed at each machine. They are - the stamper, his hotter, and the small boy who drives the hammer. All the work is done at piece rate, and the prices are low; the men have to be very nimble to earn sufficient money to pay them for the turn."
In 1912 Williams published A Wiltshire Village, an account of life in South Marston and the following year Cor Cordium, his fourth book of poetry, when his writing career was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1914. A gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, Williams served in Ireland, Scotland and finally India, a posting which would have a profound influence on the Wiltshire born poet.
After 22 years employment in the works, Alfred wrote an account of life 'inside.' When it was eventually published in 1915, Life In A Railway Works caused a storm. The reviewer in the GWR Magazine dated January 1916 tore into it, writing of Williams' bitter spirit against the management' and his attacks on his fellow workman. The book sold badly locally with only around twelve copies bought in Swindon during its first year. But while Alfred received increasing recognition in literary circles, his life was one of unremitting hard work and poverty.
Alfred died at his home in South Marston on April 10, 1930 following a hospital visit to his devoted wife Mary who lay terminally ill with cancer. During Mary's illness it is believed that Alfred himself lost the will to live and friends and neighbours commented on his frailty as he cycled back and forth to Swindon twice a day to visit his wife. The official cause of death was heart failure.
The Alfred Williams Heritage Society, launched in 2009 has embarked upon an energetic programme to raise the profile of this home grown literary giant. For more information on the life and work of Alfred Williams and the Heritage Society visit www.alfredwilliams.org.uk and read more about the production of The Hammerman on grahamcarter61.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/team-hammerman/
Today Swindon Central Library holds copies of Alfred Williams' books in the Swindon Collection, including Life In A Railway Factory, Villages of the White Horse and War Sonnets and Songs - telephone 463238 for further details.
Images - Alfred Williams as a schoolboy; Alfred and Mary, probably taken at the time of their marriage in 1903; Ranikhet - Alfred and Mary's home in South Marston taken in 1963; the bronze tablet added to the Town Hall, Swindon in 1933 and Alfred's memorial - published courtesy of Swindon Local Studies visit the website on www.flickr.com/photos/SwindonLocal/