A peep at Alfred's private library

They say you can tell a man by the books he owns - and when that man is a famous author, it gives us even more of an insight into his life.

On his death, 80 years ago this year, some of Alfred Williams's books were given to his friends, but more than half were kept together in a single collection. Alfred's friend Llewellyn 'Lou' Robins, whom his wife Mary had given the job of dispersing the books, eventually gave them to the Swindon Education Committee, for their Richard Jefferies Club, and they were kept at Commonweal School. Then, in 1952, they were given on permanent loan to Swindon Library.

Alfred Williams was a poor man, but still managed to assemble an impressive library of around 500 books during his lifetime, and it is striking that somebody who sometimes went without food managed to gather a collection of significant value.

The true value of the books for us, today, is in the insight into his life they give us, but it is sad that the great monetary value of certain books in the collection and the need to preserve them mean the books are kept under lock and key in storage at Wroughton.

Our society was given a special opportunity to view most of the collection, and we hope to be able to display selected books from it at our festival in November, as well as include some in our permanent display of Alfred artefacts.

The collection is made up of books owned by Alfred, with only a handful actually written by him.

On the face of it, the collection is an eclectic and unpredictable mix of different subjects, but when browsing them a pattern emerges, especially as we have prior knowledge of Alfred's life story and interests. So it's no surprise to find books on eastern religions side-by-side with poetry, a military handbook and publications devoted to languages and translation, and detailed examination soon fills in more of the details of his ever-fascinating life.

Alfred's interest in India, its culture, languages and religions is no secret. Even so, the collection includes many books on the subject which go into lots of detail, underlining his deep desire to immerse himself in all things Indian and not just obtain a broad understanding. Some of these books are beautiful.

Among the books about Asia, however, is a simple Common Prayer Book which reminds us of Alfred's Christian upbringing. This has more significance because an inscription in the inside front cover reveals it was a gift from his wife Mary (or 'Mim' as she signed herself), given before they were married.

Mary's choice of book is curious, given what we know about Alfred and the way he wrestled with his faith all through his life. Perhaps it was a gentle hint of the path Mary wanted him to follow if they were to be married. Although the inscription is dated 1900 - years before his trip to India - the book looks conspicuous here, its plainness and simplicity in stark contrast to the exotic appeal of the eastern books. It must also be said that although it is much older, the prayer book appears much less used.

There is another personal inscription in one of the other books - a book by Austin Clare Called A Dream of Rubens and published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Inside the front cover is a label telling us that this was presented as a prize to Alfred.

An even more interesting inscription, which appears opposite, could easily have been overlooked - 'Alfred', written in an obviously juvenile hand.

It was published in 1887, so Alfred must have been at least 10 years old when he received it, and if this is indeed the signature of Alfred as a 10-year-old, it is tantalising to think that this was the author making his mark on a book for the first time, on possible the first book he ever owned. It would also be the earliest example of his handwriting that we have.

If we turn the page we come across more of his handwriting, apparently, which also confirms that he received the prize at 'Church School' (Sunday school) at South Marston.

The adult Alfred's handwriting can be found on several of the books, but perhaps not as much as one might expect. He was undoubtedly an incurable note-taker, but mostly resisted the temptation to write in margins instead of making separate notes on blank paper.

There are two types of book owners - those who like to make pencil notes on books, and those who seem to have an inbuilt reverence for their preciousness and can't bring themselves to do any kind of defacing. Alfred seems to have generally been with the latter, but there were exceptions.

Books of Latin verse in the collection are heavily annotated and perhaps still showing traces of the grime from the factory, where he may well have taken them to study during his lunchbreak. These little books are among a number that fit under a broad heading of language, translation and linguistics, which make up another key section of the collection.

As a poet himself, we might expect Alfred to have had a large collection of poetry, and indeed he did, but the breadth of the poetry he owned is still surprising.

He was evidently interested in all kinds of poetry as the collection includes works of Shakespeare, classical poetry, heavyweight poets from the top ranks of British poetry, and even a book about Anglo-Saxon poetry.

But there is also a range of contemporary poetry, demonstrating that although some his poetry, especially the early work, could be conservative, he also had a great interest in modern writing. The collection includes a number by books by poets that he knew personally and corresponded with, and in many cases copies were given to Alfred as a gift and signed by the author. Presumably, he returned the compliment by sending signed copies of his own works back to these friends. Among these was Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.

Another contemporary poet whose works can be found in the collection is William Dowsing, the Sheffield man who was something of a soulmate for Alfred, being another from a poor background who struggled to make a name for himself and struggled even harder to make a living.

An interesting inclusion in the collection is Songs of a Factory Girl, a book of poetry written by Lancashire mill worker Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (under the pen name Ethel Carnie).

It was published in 1911 - the same year that Alfred began work on his own book (of prose) about his own factory experiences, which was eventually published as Life in a Railway Factory. However, Holdsworth had previously published Rhymes from the Factory in 1907, and Alfred had written (unpublished) articles about his working experiences in 1906.

But these similarities between the two belie fundamental differences. Holdsworth was a different kind of commentator to Alfred as she was both a socialist activist and something of an early feminist, who had not qualms about saying a factory worker was "practically a beggar and a slave", and telling women to "go out and play" and be "something more than a dish washer".

As with religion, Alfred wrestled with his political beliefs throughout his life, and although Holdsworth's book may have encouraged him to publish his own factory experiences, it failed to turn him into a radical.

We return to the subject of Alfred's religious belief with a book of lectures and essays by Thomas Henry Huxley, an advocate of Charles Darwin who simulataneously came up with theories on evolution. Alfred lived in pious times, and purchasing a book like this when the church was still very suspicious of Darwin and Huxley says a lot about his willingness to question Christian teaching.

Most of the books are fairly functional and there can be no doubt that Alfred bought them purely for their content, but some are also attractive enough to fall into that category of books that are just pleasant to own. One such is Macaulay's Lays of Rome, a book of poetry that Alfred no doubt read avidly, but arguably also the one in the collection that is the most attractive outwardly.

More practical but no less eye-catching to modern eyes is a little military handbook that Alfred presumably was either issued with or decided to buy when he was called up for the First World War.

The opening paragraph reveals what British soldiers preparing to go to war were supposed to think - and probably what most of them did think at the time. Even Alfred, as we see from his early war poetry, sympathised with the patriotic sentiments that were in the majority 1914, although he and millions of others had changed their minds completely by the time they came home.

Occasionally, books reveal a touch of local history, such as a copy of Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame, which carries a sticker identifying it as belonging to 'The Girls' High School, Swindon'. Like the many stamps and labels identifying the other books as belonging to Commonweal School, it is another detail that makes the collection so interesting.

A possible insight into Alfred's quest to collect and collate lyrics from English folk songs, which culminated in Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, can be had through at least two of the books. One is a simple book about lyrics for musical setting that may have provided background material for his great project.

A second book - a splendid, impressive single volume (of six) called The Scots Musical Museum - hints at a possible trigger for his interest in folk music. This seemingly ancient book, which preserves Scottish folk songs in print, may well have been what sparked his interest in doing the same for English folk songs, although this one also includes musical notation and Alfred recorded only lyrics.

Alfred's ambitions as a writer clearly led to two more practical books being added to his collection. One is a pocket-sized guide to English language and usage called simply Writing Desk Book, which was part of 'The Much in Little Series'.

A different kind of aid for the author is Maunscript to Bookstall, a practical guide to getting books published that may even have led Alfred to consider self-publishing some of his works at some stage in his career.

Only three of Alfred's own works are included in the collection - two books of poetry and a copy of Life in a Railway Factory - and even that is not a first edition. However, it may be that his personal copies of his own books were among those distributed to friends before this collection was found a home.

The Alfred Williams is grateful for the assistance of Roger Trayhurn (pictured, top, with the Society's project co-ordinator Esther Harper) and other library staff in the preparation of this and other articles on this website.