Looking at the history and role of the appreciation society formed in 1970
There are not one but two organisations dedicated to celebrating the life and works of Alfred Williams.

You are looking at the official website of one - the Alfred Williams Heritage Society - which was formed in 2009. But there is another with a much more impressive pedigree!

The Friends of Alfred Williams is set to reach a special milestone in 2010 - 40 years of celebrating his life and works.

The organisation exists mainly as a forum for sharing knowledge and has therefore attracted (and retains) people with expert understanding of Alfred's life and work. But the Friends are also active, organising trips to relevant locations and other places with special interest for local historians (destinations in 2009 included Lacock Abbey and a tour of Swindon Central Library). Events include poetry readings, talks and folk music evenings. So membership is essential for those people who have discovered Alfred's work and want to celebrate it or delve deeper into it.

The Friends' origins are tied up with another great Swindon writer, having grown out of a similar organisation dedicated to Richard Jefferies. The idea for an Alfred Williams society was first mooted in meetings of the Richard Jefferies Society in February 1969, and for a while members even considered reforming as a joint organisation that would be dedicated to both writers.

It was a logical idea. After all, the two writers have much in common, in literary and historical terms, and their lives even overlapped for ten years (although they never met). Indeed, the Richard Jefferies Society and the Friends of Alfred Williams have retained close links, over the years, with a number of members of each society also belonging to the other.

It was eventually decided that both writers were great enough to deserve societies of their own, and on October 6, 1969, a separate Alfred Williams group was suggested. Its founders were Marjorie Leigh (whose husband was vicar of South Marston) and Frances Gay*, Chair of the Richard Jefferies Society.

And so, in the spring of 1970, the Friends were born. Current membership is around 40, with subscribers enrolled from as far away as Canada.

People often ask the question why we need two Alfred Williams societies, and sometimes they even think the two are rivals, but this could hardly be further from the truth, as Roy Burton, the 'Communications Link' for the Friends, explained.

"We are sister organisations with common objectives," said Roy. "We both want to spread knowledge of Alfred's life and works, to afford opportunities for fellowship among his admirers and to maintain interest in and concern for, local places intimately connected with him - South Marston village, the Mechanics' Institute and the remaining buildings at Swindon Railway Works, and the vast tract of countryside from the Upper Thames Valley, through the Vale of the White Horse to Liddington Hill, the sarsen memorial on Barbury Down and the Marlborough Downs beyond."

But while the objectives are the same, the two different organisations have different roles, as Graham Carter, Vice-Chair of the Heritage Society, explained.

He said: "Whereas the Heritage Society is mostly concerned with spreading the word to people who have either never heard of Alfred Williams or know very little about him, the Friends have always been made up of people who have, if you like, already been 'converted'. As we try to make more people aware of Alfred Williams, one of the measures of the success of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society will be the number of people who develop a deeper interest in his life and works, and join the Friends as a consequence."

One thing should be clear enough: when it comes to knowledge of Alfred's life and works, the Friends are the authority on the subject. Over the years, they have also built a collection of documents and other items that will prove useful to future generations of people who will want to study Alfred Williams in depth. This collection has recently been deposited at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham, and is in the process of being catalogued.

But the Friends' biggest asset is its membership, which includes several people who can rightly be called experts. That's not to say that you have to be an expert before you can join the Friends, but it does mean you might well become one!

The best thing about the Friends is the society isn't all about knowledge. As new members find when they join, the Friends live up to their name by being, above all else, friendly.

*Frances Gay was Chair of the Richard Jefferies Society from its inception in 1950 until 1971 (her husband was Mayor of Swindon in 1961-2). Following her death in 1974, at the age of 88, Frances's contribution to the local community in general and the memory of Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams in particular was recognised when a memorial was erected in her memory at Coate Water. A plaque, appropriately cast in Swindon Railway Works, was placed on an artificial mound near the entrance to Coate Water, Swindon. It takes the form of a direction indicator which includes a pointer to South Marston.