Revealing letters from Alfred Williams to Harry Grant, sent in May 1914
Every scrap of information about Alfred Williams is a piece in a puzzle that reveals more about his enigmatic personality - and two letters that came to light in the autumn of 2010 provide a particularly telling insight.

They belong to Swindon man Nathan James, whose grandfather, Harry Grant, worked alongside Alfred in Swindon Railway Works - and was evidently a close friend.

Nathan kindly loaned the Society the letters so they could be displayed at the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival in November 2010, and they are also reproduced below in detail.

It was when Alfred uncharacteristically took a month's convalescence in Wales and North Devon in the spring of 1914, shortly before ill health forced him to retire from his work as a hammerman, that he wrote back to his Swindon friend from Aberystwyth and Pwllheli.

He wrote using 'letter cards' - pre-printed booklets featuring photographs of scenes of the seaside towns where he and Mary were staying - and made the most of the space available for writing, cramming his thoughts in with typically small handwriting, using a fountain pen.

Alfred paid for the holiday using a £20 cheque from four of his supporters, which in itself is remarkable because of his usual reluctance to accept any 'charity', however good the intentions. This time, it seems, he took the opportunity to go on the trip for two reasons.

Firstly, it enabled him to carry on working on his latest project, Round About the Upper Thames, while he was off work because of persistent ill health. But it is also evident that he spent the time carefully considering his past and his future.

Alfred and his wife Mary had already spent a fortnight in Ilfracombe before moving to Aberystwyth, from where he wrote to Harry on May 21, and he sent a second card from Pwllheli, exactly a week later.

The first of the letters is addressed to Harry at the two friends' workplace, while the second was sent to Harry's home at 12 Dowling Street, Swindon.

The former is only concerned with Alfred's experiences and impressions of the area and scenery, but the latter, written as Alfred's convalescence is drawing to a close, finds him in much more philosophical mood and apparently making decisions about his future.

Society Vice-chair Graham Carter said: "We are very grateful to Nathan for allowing access to these letters which are a family heirloom but also important for students of Swindon's history.

"One of the letters is actually addressed to the stamping shop where the two men worked, which is interesting in it own right, but their content makes them even more fascinating."

Lots of Alfred's letters still exist, but these came at a key moment in his life, because he was trying to decide whether to go against doctor's orders and carry on with the hard, hot and dirty work that was slowly killing him.

In the end, he went back for one last try before his health finally forced him to give up, later that year.

What happened next was important because leaving the works allowed him to publish Life in a Railway Factory.

This is now recognised as the most important document in Swindon's history because it tells the real story of what it was like in the Works a century ago, and the book is essential reading for family history researchers with Swindon railway connections.

The letters find Williams in deeply reflective mood and include his thoughts about his fellow workers and his own struggle to educate himself, despite having to work full-time in Swindon, four miles from his South Marston home.

Scans and transcriptions of the letters

Click on the images below to show an enlarged view in a new window

Letter 1 - Aberystwyth, May 21, 1914


Curzon House
21. May

Dear Harry,
I intended to write a long letter but I am so very busy (doing nothing) that I have not much time. This is a grand country. It beats Devonshire into a cocked hat. The ride from Camarthen up is wonderful in itself. But there is always something better to follow. Aberystwyth you may see in the photos. The sea is fine; the air is fine; they say there is scarcely ever frost or snow all the winter through. One of the most wonderful things about here - and I see George Borrow says it is one of the most remarkable spots in the world - is The Devil's Bridge and gorge at the head of the Rheidol Valley. This is 12 miles from Aber. and is reached by means of a tiny railway (2 feet track) that climbs up and winds along the precipices and mountain sides in an amazing manner. At the Devil's Bridge two rivers fall about 800 feet into of the the grandest gorges in the world. The effect is sublime. The Mynach Falls are about 380 ft (direct or nearly so). The others: The Cyfarllwyd are not so steep, but more in the volume of water. And the ride up from Aberystwyth is grand. It costs 2/- return and is worth half a sov in effect. If ever you can get so far as this spot I would advise you to try it. I am sure you would be delighted. Next week I hope to get up to Snowdon. That, I think, is about 15 or 20 minutes from Pwllheli, but I shall have a trial for we may never get this way again. The waters of Cardigan Bay are delightfully blue and the sunsets are magnificent; but we miss the shipping. There is no life out at sea for there is no landing place, and but very little fishing, though the town is full of life. Here is the University of Wales with 500 or 600 students and there are plenty of walks and a mile of beach. The two photos at the end are of the little train off along the mountainside. I really believe it could circle a good sized hogshead. It takes your breath away to see. The sharp curves sheer on the edge of the mountain with the river 700 feet below into which you could cast a stone from the carriage window. Please remember me kindly to Charlie Taylor, Harry, and (?) me ever. Yours sincerely, A Williams.

Letter 2 - Pwllheli, May 28, 1914


Ala Road
28 May 14
Dear Harry,
(I was) delighted with your letter.Br> Please, I don't take it too seriously - I mean that part in which you refer to my fight. As a matter of fact, I never take myself very seriously. That is a presumption many people are apt to make and are often guilty of the sin of overestimation thereby. But I am not to set up myself as a wise man. It is difficult indeed to draw the line. I often think of Shakespeare who only quoted Socrates. "The fool thinks he is a wise man, but the wise man knows that he (himself) is a fool." But, jesting aside, you pay me a great compliment when you say that you remember with pleasure our little chats of years ago. And if you remember them with pleasure you do exactly as I do. I only wish that we had had more; but this last two years I have been under a terrible strain, and felt unable to talk very much to anyone. I needed to be always concentrating, and I have been physically weak for some time past at Swindon. Of course, I did not expect Stamping Shop men to understand me. Poor beggars. They have to live, and they have no time to study. There is the every day grinding of the wheels. If I had not taken my courage in hand, and stolen time for myself, I should have gone under long ago. But it was a part of my plan to get time, somehow. That plan has been entirely successful and I am satisfied. I always told myself that nothing could possibly undo what was once done. And I I never did another hour's study I shoulud be secure now, for I do not need more on that line. What I want to do now is to be steady and take my own time as to what I do, and do it well. But I shall see you before long. We have been at Pwllheli since Mon. This is a really grand place. Finest beaches in the island. They say there is 12 miles of magnificent sand beach. Fish is marvellously cheap. People don't do much work. The market (the gathering of farmers) on Wed was unique. I should like to stop here and write a book on Pwllheli. It's amazingly quiet. I will try to post you a P.C. again before we come away. Kindest regards. Yours sincerely, Alf Williams.