top









This page deals with the story of Alfred's life, one year at a time.
blank

Alfred's ancestors on his father's side were Welsh and comparatively well-to-do, including lawyers and even a judge. His father, Elias Lloyd Williams, was born at Llansanffraid, near Conwy (Conway) in 1849. Elias was a decorative woodworker who came to South Marston with his father, David Williams.

Elias and David lodged at Rose Cottage when they first arrived in the village. The cottage had been built on a meadow called The Hook by Joshua Hughes, whose father was from Herefordshire, and his wife Ann. They lived there with their four children, including Elizabeth.

Lodger Elias and owner's daughter Elizabeth would eventually marry. As a wedding gift, Elias and Elizabeth had been given part of The Hook, and there - about 75 yards from Rose Cottage, they built Cambria Cottage, which was to be Alfred's birthplace. He was their fifth child.

blank

Owen Alfred Williams was born at Cambria Cottage, South Marston - apparently on February 7, 1877, although his date of birth is uncertain. The birth certificate gives the date as February 6, but his mother, Elizabeth, was adamant he was born on the 7th, according to biographer Leonard Clark.

All memorials duly show February 7 as his date of birth, but in all surviving staff records of his employment by the Great Western Railway, where he worked between 1891 and 1914, show February 6.

These records were apparently drawn directly from his birth certificate as they also diligently record his first name as Owen, even though this was rarely, if ever used. Friends and family apparently called him Alfred right from boyhood, and if the name is a nod towards his Welsh lineage, which seems logical, then perhaps Alfred had even greater reason to ignore it after his father walked out on his mother and family - or at least to relegate it to second place (his grave is marked Alfred Owen Williams).

See the birth certificate

blank

Alfred began a friendship with Charles Ockwell, eldest son of the couple who lived in the other half of Cambria Cottage. He would later write a poem about Charles's death, "whose passing had strangely troubled Williams".
blank

Two-year-old Alfred wandered out in his nightclothes, one evening, and fell into a disused well, from which he was only rescued with difficulty, narrowly escaping suffocation in the sewage.

A few months later, he nearly drowned while fishing for minnows.

blank

(Age: three)

Alfred was knocked down by a market gardener's cart, a few yards from his home, the wheels of the cart passing over his stomach.

blank

(Age: four)

The 1881 census shows Alfred living with his father, mother and six siblings at Cambria Cottage, South Marston.

Williams family entry in the census

blank

(Age: five)

Alfred's father, Elias, left his mother, Elizabeth, and their seven children, including the youngest, a babe in arms.*

Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, later explained that her mother (also Elizabeth) discovered a paper that had fallen from Elias's trouser pocket, "proving to be a notice of occupation by a bailiff, of Cambria Cottage. He had taken out a second mortgage, apparently to finance an unsuccessful business enterprise in Swindon, where he rented a timber yard and set himself up as a building contractor. The business failed - largely because of a disastrous fire - "..at which point he turned coward and fled" (according to his daughter).

Alfred's mother "met our father's creditors - whose deficits were for timber, bricks, ironmongery" and would have paid all his debts, if possible, because "she felt the shame of it".

But the absent Elias "did not send regular payment, nor enough", and although the family remained at Cambria Cottage at first, they were not able to stay...

This was also the year in which Alfred must have gone to school for the first time (although we do not have records). Education for children aged five to ten became compulsory in 1880 (and remained unchanged until 1893.

Note: Leonard Clark's otherwise masterly bigoraphy of Alfred Williams (published in 1945), and other sources say the split between Elias and Elizabeth happened in 1880, but the 1881 census (see above) disproves this as he is still living in Cambria Cottage. Clark also says that Elizabeth knew nothing of the second mortgage on Cambria Cottage, taken out by Elias, although later testimony from eldest daughter Elizabeth shows otherwise.

*Sources seem mistaken about Alfred's age when his father left. They seem to agree that he was three, but he was already four at the time of the 1881 census. It seems most likely that the split occurred between Alfred's fourth and fifth birthdays - in late 1881 or 1882.

Williams family entry in the 1881 census

blank

(Age: six)

Because of debts owed by Alfred's now absent father, Cambria Cottage was seized by bailiffs.

Alfred's mother, Elizabeth Williams, was forced to move the family, including four-year-old Alfred, the 75 metres to Rose Cottage, where Elizabeth's parents still lived.

Elizabeth, who had an enormously positive effect on Alfred, worked hard to provide for her children, taking in needlework and selling sweetmeats from the window of her home. For 25 years, sometimes assisted by the children, she also sold and delivered around 80 copies of the then-weekly Swindon Advertiser in South Marston, on Saturday evenings, and later did the same for the rival North Wilts Herald. She also worked as a farm labourer at harvest time, and grew much of the families food in the garden of Rose Cottage.

Alfred remained at Rose Cottage until his marriage in 1903.

blank

(Age: seven)

Alfred's mother continued the struggle to look after the family of eight children in the absence of their father Elias. They lived on basic food, supplemented with vegetables from the garden at Rose Cottage, and they kept a pig in the sty. However, no expense was spared with boots, which were made to measure from the best leather.

According to Leonard Clark, the boots, "though costly, were found to be more durable, and gave greater comfort, avoiding the crippling of feet. To the end of his days, Alfred was an impressive figure by reason of the uprightness of his carriage and the firmness of his tread. He attributed these entirely to his mother's early care of his feet, and has written in A Wiltshire Village: 'When we were small boys and went to school, ours [boots] cost 8/6 [42.5p], as I remember, and were securely watertight. This we soon ascertained because we made haste to try them in the first ditch or pool we came to!'"


blank

(Age: eight)

Alfred became a 'half-timer' at school, now attending for only part of the day and spending the rest working for local farmers. His first job was crawling on his hands and knees between rows of peas and pulling out charlock - a type of weed. He also did stone-picking and 'bird-starving' (bird-scaring).

He also helped at haymaking time at Burton Grove Farm:

Old Launcelot (Launcelot Whitfield, the farmer) had sent down to the school for boys and girls to help with the haymaking. I was one of those chosen to go forth and put my shoulder to the wheel or my hand to the implement. About all I did do though, was to lead the horses, carry the wooden bottles of ale to and from the farm, or rake up the hay with the girls; but I felt very important, especially when the time came round to receive my wages for the task - a bright 2/- piece every weekend.

blank

(Age: nine)

Alfred's interests were divided between the natural - he rambled in the fields and climbed trees after school or work - and the new. Out of his earnings, he saved up to buy a model steam engine, which he travelled to Swindon to buy for half a crown (12.5p). According to Leonard Clark, "it was the joy of his heart. The floor of the cottage saw it puffing away at all hours of the day, to the high delight of Alfred and the admiring onlookers. He always insisted that he should have an audience of at least three."

Further memories of childhood days are recalled in A Wiltshire Village, and were remembered in old age by Ada Williams, Alfred's youngest sister.

blank

(Age: ten)

Alfred's fascination with trains and machinery led him to dare his sisters to lie down between the rails on the main London-Bristol line that skirted South Marston. They refused, but he duly took up the dare, underneath a long goods train. According to Leonard Clark, "then he rose, pale with fear and excitement, and walked quietly back to the village" and "the experience was never repeated".

He spent much of this period watching the trains go by, made friends with engine drivers and was sometimes given short rides by them, against regulations. Another dangerous occupation was visiting military manouevres that took place on the downs near Lambourn with other boys - about ten miles from South Marston. "Here we small boys used to come," he writes in A Wiltshire Village, "tramping ten miles from home in the happy harvest holidays and being inexplicably mixed up and confused with 70,000 or 80,000 troops, driven this way and that, now in the firing line, exposed to the terrific fusilade of the infantrymen's rifles, now under the heels of the cavalry, nearly trodden to death..."

Alfred left school, where he had already only been a 'half-timer' for about two years, to work full-time.

His first employer was a Mr Tull of Longleaze Farm, who was later immortalilsed in A Wiltshire Village.

Alfred was a 'houseboy' as there were no maids on the farm.

blank

(Age: 11)

Alfred's love of the countryside became evident as he was often seen roaming through the meadows of South Marston - mostly alone, but sometimes with his sisters. They often picked wild flowers and took them home, and Alfred's mother taught him their names.

He also took an interest in people, apparently feeling an attachment to old people. Local characters such as Mark Titcombe and Betsy Horton, who were sometimes feared by others, especially children, became friends, and they later featured in A Wiltshire Village.

As well as a continuing fascination with the countryside, Alfred took great interest in animals. One day, after killing a grass snake and hanging its skin on a tree to dry, he "was beside himself with grief". He later tried to persuade one of his sisters to eat a mole he had caught on a farm, but she refused.

blank

(Age: 12)

Alfred continued to show a fascination with machinery, especially the exotically named locomotives that steamed past Longleaze Farm. He later wrote: "I remember how long and carefully I used to wait behind the hedge to catch the wonderful names and store them up in my memory. How inexpressibly and mysteriously great some of those titles seemed to be to my boyish mind, even at that early age - Agamemnon, Hyperion, Prometheus, Ajaz, Achilles, Atalanta, Mameluke; they fired my imagination and filled me with strange feelings of pride and joy."

blank

(Age: 13)

Ownership of Longleaze Farm changed hands and Alfred was no longer required there, so he switched to working at Priory Farm, owned by a Mr Chapman.

His employment at this farm was short-lived because ownership passed to a new tenant who did not retain the existing employees. Alfred therefore switched to working for Farmer Ody at Ody's Farm.

blank

(Age: 14)

Alfred met Mary Peck, the woman who would later become his wife.

This was a time of undoubted restlessness for Alfred who tried, several times, to join the Navy, despite being under-age.

However, Alfred gave up his agricultural employment, along with any other plans he might have, when he joined his elder brothers Edgar (aged 19) and Henry (aged 16) at the Great Western Railway Works in Swindon. The three walked the four miles there and back every day, including Saturdays, when work finished at lunchtime.

He entered service on May 25, 1891, in the Stamping Shop of the Carriage and Wagon Works, a part of the 'factory' often referred to as "the carriage side" by workers. Here, metal items were stamped out under massive steam hammers.

He began as a 'rivet-hotter' and soon progressed to be a 'furnace boy', although staff records show his official title until 1895 to be 'frame builder's boy' and he earned one shilling (5p) a day.

blank

(Age: 15)

A few months after beginning work in the Railway Works, probably in early 1892, Alfred reputedly wrote his first poem, according to Leonard Clark, who said it was a satire about South Marston villagers who were persistently quarrelling over cats. However, this may be inaccurate (see 1897, below).

Around 1892 or 1893, Alfred also began to paint.

blank

(Age: 16)

Probably as a result of watching military manouvres, he applied to join the Marine Artillery, but failed the medical examination. However, he was told he would be accepted if he agreed to undergo an operation - apparently to have varicose veins removed - and duly went to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington - probably his first visit to London. He stayed there for five weeks, was operated on, but was still rejected.

He returned home and now took up painting enthusiastically, selling many paintings locally. However, unable to obtain any tuition to improve his style, he gave up painting in favour of shorthand, but he struggled with this.

blank

(Age: 17)

Still restless and still apparently keen to get away from South Marston, Alfred applied to join the Metropolitan Police Force, but was again rejected on medical grounds. He again went into hospital to have the veins removed, but was still not passed by the doctor.

After work and at weekends, he now stepped up his country wanderings, and he was beginning to be considered an authority on local places of interest and country customs.

blank

(Age: 18)

Alfred began to take an interest in politics.

At a meeting in South Marston he put a series of awkward questions to a Conservative candidate, which continued after the meeting was over. The organisers wanted to move on to another meeting in Highworth, but the candidate refused, telling them: I'm remaining here. It isn't often that I get a chance for a talk with one who is so intelligent and well-informed."

Leonard Clark paints a vivid picture of Alfred at this time:

Now eighteen years old, Alfred Williams presented a very good picture of a healthy and vigorous young Englishman. He was something over medium height, slender and graceful, and possessed of much natural poise. His lips were almost colourless, his teeth were nearly perfect and showed the care given to them, and he had a particularly determined lower jaw. His blue-grey eyes had no hint of insincerity in them; he had, indeed, honesty written all over him. His complexion was on the light side, with his brown hair usually short-cropped; his head was particuarly well carried. Though he was working under not very wholesome conditions in the factory, he took great care with his appearance and out of working hours was always clean and well-groomed. Nature had endowed him with a first-class brain and a physique capable of much endurance.

On May 9, 1895, he was promoted to the role of stamper's assistant at Swindon Works. Six months later, his pay rose to 2/2 (two shillings and two pence) a day (11p).

blank

(Age: 19)

Alfred began exchanging books with Canon Masters, vicar of Stanton Fitzwarren.

He became a regular visitor at the vicarage, where the two men exchanged opinions and knowledge.

blank

(Age: 20)

Studying began in earnest.

He purchased Sweetness and Light, a book by WM Thompson, which became a "continual source of delight to him", and also various Shakespeare plays.

His poetry writing had certainly begun by 1897. Despite claims to the contrary (see 1892), his first appears to have been a love poem to Mary, according to a single sheet of paper preserved in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, dated 1897. Written in pen, it bears an additional pencil note, clearly added later, stating it is "My first written poem".

See the poem

blank

(Age: 21)

Still reading whenever he got the chance, Alfred now presented a familiar figure to workers at the factory, who were puzzled by his insistence on reading throughout his dinner hour.

blank

(Age: 22)

Alfred's father, Elias Williams, died, at his home in Colwyn Bay.

blank

(Age: 23)

A friend suggested that Alfred take up a correspondence course with the newly opened Ruskin Hall, Oxford. He enrolled on a four-year course in English Literature. It dealt with a wide chronological range of writing, from Bede to Wordsworth, with special emphasis on Elizabethans.

Some of the books contained Latin quotations, so Williams made up his mind to study the language. This proved extremely difficult because he had not studied English grammar, but he persisted, and after 18 months was satisfied he was making "good progress".

His method was to start by learning nouns and adjectives. He chalked Latin words on a slate or - less often - wrote them down in pencil, while more difficult words were written on the toe of his boot or on the back of the steam hammer in the Works, or the iron band around the furnace. On one famous occasion, Greek characters were chalked up - which one official took as pompous and pretentious, and ordered them to be removed. When they were, Alfred simply replaced them, until the official hit upon the idea of smearing grease to stop him. Alfred carefully removed the grease and re-wrote the characters in white paint. He was ordered to remove them himself, but refused.

He would also commit large sections of writing to memory to help him remember. "These I used to recite about the downs and meadows," he later recalled, "by day and by night, or sitting by the seashore, and I have no doubt that I frightened more than one solitary traveller who must have been at a loss to understand such extraordinary behaviour."

On October 27, 1900, Alfred was promoted to the role of furnaceman in the Stamping Shop of Swindon Works. Three months later, his pay rose to 4/2 (four shillings and two pence) a day (21p).

blank

(Age: 24)

Alfred became engaged to Mary Peck - a relationship that was "frowned upon by her sister and brother-in-law" because Alfred was a "black" man (a local country term for people who worked in Swindon Railway Works). They were keen for her to marry one of Farmer Ody's sons.

Under "insistent pressure" from her sister, Mary succumbed, and became engaged to the young farmer.

blank

(Age: 25)

Alfred applied, unsuccessfully, for librarianship of the Mechanics' Institute, an impressive library that formed part of this social/educational organisation.

blank

(Age: 26)

Alfred Williams married Mary Peck on October 21, 1903, at St Saviour's Church, Eddington, near Hungerford.

The witnesses to the marriage were Mary's brother, Albert, and Alfred's sister, Ada, plus a friend. Alfred is recorded as "A stamper in engineering works" and Mary simply as the daughter of William Peck, "a moulder".

Mary had returned home to Eddington, near Hungerford, to have her banns read there, because she was anxious not to embarrass Farmer Ody's son, whom she had been engaged to. Although they had wished to be married in South Marston, the vicar refused.

They honeymooned in Torquay - their first experience of a seaside holiday - before beginning life at Dryden Cottage, which was to be their home for the next 15 years.

See the marriage certificate


blank

(Age: 27)

Alfred was promoted to being a full-blown hammerman at Swindon Works.

His studies now switched from the Oxford correspondence course to London Matriculation, which he felt gave him a better chance of promotion and/or advancement. He simultaneously studied French, Latin, Greek, English and Mathematics.

Alfred concentrated on the languages first, deciding they would have the greater value if he was forced to give up, "since the riches of words endure to the end, but you cannot speak Arithmetic". Consequently, he was able to perform lengthy and complex translations, which he was already completing by 1904.

He was now rising at 4am and studying by oil lamp until it was time to go to work. He cycled to the factory, studied during his dinner hour, and resumed his studies when he returned home, often working until midnight. His regime saw him study French before work, Latin in his dinner hour and Greek in the evenings. Sometimes, he stayed behind after the hooter had sounded at work, to pore over a book before setting off for home. This, he reasoned, was a way of cleansing his mind and giving it fresh stimulation for the journey home.

By now he had abandoned the idea of sitting exams, so concentrated on reading languages, rather than writing as a means of study. This more or less coincides with taking up writing his own original material. In the spring of 1904, he completed a lyrical play called Sardanapalus, based on Lord Byron's play of 1821.

Alfred sent it to publisher John Lane for consideration, and he returned it with an encouraging rejection, saying two of his readers had admired it but said it lacked form.

On February 8, 1904, Alfred received his final promotion in the Stamping Shop of Swindon Works, becoming a stamper - the official title of his job (although he is often referred to as a hammerman). However, his pay rate remained fixed on 4/10 (four shillings and ten pence) a day (24p) until June 1905.

blank

(Age: 28)

Alfred stopped nighttime study because it was damaging his eyesight and his doctor advised him to stop. He made up for the lost time by instigating a regime of recounting, during his cycle to and from work, everything he had learned since the previous day.

He came to the conclusion that his methods of study were unsuitable for the examination progress, so never sat the London Matriculation.

Meanwhile, Alfred met Henry Byett, who was employed in the office at Swindon Works, and who would become a great friend and, later, his first biographer.

In 1905, Alfred was also asked to return his 1904 play, Sardanapalus, to publisher John Lane, who showed it to three readers. There was some delay as Lane fell ill and then travelled to America, before he finally told Alfred that he was not going to publish.

blank

(Age: 29)

Friend (and later biographer) Henry Byett encouraged Alfred to take up lighter work, in particular to apply for office work at the factory. He was, indeed, twice offered promotion, but turned it down. Hard manual labour offered (in the words of Leonard Clark) "an antidote and perfect change to his mental exertions", and he did not want to become a foreman because (again in Leonard Clark's words) "he was not anxious to give orders to others or to sacrifice one jot of his individuality". He was already chargeman of his gang, but "laboured as hard as his fellows".

Meanwhile, Alfred began to write poems and did some journalism. In December 1906, he was asked by the editor of Pearson's Magazine to contribute a series of articles about his career and his experiences in the factory. Alfred obliged, but the articles were never published.

blank

(Age: 30)

Alfred completed his first book, a slim volume of poems called Gifts to Eros - but could not find a publisher.

Meanwhile, he heard that the Authors' Association was about to issue an anthology, so submitted four poems - two translations, which were rejected, and two original works, which were accepted and published in New Songs, published in July 1907.

At least one critic singled out Prayer as the best poem in the book - the first national (or indeed any significant) recognition of the potential of Alfred Williams as a writer.

Alfred was now beginning to be the subject of features in various periodicals, including one in The Millgate Magazine, at the end of 1907, called Hammerman and Poet: A Story of Self-help. It was written by another poet, Frederick Rockell, who became a friend and introduced Alfred to William Dowsing, a fellow writer who became a friend.

blank

(Age: 31)

Alfred received his first payment for writing - three articles for The Young Men's Magazine, called Self Culture, The Art of Study and How To Read.

He was paid 2/2/6 (2.12½p).

blank

(Age: 32)

Two more of Alfred's poems were published in an Authors' Association anthology, this time called Garnered Grain. They were The Devotee and Ere I was Quickened in the Womb.

A review in the Daily Telegraph (a paper Alfred read daily) called Alfred "one of the most remarkable men in Wiltshire, if not in England". He was interviewed by a reporter and told him: "Some people have thought that I should begin to wear a collar and tie to my work now. But I can tell you that I am not in the least ambitious to make a name for myself and I am not attempting to play to the gallery. I think it is my duty to go on working as I am doing. If you do not do your accustomed work you become dormant; you are like a pool of stagnant water."

Probably more importantly to Alfred, he had now made the acquaintance of fellow working class poets, adding Jonathan Denwood to friends Frederick Rockell and William Dowsing. In January 1909 he also became acquainted with Edmond Fitzmaurice of Bradford-on-Avon, a member of the government who would become one of the greatest influences in Alfred's literary development, and an important financial supporter.

It was thanks to a personal guarantee by Fitzmaurice that Alfred was now able to publish Gifts to Eros, which was renamed Songs in Wiltshire through Erskine Macdonald. The final selection of poems was made by Fitzmaurice, and it was published as 170 pages.

While he waited for the book to be printed, Alfred read fellow Wiltshire writer Richard Jefferies' The Story of my Heart - apparently not even having heard of him previously (according to Leonard Clark).

During 1909, Alfred, who was already (in his words) being "blamed" for writing poetry in an archaic style, attempted to become more familiar with modern verse, but concluded "Forty lines of Dryden contain more poetry than twelve large volumes of the modern muddle."

1909 was also the year when Alfred first met another great supporter, Reuben George, whom Alfred personally sold a copy of Songs in Wiltshire. George eventually sold copies of the books to friends and acquaintences, sending the money to Alfred monthly.

blank

(Age: 33)

At the end of February 1910, Alfred was invited to deliver a lecture to members of the Mechanics' Institute in Swindon, a prestigious venue that encouraged the education of railway workers. The lecture was a success and brought about Alfred's acquaintance with Joseph Barnard Jones, a teacher, who became another of his supporters.

When they first met, Jones recalled: "He had just seen his first volume of poems favourably noticed in the press, and was as shy as a young girl about it, disclaiming any merit of his own."

Shortly afterwards, Alfred was also invited to a meeting of the Swindon Literary and Debating Society, when he read some of his poems.

In April 1910 he was asked to attend a gathering of poets and descendants of poets at the Holborn Restaurant in London, and accepted. He arrived late, had to leave early and spent most of the time sat at a small table by himself, but did meet some of the other guests, including a reporter from the Daily Mail who urged him to write a book about his experiences in Swindon Works.

The next day, the Mail pointed out that Alfred Williams - "a young man who works a steam hammer in the locomotive shop at Swindon in the week and muses with nature on the Wiltshire Downs on Sunday" was the only 20th century poet present.

Health problems were a feature of the summer of 1910, with Alfred suffering stomach pains. He also encountered problems at work, where the apparently jealous attitude of some, especially minor officials, was difficult to endure.

blank

(Age: 34)

Alfred's second book of poems, called Poems in Wiltshire, was completed by January 1911 and published in the last week of November 1911 and dedicated to his wife, Mary.

As with his first book of poems, it included many with a theme of Wiltshire and/or nature, but included others of a philosophical or autobiographical nature, including some translations from Greek, Latin and French. Of the 67 poems featured, 48 were original.

The book was well received, with The Times singling out Natural Thoughts and Surmises for special praise. The Amsterdam Telegraph wrote: "Would one believe that these dainty verses were written by a workman, hard pressed by daily toil?"

By February 1911, Alfred embarked on the writing of his book about his experiences in the Works (later to be named Life in a Railway Factory). He was already aware that his failing health would one day force him to leave the employment of the GWR, and he already realised that he could not support himself working purely as a poet. So he had already made the decision to turn to writing prose.

blank

(Age: 35)

Unable to publish Life in a Railway Factory, in the spring of 1912, Alfred began work on A Wiltshire Village, his memoirs of his younger days in South Marston.

The first draft was completed by May 1912 - after just ten weeks of writing, and was offered to Duckworth in July 1912. According to Leonard Clark, they "accepted the book for publication without hesitation".

Also in July, Alfred sent a third book of poems, Nature and Other Poems to Erskine Macdonald, who agreed to publish.

As soon as A Wiltshire Village was completed, Alfred fell ill with a severe bronchial cold and depression, which kept him off work for a month. He was also in difficult financial straits because, as he told Henry Byett, he had invested his life savings in publishing his books and was seriously considering emigrating to Canada.

Ironically, sales of Nature and Other Poems were going so well that the publishers raised the price, but Alfred was disappointed by sales to his fellow workers, especially as he was offering to accept payment in instalments.

In the meantime, by the end of the summer of 1912, Alfred was already visiting other towns and villages around South Marston, with a view to producing another book of prose.

On December 7, 1912, Alfred received his final pay rise at Swindon Works - and his first since 1905. This rose to 5/4 (five shillings and four pence) a day (28p).

blank

(Age: 36)

Despite the success of his prose work, Alfred returned to his first love, poetry, and had completed enough for a new book called Cor Cordium by the middle of 1913.

By now Alfred was nationally known and highly respected in literary circles, but admitted: "I despair of getting any local support except among those who know me personally."

Alfred's second book of prose, Villages of the White Horse, was completed by the end of April 1913, accepted for publication in July.

The book did not sell well, but he already had the idea of continuing the theme, this time with towns and villages "around and behind Highworth", in the Upper Thames Valley, and he had begun work on a new book by the end of 1913.

blank

(Age: 37)

Alfred began the year in ill health, being laid up for weeks with "violent pains below the heart" that prevented him from reading and writing. This was diagnosed as acute dyspepsia, and his doctor told him he must resign from the factory.

He ignored the doctor's advice and returned to work, and wrote to William Dowsing: "I... have not written much verse lately, and I doubt whether I shall trouble to write much more at all, unless things alter."

Reuben George, Alfred Zimmern, Edmond Fitzmaurice and John Bailey, realising Alfred's plight, started lobbying for Alfred to receive a Civil List Pension, but first they sent a 20 cheque to Alfred so he could have a month's holiday with Mary - a fortnight at Ilfracombe, a week at Aberystwyth and a week at Pwllheli.

During the trip, Alfred finished the first draft of his new book, Round About the Upper Thames. It may also have been when he was away that Alfred finally decided to give up working in Swindon in the following autumn, also deciding to emigrate if he could not make a living outside the factory.

The application on his behalf for a pension was considered personally by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, but rejected because Alfred was only 37 and this might set a dangerous precedent. But Asquith was sufficiently impressed by Alfred's story that he suggested a subscription list be set up, and headed it with a personal donation of 150.

But Alfred strongly objected to the idea of receiving charity, only accepting when Fitzmaurice begged him not to reject the idea, for the sake of Mary, and by setting a maximum of 30-35 per annum - "I should feel then that I had not been guilty of covetousness", later adding: "So long as I can get pure air and a crust of bread, that is all I want."

On returning after their holiday, Alfred went back to work, but by June he suffered a recurrence of the dyspepsia and indications of heart trouble, and his doctor warned he would be dead in six months if he did not leave. But long walks around South Marston and a fine summer convinced him to return once more.

He managed six more weeks' work before finding himself "in a state of utter exhaustion" and finally left the employment of the Great Western Railway in September, 1914*, writing the word 'Vici' ('I conquered') in chalk over his furnace.

Rather than light gardening work, Alfred now embarked on a career of market gardening, utilising land that belonged to him on The Hook and renting an old garden at the back of the cottage formerly owned by Mark Titcombe.

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, beginning the First World War, and Alfred had the first of his first war poems (anti-German but anti-warfare poem) in the Swindon Advertiser on August 24.

In October, Alfred, depressed by the war and his own uncertain future, was cheered by news that his poem Cuckoo Song had been set to music and performed by the legendary Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba in London.

Alfred now embarked on another major project of his life - the collection of folk songs in the north Wiltshire, the Upper Thames district and the Vale of the White Horse, for an anthology. He began in December, when snow was still on the ground.

*Leonard Clark's biography states that Alfred left Swindon Works on September 3, 1914 (a Thursday), but GWR staff records held at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre record the date that he left the company's service as September 21, 1914 (a Monday). They state simply that he had left "of his own accord".

blank

(Age: 38)

In early May 1915, Alfred completed his final revision of Life in a Railway Factory.

At the same time, Round About the Upper Thames was published for the first time - serialised in the Wilts and Gloster Standard.

By now he had also collected 300 folk songs for his anthology, but the project was still not complete, and the editor of the Wilts and Gloster Standard was convinced to print a selection of these in August 1915.

Life in a Railway Factory was finally published by Duckworth in October 1915.

Perhaps naively - and certainly so in hindsight - Alfred felt the time was right for the book to be published because (in the words of Leonard Clark) "he believed the moment was then ripe for master and man to set aside old industrial prejudices in favour of a well-founded judgement which would be the first step towards a happier agreement between Capital and Labour after the war," but adding "he well knew what reception his outspokenness would have".

blank

(Age: 39)

Despite causing a stir when it was first published, by early 1916, it was clear sales of Life in a Railway Factory were always going to be disappointing, and Alfred complained: "If I were doing fiction I should sell by the thousand; as it is, I cannot go beyond a few hundred."

Surprisingly, the book was praised by Felix Potter, general manager of the GWR, a one-time hammerman who even asked Williams to call on him, but a "damning and soured" review appeared in the GWR Magazine, which argued that Alfred had been severe on the workmen, even though the book never criticises his fellow workmates.

Alfred was eventually given leave to reply in the magazine, and stood by everything he said.

Meanwhile, following the encouragement of friends - as Alfred himself considered them second-rate - War Sonnets and Songs was published, Alfred receiving the advance copies on the last day of 1915.

By now, Alfred and Mary were in desperate financial straits. Whereas he earned 35 shillings a week in the factory, they had lived on perhaps five shillings a week during 1915. Leonard Clark speculates: "How Alfred and Mary Williams existed at all at this time is past comprehension.; it is fairly certain that both of them were denied the essentials of living."

Even so, Alfred spent much of the early part of the year continuing his collection of folk songs - sometimes through correspondence but mainly through cycling, against medical advice. By March 1916 he calculated he had cycled 7,000 miles in pursuit of the songs and the stories behind them. The songs were first published in weekly instalments in the Wilts and Glos Standard, and in Highway, the monthly journal of the WEA. However, hopes that they would be published in book form were put on hold because of Alfred's involvement in the war.

In September 1916, he was surprised - but delighted - to be passed fit for home garrison war duty after appearing before a medical board at Devizes. He duly volunteered as a gunner recruit with the RFA, and left for Devizes on November 2, 1916, moving on to High Wycombe, two days later.

The Army provided some financial relief, and - unknown to Alfred - his friends Alfred Zimmern, Reuben George and Lou Robins to set up a trust fund of 500 that Alfred and Mary could draw on in future, in times of hardship.

In November/December, Alfred's unit moved on to Great Baddow in Essex ("a very middling place") and Sible Hedingham, Essex.

blank

(Age: 40)

On January 12, 1917, Alfred's army unit left for Ireland - his first trip abroad. They were based at Newbridge Barracks, County Kildare, which was suffering a bitter winter and there was insufficient food, Alfred asking for and receiving food parcels from home.

By February 14, 1917, the unit was in Fermoy Barracks, County Cork, where he suffered a painful back injury while lifting a gun trailer, which required a prolonged rest cure and ruined hopes of attending a gun fitting course at Woolwich Arsenal, which promised promotion to Sergeant Major.

It was during his stay at Fermoy Military Hospital that Alfred met Ida Levinge, an Irish nurse who was to become a close friend. Back home, Mary was hurt by his relationship with this other woman, but he assured her that "You're a foolish old thing, but I understand your heart... you are my all."

On April 23, 1917, Alfred was finally discharged from hospital and was immediately granted two weeks' leave to visit his dying mother and check on the welfare of Mary. He arrived back in Ireland on May 5, having said his last goodbyes to his mother, and four days later his battery left Fermoy for The Curragh, a 110-mile route march away - which was undertaken partly as a demonstration of military strength to the increasingly disaffected Irish people. After a difficult journey, Alfred was happy that the camp's close proximity to Dublin meant he was able to visit the Irish capital.

The battery fully expected their next move to be to France, but they were sent to Radford Barracks, Edinburgh, to await posting. Now he was delighted to be able to visit parts of Scotland. He was there about a month before he was transferred to the RGA and sent to Winchester as Gunner Alfred Williams, No. 661546. There he was able to concentrate on a new book about army life that he had begun at the start of his military service, called Boys of the Battery.

In September 1917, he received news that his battery was to be posted to India. He took some leave at home first, where Mary was upset that he was going so far away, and saw his mother for the last time. He boarded Balmoral Castle for Devonport on September 24, 1917, which was attacked by submarines but escaped intact.

However, conditions on board were appalling and food was in short supply, but Alfred was able to complete Boys of the Battery.

He spent three days in Capetown, South Africa, before calling in at Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, where they stayed for a week and transferred to the Caronia, which finally reached Bombay on November 12, 1917 - seven weeks after he had set sail. He then had a three-day 1,600-mile railway journey to Roorkee.

At first, Alfred found Roorkee to be "a place of noise and evil smells", but soon became fascinated by Indian culture, history, religion, flora and fauna, so began writing a book that would eventually be called Indian Life and Scenery.

On Boxing Day 1917, he visited a Muslim festival, six miles away, where he was the only white man among 20,000.

Open map of India in new window

blank

(Age: 41)

By January 1918, Alfred was undoubtedly captivated by India. He made a point of attending a cremation, and wrote a full account of his experience in a letter to a horrified Mary.

In the first quarter of 1918 he worked on a new book relating the awful conditions of his crossing to India, which he anticipated would create a similar impact to Life in a Railway Factory. Called Round the Cape to India, it was part fact, part fiction, with what Alfred himself described as a "ridiculous" plot.

On March 19, 1918, the battery was transferred 300 miles south to Cawnpore, where Alfred was immediately struck by the heat, which reminded him of the blast furnaces of the stamping shop. Suffering from diarrhoea, dysentry and fever, by mid-April he was relieved to be offered a transfer to Ranikhet, 350 miles north, in the foothills of the Himalayas, along with 19 others.

En route, they stopped at Lucknow, but the rest of the journey was arduous, but the Himalayas, according to Leonard Clark, "staggered and humbled him, took his breath away, and made his heart sing for joy". Though up to 120 miles away from some of the peaks, Alfred wrote that "the hills open out into a great theatre... I should never dream of such a sight. It is simply amazing." He also wrote: "The Himalayas are divine... What material I shall have for books - if I live... I would not have missed India for five years of life." He admitted that Mary was his only reason for ever wanting to return home - and if they were younger he may have sent for her to join him in India after the war.

Inspired to write poetry again, he had 50 new poems by June 1918, even writing while in hospital for four days with a fever. He also suffered attacks of malaria. Some of the poems appeared in The Englishman, a Calcutta-based newspaper with the second largest circulation in India.

Meanwhile, questions had been asked in Parliament about the voyage of the Balmoral Castle, and Alfred was asked to write an account for an official inquiry.

His stay at Ranikhet ended on August 11, 1918, when he made his way south again to Cawnpore - now mercifully cooler. On September 12 he wrote to Mary to remind her that it had been a year since they had last met, and also sent her souvenirs, including an intricate screen. A week later, he travelled to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

On October 5, 1918, a letter arrived from Mary to say that the Marston Estate was to be put on the market and Dryden Cottage sold.

On November 11, 1918, Alfred received news of the armistice, but also that Duckworth had decided not to publish Round the Cape to India.

Open map of India in new window

blank

(Age: 42)

The year began with news reaching Alfred in India that Dryden Cottage had been bought by a local farmer named Banwell, who had decided to live in it, and Alfred decided he would build a new cottage on The Hook on his return to South Marston.

By February 1919, Alfred had completed the book about Indian life that he had begun soon after first arriving in the country in November 1917. Now called Indian Life and Scenery, it ran to 17 long chapters. He thus had three unpublished manuscripts - the other two being Boys of the Battery and Round the Cape to India, as well as his collection of folk songs, which had not been published in book form.

Hopes were raised of a return to England, but in March 1919, Alfred was heading back to the heat of Cawnpore. Worse still, his battery was sent to Afghanistan, where conflict had broken out, and he escaped only because he was in Cawnpore Hospital with malaria, then suffered six weeks of agony with an ulcerated eye. In June 1919 he was transferred to a hospital at Chakrata, in the Himalayas, and his condition improved, but it was August 1919 before he was able to do any light reading.

Finally, on September 12, 1919, Alfred received confirmation that he could go home - but first was allowed three weeks leave, with free rail travel, to explore more of India, which he took full advantage of. He left Bombay for home on October 10, 1919, on board The Huntsgreen.

He arrived in Plymouth on Armistice Day, and finally reached South Marston the following day.

blank

(Age: 43)

In January 1920, Alfred gave a lecture about India in Swindon, where he was welcomed by the Mayor.

He and Mary had modest success with the market garden they were working on, but he was now in desperate financial straits again, and was forced to once again ask Edmond Fitzmaurice and John Bailey to support an application for a grant from the Royal Literary Fund, and he was given 20, and also received money from friends.

His eye also began to trouble him again, and in the spring of 1920 he was admitted to Bath Military Hospital.

There was some relief in the position at Dryden Cottage, from which Alfred and Mary could not be evicted until they had found a suitable alternative, but his health prevented him from beginning the house-building project he had decided on while still in India.

Alfred supplemented his income from June 1920 when he became Clerk and Assistant Overseer to South Marston Parish Council, but was now too busy to write - and admitted to being uninspired, anyway.

After a holiday with Mary as the guest of Alfred Zimmern in North Wales, and a referral to an eye doctor, by October 1920, Alfred was sufficiently rejuvenated to begin work on the building of the new house. He spent 12 on stone from Mark Titcombe's cottage, bought timber from Chiseldon Camp and Minchinhampton Aerodrome, hired a carpenter/joiner and stonemason, and decided to do the labouring himself. Building of the walls would begin in the following spring, but Alfred and Mary spent days pulling down the stone from the old cottage and, later, a disused canal lock near Longleaze Farm, transferring it to the building site at The Hook in handcarts.

On December 15, 1920, Alfred gave a lecture at The Mechanics' Institute in Swindon, on The Religions of India, which turned out to be a disaster. It was too long, and Alfred clearly didn't have the extrovert personality necessary to inspire his audience.

blank

(Age: 44)

Alfred and Mary continued their preparation for the building of their new cottage by assembling stone on The Hook, then chipping mortar from each block. By February 1921, they had amassed 120 tons of stone, around 15,000 bricks, 20 loads of sand and a dozen cartloads of broken mortar, and Alfred dug the foundations. Meanwhile, Edmond Fitzmaurice credited Alfred's bank account with 200 to cover building costs - an act of charity that even Alfred, this time, could not reject. A government subsidy paid the rest of the costs.

In March, Alfred resigned as Assistant Overseer to the Parish Council, and on April 3, 1921, he started building the walls of the house, under the direction of 72-year-old stonemason Jesse Head. Alfred did all the labouring and mixed all the mortar. During May, Alfred and Mary had to recover a further 2,000 bricks from the canal lock, because Head insisted that the rear walls be 18 inches thick, rather than the 14 inches Alfred planned.

The walls were complete by the end of July, and by October the roof - which was made of asbestos - was on and the floors laid. The District Surveyor visited and approved the house on the last day of 1921.

blank

(Age: 45)

Alfred and Mary moved into the completed house - now named Ranikhet - on January 15, 1922. Alfred was now free to think about his next literary project.

In January and February 1922, he revised Round About the Upper Thames, which he had written in 1914, and which had been serialised in the Wilts and Gloucester Standard. It was eventually accepted by Duckworth and went on sale in Swindon on September 15, 1922.

During early 1922, Alfred began to read widely about Hinduism, borrowing a copy of Sanskrit Literature by F Max Muller, from a former workmate, CH Hollick.

blank

(Age: 46)

In January 1923, Duckworth agreed to publish Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, which was duly published on May 3, 1923. It featured 250 of the more than 1,000 songs he had collected, plus an essay about folk songs which also revealed his research methods.

In February 1923, Alfred began what Leonard Clark called "the last major project of his life" - to teach himself Sanskrit, so he could reach Hindu literature in its original language.

He made a special journey to Oxford to buy a book on Sanskrit grammar, but could not find anything suitable. However, Mary had discovered a book was available through the American Harvard University, scraped together enough to order it, and presented it to him for his birthday in April.

Thanks to a succession of unfavourable weather, the fruit- and pea-growing business that Alfred and Mary set up in the garden of Ranikhet barely provided a living, but with small royalties from the sale of his books, the couple just managed to earn enough to feed themselves. Times were so hard that Alfred considered a return to working in the factory, but he received a 75 grant from the Royal Literary Fund (intended to last three years) which may have literally saved the couple from starvation.

In November he revised his now 19-year-old lyrical play, Sardanapalus and rewrote much of Round the Cape to India, which was renamed Artillerymen Afloat.

By the end of the year, Alfred had read 1,000 lines of Sanskrit verse, and had decided to work on a new 'villages' project - this time dealing with the area around the Thames between Faringdon and Oxford (eventually to be called The Banks of Isis).

Meanwhile, Edmond Fitzmaurice wrote to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, suggesting Alfred should be included in the next Civil List, but this was refused on the grounds that he was too young. However, just before Christmas 1923, he received a cheque for 150 from the Royal Bounty Fund.

blank

(Age: 47)

Much of Alfred's energies at the start of 1924 were taken up with reading Sanskrit, but he also made a collection of his factory poems, called Factory Rhymes, but could not find a publisher for that nor the recently revised Sardanapalus and Round the Cape to India (Artillerymen Afloat).

By the end of March he had completed three chapters of his new 'villages' book, had finished 12 by the end of June, and the last chapter by the end of August - and then returned to Sanskrit.

By the autumn he had decided to call the new Thames book The Banks of Isis, but was disappointed to find that first Duckworth and then other publishers were unwilling to publish.

In December he began Letters from a Working Man to Working Men - a collection of 100 'letters' to imaginary people.

blank

(Age: 48)

The year began badly, with Alfred and Mary laid up with flu in January, but by April he had finished Letters from a Working Man to Working Men. He could not find a publisher, but persuaded the North Berks Herald to serialise The Banks of Isis.

He also received the welcome news that Erskine MacDonald were to publish Selected Poems, which they duly did, early in 1926. A kind of anthology of older and some previously works, it was well received, but was to be the last of Alfred's books to be published in his lifetime.

blank

(Age: 49)

In the spring of 1926, Alfred gave various lectures in Gloucestershire about folk songs, and in March he was the guest of honour at the annual dinner of the Wiltshire Society in London.

In May 1926 more health problems and the General Strike put both Alfred and Mary at a low ebb, along with the latest of many failed crops later in the year. At the end of the year, a coal shortage caused by a national strike meant that he was unable to have a fire, and his hands were barely warm enough to work.

He wrote a 600-word letter to The Times in September, about smallholding, which was published in full, and received payments for articles on various subjects that were published in various local papers and periodicals during the year.

In November 1926, Alfred was given an old typewriter. Until then, all his work had been in manuscript. Of the typewriter he said: "It is an antique thing, but it is better than the pen for editorial work."

December saw him finally acquire a Sanskrit dictionary from the Oxford University Press.

blank

(Age: 50)

At the start of 1927, Alfred decided to finish a railway novel he had started in India, finally succumbing to friends who urged him to try his hand at fiction. By the end of February, it was three-quarters complete, and he finished it by the end of March.

The book, called The Steamhammer Shop - a Romance of the Forge, was autobiographical, with Alfred's character called Wilfred Weston. Leonard Clark's verdict was: "It is all rather melodramatic and it is not surprising that no publisher would look at it."

This and yet more crop failures saw Alfred and Mary locked in another battle for survival and continuing to be pitted against ill health and depression. In October 1927 he wrote to Henry Byett to say his life had been a failure and a disappointment to Mary.

In December 1927, Alfred embarked on his last great literary project - the translation of an ancient Sanskrit collection of fables called The Panchatantra.

The project led to his acquaintance with AA MacDonell, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford. MacDonell, in turn, introduced Alfred to Sir Edgar Bonham Carter, Director of the School of Oriental Studies. Alfred was invited to London to meet Bonham Carter and his staff, but could not afford the train fare.

blank

(Age: 51)

Much of 1928 was spent on his Tales From The Panchatantra.

By June, Alfred had completed 18 out of the intended 50 translations tales, which also required simplification and summarisation of the stories without losing their general atmosphere.

In December 1928 he received a further grant from The Royal Literary Fund, which offset yet more gardening failures.

Tales From The Panchatantra was finally completed in December 1928 - the culmination of a year's work, representing arguably the biggest project of his life. "I have found my final satisfaction," he told Henry Byett, when it was complete.

Alfred was unable to find a publisher, but a manuscript was sent to Oxford University, where AA MacDonell, Boden Professor of Sanskrit praised the work.

blank

(Age: 52)

The decline of Alfred's spirits appeared terminal in January 1929, when he appeared to adopt an air of resignation. Writing to Henry Byett about Tales From The Panchatantra, he said he would never undertake such a project again, and, according to Leonard Clark, "he grew morose, irritable and secretive", even though his garden produced its best ever crop.

During 1929 he revised Tales From The Panchatantra on the advice of a publisher, who appeared ready to publish, but ultimately decided against it.

In November 1929, Alfred was in bed for several days with a cold, and Mary was also taken ill with what she thought to be an ulcerated stomach.

blank

(Age: 53)

On January 10, 1930, Mary underwent a specialist examination at Victoria Hospital in Swindon, where the surgeon diagnosed cancer. She was admitted while Alfred remained alone at Ranikhet, where he believed there was a curse on the house.

Surgeons operated on Mary on January 31, 1930, but her condition was now diagnosed as terminal. His lifelong friends sent him money and books to comfort him, but Alfred was already resigned, confiding that "without her, I see no value in anything, but a life of emptiness", adding: "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."

Alfred cycled to Swindon to visit Mary twice every day, and twice she almost died from haemorrhages. In the meantime, Alfred's poverty had again been brought to the attention of the Prime Minister, now Ramsay MacDonald, who authorised a payment from the Royal Bounty of 50, with the likelihood that he would now receive a Civil List pension - which was confirmed in March 1930. The cheque was written, in the first instance, by MacDonald himself, from his own pocket.

He also received a strong indication from Oxford publisher Basil Blackwell, that Tales From The Panchatantra might be published after all, but personal tragedy now overshadowed everything.

Mary was discharged from hospital and was nursed at home, but was re-admitted, and it was clear to all his friends that Alfred had essentially given up caring about his own welfare. One of his neighbours described him as being "like a maimed bird".

On April 9, 1930, Alfred visited Lou Robins and his wife in Swindon in a near uncontrollable emotional state, and on arrival at the hospital found Mary's condition even worse than the previous day, but realising that she might survive for weeks and he had reached the point where he could not help her further, he returned home in distress and now suffering severe chest pains.

When he eventually arrived at Ranikhet, he was too weak even to remove his boots but nevertheless put himself to bed. When he rose to attempt to give himself an aspirin, he collapsed and died from heart failure, just after midnight on April 10, 1930.

Two days later, at her own request, Mary was brought home to Ranikhet, telling friends: "I am grateful he went first, for I can bear the pain of parting better than he could have." He was buried at South Marston church on April 15, 1930, but Mary was too ill to attend and was propped up so she could watch the procession from her window.

Alfred had recently made a new will, which evidently and understandably expected Mary to die first, so she made a new one, which passed all royalties to the Victoria Hospital in Swindon. Alfred's books and manuscripts were packed in five cases and moved to Lou Robins' home.

On May 9, 1930, Mary received a cheque from Blackwell for the copyright of Tales From The Panchatantra, and on May 15, 1930, a personal letter from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, saying a grant of 100 had been made to her, but because of Mary's condition, it was never sent. She died on May 29, 1930.

blank
Go to top