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An essay looking at Alfred's unconventional political views.
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Alfred Williams's political views seem to be at odds with his background, upbringing, situation and other beliefs, all of which made him a prime candidate as a supporter of the infant socialist movement and, later, the Labour Party.

But there is no doubt that he kept an open mind and voted according to reasoned judgement, rather than any commitment to a cause or candidate.

During hustings for the 1895 election, the 18-year-old Alfred caused a stir at a meeting involving the Conservative candidate in South Marston. Alfred - who was not entitled to vote himself - put a series of awkward questions to the candidate, and questioning him 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."

At this time Alfred found empathy with Liberal views, but his opinions swung towards the Tories in later times.

According to biographer Leonard Clark, Alfred "generally voted for the Tories".

For ten minutes every day he read The Daily Telegraph - even then renowned as a right-wing paper - although he bought it primarily for its literary articles.

One of his friends, Reuben George, who was also a great supporter and benefactor, is generally regarded as the grandfather of socialism in Swindon.

During 1911, after Alfred had completed his great work, Life in a Railway Factory, he corresponded with supporter and benefactor Edmond Fitzmaurice, who was worried about some of the sentiments expressed in the book.

In one of the letters, Alfred admits that "My own position, I confess, is somewhat illogical", as he appears to have more sympathy with fellow workers with regard to the way they are treated, rather than the conditions they work under, or levels of pay.

He wrote: "There is a total lack of tact in dealing with the workmen; it is the haughty and autocratic spirit of the staff generally which drives men to extreme views. This is altogether deplorable." And he concluded: "Frankly, I cannot subscribe to the extreme views held by the Socialist-Labour people. Of late years I have included to the moderate view, though this again is not compatible with true progress."

Alfred clearly felt that there was too much of a radical tendency among British socialists of the time, especially as they rejected established religion and "are republican to a man".

His "illogical" belief that the pay of industrial workers was adequate, appears to have been founded on - or at least influenced by - the fact that they were proportionately higher than wages for rural workers, with whom he had an obvious affinity. This view is clear in correspondence after writing A Wiltshire Village, of which he said: "I have tried... to dispel a little of the glamour that, to the eyes of many, attaches to the factory condition. I want to show that higher wages is not the greatest disideratum in life, for these are not obtained in the factories without terrific effort, or corresponding inconveniences."

It clearly seemd an irony to him that the grievances of industrial workers threatened radical change, when rural workers seemed to have more to be agrieved about. There is surely some personal regret that he chose industrial employment and was lured by the "glamour" of higher wages, instead of remaining as a rural worker. He appears to have had little sympathy for people like him who had chosen their lot and perhaps therefore had less reason to complain.

Leonard Clark agrees that Alfred's opinions are "somewhat singular and contradictory, for after his factory experiences one might have expected him to have had definite leanings towards Socialism. But he had always strongly criticised the tpe of leader the Socialists seemed to produce in the workshops; in A Wiltshire Village he argues like a true Tory".

Clark specifically pointed to a passage in A Wiltshire Village in which Alfred rejected Lloyd George's reference to the "monotony" of village life. He wrote: "As for monotony, let anyone come and toil in the dreary forge for a generation, and drag himself home night after night, and year after year, sick and weary, with aching limbs and heart, and not a gleam of hope in the future, simply a world without end of dull monotonous drudgery; that is far more painful than a quite day on the farm and a long night's rest at the end of it. I have lived it, and wrought it, and felt it, and know what I say to be true."

The contradictions of his earlier life, however, would be as nothing to the confusion that Alfred clearly felt over his most enduring work, Life in a Railway Factory, which laid bare the true conditions that working class men found themselves in industry in general and Swindon Railway Works in particular.

Completed by September 1911 but unable to be published before Alfred left the employment of the Great Western Railway, the book finally got into print in October 1915 - just over a year after his retirement from the factory.

The book is an honest account of harsh conditions in the factory and - just as damning - the attitude of middle management 'inside' (as Swindon folk always referred to employment in the Works). But Alfred seemed unsure of its political significance. According to biographer Leonard Clark, "Williams' main object in launching this book at that particular time [soon after the outbreak of the First World War) was that 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."

With hindsight - and especially following the horror of the war - it is difficult to conceive of how the book could possibly have brought the two sides together, even though both had grievances concerning Alfred's view of the workers' plight.

Alfred himself anticipated the controversy the book created, especially in Swindon, where the GWR's tactic was to try to dispute most of what was written - even though Alfred was clearly nothing if not an honest man.

And amid the controversy, in November 1915, Alfred wrote to his supporter, Edmond Fitzmaurice, expecting to have no less antagonism from the left-wing: "My views of the labour position are quite unorthodox: I mean, the Trade Unions would not accept them. I do not care too much for Trade Unionism, for the reason that it is materialistic: nevertheless, we all acknowledge the sterling work it has done."

The muddle that Alfred found himself in by sitting, apparently alone, in this middle ground, also caused him problems over the dedication of the book. Eventually dedicated to friend and supporter Alfred Zimmern, an academic, he would have preferred to dedicate it to Reuben George. But as George is largely remembered today as a kind of father of socialism in Swindon, perhaps Alfred found dedicating this book to him as too much of a paradox.

Alfred also harboured doubts about democracy. Universal suffrage was still a dream when he was in India in 1918, for instance, but he saw it more in terms of a nightmare. Shocked by the coarse language of his fellow soldiers and "the manner in which they treat the poor natives here", he wote: "When I consider all things in connection with the life of the masses, the crowd, or whatever one likes to call them, I become more and more convinced of my opinion so long held - namely, that I'll never be a democrat and that Democracy as a ruling power would be fatal to England, for when you give one of them an opportunity of showing what his rule would be, he is the most terrible tyrant and hog you could imagine."


By Graham Carter
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