December 2011: Alfred's sister's gift reveals hidden treasure

When Paul Williams bought a first edition copy of Life in a Railway Factory, he knew he was getting a collector's item - but there was a bonus waiting inside.

The book came complete with the original dust jacket, which is rarely seen and hardly ever rarely seen in such good condition - but that was only the beginning.

The front flyleaf features an inscription written by Alfred's elder sister, Elizabeth Ann Williams (often known as Bess), and tucked inside the pages was a letter from her to Rev Oyston, the person she had given the book to as a gift.

The book has come back into the family as Paul (pictured right) is descended from Alfred's younger sister, Charlotte (also known as Laura). A keen supporter of this society and well known as the owner of a substantial collection of historic postcards of the areas, especially those taken by Swindon photographer William Hooper, Paul also has an impressive collection of Alfred's books.

The letter was written in Rose Cottage, South Marston, where Alfred was brought up, and where members of the family continued to live after he married and moved around the corner to Dryden Cottage. It is dated December 1918 - just over a month after the end of the First World War.

Alfred was still away in India when it was written, doing his war service, but it gives an insight into the kind of life the Williams family were living back home. It especially highlights their piety and connections with the tiny Methodist chapel that is tucked away in the shadow of both Rose Cottage and Ranikhet. Alfred's and his family's attendance there is believed to be at least part of the reason for the local vicar's animosity to him, which came to a head when he burned two copies of A Wiltshire Village.

It would also be nice to think that the books referred to in the letter as being presented as prizes might be further copies of Alfred's books, although we may never know for sure. The letter certainly shows his sister's regards for Alfred's work, even though Life in a Railway Factory had caused some controversy and may not have been welcomed - officially at least - by residents of the village employed by the Great Western Railway.

As well as being of interest to Alfred enthusiasts, there is social history in the letter as it closes by telling of the impact of the Spanish flu pandemic (which Elizabeth calls the 'influ'). Elizabeth reports the death of a young South Marston woman and how the disease had "ravaged the village".

Alfred, who endured poor health throughout his life, was perhaps fortunate to be absent in India at the time, and also lucky that his return home was delayed, sparing him potentially fatal exposure to the virus at its peak. Tired soldiers returning from active service were particularly vulnerable. He would not return home for another 11 months, by which time most of the danger had passed.

A full transcript of the letter:

Rose Cottage,
South Marston,
Swindon, Wilts.
Dec 15th, 1918.
To Mr Oyston,
Dear Sir: Ever since your departure I have regretted the fact that our corner of the circuit contributed nothing by way of acknowledging your faithful & frequent service here. I am, therefore, sending you one of my brother's books, which will serve as a souvenir of Swindon & Marston, but I mean it to be most an expression from here, where it was written, & I know you will not value the token less because [it is] late. We were pleased to receive your message per Mr Bassett. We trust you - with Mrs Oyston & family - are in good health & happy in your new home, & trust to see you again in the future (especially now the fighting is finished & expectations once more legitimate). I am here thinking of reduced railway rates.
We miss you much & I think not only we. Mr Raw is decidedly Raw as yet in some respects - because he is a bachelor maybe. He is splendid in the pulpit!
We are having a children's tea on Boxing Day again & presenting a few prizes to the most regular and diligent of our scholars, who is learning interesting items for the entertainment that is to follow.
Our beloved friend Mr F Weston - who says he also misses you! - will come & preside & present the books. We have not invited Mr Raw, so you will be welcome, sir!
I hope Mr Raw will not thik it unkind of us to leave him out, but if he takes sufficient interest in us during the coming year we will send him an invite for next Xmas party.
Our chapel is still very well attended & the children are keen on the Catechism.
I am grieved to tell you that Mrs Massey has developed what I fear will prove a fatal malady - some internal trouble - & that she is no more able to attend the house she greatly loves. She came to Marston at the time of my infancy - or before, for I can remember her for forty years now & she has always been regular in attendance of Divine things & staunch and true - whatever the fortunes of the little cause here, & truly she has been a pillar & been highly respected in the village.
I have never known or seen anything in her character to cast a reproach on her religion & she has always done what she could, I think. No-one, I feel, will fill her place so well, under the same circumstances, as she has done, but I am glad she has lived to see her prayers for a revival here answered, & we shall do our best here while we remain - & I am remaining on purpose - still the condition of our dear friend casts a shadow over us. Still we shall all follow sooner or later:-
"And if the fellowships below
In Jesus is so sweet,
What height of rapture shall we know
When round his throne we meet?"
I am sorry to tell you, too, that Mrs Franklin has had her husband ill as a result of heart trouble, & though he is rallying a little now, I fear that at no distant date she will have to be the bread winner. But she is very brave about it, & there is one advantage solely belongs to a Christian, namely the privilege of Special Providence. I have had remarkable replies to prayer during the past year alone. Truly it is a great time to be a child in God's family!
We had not had Mr & Mrs Greenaway for weeks. Mr G first had the influ: & now Mr G has it, indeed it has ravaged the village & killed one girl of 20 years.
Well, sir, I must apologise now for my long epistle.
I am sure all who know you here would be willing I should send their kind regards with best wishes for your future, as I do myself, & remain
Yours sincerely,
E.A. Williams

(Our thanks to Paul Williams for allowing us to copy the book and the letter).