If ever someone could be said to be a man of complex character, Alfred Williams is that man. His was a life full of contradictions.
The task of unravelling what we know about Alfred to reveal the compexities of his character is made even more difficult by the fact that each time a piece of the jigsaw of his personality is revealed, we can never be quite sure whether we have found another answer or another question. That is why he still has the power to fascinate, 79 years after his death.
The contradictions span his whole lifetime, beginning in childhood. Despite a difficult upbringing and a 'broken home', he undoubtedly enjoyed his early years - and almost too much. All boys get into scrapes, but Alfred seems to have seen more than his fair share, including some that put him in real danger of his life. He fell down a well, was run over by a cart and nearly drowned in a pond.
Every brush with disaster merely seemed to make him hungrier for more adventure. Along with friends, he made a 20-mile round trip to Lambourn so that they could get close - too close for comfort - to army manouevrues involving up to 80,000 troops, and among the many "games, expeditions and pranks" he got involved in, "a favourite sport was to ascend the church tower, largely to annoy the sexton, and there with other boys to stand on his head, much to the dismay of the anxious villagers." Most famously, at the age of ten, he took it upon himself to lie down between the tracks of the main line while a goods train rumbled over him. He didn't know whether to feel terrified or excited.
The train incident was part of a fascination with machinery that led him to save up to buy a model steam engine and beg rides off train drivers, and he is known to have taken "delight" from the old 'boneshaker' bicycles of the day. Curiously, this did not translate to any desire to surround himself with technology in later life. Though he wrote endlessly, it was with a pen or pencil, not a typewriter, and though he was an eminently practical person who was good with his hands, his life was simple in the extreme. He had no desire to surround himself with any of the trappings of a rapidly developing industrial and mechanised world.
With hindsight, especially armed with Alfred's apparently bitter repudiation of industry in Life in a Railway Factory and the simple life he chose, there has been a tendency to label Alfred as a country boy who was ill at ease with the modern world, but we must resist the temptation to paint him as a man born into the wrong time.
There is, however, no doubt that he possessed an innate sense of the wonder of nature, and exhibited a deep love of it from an early age. He was always in awe of all things natural, but he let his boyish curiosity get the better of his passion and respect for nature when he caught a grass snake, skinned it and then hung it up to dry. True, he did suffer remorse for what he had done, but that didn't stop him from later taunting a younger sister with a mole he had caught on a South Marston farm and which he tried to persuade her to eat.
Another apparently defining characteristic is his level-headedness, but one aspect of his personality was at odds with this during his childhood. According to Leonard Clark, "he was a passionate-tempered, impulsive little boy, with an innate spirit of adventure. His brain was so active that the rest of the family often felt a desire for quiet, since it was trying to be near him. When he lost his temper, which was fairly often, his sisters ran away from him, but the fit was soon over."
This sounds like the same young man whom his eldest sister Elizabeth (Bess) later described as "a very passionate personality", but she also said that "his self control was wonderful". Indeed, his self-discipline and patience in later life - demonstrated in his tireless study and writing - must have been exceptional. We can only assume that whatever temper he had as a youngster was destined to dissolve as he was transformed into an agonisingly ponderous, contemplative soul - one was clearly unable to let himself go in any way throughout the whole of his adulthood. It's ironic that a man who wrote a poem called All Things Delight in Sleep was, if anything, the exception that proved the rule. For Alfred Williams, there was surely never any comfort in rest.
Yet Clark also points out the more sensitive side to his nature. "He was a good son to his mother, and his understanding and courteous nature found expression in a deep sympathy for the poor and suffering. He became indignant when he heard of other people's oppressions, and was peculiarly attached to elderly people." Indeed, his fascination with certain curious characters in South Marston - namely Mark Titcombe and Betsy Horton - is evident in his descriptions of them in A Wiltshire Village.
Even as that hot-headed young man with an itch for adventure, he was capable of quiet contemplation and immersion in culture. Encouraged by his mother and the rest of the family, he played the concertina at home or made makeshift music from tongs and a shovel by the fireplace. In his youth he took up painting, even selling a few pictures locally. From this full childhood emerged a young man who, as he studied it more and more closely, became captivated by nature, and was encouraged, either directly or indirectly, by a mother he must have doted on.
Of his mother, his sister Bess said: "To take a walk with her was an education. She always pointed out some fresh beauty of nature. We did not walk by the road if we could travel the fields." Alfred was clearly his mother's son, but she received little credit for preparing him for his later achievements. Bess later revealed that on reading an account of Alfred's achievements, their mother remarked: "no-one knows he had a mother", to which Bess added herself: "Yet it was her genius, her great endurance, her wonderful will-power that equipped him to achieve."
If his mother regretted the lack of recognition herself, we can also speculate about whether she regretted Alfred's failure to recognise it or what feelings he had about the debt he owed his mother. What is certain is that his mother clearly provided cultural nourishment for Alfred and his siblings as well as working tirelessly to provide practical support for her fatherless family. He owed her an immense debt for inheriting from her these two key qualities - a pathological desire to observe and devour knowledge, and a work ethic that knew no bounds.
It would be wrong, however, to say that he did not also inherit qualities from his father, even though Elias Williams walked out on his family, amid financial problems, when Alfred was four or five years old, and when one of his sisters was still a babe in arms. We can only guess at the negative effect this event had on a boy of such impressionable age, and there other traumatic incidents arising from Elias's drunkenness which are also documented and which Alfred almost certainly witnessed. Elias is also a contradiction because - his weaknesses apart - he was undoubtedly a clever man, who is remembered as a fine craftsman in more than one discipline.
His father gone and his independent nature notwithstanding, the rest of Alfred's life is heavily influenced by women. As well as the towering example set by his mother, he largely grew up with his sisters - all but one of them younger - and was to be seen around the village with them much more than with his three elder brothers, even though one, Henry, was only a year older. It was only in adolescence that he seems to have joined in readily with the games of local boys - and even then, at the age of 14, he was already being distracted by the arrival in South Marston of Mary Peck, whom he quickly became fond of and would eventually marry.
There is nothing unusual about a teenage boy suddenly taking an interest in girls, nor one in particular, but even this apparently straightforward childhood romance is complicated by the fact that Mary was three years older than Alfred. She was already a young lady when she arrived in the village, and Alfred was, by comparison, still a child, so it is difficult to see what physical attraction, if any, there could have been between them. It is more tempting to imagine a relationship developing in which the older Mary is partly taking over his mother's role, and perhaps she recognised in him some of the qualities that were to turn him into a scholar and writer, against all the odds.
At this stage, Alfred's life seemed headed for agricultural obscurity, but the home-loving country boy who seemed to have a deep affection for his own village was getting restless. Despite being under-age, he tried to join the Navy several times - a way of life which surely he wouldn't have been suited to. He also went to Highworth Fair with the intention of getting hired and working away from South Marston, only to be turned away for being too young.
At least the restlessness probably helped him make up his mind when he was faced, at the age of 15, with a major life decision. With pay rates in the GWR Works in Swindon much higher than anything men could obtain by working on the land, and with his elder brothers already having swapped agricultural employment for industry, the pressure was surely also on him to follow in their footsteps, especially given the need to help alleviate the family's precarious financial position. But if he thought that the only logical choice was to work 'inside' (as local people always called working in the railway factory), there also seems to be some element of wanting it. Did it fulfill his desire to go beyond the confines of South Marston and agricultural village life - and did he also make the connection with a mechanised world that he found attractive as a boy?
Though his employment in the works was later tinged with bitterness, any suggestion that he was unsuited to factory work and resented it in comparison with country pursuits is blurred by more contradictions. As well as his fascination with machinery as a child, he retained a great love of locos in his teenage years, to the extent that he made great efforts to discover and memorise the names of engines as they passed by the farms where he worked. "They fired my imagination," he admitted, "and filled me with strange feelings of pride and joy." As these beasts bore the names of mythical characters from antiquity, it's ironic that they planted the seeds of his later obsession with the classics. It certainly demonstrates that he then had an appetite for the new as much as the old, and the man-made as well as the natural.
In those early days, the reality of working in industry does not appear to have been the bitter pill that others later imagined it was for him. It is said that he "enjoyed the arduous physical challenge of factory work", and the fact that he also quickly gained a reputation for being dependable does not equate to a man who feels unsettled in the modern world, let alone the extreme and often harsh conditions of the factory. How is it that a man who admitted to being old-fashioned in outlook could so readily overcome the shock of the new?
The answer - if there is one - seems to lie in his relationships with other men. As a boy he had been unusually tolerant - as evidenced by his attachment with old and curious characters in the village - yet he grew to despise his fellow workers' simplicity, unable to understand their reluctance to better themselves. Even as he did this, he chose to ignore the noble way in which some of his colleagues' pursuit of education and enlightment through such provisions as the flourishing Mechanics' Institute. Richard Jefferies had earlier marvelled at how Swindon workers' appetite for learning made them different from their contemporaries in other industries and other urban areas, and Alfred must have recognised this, but he chose to focus on the majority who accepted their lot rather than the minority who tried to better themselves.
More contradictions can be found in his approach to religion and politics. Although he declared himself old-fashioned - especially in his love of the classics - it is also true that he was a modern thinker whose understanding of a rapidly changing world owed much more to science than superstition. Yet this would seem to be at odds with the apparently devout and even pious way in which he practised religion. In politics, he is even more of a puzzle. Here was a man who displayed all the qualifications of being a radical and had plenty of experiences that created an environment to encourage it, yet not only did he fail to step over the line into socialism, but actually seems to have been repulsed by it.
Even workmates' and others' impressions of him suffer from the same contradictions as other aspects of his life. In one newspaper article that featured an interview with a fellow worker, Alfred is said to have been "miserable", but Harry Byett, who knew Alfred well and was his first biographer, painted a picture of a man who was forthright but not unapproachable, and even amiable:
He was well over medium height, spare of flesh, had squarish, angular features, powerful lower jaw; dry, wrinkled and almost colourless lips, generally parted in a pleasing smile, revealing pale gums and a perfect set of well-tended, gleaming white teeth. Blue-grey, far-seeing eyes which looked straight into yours, proclaiming sincerity, and forbidding aught else in his vis-a-vis. Light brown hair, short cropped from time to time, as necessitated by his hot, sweating work as hammerman. Fair complexion, perfectly upright figure, head erect whether walking, standing or sitting, imparting a military bearing and a sense of invincibility when confronted with obstacles.
While others remembered him as cold - he certainly didn't speak to everybody he saw in the street - as a child he enjoyed and sought out the company of older people, and as an adult showed himself to be popular with children. Neither of these qualities smack of somebody who could remotely be thought of as "cold", nor support suggestions that he was shy, supercilious or aloof, as some have hinted.
However, there is plenty of evidence that he found it difficult to relate to people, especially if they didn't understand him and his thirst for knowledge. In 1918, in India - a time and place he delighted in - he wrote home to complain "in the army you can find no chums and I'm really a lonely sort of fellow".
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of all is his marriage to Mary. Even accounting for the time that they were born into, in which wives were groomed for subservience, theirs is a strange relationship by any measure. There is no doubting that they had a deeply loving relationship, but it was one in which Alfred's lust for knowledge and his search for an outlet for his writing took total precedence. To say that it was one-sided doesn't tell half the story - because Mary's role in the marriage transcends devotion and borders on blind sacrifice.
Alfred must have been touched by the support she gave him, and if he was, he must also have felt some guilt. Subconsciously, he may also have heard the echoes of the unpaid debts due to his mother. The difference is: debts to mothers can never fully be repaid, but debts to wives can. Did Alfred ever recognise how much he owed Mary, and if he did, did he even begin to repay his debt?
Probably not, though there seems to have been an unconscious desire, somewhere inside him, to make amends. Here was a man whose wife gave him everything, and he was happy to accept it, yet he could not bring himself to accept even the simplest kindness and trivial act of friendship from anybody else, nor a penny of financial support from those who could afford it, if it in any way smelt of charity. Leonard Clark tells of how a friend had to trick Alfred into accepting a secondhand overcoat as a gift by making him feel that he was doing the donor a favour by taking it off his hands. Otherwise, Alfred would not think of accepting it. But even this is eclipsed by another story that seems to say much about his character.
Friends revealed that, after inviting Alfred and Mary to dinner, they would receive a postal order, the next day, covering the cost of the food as calculated by Alfred.
It seems that Alfred Williams was a man who always imagined himself indebted to someone - but never could work out whom.
By Graham Carter