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History: Town poet in the spotlight
In a town quick to celebrate a working class hero, Swindon lags behind in its recognition of writer Alfred Williams, an omission about to be addressed by the recently formed Alfred Williams Heritage Society.
Alfred was born in South Marston, one of Elias and Elizabeth Williams’s eight children. A carpenter employing one boy at the time of the 1881 census, Welsh born Elias deserted the family soon afterwards.
Alfred began part-time work on a local farm aged just eight, leaving school three years later to work full-time at Longleaze Farm, in South Marston.
In 1892 Alfred joined his two elder brothers at the GWR Works, working first as a rivet hotter, then a furnace boy and eventually as a drop stamper.
“A drop-stamp, or drop-hammer, is a machine used for stamping out all kinds of details and uses in wrought iron or steel, from an ounce to several hundredweights,” Williams later wrote.
“Three hands are employed at each machine. They are – the stamper, his hotter, and the small boy who drives the hammer. “All the work is done at the piece rate, and the prices are low; the men have to be very nimble to earn sufficient money to pay them for the turn.”
In 1912 Williams published A Wiltshire Village, an account of life in South Marston and the following year Cor Cordium, his fourth book of poetry.
His writing career was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Alfred became a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and served in Ireland, Scotland and finally India, a posting which would have a profound influence on his poetry.
After 22 years employment in the Works, Alfred wrote an account of life “inside.” When it was eventually published in 1915, Life In A Railway Works caused a storm. The reviewer in the GWR Magazine dated January 1916 tore into it, writing of Williams’s bitter spirit against the management and his attacks on his fellow workmen.
The book sold badly locally, with only about 12 copies bought in Swindon during its first year.
The Alfred Williams Heritage Society, whose website was recently launched at the Central Library by Swindon Mayor, David Wren, has embarked upon an ambitious programme to raise the profile of this home grown literary giant.
“We need local people to join our local effort and help us turn Alfred Williams into a local hero,” said Dr. John Cullimore, the chairman of the society.
With a Heritage Lottery bid under consideration the Society aims to introduce the life and works of Alfred Williams into Swindon schools and to eventually provide a small student bursary.
For more information on the life and work of Alfred Williams and the Heritage Society log on to www.alfredwilliams.org.uk.