WRITER Alfred Williams may be nicknamed the Hammerman Poet, but as the Swindon Festival of Literature audience discovered, he could equally be called the English renaissance man.

Williams (1877-1930), who lived in South Marston, left school before the age of 11 and worked five and a half days a week as a steam hammer operator at the town’s GWR works.

However, despite his working class background, he was a gifted scholar, finding time to teach himself Latin, Greek and French, and finding national acclaim for his English poetry and prose.

In other, less well-known achievements, though in a style reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson, he learned the language Sanskrit well enough to translate a book, was a gifted artist, and actually built his own home with the help of his wife Mary.

These amazing facts were just some of those highlighted in an illustrated talk yesterday at the Arts Centre by Graham Carter, the vice chairman of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society.

He said: “His legacy is obviously his works. The poetry, considered old fashioned at the time, has come back into fashion. It’s readable poetry. They are nature poems and poems about local places.”

Williams wrote his first serious poem, a love poem about his wife, in 1897 and altogether published six books of poetry, much of which focuses on the local area and his life in the railway.

He was widely acclaimed, featuring in The Times Literary Supplement, and was nicknamed the Hammerman Poet by the Daily Mirror.

This year sees the centenary of the publication of A Wiltshire Village, a book about South Marston and the surrounding area.

Graham said: “It’s just his experiences growing up in South Marston, the people that he met, the places in South Marston.

“Some people complained they were in the book when it was published; some people complained they weren’t in the book.”

Graham also discussed Life In A Railway Factory, which was a contemporary account of Williams’ own experiences in the GWR Works, which he started writing in 1911.

He said: “It was a controversial book when it was published.

“And although the GWR didn’t take to it, it’s not as controversial as the GWR really considered.

“He’s more concerned about the attitudes of the workers and the middle managers and there’s not so much about the company itself.”

The talk was illustrated with photographs of Williams, his home, and some of his belongings.

The most striking item was a photograph showing how Williams had written notes for his work on the back of a used calendar and cigarette packet, because he was too poor at one point to buy paper.

This was followed with readings of his poetry and prose by Kaye Franklin, Graeme Franklin, and Roy Burton, all members of the Friends of Alfred Williams Literary Society.