Alfred Williams (1877–1930)

(Owen) Alfred Williams was a poet and writer, whose account of more than 20 years employment at the locomotive works of the Great Western Railway at Swindon is one of the most vivid and eloquent records, written from the point of view of an employee, of the way of life a large engineering establishment.

Williams was born at South Marston, a parish adjacent to Swindon, where many employees at the railway company’s works had settled. His father was a woodworker from Conwy, North Wales, but his mother was locally-born. His wife, whom he married in 1903, was the daughter of a moulder.

Throughout his life he was an autodidact. He taught himself Latin and Greek in his teens, and followed a course at Ruskin Hall (now Ruskin College), Oxford, in 1900. While on military service in India during the First World War he learned Sanskrit. He was employed at the railway works, principally as a hammerman, between 1892 and 1914, when ill-health caused him to seek outdoor employment as a market gardener.

His first significant publication, Songs of Wiltshire, appeared in 1902, and A Wiltshire Village, ten years later. He was interested, as were many contemporaries, in the life and lore of the countryside, and his objective was to provide for posterity ‘a permanent record of the language and activities of the district in which I find myself’, but, unusually, he was also interested in describing large-scale industry. His Life in Railway Factory, published in 1915, provides a vivid record of a management regime that was alienating and often cruel. It has few parallels in English literature and has been reprinted several times.

After his return from India in 1920-21 he and his wife built a house in South Marston to which they gave the Indian name ‘Ranikhet’. He continued to publish books on the folk lore and folk song of the Vale of the White Horse, and in 1924 brought out a collection of his poems. He is commemorated by memorials on Liddington Hill and Barbury Hill.