Born at South Marston on 7 February 1877, Alfred Williams was barely five years old when his father walked out on his mother, forcing her to move Alfred and relocate his six siblings locally. Rudimentary schooling increasingly gave way to the need to work on local farms to help support his ailing family. This situation eventually necessitated a move for better paid work at the Great Western Railway's giant works in Swindon. In spite of the arduous and soul destroying nature of his new occupation, Alfred compensated by educating himself and beginning to explore his creative urges.
Working entirely in his spare time he learned the classics, read Shakespeare, experimented with painting, taught himself languages and generally absorbed whatever information he could about the natural world and the people around him. Poetry came first and in 1909 his first book was published, Songs in Wiltshire, the first of six collections of poetry. Though most of his work was well received none of his books were commercial enough to allow him to leave the factory, let alone provide him with a comfortable income, and he lived an impoverished life.
The support of his friends and the generosity of benefactors made it possible for him to continue to publish. It was through such friends' efforts that three different prime ministers got to hear of his plight, but they were unable to authorise the permanent civil pension that would have made all the difference. In 1914, dogged by ill health, Alfred was forced to leave the railway works and try to make ends meet by market gardening.
Now it was possible for Life in a Railway Factory (1915) to appear, considered by many to be his greatest work and one which would not have been tolerated by his employers whilst still in their employ. The Daily Chronicle called it “a book of revelation,” while The Times produced a lengthy review that began: “This book may be read either as pure literature or as a social study; it is both.”
Meanwhile, the First World War raged on and Alfred, despite his ill health, volunteered and was surprisingly passed fit for service. He became a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and found himself serving in India.
He wrote a series of war poems for the local press that were eventually published in book form as War Songs and Sonnets in 1916. In 1922 Round About the Upper Thames, a book finished eight years earlier, finally made it into print. It was followed, in 1923, by Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, which featured the best of a large collection of folk songs texts he had collected just prior to the war. His mission to help preserve the dying tradition of folksong was thus achieved by cycling around the area.
Alfred Williams died on 10 April 1930.
The Alfred Williams manuscript collection resides at the Swindon and Wiltshire History Centre, including his folk song notebooks. These cover the period coverage 1913-16 and the principal geographical coverage is the Thames Valley, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.