Alfred Williams 'The Hammerman Poet' :: Shared Description

Written by Brian Robert Marshall

Alfred Williams (1877-1930) is a relatively little-known author and poet who was born and who died at the relatively young age of 53 in the small village of South Marston, just outside Swindon. He and his wife Mary lived a hard life, in poverty for much of the time.

Alfred was of Welsh extraction, his father Elias having moved from the Principality as a youth with his father. Elias married the daughter of the farmer with whom he was lodging and moved into Cambria Cottage SU1987 : Cambria Cottage, South Marston which Elias and his wife Elizabeth had built. On either 6th or 7th February 1877 (the dates vary depending on the source) Owen Alfred Williams was born. At some point between 1881 and 1882 Elias abandoned his wife and their eight children along with considerable debts. The actions of his father could in part explain why Alfred was rarely addressed as Owen by friends and family. Perhaps further to distance himself from the memory of his father and the Welsh connotations, Alfred may even have relegated Owen to second place since his grave is marked Alfred Owen Williams.

By the time Alfred was five he had survived several accidents including falling down a well, nearly drowning whilst fishing for minnows and being run over by a market gardener’s cart.

Aged six, Alfred and his family were evicted from his birthplace and they moved a few metres along the road to Rose Cottage SU1987 : Rose Cottage, South Marston where Alfred stayed until he married in 1903. From the age of eight Alfred became a part-timer at the village school spending the rest of his time as a farm worker. At the age of eleven Alfred left school altogether and became a full-time houseboy at a local farm. He worked at other farms in the locality until, aged 14, he began work at the Great Western Railway factory in Swindon. He made several attempts to join the Navy, Army and Metropolitan Police between then and the age of 17. All these attempts were unsuccessful.

At around this time Alfred started to express himself through poetry and painting drawing on the experiences he accumulated on his spare-time rambles in the countryside in Wiltshire and Berkshire. By the age of 20 Alfred had started serious study and in 1900 he enrolled on a correspondence course with the newly-established Ruskin College Oxford. All the while he continued working at the railway works at hard physical labour, even though he could have left the workshops for the comparative comforts afforded by an office post.

In 1903 he married, not in South Marston but in Eddington near Hungerford. Alfred and Mary Williams moved into their first marital home Dryden Cottage SU1987 : Dryden Cottage, South Marston, Swindon a mere 30 metres from where Alfred was born. They were to live there for a further 15 years. In that time Alfred published five volumes of poetry and several non-fiction books describing life in the villages of east Wiltshire and Berkshire. He sold these books by going door to door with limited success.

In 1914 at the age of 37 he was forced to leave the railway works because of ill-health brought about by years of over-work. From then on he and Mary survived on what he made from book sales and market gardening. Sadly, neither source of income was particularly fruitful and they subsisted rather than lived. They did receive small amounts of money from patronage sources to add to their income.
Rather surprisingly, in 1916 aged 39, Alfred was accepted as fit for active military service as a gunner in the Artillery. Subsequently he saw service in Ireland, Scotland and India.

In 1919, a year after the end of the Great War, Alfred returned to England. Then the owner of their home, which they had been renting, wanted vacant possession. The couple started on a self-build project on land they had inherited nearby. By using bricks, stones and timber obtained from a disused canal lock, Chiseldon Camp, Minchinhampton Aerodrome and a demolished cottage they built the property which they named ‘Ranikhet’ after the Indian hill station where Alfred had served in the war. It took them from December 1920 until January 1922 to complete the work, much of the labouring carried out by themselves. Some finance was provided by benefactors and government subsidies, presumably as part of the governments ‘land fit for heroes’ initiatives.

Alfred and Mary were destined to live at Ranikhet for less than a decade. In that time Alfred continued to study and to produce works of poetry, non-fiction, a (failed) novel and translation of Sanskrit writings. Their market gardening enterprises were only marginally successful. By 1930 they were both in poor health.

In January 1930 Mary was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was admitted to hospital in Swindon. Alfred was grief-stricken by the news and seems to have lost the will to live. He succumbed to a heart attack at Ranikhet on 10th April 1930. Mary discharged herself from hospital two days later and returned to Ranikhet where, although unable to attend her husband’s funeral, she was able to view Alfred’s funeral procession. She lingered on for a few weeks but finally died on 30th May 1930. They had no children. They are united in death in the village churchyard at St Mary Magdalene, South Marston SU1987 : St Mary Magdalene, South Marston

For the information in this description I am indebted to a new website dedicated to the life and works of Alfred Williams LinkExternal link
by Brian Robert Marshall
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6 images use this description:

SU1987 : Plaque, Rose Cottage, South Marston by Brian Robert Marshall
SU1987 : Plaque, Cambria Cottage, South Marston by Brian Robert Marshall
SU1987 : Dryden Cottage, South Marston, Swindon by Brian Robert Marshall
SU1987 : Cambria Cottage, South Marston by Brian Robert Marshall
SU1987 : Rose Cottage, South Marston by Brian Robert Marshall
SU1576 : Richard Jefferies/Alfred Williams memorial stone by Brian Robert Marshall


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Created: Fri, 7 May 2010, Updated: Tue, 8 Jun 2010

The 'Shared Description' text on this page is Copyright 2010 Brian Robert Marshall, however it is specifically licensed so that contributors can reuse it on their own images without restriction.

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