Alfred Williams, Football, and Edwardian Industrial Life in the South

I wish I didn’t have to introduce Alfred Williams (1877-1930), but I probably do. Yet he deserves to be more famous than Percy Grainger:

In 1892 he went to work in the Great Western Railway works in Swindon, principally as a hammer-man, and remained there until 1914. Williams began studying in his spare time in 1897 and taught himself Latin and Greek, enrolling in a correspondence course in English literature at Ruskin Hall, Oxford, in 1900. He married his childhood friend Mary Maria Peck (1880–1930), daughter of William Peck, moulder, on 21 October 1903. They had no children. In 1903–4 he started writing, and by 1907 his poems were appearing in anthologies. He received the patronage of Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice (E. G. Petty-Fitzmaurice) and published several volumes of poetry, notably Songs in Wiltshire (1909), Poems in Wiltshire (1911), Nature and other Poems (1912), and Cor cordium (1913). His best poetry is in his Selected Poems (1926).

Williams’s most enduring work, his account Life in a Railway Factory (1915), is informed by a keen sense of the cruel, alienating regime of the factory. In his books on folk life—A Wiltshire Village (1912), Villages of the White Horse(1913), Round about the Upper Thames (1922), Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames (1923), and The Banks of Isis, serialized in the North Berkshire Heraldin 1925—he left, as he had hoped to do, ‘a permanent record of the language and activities of the district in which I find myself’. They show an intense awareness of a fast disappearing way of life. His translation of Tales from the Panchatantrawas published posthumously in 1930. (John Goodridge, ODNB)

Williams, uniquely, was a chronicler both of the realities of Edwardian industrial life and of fast-fading rural traditions. He is still a familiar name to lovers of traditional English folk song and the lyrics he collected so patiently are now an irreplacable resource. Like Robert Roberts of Salford (1905-79), he was an intellectual by nature dropped by fate into what Roberts called “the City of Dreadful Night”, but we can be grateful for what he brought out of it for us.

Life in a Railway Factory came out a year after Williams had been driven out of Swindon Works by his failing health, but it is a measure of the man’s ability to live two lives that its dedication reads “To my Friend Alfred E. Zimmern

But if you imagine Williams is here on MTMG because, like Sir Edward Elgar, he was an avid football man, think again:


But, unlike Robert Roberts in Salford, for whom football was the dog that failed to bark in the night, Williams did at least notice the game, and leaves us clues as to its reach and importance in Edwardian Swindon – a town with its own club, true, but one far from the great northern heart of the Football League.


The history of industrial Britain is that of something hellish and new to the world that is made tolerable by inches, yielding some good things along the way. There is a double-dip in the story – Ford-style mass production was still to arrive in Williams’s day, and his master Churchward was amongst the first railway engineers anywhere to standardize parts. A great, soul-crushing boredom lay in the future which he’d never see nor experience.

But there was plenty to see and experience nonetheless, and you must imagine Sammy and Harry in their shirts and their boots in amongst this kind of thing:


This, I have to tell you, is the tone for almost the entire book: remember, this was G.J. Churchward’s Swindon Works, one of the most modern and sympathetic factories in the United Kingdom at the time. Nevertheless, Williams claims that factory inspectors, contrary to Great Western propaganda, never seen, and that, as night follows day, led to this:


Perhaps I’ve cherry-picked some of the more melodramatic of Williams’s passages, ignoring, for instance, his one brief autobiographical anecdote bewailing the fate of the intellectual (“Where the cultured person does exist in the shed he must generally suffer exquisite tortures” – which sounds eerily like Theodore Dalrymple, but then so do all of the greatest of our magnificent autodictats, amongst whom, of course, Elgar.) And the glory of the book is in his pin-sharp characterisation of his workmates – one chapter comprises nothing but an entire shift’s conversation, recorded verbatim and in dialect – and in his ability to see their situation through the eyes of readers wealthier and better-fed than he himself would ever be: