An Alfred Williams Heritage Society is being launched in Swindon on December 8th at 7.00 p.m. In Swindon Central Library. The Society has been set up with the motivation of popularising his writing, putting it on a website, and finding a home for a permanent exhibition and collection of his work, manuscripts, letters etc. The Society has made an application to the Lottery for a grant to organise a two day festival in November of next year, which is the 80th anniversary of Alfred’s death.
Its website can be visited at: www.alfredwilliams.org.uk
Who was Alfred Williams? He was a rail worker in the giant Swindon Rail Works of the Great Western Railway. He was a ‘hammerman’ in the forge. Williams developed something of a reputation because of his poetry and prose writing, appearing in national newspapers. His picture appeared in the Daily Mirror under the title of ‘the poetic blacksmith’. His reputation was based partly on the quality of his writing but also the rarity of a workman being a published poet. Originally an agricultural worker (he moved to the factory for the higher wages) he wrote about rural life in Wiltshire. A journalist suggested to him that he should write something about his experience in the factory, and so he set about doing so. “Life in a Railway Factory” was written after a hard day’s work, and a four mile journey to his home in South Marston, in 12 weeks. It was written in 1911 but not published until 1915, in the expectation that its publication would lead to his dismissal by the GWR. However, Williams was forced to leave the factory as a result of the drastic impact of working conditions on his health. Confined to his bed by violent pains below the heart, his GP reckoned that the smoke from the forges had destroyed his digestive system. As a consequence he left in September of 1914.
“Life in a Railway Factory” is undoubtedly one of the best books written on industrial life, all the richer for the fact that it was written by somebody who lived the experience for 23 years, rather than by an outside observer. It exposes the reality of factory life in the Swindon Works, contrasting sharply with the reputation of the GWR as a ‘benevolent’ employer. Williams shows the tyranny and petty minded methods of the GWR. The GWR was a vehemently anti-union company. It had a fantastic Rule Book in Swindon which was both designed to keep workers away from each other (you could receive a “2s 6d fine or instant dismissal” for going into another shop than the one you worked in, without permission) and to impose a fearful discipline. There was a long list of fines for various misdemeanours. The company was also renowned for it’s notices directed at miscreant behaviour. The threat of instant dismissal was stridently declared for the heinous crime of throwing snowballs outside the works entrance.
The book exposes the appalling working conditions in the factory and the ruthless way that the management dealt with sickness and injury. It deals with the pernicious role of the foremen who constituted the policemen of the management, exercising their power ruthlessly. Although chargeman of his gang Williams twice turned down promotion because he did not want to give orders to others nor to be an ‘agent’ of the company, such as the foremen, who were known by staff as ‘tin gods’.
Alfred was a paradoxical character who admitted that his ‘moderate’ political views views were in contradiction with his experience in the factory.
He could write that:
“The selfishness, cruelty, and arrogance of the capitalist and his agents force the workers into rebellion. The swaggering pomposity and fantastic ceremony of officials fill them with deserving contempt. Their impudence is amazing. I have known a foreman in the shed to attack a man by reason of the decent clothes he had on and forbid him to wear a bowler hat. Not only in the workshop but even at home in his private life and dealings he is under the eye of his employer. His liberty is tyrannical restricted. In the town he is not allowed to supplement his earnings…And if he happens to be a spokesman of a labourers’ union or to be connected with any independent organisation, woe betide him! The older established associations – such as that of the engineers – is not interfered with. It is the unprotected, unskilled workman that must chiefly be terrorised and subjugated.”
“The lust of dominion and possession dates from the very foundations of human society. It is a feature of barbarism…this is what would enslave the labouring classes, in mine, field and factory today. It must not be permitted. There is a way to defeat it. That is by law. Not a law made by the depradators but by the workers themselves. They have the means at their disposal. If they would summon up the courage to make use of them they might shatter the power of the capitalist at a stroke and free themselves from his dominion for ever.”
We have long since known that law in itself is insufficient, since its implementation depends upon trades unions insisting and organising for its application. Yet Alfred was not a trade unionist (perhaps the craft unions turned him away from them) nor a socialist, though he was a friend of Reuben George one of the earliest socialists in Swindon, and for some time involved in the Workers Educational Association.
Historically, when a management wants to deal with a workers’ representative or an independent minded worker who stands up for his/herself, it can either sack or promote them. Williams distaste for the former trade unionist who could be bought for the price of a foreman’s job is expressed by his ironic prose.
“Before a fitter has been promoted to the position of foreman he is a bold champion of the rights of Labour, one loud in his expression of his sympathy with his fellow men, a staunch believer in the liberty of the individual and the hearty condemner of the factory system. If he has been appointed overseer however, there is a considerable change in his manner and attitude to all these and kindred subjects. A great modification of his personal views and opinions soon follows; he begins to look at things from the official standpoint. He is now fond of telling you that ‘things are not as they used to be’…At the same time he will be fairly loyal to his old mates, the journeymen fitters and treat them with superior respect. To the labourers, however, he will not be so well-disposed. He will ignore their interests and treat them with a rod of iron.”
Perhaps his contempt for the self-interest of craft unions was one of the reasons for Alfred not being a trade union. This also helps to explain why there was no tradition of industrial militancy in the Works. The rigid class structures in British society at the time were mirrored in the workplace, meaning that there was often the solidarity of grades of worker, but little solidarity across them. And as Alfred says the management tolerated the craft unions on the principle of divide and rule.
The language of the book burns with the anger of someone who has seen injustice on a daily basis. Its unsparing criticisms of the way the management treated the workforce made it controversial, and it was discussed in the national media, though with generally favourable reviews. It appears to have created quite a stir.
The Daily Chronicle called it “a work of revelation”. The Globe said it deserved to stand beside the sociological works of Prince Kropotkin. The Yorkshire Post regarded it as “literature in the Carlyelan sense, being an actual transcription of life as lived by the writer.” The Times Literary Supplement said of the book:
“Mr Williams puts into words what he sees as well as he can, and since he is a born observer with a gift of words and a love of truth, and since his subject is real life, the result is admirable.”
The GWR magazine attempted to dismiss Williams as a sensitive soul at home with nature and unsuited to factory life. His criticisms of the management could not, of course, be well founded, for this was God’s Wonderful Railway. The book, they said, was full of “bitter prejudices and unwholesome gibes”. They did not take kindly to his view of management, yet even their reviewer had to admit the high quality of the writing. After first denying Williams the right to respond, they eventually conceded, and printed a letter from him.
Although written nearly 90 years ago, the book still has relevance to industrial/working life today. Williams condemns the wastefulness of the company, its introduction of schemes which were unworkable, ‘a fact as plain to the average workman as the nose on his face’. The practical experience and knowledge of the workforce was generally ignored. All these things continue in the workplace today, under different conditions; workplace dictatorship primly described as management’s ‘right to manage’.
Alfred was terribly disappointed at the seeming lack of interest in his book in Swindon, though its price would have prevented many from buying it even if interested. Books were not cheap then. Although very well known in railway and academic circles, he is not well known in Swindon today. He is probably more widely known for his poetry and his writings about rural Wiltshire.
“Life in a Railway Factory” is a classic book, with vivid writing, which anybody interested in working class and labour movement history should know about, and read.
Whilst Williams was an exceptional character in many ways, he was an example of how a working class person could create something of quality, lasting, enduring, even against all odds and the difficult circumstances of his life. What he says about private enterprise is of lasting value for today. We can both enjoy and learn from his work.
The circumstances of his last years and his death were tragic, though that’s a story for another occasion. There’s much more to his story which I will be writing of later.
Secretary Swindon TUC
PS. You can still buy copies of Williams book (or get them through a Library), though it is available on the website above if you don’t mind reading it there.