Alfred Williams

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(Owen) Alfred Williams, song collector, 1877–1930.

Born at South Marston, near Swindon, Wiltshire, Williams was the fifth of eight surviving children, the youngest son of a decorative woodworker from Conwy in Wales. His father left home when Williams was just three, but his mother took on additional jobs, which enabled her children to attend the village school. He started work at the age of eight, part-time on a local farm, leaving school three years later to work there full-time. From 1892 till 1914 Williams worked for the Great Western Railway, in the railway works at Swindon, and his time there formed the subject of his Life in a Railway Factory (1915).

During this time he studied Latin and Greek in his spare time, and enrolled on an English Literature correspondence course with Ruskin Hall, Oxford, in 1900. He began writing and several volumes of his poetry were published, including Songs in Wiltshire (1909), Poems in Wiltshire (1911), Nature and other Poems (1912), and Cor cordium (1913). He also wrote prose works, mainly on rural life, including A Wiltshire Village (1912), Villages of the White Horse (1913), Round about the Upper Thames (1922).

Williams left the Railway Works owing to ill health, and he took up market gardening - although he volunteered for the army in 1916, and served in India 1917-1919. After the war he returned to market gardening, and to writing, and lived the rest of his life in South Marston.

Alfred Williams is best known in the folk world as the author of Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames (1923), which contained the words of songs from Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Gloucestershire, as well as his native Wiltshire.

Song texts from Williams' manuscripts are now online at

Published works


  • Clissold, Ivor. ‘Alfred Williams, Song Collector’, FMJ 1 (1969), pp293-300.
    A brief account of the self-styled ‘Hammerman Poet’, railway-worker, writer on rural life, and folk song collector in the upper Thames region.
  • Purslow, Frank. ‘The Williams Manuscripts’, FMJ 1 (1969), pp301-315.
    Describes the collection of folk songs (without tunes) made in the upper Thames region around 1914 by Alfred Williams, and includes some songs from the manuscript. The manuscript seems not necessarily to represent the material as it was collected in the field, but it does include items not readily classified as folk songs which people were nonetheless evidently singing.

External links