Two other contenders could be Diana Dors (nee Fluck ) and Desmond 'Human Zoo' Morris. This letter, from a perhaps less famous Swindonian (though he actually came from South Marston) was rescued from a junk stall on the Portobello Road a few years ago. It was written by Alfred Williams (1877 – 1930), sometimes known as the ‘Hammerman Poet ‘, because for 23 years he worked for the GWR, latterly operating a steam hammer—a task that severely damaged his health.
Williams, who published several volumes of decent verse and topographical writing as well as the much admired Life in a Railway Factory, belongs to that small category of writers (most of them poets) who held boring and/or physically taxing jobs while creating reputations for themselves in the literary world. The best known was probably John Clare, but a more recent example is the celebrated poet Peter Reading, who had the thankless task of operating a weighbridge. After many years of doing this he famously refused point blank to wear a uniform when it was imposed on him and instead resigned, whereupon his admirers in the literary world came to his rescue with offers of more congenial literary work.
Williams was less fortunate. With a wife to support there was no way he could have resigned to take up the literary work for which he was temperamentally more suited, though he would certainly have been sacked if The Railway Factory, a blistering expose of life with the GWR, had been published. Instead, he temporarily shelved it and it was 1915 before it appeared,by which time he had left the GWR. However, the strain of balancing a literary career with arduous physical work took its toll on Williams’ health and he died at 53, just days after his devoted wife had passed away from cancer.
There is a sense, however, in which William more properly belongs, not with people like Clare and Reading, but with that tiny group of working class men who became serious scholars. Learning that he taught himself Greek and French before he left for work and amused his fellow artisans by spending his lunch hour reading, reminds me of Samuel Lee, who in the early nineteenth century did just that and a lot more while plying his trade as a carpenter. When his tools were destroyed in a fire he vowed to take up Arabic and Hebrew as well and eventually his proficiency in languages, modern and ancient was rewarded with a place at Cambridge, where, soon after he graduated, his flair for oriental languages got him elected to a professorship in Arabic. For years, this former carpenter, who was later awarded the living of Barley in Hertfordshire, was visited by some of leading Orientalists in Europe.
Judging from this letter, Williams appears to have had similar, if less taxing, intellectual interests. For instance, his correspondent was one J. Venn, who had visited him recently and with whom he had taken a walk. Williams vows to heed his advice and read the poetry of the religious writer George Herbert. He then proceeds to pose some religio/philosophical questions to Venn:
‘Is the soul hereditary? Who and what is the ego? Is it the instrument, or both player and instrument, that join to excel? And what about the note? For we must admit it to be present before the cord(sic) was struck? Or would you term it the faculty for the soul as the string for a note? God forbid! Beware of heredity.
It is tempting to suppose that Williams’ correspondent was the celebrated Cambridge mathematician John Venn (1834 – 1923), author of works on logic and probability and inventor of the Venn diagram. He was a clergyman for a while and was certainly interested in metaphysics. He would have been 75 at the time of the letter, but according to his son, ‘was throughout his life a fine walker and mountain climber, and an excellent talker and linguist.’ If so, it would fascinating to know when and how these two men first met.
[R. M. Healey]