Alfred Williams – Poet, Factory Worker, Classicist

Alfred Williams (1877-1930)

Author of Life in a Railway Factory, Williams taught himself Greek and Latin while working full time in a factory.

William’s left school at 11 to work at a farm laborer, before becoming a steamhammer operator at age 14. He worked in that factory for the next twenty four years and also found time to translate Ovid, Pindar, Sappho, Plato and Horace, as well as write Life in a Railway Factory, and scores of poetry.


Here’s Mary Beard on this amazing gentleman:

[Williams] taught himself Greek and Latin partly by chalking up his irregular verbs on the casing of his forge.

Needless to say, this was a little trick which (however innocent) didn’t appeal to the foreman. To stop Williams using the side of his forge as an aide memoire, he had it covered with oil. Even this didn’t stop Williams. As his first biographer explained, “With characteristic determination Alf. dared to clean off the oil thoroughly – in his own time of course, for he was always careful to avoid placing a weapon in the hand of his oppressor – and rewrote the Greek.

Williams remains a bit of a cult figure. There’s a website devoted to him and Life in a Railway Factory is available for free.

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