The memories of Betty Reynolds, who knew Alfred when she was a child

There is only one way to find out what historical characters were really like - by talking to people who knew them.

Betty Reynolds will celebrate her 90th birthday in the spring of 2011, but she can still vividly recall her meetings with Alfred and Mary Williams in South Marston in the late 1920s.

Her memories provide a unique insight into what the celebrated author was really like, revealing an almost pathological pride that made him unable to accept 'charity' in any form, and a remarkable modesty about his achievements that led him to feel he was "inferior" to his neighbours.

Betty has kindly donated a small chalice to the Society which Alfred brought back from his First World War service in India. He gave it as a wedding present to his sister who, in turn, gave it to Betty's parents as a token of their friendship with Alfred. It's a priceless link with Alfred's life in general and India in particular, but Betty's memories are precious too.

"I remember Alfred and Mary very clearly," said Betty, who was born Betty Crouch and is now a widow, living in Highworth. "It must have been 1925 or 1926 when I first met him. I would have been about five years old, and he died when I was nine.

"I was only a small child at South Marston School. I used to go to the chapel, just down the lane from his house, and we would play nearby. I also went into their house a few times.

"Mr Williams - as we called him - was very friendly when you got to know him, although he could seem standoffish at first. Both he and Mary were very softly spoken, quiet and unassuming, and a little bit shy."

Betty's sharpist memories concern Alfred and Mary's poverty, which was so acute that it seemed to define them in their last few years. By this time, even the meagre income that book sales brought him had completely dried up, even though he had recently published Selected Poems. The market garden business he was trying to run was still struggling, and Betty confirmed that suggestions that Alfred and Mary were almost literally starving during this period were no exaggeration. Yet his pride always prevented Alfred from accepting anything that smacked of charity - even if it was offered out of real friendship and heartfelt generosity.

"Even as a child I realised they were what we used to call 'mouse poor'," said Betty. "It was awful. They had nothing.

"My parents were very friendly and sociable people, so although Mr Williams could seem a bit standoffish to other people, my parents weren't put off, and they got to know each other. I have a feeling that Father called him Alf, but everybody else called him Mr Williams, and Mary was always Mrs Williams.

"Father would give anything to anybody, but even though they were friends, he always spurned any help we would offer. I remember, one Christmas, Mother and Father wanted to invite them to Christmas dinner, and my father came up with a plan. 'We'll send our Bet down with a letter,' he said, so I took it to their house.

"I handed it to Mrs Williams, but she gave it straight to Alfred. It was always like that. He made all the decisions and she always followed what he said. He read the letter and said, 'Sorry. We can't do that. We've already got our provisions in for Christmas.' He wouldn't be persuaded to come to dinner, even though my father said that I loved to hear his tales about India and that sort of thing.

"Even I, as a young child, knew they didn't have anything. They kept a few chickens, so they had a few eggs, but I doubt whether they even had a chicken for dinner that Christmas. We asked them to my birthday parties too, but still they wouldn't come.

"He was so independent. He wouldn't be helped, yet they were skin and bone; both of them. You couldn't give them anything.

"Sometimes my parents would leave them food on the doorstep, anonymously, but he always knew where it had come from and brought it straight back. Yet he was generous in return. When it was my mother's birthday, he would bring her strawberries from his garden, but if my father tried to pay for them, he refused to take the money because it was a gift. He would even give pennies to the children in the village, but Mother and Father always told me not to take it because he couldn't afford it."

Sometimes, however, Alfred's situation became so desperate that he worked out a way of bypassing his pride, as Betty explained.

"Sometimes, he would turn up at the door and say he had brought 'the produce you ordered'. In fact, we hadn't ordered it, but they never said anything and just paid him. They were happy to. Whenever Alfred was paid any money, you would see Mary going straight to the shops to buy things. That's how poor they were.

"My parents were so worried about them that they often bought things from him that they didn't want. Even his sister said: 'He won't let me do anything for him.' When he was building his house, my father, who was a bricklayer, went down there and helped, but Alfred wanted to pay for it. There was a bit of trouble over that, but Father gave him an hour or two when he could.

"They had no amenities, but then nobody had electricity or gas installed in those days, nor running water. But we had a gas lamp in each room in our house. I can't remember seeing a lamp round there. I think they only had candles. I only ever went in the kitchen. I'm not even sure if they had any furniture in the other rooms.

"They were terribly poor, but they were always clean. You'd never catch him without a tie, and she always wore her pinafore. The house was as clean as a pin, but there was never any food about."

Although Alfred died of a heart attack and Mary was already terminally ill with cancer, Betty is in no doubt about the underlying cause of their deaths. "I really think they died of starvation," said Betty.

Alfred's love of children has been well documented and he wrote about them with affection in his books - and Betty experienced this at close hand. "He was very proud, but he was a very nice man," she said, "and he was especially fond of children. I know they would have liked to have had children of their own. He never grumbled about us playing outside his house, even though some of the boys liked to play tricks on him. They would hide his spade when he wasn't looking. He would find it again and not say anything. I don't think he was annoyed, but he didn't see the humour in it either. He didn't seem to find anything very amusing and didn't take it as a joke. He didn't say anything."

Even though she was only a young child, Betty also recognised the love and devotion between Alfred and Mary. "They were very close. She seemed to have no opinion of her own, but I think she was absolutely dotty about him. She was just happy to be with him. Their only regret was that they didn't have children."

Betty even remembers the day of Alfred's death. By now, Mary was in Victoria Hospital in Swindon, fighting a losing battle against cancer, and Alfred's body was discovered slumped over his bed at home.

"The police were outside the house. We were playing in the lane and they shooed us all off. We asked when we could come back and the policeman told us to come back after tea."

Betty's most poignant memories are probably those associated with Alfred's standing - or lack of it - in the village. This aspect of the story is probably as sad as the poverty he lived in, and is perhaps just as self-induced.

"I think he thought of himself as a bit of an outcast," said Betty. "He wanted to be one of the village, but felt inferior because he didn't have enough money. He was worried about getting involved in anything in case he had to pay for anything. He felt inferior because of money.

"My parents told him he should get a job somewhere, teaching. I was promised that when I went to grammar school (as I later did, in Euclid Street, Swindon), he would help me with my homework. But he died two years before I went. It was once suggested that he should come into school to do a talk about India, but he never did. He thought it would be seen as boasting."

Relative newcomers to the village were largely unaware of his distinguished past. Because they moved to South Marston in the early 1920s, which was after the peak of Alfred's busiest writing period, Betty's family had little idea of Alfred's renown as a writer.

"I never knew he was 'famous' until after he died, and even Mother and Father didn't seem to know much about it. It also seems that he closed his mind to India, although I remember he said he had to come home to Mary, or maybe he would have stayed there.

"He wouldn't talk about any of it because he didn't want people to think that he was showing off."

Betty's gift to the Society