In the footsteps of H.G. Wells

I arrived in London a few days ago to follow in the footsteps of H.G. Wells, and am staying in Midhurst, West Sussex.

Wells’ parents had met at Uppark, an estate I visited today. His father Joseph had been a gardener and his mother Sarah a lady’s maid. They had married, had children, and lived in Bromley. His father owned a store in town, which variously sold china and cricket gear (he had become a cricketer, and was a good bowler if not a good shopkeeper). His mother raised his sister, who died young, and his two older brothers. At seven years old, Wells was picked up by a boy at school and dropped down hard, breaking his leg. As he convalesced, his father brought him books borrowed from the Literary Institute, and he read voraciously. Upon his recovery, he attended Thomas Morley’s Academy, a private school despite the public schools provided for by the Education Act of 1871. Morley, though moody and abusive, took the new College of Preceptors seriously, and tried to update education. Wells took the College of Preceptors examination in book-keeping when he was about 12, and got a certificate.

His father broke his own leg in 1877, much more seriously than his son, pruning a grapevine on a ladder.

This is where Midhurst comes in. Before she came to Uppark, Sarah, whose maiden name was Neal, was the daughter of George Neal, the owner of New Inn (then Egmont Inn, now a private house in Midhurst on the high street, which used to be called Rumbold’s Hill). She had helped run the inn as a young woman. With her husband disabled, she now had to find a job, and was hired back at Uppark by the woman to whom she’d been lady’s maid, this time as a housekeeper. But the house was much different from when she’d been a lady’s maid.

She obtained an apprenticeship for H.G. at a drapers’ in Windsor, so he could live near his uncle. This didn’t work out, but his Uncle Williams was starting a school in Wookey, even though he wasn’t qualified, and H.G. could be a pupil-teacher. Although relatively unguided, this proved to be his first interesting job. But the school was shut down due to regulations violations, and Wells returned to Uppark. He found interesting objects, like a telescope, in the attic next to his bedroom, and read extensively in the library.

I explored Uppark today, luckily getting to tour the lower floor before they closed it due to lack of volunteers. I saw the Servants Hall where H.G. supposes (in his autobiography that his parents may have met. Most importantly, I saw the cave-like tunnels in which Sarah Wells worked all day. When she was a lady’s maid, she had been on the upper floors. As housekeeper, her Housekeepers Room was in this basement. According to The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase, she was miserable because she rarely went outside. I originally thought that she couldn’t see outside, though I knew the house was designed to let light in to the basement. Today I realized it was because she could see the outside, but not go there. You can see a bit of grass, trees, sky, and the sunshine.

An inlet for light into the basement.

The housekeeper’s room – windows up high show some grass and sky.

The warren of tunnels for getting around below stairs.

After spending Christmas together at Uppark, his mother apprenticed him to a chemist in Midhurst (the shop is now Church Hill dental surgery on South Street).

Wells was tutored in the evenings by Horace Byatt, headmaster of Midhurst Grammar school, to learn Latin, in which he was deficient. This apprenticeship also didn’t work out, so Sarah enrolled him early that year at Midhurst Grammar School, likely so he could board with the Byatts at South Pond (I cannot find the house) while the school, which had burned down, was still being rebuilt.

At this time the government was sponsoring evening classes in science, with grants for schools with students who could pass their examinations. H.G. studied textbooks and sat these exams for Byatt, who himself knew little of science. Wells spent two months there, then returned to pass some of the May examinations.

Sarah Wells again tried to apprentice her son, this time on indenture to a draper in Southsea, in 1881, for a four year contract. H.G. hated it, and kept angling to leave. After two years he was back in contact with Byatt begging to come back to the school, perhaps as an usher. Byatt offered to have him return as student assistant, at first without pay but then agreeing to 20 pounds the first year, with 40 the second year.  What Wells called his “fifth start in life” began in 1883.

The new school-house being occupied by Byatt’s family and boarding students, Wells lodged with a fellow usher above a sweet shop next to the Angel Inn (it is now the Olive and Vine restaurant). The landlady, Mrs. Walton, was a good cook and Wells ate well for the first time. Half his work was teaching in class, and half was as a student studying for examinations to get grants from the science scheme of the government.

Olive and Vine next to Angel Inn

The book The Literary Guide & Companion to Southern England, by Cooper, claims Sarah Wells worked at the Angel Inn while H.G. was at Midhurst, but that isn’t likely – the dates he was there she was only at Uppark. The author might have been confusing it with the New Inn where she worked and lived growing up.

Today some of the old Midhurst Grammar School has been recently torn down to create a housing project (the “Wells Mews”), but the main building still stands and has been turned into the South Downs Centre so part of the building is open to the public.

The “Wells Mews” estates

The Midhurst Grammar School building

Wells is all over Sussex. At Uppark, the volunteer was able to show me the room where the mistresses of the house used to sit with Sarah Wells and her son for tea, which Wells makes fun of in Tono-Bungay. The bus route was difficult to get to Uppark. To not get there long before they opened, I had to take the bus from Midhurst to Chichester, getting a rover ticket, then take a different bus line northward to Uppark. It dropped me off on a B road, and I had to walk up the road to the house. To return at a reasonable time, I had to wait across the B road in brambles and get tormented by gnats and confused drivers till the bus got there.

The bus stop for Bus 54

Although Google told me to change in Rogate, the driver recommended continuing to Petersfield. I did, and there was Wells, who evidently “regularly dined and wrote” in the Old Drum pub on Chapel Street, according to another blue plaque. I can’t verify that at all.

The Old Drum, Petersfield

But he seems to be everywhere. On the way to Midhurst from Heathrow, I had to change from bus to train at Woking. Wells lived at Woking later, with his second wife, on Maybury Road. I tried to walk down to his house to see it, but I was hauling luggage and didn’t make it. Apparently he also set The War of the Worlds there, and a brochure leads you to the sand pit where they supposedly landed. Everywhere he lived claims him, even though he was a ladies’ man, a man who left his wife for a  student, a Fabian and later a promoter of a New World Order.

But Sussex claims his youth.

2 thoughts to “In the footsteps of H.G. Wells”

  1. Wells sounds like something of a difficult personality. But that seems to have played a huge role in his adventures and eventual accomplishment.

    1. I think there is no question that he was a difficult person – there is a viciousness, even when being humorous, in some of his writings – I’m thinking of a particular review he did of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But he was usually honest about his faults, at least as an older man writing his autobiography.

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