Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop in Midhurst, West Sussex, reported to me this morning on a North Street fire, which has consumed much of the 400-year-old Angel Inn and nearby buildings.
There were no severe injuries. Most people, including Ukranian women and children being housed at the hotel, were evacuated, and 14 units responded to the blaze. In its usual community spirit, Midhurst is making sure everyone is being tended to.
For historians, the loss of buildings that are centuries old is heartbreaking. For Wellsians, this is a disaster as well. H.G. Wells had a history with Midhurst that began in 1881, when he came there to apprentice with chemist Samual Cowap and took some night classes with Horace Byatt, the new headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School. He then joined the school officially as a pupil-teacher, living at Byatt’s house (which I have determined is now 6 South Street).
But his mother (the daughter of a Midhurst innkeeper, according to Wells) apprenticed him to a draper in Southsea. He begged Byatt to return, and in 1883 he came back as a student assistant, taking a room over the sweet shop (The Olde Tea Shoppe). He and his fellow student assistant were fed wonderful meals by the owner, Mrs. Walton.
Mrs. Walton is portrayed in Wells’ Wheels of Chance, as is his bedroom there, although it wasn’t diamond paned:
The room had a curtained recess and a chest of drawers, for presently it was to be his bedroom, and the day part of it was decorated with framed Oddfellows’ certificates and giltbacked books and portraits, and kettle-holders, and all kinds of beautiful things made out of wool; very comfortable it was indeed. The window was lead framed and diamond paned, and through it one saw the corner of the vicarage and a pleasant hill crest, in dusky silhouette against the twilight sky.
The Angel Hotel was next door, and here he barely changes Mrs. Walton’s name:
We left Mr. Hoopdriver at the door of the little tea, toy, and tobacco shop. You must not think that a strain is put on coincidence when I tell you that next door to Mrs. Wardor’s—that was the name of the bright-eyed, little old lady with whom Mr. Hoopdriver had stopped—is the Angel Hotel, and in the Angel Hotel, on the night that Mr. Hoopdriver reached Midhurst, were ‘Mr.’ and ‘Miss’ Beaumont, our Bechamel and Jessie Milton.
These are not the only examples, of course. Midhurst pops in and out of Mr. Wells’s work, and the surrounding area is featured in everything from The Time Machine to Tono Bungay. In his autobiography, it’s clear that he spent some of the happiest times of his life there.
The Angel is a landmark for West Sussex and the surrounding area, and the town boasts the headquarters of the South Downs National Park and the Cowdray Ruins. Rebuilding the Angel is already being discussed, but it’s still quite sad. This photo from Sussex Live shows the extraordinary damage.