The mysterious M. Birt

Another post on the mysteries and fascination of doing research!

So I’m checking the transcriptions of various articles by H. G. Wells, and I’m working on a book review he did for the Saturday Review in 1895. The book was Abelard and the Origin and Early History of Universities by Gabriel Compayré. And I get to this:

I often run into this sort of name dropping in Wellsian articles. Since I’m annotating his work, I need to find out who M. Birt is. I assume M is “Monsieur”, though it could be a first initial. I do what I always do, grabbing some of the quote and Googling it in quotation marks. Nothing.

This is unusual, but it’s happened before. Not everything published is available online, of course. So I try to hunt down M. Birt with search terms: Birt + 19th + century + education, Birt + 19th + century + university.

There’s a printer named Birt in Seven Dials, there’s a Rodger Birt who wrote recently about a 19th century photographer. A theologian at Leeds…nope. This looks promising:

He seems to be some sort of astronomer, so I search for a first name. Scroll up 15 pages. William Radcliffe Birt. Google that then.  Oooh, he was a leading selenographer. I know that word now: he liked mapping the moon. But what does that have to do with medieval universities? Maybe he wrote something about them. Try Google Books — all astronomy. Internet Archive. Nothing. Nothing? Take out his middle name. An obituary. An astronomer, and died decades before. Hathi Trust. Nope. Maybe it’s not him.

Back to Google. Birt + university. Lots of acronyms. Birt + medieval + university. Google changes Birth to “birth”, but if I wish I could see what ratings Paul Birt at University of Ottowa is earning on RateMyProfessors.

Back to plan A, the quotation. I try “This is the way with learned bodies.” Nothing. F*** Google. Switch to Dogpile.

Try M. Birt medieval university. Hmmm…

Germany? Entirely possible.

Change search to t + birt + medieval + university. He’s there in Google Books. A modern classicist. No, that’s not it. Back to Search theodor birt german. All the books are in German. I don’t read German. Back to Google: Theodor Birk. Wikipedia!

Great! Except none of his publications are in English. The most popular one with a close date is Das antike Buchwesen in seinem Verhältnis zur Literatur (1882). Something about ancient books. Maybe he did medieval stuff too?

Idea! Maybe the quotation is translated from the German. Use Google Translate. Put in part of the quotation. Get German translation. Get Google to translate German result. Not making sense. Try “medieval university” translated, with his name. Nothing.

Besides, Wells didn’t speak German, or if he did he couldn’t have done it well. And he wouldn’t bother translating for an article he’d dashed off for money. It just didn’t make sense. And why would Theodor Birt be messing around in the Middle Ages anyway if he was a classicist? It was all too obscure. By now it’s midnight and I’ve had it up to hear with M. Birt.

Plan A again. I try Googling, “Peripatetics when all the world”. The article by Wells that I’m transcribing comes up, which is nice. But right below it is this:

That’s strange. It’s the book Wells is reviewing. Isn’t the quotation from M. Birt? I take a look. The quote is actually from Campayré’s book. But something is a little different:

That’s not M. Birt. It’s M. Biot. The printer (not Birt the printer) got it wrong. It’s a typo. A 124-year-old typo that has had me searching all over for a mysterious Mr Birt in the middle of the night.

Biot. M. Biot. Campayré calls him a historian of science. Google: Biot + history + science. First link is a dead end, some kind of anagram. Second link goes to some Memoir in Google Books. Score! It’s the Report of the Council to the Forty-third Annual Meeting of (scroll up) the Royal Astronomical Society, 1864. Not astronomy again? But there it is, in all its glory, a little biography:

Ah, Jean-Baptiste. Google the full name. Wikipedia. Oh, no, all the books are in French. Translate: université médiévale…

But, the important thing is, I know it’s a typo, and I know that it’s Compayné quoting and not Wells. That will have to do for what is, quite literally, a footnote to history.


Wells and the moon shot

On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I picked up my copy of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901), and found these paragraphs:

. . . Then with a click the window flew open. I fell clumsily upon hands and face, and saw for a moment between my black extended fingers our mother earth—a planet in a downward sky.
   We were still very near—Cavor told me the distance was perhaps eight hundred miles and the huge terrestrial disc filled all heaven. But already it was plain to see that the world was a globe. The land below us was in twilight and vague, but westward the fast gray stretches of the Atlantic shone like molten silver under the receding day. I think I recognised the cloud-dimmed coast-lines of France and Spain and the south of England, and then, with a click, the shutter closed again, and I found myself in a state of extraordinary confusion sliding slowly over the smooth glass.
   When at last things settled themselves in my mind again, it seemed quite beyond question that the moon was “down” and under my feet, and that the earth was somewhere away on the level of the horizon—the earth that had been “down” to me and my kindred since the beginning of things.

Red Lion Square

Back in June, I went to a meeting of the H.G. Wells Society in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. While I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to look around, I knew I was in a very special place.

In Red Lion Square in 1889, William Briggs opened the London headquarters of the University Correspondence College. He had founded the UCC two years before in Cambridge, and had begun a London operation from an office at 1 Strand Hotel Buildings (which were probably in Holywell Street, now just a widening of Strand). The new offices were likely at 27 Red Lion Square, but the labs and commercial address (for what was called the University Tutorial College) were at 32. So where are these places now?

I have only haphazardly engaged in this investigation, because the site itself isn’t that important. Who cares where H.G. Wells taught his laboratories? Well, I do, if only as a sideline. I have a pretty strong sense of place. I crawled around the Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and asked questions at their photography archives, knowing I was in the same building, possibly on the same staircase, as Wells had been when he studied there (when it was the Normal School of Science) under T.H. Huxley. I’ve walked his path from the train station at Woking toward his house, and journeyed down Euston Road knowing he lived there, and looked up at the sign by his flat in Baker Street. Wells, I’m sure, would not object to my sense of geographic romance.

I began the Red Lion Square quest a few years ago, with this page from the University College London’s Bloomsbury project of 2007-2011. It not only mentions the UCC, but boasts a page on the University Tutorial College. That page cites Anna de Salvo’s book and Alan Tait’s article (I’m familiar with both). It also has a note about Briggs that sent me to the catalog of the British Archives, and ultimately to the archives themselves at Kew, only to discover that the documents were all about the college as part of Briggs’ will, not, as the site says, records of the UCC. The page also claims the UTC moved to Booksellers Row, which is not exactly accurate: the UCC textbook-selling operation and publisher (W.B. Clive) had been there since 1887, and remained there for some time. Booksellers Row, I know, is gone.

Searching for old places is always difficult in a living city. Here the case has been particularly tough, because the square was bombed during World War II. The Friends of Red Lion Square Gardens have a page on what happened, and I was able to note some of the addresses, and see a map of the square in 1952, showing the bombed areas.

Although I had read somewhere that the addresses around the square had changed a lot, the UCL Bloomsbury site said helpfully that Horwood’s maps of 1819 correspond with the Post Office listings of 1879, which isn’t 1889 but it’s close. So I found Horwood’s map at the Romantic London research website, and took a look.

This is the map of the square in 1819, and it includes house numbers. This confused me at first – you have to add in the indicator number (in other words, the “7” between 25 and 30 is “27”), then it makes sense.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1895 shows that not much has changed with the buildings:

So I printed out this map as a template, then used a pencil and noted the addresses I had. I know Conway Hall is at 25, on the corner of Lambs Conduit Passage. It was built in 1927, so it wasn’t there in 1889, but it helped me get my bearings. Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived at 17, and there’s a plaque I can see on Google Street View, so that helped with the other side of the square. Looking around the square in Google, I marked on my map all the obviously new (since 1950s) buildings. Here’s the result:

Having done this, I’m now not surprised the UCC building isn’t there, even if it wasn’t bombed. Very little of the late 19th century square exists. Red Lion Passage is gone, and is now the entry to a block of flats. Drake Street was later extended to Eagle Street.

Why did Briggs choose Red Lion Square for his college? In 1878, according to Old and New London:

“The whole of the square, having long since been deserted by the families who used to inhabit it, has become quite a warren, so to speak, of charitable societies, which we have no room to enumerate in detail.”

William Briggs, a Yorkshireman, wouldn’t have spent a penny more than he had to. I noticed in an photo from 1941 St George’s College (civil service and secretarial training), so I wonder whether Red Lion Square was particularly suited to small, private, educational institutions — the UCC was still there in 1941. The UCL Bloomsbury Project page noted that a lot of the area had been sold off by its 18th century aristocratic landlords to pay off debts.

So yes, I suspect it would have been a cheap place to set up shop. At 8A, across the Square, was the Midnight Meeting Movement, which “rescued” prostitutes, so there was plenty of learning to go round.


A glowing review

It’s funny what will make you laugh. For example, I found this review in my photos from my recent research trip. It’s from the Science and Art journal, shortly after H.G. Wells published his textbook:

Why did it make me LOL? Because I know that A.T.S. is A.T. Simmons, a friend of Wells from his Normal School days. Simmons’ obituary in Nature describes them as “almost inseparable” in college.

So, if any of my dearest friends want to review my work in a professional journal, go for it.


When you’re tired of London…

Samuel Johnson famously said that when you are tired of London, you are tired of life.

But I do tire of London. Its busy, polyglot, loud and smoggy atmosphere do get to me. But it’s always exciting, with so much to do.

Again I stayed close to the British Library, because the problems with getting everything at Boston Spa meant I had re-ordered a number of items for London. And it all showed up! Looking through the journals, I discovered two more Wellsian pieces that aren’t in the bibiliographies. It’s almost annoying now. Almost, but not quite.

Because I was also able to mention it while attending the H. G. Wells Society’s Annual General Meeting. I am a fairly new member, and have published in their journal, but I had not actually met any of the other members. I was meant to, on an outing to G.B. Shaw’s house planned for September (Wells’ birthday is in September). But it had cancelled.

I was tentative about attending the meeting, because I knew that several people whose work I admire would be there (I’m actually not nearly as confident as I appear in print — well, almost). And indeed, it was a small meeting with all the folks I wanted to meet. Everyone was very kind, and I was introduced as someone engaged in digging up articles by Wells no one knows about. Many of the members study Wells’ literature, rather than history. I very much enjoyed the paper Eric Fitch presented, which reaffirmed how very deep and wide is the interest in Wells. There was a discussion about how to get younger people more interested in his work, but of course there are perennial movies and exhibits based on his science fiction going on all the time.

But man cannot live on Wells alone. One also goes to London for the art museums, and there was a major Van Gogh exhibit on at the Tate Britain. Although the tickets were timed, each group allowed in was huge. It was very difficult to see the pictures:

Can you see any Van Goghs? It wasn’t easy. Everyone wanted in particular to see Sunflowers, which is funny because it’s usually at the National Gallery anyway. There’s quite a rivalry between the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. A couple of years ago I attended a talk at the Turner gallery at the Tate, which has a huge selection of Turners, but not my two favorites, The Fighting Temeraire (soon to be on the £20 note) and the Great Western Railway. They were rather defensive about the fact that those are at the National Gallery.

Not a lot easier to see paintings there, is it? But I am really glad that everyone is so enthusiastic about art!

One also goes to London for theatre. It’s been trickier in recent times to find good, local plays. Over the years, the selection has become increasingly dominated by Americans and big musicals, most of which I’ve already seen. There was Thorton Wilder’s Old Town at the Regents Open Air, and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Bill Pullman and Sally Field. Kelsey Grammar is starring in Man of La Mancha, for goshsakes. If I wanted to see American works and performers, I would have stayed in America. My visit was before Present Laughter with Andrew Scott opened, and it was impossible to get in to the only truly British show, Only Fools and Horses (based on a TV show of which I am not particularly fond). But there was one delightful production, at the mysteriously hidden Charing Cross Theatre (it’s under the station bridge): Amour. Music by Michele Legrand (so stunningly beautiful) with a very British libretto by Jeremy Sams, who wrote a charming introduction in the program of what it was like to work with Legrand.

Apparently Amour was on Broadway for only two weeks in 2002, but got five Tony Award nominations. Here it was supposed to run until mid-July, but was closing early. The theatre (audience on two sides, like in-the-round but square) was small, but full. The cast was excellent, the music delightful, the staging original. It was the story of an ordinary clerk, the one who everyone hates because he does his work precisely, who suddenly can walk through walls. Trying to impress the woman he loves even though he’s only ever seen her from afar, he begins committing Robin Hoodesque robberies to get her attention. The ending is sad, but also charming.

So why hasn’t this delightful show done well? I think it’s timing. People want their theatre these days to deal with the social and political trends of the day if they’re going to see something other than Phantom of the Opera. They want Come from Away, or something about family relationships that don’t work. Or they want deep, meaningful stuff like the Pinter series that’s been going for a year (also sold out). I heard one man, who’d seen Amour three times and was sad it was closing early, say he thought it was the title. Or perhaps its continental focus doesn’t work in a time of Brexit.

Here’s something very English from the window of the Transport for London Lost Property office. They’ve not only promised to take care of Paddington; they’ve given him some marmalade.

The new buses are retro, I noticed. When I first returned to England, in 1981, you could board a double-decker bus at either the front or the back. At the front the driver took your money (they used money then), or at the back the conductor would. The back was the quickest way to the top deck. Then for years, as they cut the bus staff in half, they didn’t have a conductor, so the back staircase wasn’t built anymore. But now, thanks to “cashless” technology (use your Oyster card or your contactless credit card), the back is reopened. You can wave your card and go up top.
And last, a photo showing life finding a way, even on the Hungerford Bridge.
I shall miss London. I shall miss England. I always do.

Houses without plaques

There are many plaques around boasting a building’s association with H. G. Wells. The seventeen noted here include ones I’ve seen personally (Midhurst, Chiltern Court in London), and the site even includes the very strange sign on the pub in Petersfield, where I can’t determine when Wells would have “regularly dined and wrote here”. Some of the plaques, though, aren’t on the Wells page, so it’s more than seventeen.

For example, Woking. I did try to get to the house in Woking when I was between trains, but I was unable to lug my suitcase up the road a sufficient distance to get to 141 Maybury Road, where Wells and Amy moved in May 1895 (this site says they married there, but the Mackenzie biography says they married at the Mornington Road house discussed below). I have also not seen the plaque at the house everyone associates with Wells, because he died there: 13 Hanover Terrace.

I am, however, investigating his younger years. I know that a number of places with which he was associated have been destroyed, or are repurposed (such as Henley House School in Kilburn, which is now a housing development — it has a plaque for A.A. Milne, but not Wells). But today I was writing introductions for a book, and I began updating my biographical material.

That’s how I discovered how many existing buildings in London associated with Wells’ early life appear to be still standing, but don’t have plaques. It doesn’t really make sense, particularly when there are (obviously unofficial) plaques at places like William Burton’s house in Stoke-on-Trent, Basford, where Wells spent a mere three months recuperating from illness in 1888.

1859 ad for Morley’s Academy

Things start of well, biographically. The dame school he attended as a child, at 8 South Street in Bromley, has a plaque. The house where he lived with his family (Atlas House, 47 High Street), unfortunately, has been destroyed, and the site is now a commercial property in the high street. Along the same street was Morley’s Academy, where Wells learned book-keeping and other subjects. The numbering on the street has changed, but this site also appears to also be gone.  Things improve in Midhurst, where Wells was a chemist’s apprentice and attended grammar school. Midhurst has a number of plaques: on the place where he lived above a sweet shop (now the Olive and Vine — I recommend the King Prawns), the chemist’s shop (now a dentist), and the grammar school (now the South Downs Center). The house Uppark, where Wells’ mother worked and where he returned frequently, doesn’t need a plaque, since the house is preserved, rebuilt after fire, and can be visited (get there in the morning in case the cellars where Sarah Wells worked close early because of a lack of volunteers — better yet, volunteer!) There is a plaque in Windsor, at the drapers where he was an apprentice.

But London, where blue plaques pop up like pimples, there’s an issue. In 1885, Wells resided at 181 Euston Road, walking across the part every day to attend classes at the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College). That house doesn’t exist, because the railroad was extended — the side of the street it would be on is now a drop onto the tracks. Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill, however, does exist, and Wells lived at two different houses there. His aunt and cousin Isabel (later his wife) lived at 12 Fitzroy Road, and he moved in with them in 1888 (right after those three months in Batsford). In May of 1889 they all moved to a bigger house at 46 Fitzroy Road. Now I know, because of Bromley, that street numbers can change. But if they haven’t, and I’m using Google Maps correctly, those houses are there:


12 Fitzroy Road

46 Fitzroy Road

Lovely houses, but no plaques. And it’s not really near Wells’ job at Henley House School, so I’ll have to investigate streetcars, but that’s a task for another time…

In October of 1891 Wells and Isabel married, and they moved to 28 Haldon Road in Wandsworth. It seems to be still there:

28 Haldon Road, Wandsworth

Hmmm…no plaque. Wells wss 25 years old by then, and lived here several years. His mother Sarah visited him here, he had a bout of illness in May 1893 and was confined to bed here, writing like a maniac, but no plaque. He’d be commuting from here to Red Lion Square, where he taught biology. Streetcar? Later, later…

Wells also fell in love with another woman at the biology labs, Amy Catherine. He left his wife and moved in with Amy, to 7 Mornington Place, in Camden Town. Uncomfortable with the landlady (who was uncomfortable with them), two months later they moved to 12 Mornington Road. Mornington Road is now Mornington Terrace, so again, if the numbering is OK and Google streetview is correct, both these houses are also there:

7 Mornington Place, Camden

12 Mornington Terrace

No plaque (that one on the right is an alarm thing).

So let’s review. Up-and-coming famous person, writing a biology text-book and something that will later be called The Time Machine, and no plaque? After this, we’re on to Maybury Road in Woking, Sandhurst, other places that do have plaques.

It does make me wonder.


Update: Having received a question about this from my colleague Rob Bond, I looked up the rules (first at Wikipedia, then properly at at English Heritage Trust). For London, a person may only have one blue plaque. The one for Wells at Hanover Terrace is blue. The one at Chiltern Court is brown. So the others I’m proposing should likely be from one of the other schemes, which English Heritage mentions on their page, at the bottom.


The Grant Museum of Zoology

Sure, you can go to the Science Museum in South Kensington. It’s huge, and has lots of cool stuff.

But small museums have such an inviting feel to them. Often they seem personal, because they sometimes are the dream of one person or a small group of people. And in England, there are so many of them.

I have a certain attraction also to the University of London, even though I’ve only attended one presentation there. It’s at the heart of my research, because it was the opening of the University exams to all comers that made it possible for lower middle-class people like HG Wells to get their degree. It was their exams that led to the demand for institutions like the University Correspondence College. And it’s in Bloomsbury, with its own wonderful Virginia Woolf history. Plus it’s got Red Lion Square, where Wells taught at the University Tutorial College labs.

But it doesn’t feel like a cohesive area, perhaps because, like a number of English universities, its buildings are scattered about. Among them is the Grant Museum of Zoology, a small Victorian museum that belongs to the University.


It’s only open from 1-5 in the afternoon, so one day in October I found myself hanging around on the sidewalk with a handful of other people, all of us wondering whether we could go in. Turns out there was an inner door, so we waited until someone who knew it was open went in, then we trailed behind.

For those of us who work with students, it’s enchanting, because the student influence is everywhere. I admit I was looking for a particular gorilla skeleton, but that’s not my fault.

A book on the university showed it in the 1880s. Wells got friendly with it about that time too.



So of course I had to find it. And I did. The poor thing is squashed into a case with a bunch of other stuff.

Yes, I was there to see a gorilla skeleton once touched by H.G. Wells. But there was so much more. Squishy things in jars. I love that stuff.

I didn’t even know that sea mice were a thing. And all this for students to use to study zoology, as Wells had done. They had rows and rows of little tubes with little animal bones.

And, most fascinating to me, an actual item used by T.H. Huxley in his classroom!

Now, I’m not a biologist (nor do I play one on TV), but history of science, technology, the Victorian era – that’s my thing. It’s enough to made you

Unlike large museums, where every individual item can take on extreme importance with a big sign for each thing, small museums pack a lot of stuff into each square inch. The collection is obvious, and it’s the collection that counts.

This place has things you’ll never see in your life. A jar full of moles. Human skeletons ordered by type. Drawers of things you can’t identify (but students have to). Monstrous centipedes in liquid. Giant squid.

Looking for where Wells got his raw (and I do mean raw) material? It’s all here.

So you bet I coughed up some cash to Make Taxidermy Great Again.