Presentation for H. G. Wells Society

This morning I had the pleasure of presenting to the H. G. Wells Society for their conference “Experiments in (Auto)biography: H.G. Wells and Life-Writing”. I was asked to talk about the background to my novel and my recent collection of his science teaching writings. It was fun!

For more on the books themselves, see my author website.

5 comments to Presentation for H. G. Wells Society

Dating Victorian forensic science

In my Victorian mysteries, the question of poison occasionally arises. Most Victorian poisoning stories use arsenic, because it was everywhere. Yes, it was in rat poison, but also in face lotion (stronger than Clearasil), wallpaper, and fabric (a cool green was made from copper arsenic pigment*), and it was easy to obtain. Arsenic, I’ve learned, is a very slow poison. It’s perfect for killing your husband over six months and making it look like he died of natural causes. It’s not going to cause your victim to keel over as he’s drinking tea, which is what I wanted. But eventually my detective must figure out what happened, so the question is: what did they know about detecting poison in the 1860s?

A casual internet search suggests very little was known in the 1860s. Most sites say that the only poison that could be discovered post-mortem was arsenic. That’s because of the Marsh Test, famously created after Dr. Marsh’s frustration at having a clear sample that wasn’t long-lasting enough to show a jury.

Looking for information on forensic science, after Marsh, leads to the late 19th century (1880s and 90s) as the time when fingerprinting, chemical testing, blood analysis, etc. came onto the scene. The implication is that there wasn’t much going on until then.

And then I discover that Dr. William Guy, who appears as a character in my first mystery, was Professor of Forensic Science at King’s College, London. If the field was that new, it seems to me, there wouldn’t be that title. I was looking for books from the 1860s that might have forensics information in them, and I found two by Guy, both written in 1861: Principles of Forensic Medicine (2nd edition!) and On the Colour-Tests for Strychnia, from lectures he had given. Aha!

For me, the story of doing historical research has always been this: whatever you think was “invented” at a particular time, its actual invention and use was earlier. We tend to rely on patents, which may be years later. That’s why I prefer contemporary journals and medical texts instead. Primary sources may not be more accurate (they usually show one point of view, after all), but they are proof of ideas in circulation.

I only knew William Guy for his public health measures, so I am again pleased at how Victorian professionals could be involved in so many different aspects of their calling. Now, to see what’s motivating my poisoner…


*Wallpaper with arsenic could be used in children’s rooms, which sounds horrific until you realize that it was toxic to bedbugs and other critters that bite children. This doesn’t make it ok, just explicable.

The Ins and Outs of The Feathers

The Feathers Tavern features in the short story I’m working on. In fact, its picture inspired it:

It was located, as the caption indicates, near Waterloo Bridge Road. But it’s five storeys tall, and the top floors seem to rest on a different street. My detective is going there to ask some questions, and I assume, looking at the picture, that there must be lodging on the upper floors. So I need to know my way about.

I first saw the image at the a 2017 blog post by beer blogger Boak & Bailey (try saying that with a mouthful of bar nuts). That excellent page, with corrective comments, noted the history of the place and its presumed location.

Then I looked at pubwiki, which helped me with the name and the address (Waterloo Road in 1856, so I’m going with that for 1863). Pubwiki is wonderful, and I’ve used it many times, because it includes all the known proprietors. Thus I was able to use the name of Henry Hobbs, actual proprietor in 1863.

Ian Chapman at the Lost Pubs Project noted:

The Feathers was situated at 177 Upper Ground. This was an unusual five-storey pub that has now been demolished. The upper part faced the southern approach to Waterloo Bridge and closed c1941. The lower part had its entrance in Upper Ground and closed c1951.

When I went to look at maps, however, several noted a Feathers Inn across the road, next to the stairs, closer to the river, as “site of”, such as this one from the National Library of Scotland’s map site, dated 1940-71:

After a bit more searching, I decided there may have been an Inn at one time, but that The Feathers Tavern is clearly across the street on what was a bend of Commercial Road, but after the war was called Upper Ground (which is kind of funny since it’s the lower side of the buildings – the upper floors are on Waterloo Road).

But, as has happened before, the fire insurance maps were the most help. I was trying to find where the tavern keeper would have taken deliveries, with one side of the building up and the other down. These maps, noted also on the Boak & Bailey site by the commenter, are archived at the British Library website, and many are online. Because they show how many storeys are in a building, the width of some roads, and the locations of important items for firefighters (water pumps, wooden roofs and signs, uncommonly narrow entrances), they are full of information. Here’s the area just around The Feathers.

There is the single flight of stairs from the picture in the upper left, and the P.H. (Public House). My partner-in-crime helped me check the visuals here, because I’m not that good at turning things around in my mind’s eye. The street it faces would be the bend of Commercial Road (later Upper Ground), the left side would face Waterloo Road (with the top three storeys of the building), and the opposite side is on an alley noted as “Commercial Buildings”. In the story, I have the wife of the proprietor taking deliveries in the alley, and it looks like there was possibly a yard going in behind the tavern building, so I’m good.

And yes, that’s how serious authors of historical novels do things!

1927 review in 1926 book

One of the delightful things about buying used or second-hand books is that sometimes there are things inside. People tuck notes into books. They press flowers. They leave bookmarks. And in this book, The World of William Clissold by H.G. Wells (1926), the gentleman who owned the book (I know it was a man because he signed the flyleaf and put the date) left a clipping from a newspaper:

You can see the way the acids from the newspaper have stained the page of the book a darker color. Our reader dated the clipping: Mar 11, ’27. It’s a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Now at the time, there would have been no way to know that this would be a book that someone in 2022 would have heard of, that it would stand the test of time. It has, so I know the story, and was interested to read the review. The reviewer didn’t care for it at all, which I find rather funny.

So we have a bit of history inside a bit of history. Lovely.

A glorious map of London

I’ve been enchanted by a map of London in 1851. Click on it to take a look, but be sure to use the little square in the upper right to zoom in!

London as seen from a balloon

Isn’t it amazing? It’s like having Google Street view for 1851.

What does this make possible? Well, for a writer, I can see the streeets, see the buildings all together and how they mesh with each other (most London buildings are attached). I can see where the gasworks were and how they related to the neighborhood around them, very important to my “work in progress”, as they call it.

The scale is what is truly extraordinary. It is fairly easy to find etchings or paintings of certain buildings, or neighborhoods, but they’re decontextualized. In London especially, one walks from slum conditions to lovely parks and squares in minutes. That was true in the 19th century (see Booth’s map from later in the century) and is true now. When I walk the city, I am always astonished at how short the distance is between one place I want to be and another, and that there are surprises around every corner. Here you can see some of those, from the air.

And, of course, it’s very steampunk-ish to get this wonderful illustration from a balloon flight!


A thumb-print among wagtails

I confess I am struggling to write my current mystery, and when this happens I sometimes allow myself to disappear down rabbit holes of historical research, following a trail.

Deciding that my victim was to be poisoned instead of garroted (which would have been unlikely for the accused to have achieved), I began researching poisons. Arsenic would be the obvious choice, but I was tired of arsenic: in 1860 it was in everything from wallpaper to rat poison, and there had been an accidental case of poisoning in commercial candy in Bradford two years before. The more I read about it, the more I realized it was appropriate for a slow poisoning, given in small doses over time to look like a natural illness. I needed a quick death. So, cyanide. It turns out many people cannot detect the trademark “burnt almond” smell, and it was quick and easy to obtain as “prussic acid”.

A bottle lying around the victim’s flat? Perhaps. If so, finger-prints would be nice. But everyone knows 1860 is too early for that; it wasn’t until 1887 that finger-prints were part of police methods. As a historian, however, I’m aware that things are often known earlier than we suspect. So what was the state of forensic science in 1860? Wikipedia mentioned that Sir William Herschel was doing it in 1858:

I followed that footnote and sure enough, I found The Origin of Finger-printing by Sir William Herschel, explaining how he knew that finger-printing ideas were much older, and that there had been isolated cases of a handprint or even a tooth being used to verify identity.

Sir Francis Galton, however, has pointed out that in our own times the engraver Bewick had a fancy for engraving his thumb-mark, with his name attached, as vignettes, or as colophones, in books which he published. As a boy I had loved Bewick on Birds: I regret that it is not now to be found in our library. Galton’s remark has reminded me that I used to see a thumb-mark there, as well as I recollect, in an ornamental title-page.

So naturally I had to find Bewick on Birds, in my library of the web. They had a copy of A History of British Birds (1832) at Google Books and I looked through the first few pages, but no luck. Certainly it wasn’t on any title page. So I image searched for “Bewick Bird thumb-print” and found two images. The Cleveland Art Museum said it was on page 180, so I went to look at a prettier version, at the Wellcome Collection, an 1847 edition. Not in the title pages nor on page 180, so I began scrolling through every single page.

Bird after bird scrolled by. Each bird had his/her portrait at the top of a section, then at the bottom of each section was some other illustration: a house in the snow, a team of oxen ploughing. Some of these images were rather strange, like one man carrying another, or a funnel in a bottle. But on a page about the Wagtail, which had no bird image at all, it was at the bottom:

A lovely thumb-print which, I must assume, was Thomas Bewick’s.  (I have a bit of a soft spot for Bewick anyway, not because I know his bird books but because I’m very fond of the Bewick’s wren. One nested on a counter outside my kitchen, and I accidentally flooded her out watering a plant, and since then I watch for them and am more careful, understanding that they nest a few feet from the ground and sing the most lovely song.)

Obviously Sir William’s memory was a bit off as to the thumb-print’s location, but there it is.

So now I have every intention of working Herschel and Bewick and finger-prints somehow into my mystery. When writing fiction, research rabbit holes are rarely traversed in vain.

Now, about that prussic acid . . .

Six degrees of Wells

It’s odd how even when one avoids H. G. Wells, it’s hard to get too far. Here’s an obscure connection, just for fun.

I was listening to a half-hour BBC documentary program on the Hollywood Cricket Club, mostly because it mentioned David Niven and Errol Flynn, but also because Jim Carter narrated. It had nothing at all to do with H.G. Wells. I have been taking a break, the pandemic having curtailed much of my research.

Apparently the club was founded by Charles Aubrey Smith, and actor I’ve seen in many movies but whose name I didn’t know.

Look familiar? He was in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda, The Four Feathers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and And Then There Were None. Plus dozens more.

Now take a look at him in 1895:

Aha, a cricketer! And this was the year he started acting.

So it turns out it’s less than six degrees of separation to Wells.

He was a bowler for Sussex County between 1882 and 1892, 20 years after Joseph Wells (H.G.’s father) had done his double hat trick for Kent (4 wickets in 4 balls). It’s a small world, cricket — he would have know who Joseph Wells was.

And according to Wikipedia, in 1920 Smith was in a British film called The Bump. It was written by A. A. Milne. If you read this blog, you know that H.G. Wells was Milne’s teacher at Henley House School, which was run by A.A.’s father.

So it could be serendipity. Or perhaps more things are connected to Wells than one would expect.


2 comments to Six degrees of Wells

  • Eric Kuniholm

    Years ago I became enamored of Patrick O’Brian’s adventures of Napoleonic era sail. Coincidentally, last year I happened to be Googling one of my old British schoolteachers (Eton House School, 1967), a Nikolai Tolstoy, nephew of Leo, himself a sometime novelist and historian, and what did I find but that Nikolai Tolstoy had been Patrick O’Brian’s step son, and had written a tell-all biography of his stepfather–two degrees of separation therefore from one of my favorite historical novelists. My takeaway from both our examples is that the such coincidences are rendered inevitable by the restricted world of the British upper class and all who come into contact with them.

    • Lisa M Lane

      LOL with the exception that Wells was lower-middle class, I’m with you. Perhaps it’s just in who is connected to them.

Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

It has been a standard narrative that America panicked on Halloween eve of 1938. That night, Orson Welles presented his radio program rendition of War of the World’s, H. G. Wells’ 1898 tale of the Martians attacking Earth. Some people believed the broadcast was real news, either having missed the opening and interruptions where Welles clearly said it was fiction, or misinterpreting as they became paralyzed with fear. Those near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, packed to evacuate. Millions, it is said, were terrified.

Articles and books have been written about this phenomenon, the most famous if which is Hadley Catril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic , originally published in 1940. It’s the text often used to support the story of the panic, since Catril was a respected social psychologist. It also didn’t hurt that the Martians landed near Princeton, where he taught.

People love telling the story of their stupid fellow Americans who fell for the Halloween trick; it’s used as an example of how gullible the public is, how fearful everyone was of what was happening in Europe at the time, how mass hysteria is created through media. These days, it’s fun to see it as an example of “fake news”.

Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way. Read the first part of Catril’s book, and he’s very clear. Although the publisher says “a million” were infected with terror, and he says “thousands” at the beginning of the book, he is quick to note that his sample size of interviewees was 153, two-thirds of whom were self-selected from people who said they panicked.

Every so often (usually on anniversaries of the radio broadcast), the panic myth is revived. The Library of Congress has an article on how the panic didn’t happen, and there are other places on the web where one can find some debunking. But as the WST article points out, when the tale is kept alive (as with the 2013 PBS documentary) it’s hard to get the truth in there. A current article explores the faith people have in their own trusted sources, in the context of the panic. It’s a good article, but it seems to assume the panic really happened.

Why did the myth take off so fast in the first place? One reason is that Orson Welles was a wonderful publicity hound who encouraged it. Another is that it sold newspapers. Radio competed with print for people’s attention, so the papers were happy to blame the broadcaster and Welles for being irresponsible.

Of more interest is what happened in 1940, when both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, and recorded a radio program together. Two years before, when asked about his book and the panic in America, Wells had reportedly been firm that he had not authorized the radio network to change place names. In 1926 in Britain there had been a radio scare when a fictional 12-minute broadcast had caused some to believe that London was being attacked, and Wells didn’t want to be seen to condone the same thing happening in America.

Two years later, he considered the radio show had just been a hoax, but he said that Americans could have their fun because “you haven’t got the war right under your chins”. Although the double interview is awkward at the beginning, by the end both Wells and Welles are clear that alienating Russia, despite its autocratic government under Stalin, would not be a good idea.

There’s an interesting historical pattern to the popularity of both Wells’ novel and Welles’ radio show. In 1898, there were small wars in a number of places, interest in eugenics, and a fascination with space and Mars in particular. In 1938, war was about to begin in Europe, and Germany was on the move. Hollywood made a major motion picture of War of the Worlds in 1953, and Catril’s book was reprinted in 1954, during McCarthyism. The 1970s saw another revival, at a time of hijackings and terrorism. And now again when reality TV, extremism in pop culture, the decline of civil society, and a gullible public are current issues, the story is here again.

War of the Worlds may be timeless; the story of the panic shouldn’t be.


2 comments to Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

  • This is an interesting post. I didn’t know about this. It reminded me of the more harmless spaghetti tree April’s Fool joke that the BBC broadcast, and which many people believed.

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology

I gave this 35-minute talk to the Long Nineteenth Century group last week. Its full title is Three Wonders of Victorian Technology, or how a little communication, education, and sanitation goes a long way. In it I discuss the London Pneumatic Despatch Company, the Magic Lantern, and the flush toilet. Enjoy!

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

When a historian writes fiction

Of what use is it to know that if you were in Durham in 1869, you could go Thomas Bainbridge in Framwellgate in the early morning and find him baking bread? It is extremely useful, if your character needs a job that starts at 4 am.

Authors of fiction sometimes talk about “world building”, especially with fantasy. A believable world has to be created, with its own history, culture, and consistency. For historical fiction, it’s a little different, because the places were really there, and in many cases still exist.

There is disagreement among authors of historical fiction of how accurate one needs to be. I’ve read quite a few historical novels that do what I’m trying to avoid, treating the locations as mere settings for stories that could take place anywhere, anytime. In fact, I began writing historical fiction out of total frustration at several novels which, although supposedly set in Victorian England, did not in any way rely on that time or place for the story. I set out to do better.

I’ve done well with London, because I’ve found old maps for the years where my stories are set, from map-sellers, on the web, and in guidebooks. Street names may change, but often the street is still there. The 1860s and 70s were times of great change, so I have to be careful.

For example, there was no Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus in 1869 — it was Regent Circus (south) and Regent Circus (north) — apparently the whole Regent development project didn’t work out quite right. Shaftesbury Avenue hadn’t been cut through yet, the Holborn Viaduct hadn’t been built — this stuff is pretty easy, and fun to research.

In my current WIP (Work in Progress), the third novel in my trilogy of cozy Victorian mysteries, quite a bit of the book takes place in Durham in 1870. Durham is one of my favorite places on the planet, so it’s important to me that it be accurate. I want my character, who is fictional, to encounter places and people who actually existed. Because I was trained in the discipline of social and economic history, when he visits a business, I want it to have been a business that was really there.

I began by searching the web to find directories of Durham, because I’d discovered that directories of London listed both businesses and street listings, with who lived on a particular street. Durham, it turns out, had the same, plus a Slater’s Commercial directory, but I couldn’t find any for 1869/70 (the story takes place in April 1870). I tried using the two I could find, for 1852 and 1879, but of course these wouldn’t be fully accurate. While I was happy to find names and areas of towns where certain types of people lived, I didn’t have the actual facts for that year.

The Durham County Records Office came to my rescue*. I cannot go there right now, or I’d just look them up for myself. They charge £50/hour for research, but the Archivist suggested I go for a quarter hour and see how much they could do. And they did a lot!

I have listings of types of businesses, and their addresses. I wanted a character to live in Neville Street, because I stayed there and know the street. He’s an engineer for the coal mines. So I was able to see whether his sort of people (class and vocation) would have lived on Neville Street, and yes!

And then there’s just the fun stuff, like the fact that I’ve walked past this place a lot:

I can make sure there’s a bath house somewhere, since one character arrives in town having spent much time traveling. I can see how there are many Hendersons, because I want a scene at their carpet mill and I suspect the family must have been a huge employer and influence (turns out John was busy representing Durham in the House of Commons at the time).

I already know how far a walk it is from place to place, because I’ve walked it, but I looked up the phases of the moon for those days (and asked a friend of mine who’s an astronomer to be sure of its location for my moonlit scene), researched which hymns might have been used for the Easter Service (and hopefully at Durham Cathedral), and who might have lived at the old mill house by the river. I’ve checked the shape of vent doors on the range in the kitchen, whether or not they would have had bottled beer (yes), and what St Cuthbert’s shrine would have looked like then rather than now.

But I can’t finish the book because I don’t have a proper railway timetable for that year, which has made some people laugh at me and shake their heads. Too bad — if it isn’t real to me, I can’t write it, and whether the readers know it’s fact or not, I get a thrill out of knowing that it really was Mrs Duncan who ran the Durham County Advertiser and that the fever ward of the workhouse was added on in summer and so must have been being built in April.

And that’s what happens when a historian writes fiction.


*George Walker, The Durham Directory and Alamanack for 1869, Durham County Record Office (subsequently ‘DRO‘), Londonderry Estate Archives, D/Lo/J 59