A mini-lecture and a book

As a recently retired history professor, I cannot help a little lecturing when there is confusion. My heart is breaking for those suffering in the eastern Mediterranean, so as an author and historian I’m naturally going to recommend a book as my contribution to the peace process.

The conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis is not thousands of years old, despite the epic storytelling. Rather it goes back to the end of the Ottoman Empire, which was huge.

The entire area in conflict today was part of the Ottoman Empire which oppressed everyone equally. Jewish, Christian, and Orthodox enclaves could conduct their own affairs and patrol their own communities, so long as they paid their taxes and followed Ottoman law. It was kind of like the Pax Romana – a big empire forbidding autonomy but allowing significant freedoms. Any breaking of the peace was punished.

The Ottoman Empire sealed their doom when they chose to support Germany in World War I, and the victorious European powers divided it up. Although Prince Faisal of Arabia had united the Arab tribes under his control and was prepared to rule a pan-Arab state (surely you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia?), the victors would not allow this sort of power to emerge. Instead they divided the area into mandates, which were like semi-autonomous colonies. Palestine was one of these, controlled by Great Britain.

World War II put an end to mandates, as people under colonial rule helped their oppressors then rebelled against their rule. Violence in Palestine had been on the increase, and although Britain had promised a Jewish state, it became impossible. By 1947, the brand spanking new United Nations did some partitioning to prevent war. Palestine was under Palestinian Arab control, Israel under Israeli Jewish control.

Israel agreed to the partition and announced their new state. The Palestinians didn’t, and attacked Israel. You can read about all the wars since then, but they resulted from creating nationalisms (Palestinian, Israeli) where there hadn’t been any, which in my experience always causes trouble. Today’s horror is the latest version.

So what’s the book? The Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin, is a 1989 book by a Pulitzer Prize author, so it’s readable. It focuses on that time after World War I, when the modern Middle East was created, and how it happened. Highly recommended!

Sad news from Midhurst

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.


My photo from a few years ago, with the Angel Inn on the far right and the Olde Tea Shoppe next door.
Image: Hilton Holloway by way of Sussex Live

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.

Wells’ Pocket History of the World

I came across (and purchased immediately) a Wells book I hadn’t seen before: his Pocket History of the World.

It was published in 1941, so two years after the war had begun and five years before Wells died. He promises in the introduction that it is not a condensation of his Outline of History, but it does seem to be a revised version of his Short History of the World, with one obvious exception: time.

Here is the end of the contents of A Short History of the World:


Because it was written in 1922, it ends there. But the Pocket History (like my own history classes) must revise the end:

This does seem to be new material, and it comes out the same length as the old in terms of page count, because so many images have been removed. The Second World War, already called that in 1941, is happening as he’s publishing. That section ends:

The criticism of British military effort would be amusing if so many people hadn’t died during the failure. And his note of hope is interesting, and prescient (Wells is always prescient) since the Allies will ultimately win. But the interesting part is the final chapter, “The Crisis of Human Adaptation”, both in its evolutionary tone and its content. The beginning seems to be original to this pocket edition, or at least I cannot find it anywhere else:

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that at present mankind as a species is demented and that nothing is so urgent upon us as the recovery of mental self-control. We call an individual insane if his ruling ideas are so much out of adjustment to his circumstances that he is in danger to himself and others. This definition of insanity seems to cover the entire human species at the present time, and it is no figure of speech but a plain statement of fact, that man has to “pull his mind together” or perish.

This is the voice of Wells in the 1940s, to my mind. He goes on to explain that in the book is traced the steady growth of humanity, especially in terms of inventions and science, but he asks the reader to review what he’s said about economics, where “adventurers and speculators” continue to hold sway. Until a “vast and systematic collective mental effort” gets money organized:

…quite apart from the monstrous dangers of our insane international life, we suffer an insecurity that may some day seem incredible, in our blundering economic circumstances. No common many nowadays is safe anywhere from impoverishment and want.

But what’s interesting is what isn’t there after these paragraphs–a revision of his thought based on a second world war. Instead, following his statement about economics, he merely repeats much of the last chapter of his Short History of the World, which pushed for a world democratic order, derided the League of Nations and the “patched-up system of conferences”, and proclaimed that man was still adolescent, with “undisciplined strength” but not enough knowledge. He concludes with mankind’s enjoyment in nature and artistic creations as hopeful signs (again repeated from the 1922 Short History). But as the war progresses I see his view as less and less optimistic, until we get to his final book (Mind at the End of Its Tether).

Also in 1941, Wells wrote a preface to his 1908 novel War in the Air, at the end of which he wrote:

Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: “I told you so. You damned fools.” (The italics are mine.)

I believe his patience had run out.


An epiphany while working with Wells

One of my current projects is a chapter on H. G. Wells and education, which I’m writing for the Oxford Handbook on H. G. Wells. I have been struggling a bit with this. Each chapter of these Handbooks features an expert on the subject making an argument about their topic. My argument from the start has been pretty clear: that whatever else Wells might say he is doing, he is always trying to educate people.

young HG WellsMy expertise in this area is very much focused on the years of Wells’ life before he wrote The Time Machine at age 29. His work prior to that was very much focused on education, first his own and then the pupils he taught as a pupil-teacher, schoolmaster, and tutor. He wrote extensively on education, drawing on his own experiences as a student, first in a dame school and then a commercial academy, and then his job as a teacher. I have recently republished 81 of the articles he wrote on science teaching, pulling them together in a book for the first time. However, since I’m writing the only chapter on education for the Handbook, I need to extend my coverage from The Time Machine in 1895 forward to his death in 1946.

Thus I need not only an argument, but explanations when Wells’ work shifts, or seems to shift, to the other topics he wrote about. In addition to the scientific romances of his earlier career, he published books on science (his first published book was a biology text-book), sociology, history, peace, war, politics, and many other topics besides. He wrote novels and short stories. He gave speeches and wrote articles and columns for journals and magazines. He was ridiculously prolific, and not all of it was directly about education. I need more than an argument — I need an approach.

So I have been thinking. A lot. Instead of writing, which makes me feel like I’m procrastinating. People often ask me: why Wells? I have tried in vain to recall when I first discovered that he had tutored biology by post as a young man. As someone who had specialized in teaching online for over two decades, I felt an immediate kinship to a man who carried examination books with him everywhere, grading in coffee shops and omnibuses before sending the corrected papers back to distant students. I honestly don’t think I’d read any of his books or stories before I started researching his experiences at the University Correspondence College. I was a distance educator relating to another distance educator over a gap of 120 years.

As I conducted my research into his writings between 1897 and 1946, I was starting to lose that focus, getting tangled up in the polemics which became  his mode of communication in his later years. It seemed as though he began with science and teaching journalism (he always considered himself a journalist of sorts), then wrote novels for fun and profit, then more polemic works from a particularly Wellsian socialist point of view, ending with a book whose title I just love: Mind at the End of Its Tether. Many of his later writings were done in frustration at humanity’s inability to conduct its affairs in a rational manner.

wounded men in trenchesAlthough there is much overlap in his works before and after World War I, that conflict provides a likely breaking point between his earlier and later works. Even when they were frightening, pre-war scientific romances such as War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr Moreau retained their optimism in the form of a protagonist horrified at what was happening. His “conversation novels” and what I consider more feminist works (especially Ann Veronica) also have a strain of optimism. But after the war, the novels become more and more direct in their criticism of humanity. Wells seems to have taken the senselessness and mass deaths of the Great War as a sign of the end of civilization. He was not alone in this, of course. But it’s almost as if Wells took it personally, and his work becomes more and more polemical, diagnosing society’s ills and demanding remedies.

Mr. Wells and I have a few things in common, not the least of which is frustration when teaching students. His teaching years occurred when science was new to the university curriculum; mine during the first decades of the internet. We both blamed poor teaching methodology for why students seemed to learn so little, and were in ongoing conflict against curricular stagnation. We both developed new techniques to teach at a distance (although I never created anything as visceral as Wells’ kitchen-table biology lab). If the Great War was his bending point, the election of our 45th president in 2016 was mine. From those points it became difficult to believe that we, as teachers, had made any difference at all. When Wells met his Waterloo, he was 48. I was 53. We had both seen a lot, and been teaching long enough to have developed it as an art. If we’d been making any difference, how could humanity have gone so wrong?

books - Outline of HistoryWells’ The Outline of History (1920) and A Short History of the World (1922) were published right after WWI. It seems clear to me now they were an attempt to teach people about the past so humanity could avoid mistakes. I’ve been teaching history since 1989. For both of us, education has always been the answer to everything. If things go wrong, and people do awful things, it’s because they just aren’t educated enough. They literally don’t know any better.

It’s the connection between my experience and that of Wells that started me on my Wellsian quest, and it will be that connection that guides this chapter. The fear is that ones efforts as a teacher are useless, and if that’s true there is a possibility that mankind might be ineducable. That is far scarier than Martians blasting the planet or men becoming invisible to commit crimes. When his book War in the Air was republished in 1941, during the Second World War, Wells wrote in the preface that he wanted his epitaph to be “I told you so. You damned fools.” While this has been interpreted as relating to his many prophecies about technology, I think it is more about education.


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 . . .