Midhurst Grammar School

I am staying very close to the old Midhurst Grammar School, which I mentioned in my last post. Today I journeyed to Chichester, a trip I’ve made several times now, on Bus 60, to look at the Scheme for re-establishing the school in 1880.

But before I went I thought I’d stop in at the Midhurst Museum, which has been closed every time I walked past it. Today I stayed in town for the morning for two reasons: Wheeler’s Bookshop (which had a copy of Cranford in the window that I wanted) and the museum. Both open around 10. The museum is so cute, and so well done. One tiny booth at the front features changing displays (the wonderful docent looked around at the poster of buses and trains, and the display of little cars and told me, “must be transport”). The single room at the back has permanent displays of Midhurst through time, with pieces of material cultures (coins, metal bits, photographs) organized chronologically.

Midhurst Museum display

The Victorian case had a shelf of bottles from or related to Cowap’s chemist shop, where Wells had apprenticed for a month or so. The sign mentioned this. I asked the docent about what the bus driver yesterday had told me, that there was some chemist shop still around with the apothecary bottles in the window, the ones with colored water. He said that rumor had it they were filled by Wells himself. I vaguely recalled seeing such a window somewhere, but couldn’t find it in Midhurst, and the docent knew of none.

We also talked about Horace Byatt’s house (he was the first Head Master and Wells’ “teacher”), which was supposedly on South Pond, but there’s no address. She couldn’t find it either, apologizing that she’d only been in Midhurst for the last 30 years, and if she had been born there she might know more. The local historian, whom I know wrote all the little pamphlets for Midhurst, including the one on Wells, lived in the area but she hadn’t been seen today though she often walks through town. I could Google where she lives but had no intention of surprising a woman in her 80s at home to ask questions! So I went on to Chichester on the bus.

The route travels through some of the most beautiful South Downs countryside and villages. It occurred to me I’d pay a lot more than £7.40 return for a tour that went through this area on a bus! And now I’ve done it several times. Some snaps:

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The West Sussex Records Office was super helpful. They did the usual archive routine – lock up your stuff, pencil only, fill out the card, promise to be careful with anything old. 0614171422Then you’re allowed into the inner sanctum, which featured a hugely long line of desks, each marked “maps” and “documents” and such, but no one was at them. At the end of the row was a single desk with a helpful woman who had a “supervisor” sign on her desk, and she apologized for no one manning the other desks. Since I had come, as she explained, “specially to see this one thing” (the Scheme from the school), she had them hurry and get it for me. A mission I thought would take all afternoon (I’d been nervous about spending the morning in Midhurst) took less than an hour. The booklet, like most archival material one is discovering, was useful in an entirely different way than I expected. I was looking for mention of the grants or ushers or student assistants. None of these were in the document, which was more concerned with setting up the Governors’ Board and delineating financial responsibilities. But it did make clear that the Head Master (which I think they knew was already Horace Byatt) was completely in charge of hiring Assistant Masters, determining all books, establishing teaching methods, setting class times, and generally running the internal affairs of the school. It also made clear that the Head Master could have no one but family members living with him at the school, which reveals yet another reason that Wells couldn’t lodge at the school when he returned.

0614171651Returning to Midhurst, I made a point of eating a sandwich at the Olive and Vine, which is too expensive for dinner. As mentioned, this was the old sweet shop where Mrs. Walton had given Wells his first good meals, and where he had lodged upstairs of the shop. Copies of Wells’ fiction were on display near the newspaper buffet at the bar. I wondered whether the Tudor beams had been visible and painted during Wells’ time. I know the Victorians loved old stuff. Of course, they also loved new stuff. Really, they just loved stuff.

Speaking of stuff, I went to the Post Office to post books to America, only to discover that the Printed Matter rate no longer exists! That’s quite a blow, and makes it much more expensive. It’s odd that if you want to support local business and ship things to the U.S., it costs far more than shipping from the UK with Amazon. Which makes me wonder if that’s by design…

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.

An American historian in England: Blenheim

Blenheim Palace was where I learned to hate Capability Brown, and the aristocracy generally.

I never meant to have a bias against the aristocracy. I am a firm supporter of King Charles I, and have little tolerance for Roundheads. I have friends who are republicans, but I’ve never overcome my fascination with royalty. Those times when the royalty and aristocrats join forces with the lowest social groups are some of the most interesting in history. We’re seeing it again now in the U.S….but I digress.

A day out from Oxford to somewhere with gardens – that was my goal. And I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and his American mother, so I thought it would be nice to see his house. And of course everyone said it was so beautiful, you must go. So I got on a bus heading north and I went.

They were setting up for some huge event when I got there. The path from the bus stop was hugely long, and obviously intended for vehicles. I had to insert myself bodily in front of a car to purchase a ticket at the booth. Then more walking across crunchy gravel, but there was no entry on that side, so pedestrians had to walk around. The gardens were open first (I’d tried to get there first thing in the morning – I despise crowds), so I went for a walk.

It all seemed more than ridiculously grand. The palace from the courtyard looked like a classical temple, built to the Gods of Marlborough. It wasn’t just fancy or large or ostentatious or bold. It was religious. The columns, the pediments, the statuary – all seemed to portray worship rather than just grandeur and wealth. And they’d built it themselves, of course. The land and its ruined manor may have been a gift for services rendered by the 1st Duke, but the money Queen Anne gave him went to Sir John Vanbrugh to build this monstrosity, presumably approved by the Duke himself.

I stood in the short line to enter the gardens, then tried to enjoy the lovely boathouse by the lake, the gentle creaking of the boats. “George Charles and Lily Warren Duke and Duchess of Marlborough” was actually carved onto the building, as if they didn’t already own the whole lake and everything you could see. Did they think someone would stumble upon it and wonder who built it?

The long walk from the bus stop The Temple of the Marlboroughs

I continued through the grounds, which were huge. I came upon The Cascade, with an explanatory sign saying that Capability Brown had been commissioned to build it in 1764 by the 4th Duke. He had dammed the river to created the lake, and wanted an audible water feature to conceal the dam and give pleasure to the family, because they could hear it before they got there to see it. It was unsafe enough that in 2009 it had to be restored to meet the requirement of the Reservoirs Act.

The Duck of Marlborough The Cascade

Capability Brown is known throughout England for his landscapes, which were supposedly designed to look “natural”. Naturalism was a trend in which Brown was a bit ahead of his time – the Romantics would pick it up in the 19th century. I understand that an extraordinary amount of artificiality is necessary to make something look natural, but miles of rolling green landscape punctuated by a Cascade that would obviously not occur in the landscape by itself didn’t seem natural. Nor did the circular rose garden I walked even longer to find, placed to be discovered among the trees. The sheer amount of work to mow the lawns must be amazing. I was impressed by the amount of funding required to both do this and keep it like this, but I was unimpressed by the design. In its sheer immensity it was as classical and formal as many places with which the landscaper hoped to avoid comparison. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ruskin…

I went into the house, but was not about to buy a ticket to see certain rooms, and many of the ground floor exhibit rooms were mobbed with people. The indoor statuary, the large collection of Chinese knick-knacks, the furnishings, seemed inelegant and overblown, but by then my attitude may have affected what I was seeing. I stopped by the gift shop on my way out and was surprised, oddly, that it was full of overpriced garden goods and pillows and things to make your home look like Blenheim.

The Foyer The Gift Shop

I have, romantically, always appreciated the faded grandeur of the aristocracy, and felt sorry for them, saddled with grand houses that can not make money in an age without landed wealth. Blenheim wasn’t like that, or was frantically trying to avoid it by hiring itself out for events (not only was the entire courtyard filled with chairs by the time I left, but there was a film crew interviewing someone on the terrace). But as I wandered the grounds I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this were available to the people? For everyone (especially those who actually like Capability Brown) to enjoy as part of the community? Shouldn’t this much ostentation be critiqued rather than celebrated? Perhaps I’m turning into a republican after all.