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.


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.

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.


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.


Wells and Doyle in Southsea

In May of 1881, 15-year-old H. G. Wells was an apprentice at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea (Portsmouth). It was a large, popular shop at 9 Kings Road, a place for men to get good clothes and other necessities. Wells was miserable there, living in the basement with other indentured lads and doing duties he was completely unsuited for. His experience there was the source of his novel Kipps.

In June of the following year, a 23-year-old named Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Portsmouth, looking to set up a medical practice. He did so at No.1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, in Southsea. He had tried to make his way in Plymouth, but according to this fell out with his partner, and came to Southsea with little money and no connections.

Kings Road, where the Drapery Emporium was, turns into Elm Grove as you walk along — they are two branches of the same street. Southsea was not that large in the 1880s. As Doyle’s practice expanded, it is very likely he would have required clothing suiting his station, and thus it is entirely possible he would have met the young clerk at Hyde’s.

In the summer of the following year, Wells finally convinced his mother to let him abandon the apprenticeship and left town, while Doyle remained and became active in public life there.

There is no evidence that Wells and Doyle met in Southsea, and neither mentions having done so to my knowledge. That isn’t surprising since neither was much of anybody yet. Doyle was spending his frequently unoccupied time writing stories.

They did meet later, and even were members together on the Allahakbarries, a literary cricket team founded by J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) in 1890 that wasn’t very good but contained people like G. K. Chesterton and P. G. Wodehouse, and other authors who liked using their initials. (Wells was a member but refused to play, which is odd since his father was a famous bowler.)

On a sideline, it was reading J.M. Barrie’s book When a Man’s Single (1888) that inspired Wells to stop writing articles about science teaching and instead write fiction stories for money.

On another sideline, A. A. Milne was also on the Allahakbarries cricket team. He was the son of J.V. Milne, who had run Henley House School and had employed H. G. Wells as science master in 1889. A. A. Milne was one of Wells’s pupils.

H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

Midhurst Mystery Solved!

For those who have been following my two “Midhurst Mysteries” about H. G. Wells — Which house was Horace Byatt’s? (2017 and 2018) and Did Mrs Allin help Wells? — I am excited to report that the latter was actually solved in August 2019, although I didn’t know it. (Bad researcher — no book orders for you!)

I only discovered this because of my Midhurst “connection”, Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop. He wrote to tell me that the Midhurst Society had a new website, with a page about South Street that could possibly help solve the mystery of Horace Byatt’s house. This page, part of a wonderful series of pages by the Society, surmised that the house was likely South Pond House, while I believe it was the house next door. But no matter! I was able to reach the Society through the new and beautifully designed website.

And that’s how I found about about Midhurst Magazine #30, published a year ago August. It contains an article by Mrs Allin’s great-granddaughter, Jennifer Chevis.

For those who don’t keep track of this stuff, the mystery was that Vic and Barbara Mitchell’s book, Midhurst Town: Then & Now, mentioned that Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, helped get Wells his job at Midhurst Grammar School as an assistant teacher. Mr Mitchell was wonderfully kind in responding to my query, but couldn’t recall where he obtained that information.

Who cares? Why is that even important? Because it’s one of the major turning points in Wells’s life. It would be his studies with Byatt, undertaken as independent study, that would enable his scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London. And that would lead to many, many other things.

In the meantime, I had surmised in my novel (fiction, but based on what I know) that Mrs Allin, being a motherly woman, would have taken Wells under her wing and convinced Horace Byatt to hire him with pay and let him return to Midhurst after having been a pupil-teacher at the school. Wells had attended briefly before his mother indentured him to a draper’s in Southsea, where he was miserable.

And now I find that I was absolutely right. Ms Chevis reports that Mrs Allin did indeed do this, taking an active interest in the young man’s life and persuading Byatt to pay him.

I’m delighted with all of this: the Midhurst Society’s accessible content and amiable people, and the generosity of Mrs Allin, and the potential for greater connection to a wonderful local history society. They have even graciously added a link to my Wells studies on their publications page.

Now, about Byatt’s house. . .