From Three Bridges to Midhurst '“ HG Wells' love affair with Sussex

As he explored one day in the attics at Uppark, the 'handsome great house' near Petersfield in West Sussex where his mother was housekeeper, young Bertie unearthed a box of brass objects which he managed to screw together to form an astronomical telescope.

Thursday, 29th September 2016, 11:08 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:01 pm
HG Wells, pictured in 1895 or 1896.
HG Wells, pictured in 1895 or 1896.

His mother found him in the early hours, studying the craters of the moon.

Meanwhile, in the library, there were books he was allowed to borrow, and in this way the teenager discovered Voltaire, Tom Paine and Swift.

He read Plato’s Republic while lying atop Uppark Down, overlooking Harting village, and learned that the world need not be as it is currently arranged.

HG Wells and his wife on their tandem, c1894

HG Wells was born 150 years ago, on September 21, 1866 at Bromley in Kent, where his father ran an unprofitable china shop. But his family roots were in Sussex. His mother’s parents had kept at various times a staging inn at Midhurst, the Fountain Inn in South Street, Chichester, and the New Inn in Wyke Road, Chichester, and she had attended Miss Riley’s finishing school in Chichester before becoming a lady’s maid at Uppark, leaving in 1853 to marry the gardener, Joseph Wells.

In 1880, the family’s finances being especially parlous, she returned as housekeeper (Wells claims she was “the worst housekeeper that was ever thought of”; she was eventually sacked), and her son paid frequent visits that proved highly formative.

The Uppark locality appears in many of his works. Siddermorton Park in his playful satire The Wonderful Visit (1895), in which the vicar shoots down an angel by mistake, Checkshill Park in In the Days of the Comet (1906), Bladesover in Tono Bungay (1909), and Burnmore Park in The Passionate Friends (1913), are all based on Uppark, while it has been argued that the underground shafts and tunnels in Wells’s earliest work of fiction, The Time Machine (1895), derive from similar ones at Uppark.

Much of The Invisible Man (1897) is set in nearby Iping.

Original illustration from the story The Wheels of Chance

Midhurst also features. Wells briefly worked in Samuel Cowap’s chemist shop in Church Street, where he “rolled a few score antibilious and rhubarb pills, broke a dozen soda-water siphons during a friendly broom fight with the errand boy, learnt to sell patent medicines, dusted the coloured water bottles”.

Unlike the various draper’s shops where he had been previously apprenticed, Wells liked this shop, “with its drawers full of squills and senna pods, flowers of sulphur, charcoal and suchlike curious things”.

Later he both studied and then taught at Midhurst Grammar School.

He calls Midhurst “a happy place”, where his landlady, Mrs Walton – above a sweet shop next to the Angel Hotel in North Street – gave him the first decent meals of his life – “her stews were marvellously honest and she was great at junket, custard and whortleberry and blackberry jam”.

Original illustration from the story The Wheels of Chance

In an 1891 article, Wells described Midhurst as “a remarkably pretty little town, rapidly undergoing hidification at the hands of cheap cottage builders; there are stocks, a new town hall with a clock, and a grammar school where Sir Charles Lyell, Cobden, and myself were educated”.

Midhurst appears as Bramblehurst in The Invisible Man, Wimblehurst in Tono Bungay (“Wimblehurst is an exceptionally quiet and gray Sussex town. I found something very agreeable in its clean, cobbled streets, its odd turnings, and abrupt corners”), and Sussexville in The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1899), while Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) features a similar young grammar school teacher.

Wells loved the Downs, writing on one occasion that “the Downs made a graceful skyline that bounded my world to the north as the sapphire line of the sea bounded it to the south”, while in his novel Meanwhile (1927) he recalls “the drowsy old Downs in summer sunshine. The tiny harebells in the turf. The velvet sound of bees.”

In general, he says, “I know no country to compare with West Sussex except the Cotswolds”.

Original illustration from the story The Wheels of Chance

Convalescing in June 1893 from a pulmonary haemorrhage that nearly killed him, Wells stayed in lodgings at 6 New Cottages, Meads Road, Eastbourne, where he reported that he had “been led out daily to an extremely stony beach and there spread out in the sun for three, four or five hours as it might be, and he has there inhaled sea air into such lung as Providence has spared him, sea air mingled with the taint of such crabs as have gone recently from here to that bourne from which no traveller returns.”

It was here that he wrote one of his first pieces of journalism, a humorous column for the Pall Mall Gazette entitled On the Art of Staying at the Seaside.

Wells was an enthusiastic early cyclist, pedalling in his spare time all over the southern counties at a time when motor-cars did not exist “and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now”.

In one of his earliest works of fiction, The Wheels of Chance (1896), downtrodden draper’s apprentice Hoopdriver – following in Wells’s own tyretracks – cycles liberatedly across Sussex during his annual ten-days holiday, with scenes at Midhurst (Hoopdriver stays at Wells’s old lodgings), Chichester (“the spire of Chichester Cathedral rose suddenly near them out of the dewy night, pale and intricate and high”) and Bognor.

There is also a short story, A Perfect Gentleman on Wheels (1897), in which Cecil Crampton cycles from London to Brighton – following in the tracks of the first group London-to-Brighton cycle ride of 1888 (there were just four participants), the first solo ride over this distance in 1890. But does he cheat by catching a train at Three Bridges?

Wells and his second wife used to “wander about the south of England, very agreeably” on a specially designed Humber tandem, and there’s a theory that the iron octopi in which the Martians stride across the Thames in The War of the Worlds (1898) were inspired by Brighton’s newly opened Daddy-Long-Legs railway.

HG Wellss mother, Sarah Wells, during her time as housekeeper at Uppark

Angela Thirkell, recalling the line’s terminus at Rottingdean (a village Wells certainly later knew), commented: “It was more like a vision of the Martians than anything you ought to see in a peaceful seaside village.”

Brighton features fleetingly elsewhere. In The War in the Air (1908) there is reference to “the great iron standard of the London to Brighton monorail”, while in Tono Bungay an airship passes over Brighton (“We left the land a little to the east of Brighton, and by that time Brighton was well abed and the brightly lit seafront deserted”). The Shape of Things to Come (1933) mentions a photograph of “the remains of the old dining-room of the Hotel Metropole at Brighton, before it was undermined and fell into the sea”.

Wells’s friend the writer Enid Bagnold lived at North End House, Rottingdean and in October 1934, when Wells and his enigmatic Russian lover Moura Budberg came to Brighton to attend a dinner (“This dinner we have to go to is a gross affair called the Food & Wine Society and God knows what we shall be like when we stagger back from Brighton”, Wells told Bagnold), they went to stay with her on the Sunday (“My diet needn’t trouble you. No sweets do I eat nor bear farinaceous food and I drink no sweet wine; all the rest is free”).

Science-fiction pioneer and domestic realist, womaniser and supporter of the New Woman, world historian and world futurist, socialist yet admirer of landed gentry such as the owners of Uppark, champion of working people yet satirist of Morlocks, author of 150 books and incalculable numbers of articles, Wells also helped draft the Declaration of Human Rights (its 1943 first edition was published by the Poynings Press of Brighton).

He predicted aerial warfare before planes flew, tanks before tanks rumbled, atomic warfare before the atom was split, and even the internet and Wikipedia.

Only time travel and alien invasion (and that Brighton monorail) remain to be justified by events.

It’s only with his later enthusiasm, in book after book, for a socialist world state, which he imagined was the answer to all our problems, that I part company with ‘HG’, whom I otherwise greatly admire. One person’s utopian dream is another’s dystopian nightmare.

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