H. G. Wells' 150th birthday
PUBLISHED: 10:25 19 August 2016 | UPDATED: 10:25 19 August 2016
This month marks the 150th anniversary of H. G. Wells' birth. Kent Life gets to grips with men in the moon, seductive mermaids, time travellers and tripods from Mars. Words by: Peter Naldrett. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque and courtesy of The Wells Society
Look at the complete set of novels written by H.G. Wells and you’re indulging in some of the finest and long-lived science fiction ever written.
The Time Machine. The Invisible Man. The War of the Worlds. The First Men in the Moon. The Shape of Things to Come. All have worked their way into English literary culture, enthralling generations of avid readers and enjoying many interpretations on the small and big screen.
All came from the pen of this much-respected man who was raised at a fairly troubled and humble home in Victorian Kent. Herbert George Wells – HG as he was known – was born 150 years ago, on 21 September 1866.
His legacy was to introduce such inspirational ideas as time travel, alien invasion and space exploration. But his background in Kent was anything but futuristic. H.G. Wells was born at Atlas House, 46 High Street, Bromley. His dad, Joseph, had worked as a gardener but a small inheritance led to him running a shop selling crockery. Joseph Wells was also a big name in cricket, playing for Kent and using the sport to supplement the small income from the shop. His mother, Sarah, worked as a domestic servant.
There was tension between HG’s parents, because of her protestant religion and his freethinking approach. They ended up living apart when Sarah landed a job at Uppark country house in Sussex, where she was not allowed to bring her husband and children.
Michael Sherborne, one of the leading experts of the life of H.G. Wells and the author of his biography, Another Kind Of Life, tells me HG went to a private school for the children of shopkeepers and tradesmen, Thomas Moorleys Commercial Academy. HG later complained it was a restrictive education intent on good handwriting and the kind of maths useful to tradesmen.
Michael Sherborne adds: “He left school when he was 13 and mainly worked in drapery, but he also had a job in a chemist’s shop as well before becoming a pupil-teacher at a boarding school.
“When he was at university he wrote text books and then got into short story writing. He moved around, was very restless and lived in many places,” says Michael, a former chair of the H.G. Wells Society who still sits on the Executive Committee.
Among the places HG moved to after leaving Bromley, two of the most notable were London and Woking, where he based his famous tale The War of the Worlds. But this Kent literary genius was not finished with the county and moved back in 1896 for health reasons, initially renting a small, furnished house in Sandgate, Beach Cottage, which was so close to the sea that in rough weather the waves broke over the roof.
Two years later he moved to Spade House in Folkestone, settling down in an attractive house with a commanding view of the sea. While there, H G wrote and published the classic Them Men in the Moon, which has the Earth-based drama set in the local area. At the start of this wonderful Kent-based novel, a scientist in Lympne discovers Cavorite, an unusual substance which can counter gravity and send people into space.
After many adventures, the lunar traveller lands on the beach of the coastal village Littlestone and leaves his sphere pod to enter a local hotel. A youngster wonders what the vehicle is, gets inside it and takes off – never to be seen again.
Such dramatic goings on were a far cry from the quiet life HG was living in Kent, but the action continued to flow from his pen. In 1907, over a period of four months he wrote The War in the Air, again set in a small Kent village.
This prophetic piece of writing predicted the use of aircraft to carry out raids on foreign lands, a situation that became all too familiar during the First and Second World Wars.
An altogether more fantastic short story based in Kent came in the form of The Sea Lady, a fable about a mermaid coming to shore in 1899. The mermaid reckons she wants to become part of high society, but her real aim is seduction.
In this case, her victim is called Chatteris, who she saw in the South Seas. Predictably, Chatteris cannot resist the charms of the mermaid – for who can? Sadly, this leads to his death as well.
Michael Sherborne is quick to point out the benefits that the Kent writer has left behind. “His main legacy is science fiction and the great ideas that he had. These are still being used today as the inspiration for movies and stories. He was one of the first people to see things from a global scale and was concerned about the threat to ecology and the threat from nationalism.”
Sherborne didn’t found it easy to put together his biography of Wells’ life and certainly wasn’t helped by the archive of the author’s papers, letters and writings having been put on sale and snapped up by buyers in Illinois.
HG lived in Kent until 1909, then moved away and never returned. Kent was mentioned in his memoirs, but never dwelt on, particularly his childhood in Bromley which he did not enjoy. Indeed, he was asked on several occasions to return to his birthplace of Bromley to carry out celebrity functions, but never had the desire to.
His Kent legacy is one of great science fiction, but literary works aren’t all he had to show for his time in Folkestone. He was married, but known for having at least one mistress and he conceived a daughter in Folkestone with one of these.
The works of H.G. Wells quite rightly continue to be widely read, thoroughly studied and enjoyed by huge numbers of people.
Find out more
The HG Wells Society was founded in 1960 by Dr John Hammond, author of classic works including The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells (1998) and H. G. Wells and the Modern Novel (1988). Every year the Society organises an international conference, often themed around the anniversary of the publication of one of Wells’s works. The Society welcome Wells enthusiasts of all ages who are invited to participate at its many events.
Members receive a copy of the academic periodical The Wellsian as well as regular instalments of its newsletter.
For more information, visit: hgwellssociety.com.