H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
Herbert George Wells was born at Atlas House, 162 High Street, Bromley town centre on 21 September, 1866, the last of four children. The site of his birth is now obscured by a Primark store.
He went to a small private school in Bromley and received a genteel education dependent on the high ideals and meagre finances of his lower middle class parents. This was very far-seeing of them, given that less than a quarter of British children had an elementary education in the mid nineteenth century. His father, Joseph, was a gardener and part-time professional cricketer and his mother Sarah, was a domestic servant. Both owned a shop which proved an unsuccessful enterprise, adding to their poverty.
A broken leg at the age of eight ensured he had plenty of time for reading and this, along with later excursions into the surrounding Kent country side (where he invented and played solitary war games) meant he could nurture his imagination. Bromley, Beckenham and Penge were within the Kent borders in those days and much of Penge was rural. He paddled in streams and rivers like the Ravensbourne and regretted the relentlessly slow build of the Victorian villas and houses since the transfer of the Crystal Palace in 1854 to the grounds of Penge Place: ‘The roads came – horribly; the houses followed. They seemed to rise in the night.’ Much of his work depicts the fearful colonisation of home ground by alien forces.
If some biographers are to be believed, citing supposedly autobiographical episodes from the fictional The New Machiavelli, two significant events, both in Penge, informed his childhood.
The first: he was attacked by a gang of ‘five dirty ragged boys’ on a forest path between Penge and Anerley and robbed of a new pocket knife, purchased for half a crown only two days before. For Wells, this was his first experience of the banality of evil and ‘a glimpse of the brute force which lurks and peeps beneath our civilisation’.
The second: a first experience of love at the age of fifteen with a Penge girl. Young people of Penge and Anerley would promenade in early summer evenings. ‘One girl looked back at me over her shoulder…’ That was enough for the young Wells to fall passionately in love. ‘We walked side by side, four or five times, over the next few weeks’, her elder sister acting as chaperone. No one spoke. The romance was conducted in silence. He gazed into ‘the warm mystery of her face’ until they reached the vicinity of Penge Station. There the two girls vanished, never to be seen or encountered again.
Wells referred to her later in life as ‘the dark girl of Penge’. The autobiographical nature of these passages cannot be proven but make interesting reading. What seems certain that his childhood was spent wandering the rural landscapes of Bromley and Penge.
Wells became a draper’s assistant, then a chemist’s assistant, bored with and failing in both. He eventually attained a BSc degree at London University and became a teacher. Soon his writing became popular and ensured him a life of fame, fortune and influence. He became a word-wide phenomenon even if very different writers like Virginia Woolf saw nothing particularly remarkable in his talent. A committed socialist, Well’s political writings influenced the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Wells was married twice and had numerous affairs: with Soviet spy Moura Budberg, with writer Elizabeth von Anim, adventurer Odett Keun and countless others. Maxim Gorky’s mistress cared for Wells in his last illness, a complication of diabetes. He died on 13 August, 1946.
H.G. Wells wrote some of the most loved stories and novels in the English language. Many of these have been filmed and dramatized several times: Love and Mr Lewisham, The History of Mr Polly, Kipps (the musical Half a Sixpence), The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau… The editor’s favourite is George Pal’s quirky and imaginative 1960s version of The Time Machine. Here is the 1960s trailer for the movie:
Amazing to think how a childhood roaming the woods and fields of Penge can nurture a writing talent which fostered such spectacular creativity and outreach.
An Experiment in Autobiography, H. G. Wells (London: Victor Gollancz, 1934)
The New Machiavelli, H.G.Wells (London: Ernest Benn, Ltd, 1926)
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (London: W. Heinemann, 1895)
The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells (London: W. Heinemann, 1898)
H.G. Wells, A Biography, Vincent Brome (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1951)