Mural in Bromley High Street, near the birthplace of H.G. Wells
Herbert George Wells was born on the 21st of September 1866 in Bromley, Kent. A plaque, and a large mural on a wall near his birthplace at 47 Bromley High Street commemorate this. His father, Joseph, ran a shop selling crockery, china, glassware, and cricket goods. Joseph also made some money playing professional cricket. The family was precariously middle class, and in keeping with this status young Bertie was sent to a tiny private school for sons of tradesmen. Money became even tighter in 1877 when Joseph broke his leg, which meant the end of income from cricket. The family struggled on until 1880 when Bertie's mother, Sarah took a job as housekeeper at Uppark, a country house in West Sussex. Thirteen year old Herbert was forced to leave school where he had been doing very well. He bitterly resented being forced into a series of menial jobs, which included work in a chemist shop, a school run by a distant relative, and a drapery. Occasionally he was able to visit his mother at Uppark, and was free to wander the estate. Bertie thought Uppark wonderful, and he was clearly angered that it was reserved for so few. He would use Uppark library, reading Plato, Swift, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine. These reading habits carried over into his leisure time away from whatever hated, menial job he was doing. Hours would be spent studying popular encyclopaedias. He was already fascinated by the way science had cast doubt on old religious beliefs. To the young Wells science offered an opportunity to change a society which had been built on religious dogma. He thought of his mother's faith as the official mythology of a society which had classified him as only being good for menial employment.
Two Time Travellers ride a "Time Machine" at the Dickens Festival Rochester, Kent
In 1882 a chance for a better life came when Wells was offered a position as pupil teacher at Midhurst Grammar School. The headmaster had taught Wells some Latin during his time as a chemist's apprentice, and had been impressed with him. Joseph and Sarah wanted their son to continue at the Southsea Drapery Emporium. Wells resisted, starting with rational argument, and then moving on to threats of suicide. His parents eventually relented, and within a year of starting at Midhurst Grammar School, Wells had won a scholarship to the Normal School Of Science, now Imperial College, in South Kensington. He was one of the first boys to benefit from this kind of state help in education. At Imperial he attended lectures given by Darwin's great supporter T.H. Huxley. Wells equated the science he was learning with the social change that gave him a chance to learn it.
Wells spent his first year in London as a diligent student. Into his second year, however, he became restless. Literature became a major interest, especially Blake and Carlyle, who both opposed the materialism of science. Much time was spent clowning around in class. There was also a love affair with his cousin Isabel Wells, who he was to marry in 1891. All this distraction meant that Wells ended his time at Imperial in 1887 without taking his degree. This educational anticlimax was followed by minor teaching jobs in small private schools. It was at one of these schools that he suffered a kidney injury during a football game. This injury, combined with lung haemorrhages caused periodic ill health for the next ten years.
Whilst recovering from his kidney injury Wells began writing seriously. He also returned to college and completed his degree. Work as a biology teacher kept him going until 1893 when his first two books were published. These were biology text books, and work of this kind offered a comfortable living. But Wells did not want to be comfortable. His soon to be written master piece, The Time Machine, would present a vision of a sad future in which society had atrophied by becoming too comfortable. Rather than seeking comfort Wells had an apparently desperate desire to test the limits his life. Finding that marriage with Isabel wasn't all that it promised to be, he ran off with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, and decided to become a professional writer.
Temple of Bellona, Kew Gardens
It was In 1895 that Wells wrote The Time Machine. If any book sums up the new age then perhaps it is this one. Only a few decades previously it had been presumed that the Earth was about 6000 years old. Now earth history and time had opened up into bewilderingly vast dimensions, and Wells went travelling in them. Before The Time Machine there was no time travel because there was no time to travel in. The sea of time was only a small pond: after The Time Machine it was an endless ocean.
It is actually possible to visit a few of the places that inspired this milestone of a book. Wells probably based the Eloi's garden, where all human problems had apparently been solved, on Kew Gardens in west London. Kew was only a few miles from the Time Traveller's home in Richmond. Kew's green houses, temples, pagoda and holiday makers seem to have provided the model. The Time Machine is a story of the end of the world, set in the same garden of Eden where mythically it all begun. Gardens represent many things: they represent peace and happiness, but they also represent unending work, since any gardener will tell you that there is always something to do in a garden. In Paradise Lost Milton does not have his Adam and Eve sitting around sipping champagne in their garden. The happy couple spend their days planting, pruning and mowing. A garden represents a place of peace and a place of constant effort. The Time Machine makes it clear what would happen to people who reached the goal of a perfect life where effort was no longer required. The Eloi are indolent little people who have lost all their energy, all their capacity for thought. The fact that these people live in a garden is a reminder that effort will always be needed if people are to find peace.
Looking towards a ventilation shaft in the servant's tunnel at Uppark, West Sussex
So the future world Wells imagined was set in a garden, filled with pleasant little Eloi people who did nothing much, and couldn't concentrate on anything for more than five minutes. But inspite of their seemingly carefree existence, a darkness lingered in the shadows. Light hating creatures called Morlocks would emerge from an underworld at night and use the Eloi for food. It eventually becomes clear that the Eloi are descendents of aristocracy who had everything done for them; and the Morlocks are descendents of the servant class who lived below stairs and did their masters' bidding. At Uppark, the grand estate where his mother worked in West Sussex, Wells had noticed the division of living space. Servants lived below ground. Their subterranean levels were linked to the beautiful above ground areas by ventilation shafts. In The Time Machine the worlds of Eloi and Morlock are also linked by ventilation shafts. Visiting Uppark today you can still view vents which became a physical representation of repressive social attitudes for young H.G. Wells.
Palm House at Kew Gardens
The ground breaking Time Machine was followed by The Wonderful Visit, The Island Of Doctor Moreau, The Wheels Of Chance, The Invisible Man, and The War Of The Worlds. Although Wells continued to write throughout his life, these early novels are his best remembered.
Into the twentieth century Wells became deeply involved in politics. The First World War affected him profoundly and he wrote Outline Of History to try and encourage a more global outlook. Between the wars Wells supported many causes, including birth control, the Labour Party, and the British Diabetic Association. He visited Russia and argued with Lenin. In 1934 he talked to F.D. Roosevelt and Stalin. He tried to persuade them that America and Russia were potentially similar, and that progress was best led in both countries by scientists. The Second World War saw his last major campaign, for the clear formulation of human rights. He played a major role in formulating the Sankey Declaration of Rights, a forerunner of the United Nations Declaration.
H.G. Wells died on 13th August 1946. He considered posterity unhealthy, and in the context of the true extent of time, ridiculous. His ashes were scattered in the sea off England's south coast.