Librarians and archivists, I’ve known for years, are wonderful people. I found them especially so at Bromley Central Library.
Bromley is a must-visit on the Wells tour. H.G. Wells was born and spent his early years there. His mother and father set up housekeeping at Atlas House, 47 High Street, which has since between destroyed, twice (there was a blue plaque on the store they recently tore down, and the archivist told me they had to plead to have it put up on the Primark that took its place).
Wells went to school as a little boy at Mrs Knott’s on South Street. I didn’t have time to get there.
It was in Bromley, as noted in my first post, that Wells’ leg was broken at the age of 7, and that he began self-educating through reading. It was here that he attended Morley’s Academy, where he claimed to have learned little.
In fact, he didn’t like Bromley, and apparently never returned for any speaking engagements. Bromley doesn’t appear to have appreciated him until recently, but the archive has, and has created an excellent collection.
What I needed were articles from his later life, from the Science Schools Journal, and I had written in advance to request them. Wells was studying at South Kensington, at the Normal School of Science (later the Imperial College), at first under T.H. Huxley in 1884. He had gotten there by writing those examinations for Horace Byatt back in Midhurst, where his marks had won him a full scholarship. I’m sure Byatt wasn’t happy about his leaving, having offered him a higher salary to stay, but the opportunity to study at South Kensington was too great to give up.
Wells wrote for the journal first in 1886, the first article for its inaugural issues. After a successful first year under Huxley, Huxley had retired because he was ill, and Wells found his other professors uninspiring. He had begun writing articles, and his studies were slipping. Of the six articles I wanted (the ones most clearly related to studying and exams), they had four, all photocopies from the journal rather than the full journal. One about sausage-making I thought might be a metaphor about study, but it turned out to be a fun but Sweeney Todd-ish poem. The others were more useful.
After reading through the four items, which went quickly because they were quite short, I had plenty of time left, particularly because they had offered to scan any articles I needed so I didn’t have to take many notes. I had worried about squeezing things in, because I had decided to cram in Bromley between Midhurst and London. I’d had to catch a bus from Midhurst to Pulborough, then the train was late from Pulborough to East Croydon. This was past Gatwick Airport, so many people on the platform were grumbling. But apparently there were signal problems. I then caught the bus from East Croydon to Bromley, and arrived a little late. I then walked up the High Street, and found the entrance to the library, and apologized for being late.
But the archivists were so kind. I’d asked in advance if I could bring my luggage in (always an issue with today’s increased security) and they had said yes and they’d stash it behind the desk so long as I didn’t need it locked up. Unlike many archives, they let me use my laptop, and not wear gloves. Since I was done so quickly, I looked at my list. I knew that Bromley had other articles, ones I had been planning to request at the Bodleian in Oxford. So I asked for one, whether it was possible for them to bring it out even though I hadn’t requested in advance. And they did. Then I asked for another, and they did. So I asked for the rest from that journal, the University Correspondent. They got me everything they had.
When I asked about another article that I wasn’t sure they had, the archivist got out a little red book that I had seen sold online, a book of their collection, from 1974. I joked and said, that’s cheating. Then, after I got all those articles, I asked if I could look at the book? And they let me.
The introduction was fascinating. Writing in 1974, the editor noted that there were people still alive in Bromley who remembered H.G. Wells. In particular was a woman who ran a shop across the street from Atlas House. She noted that Mrs Wells hadn’t wanted the Wells boys to play with her boys, but they had anyway (clearly there was a grudge here). In fact, she said H.G. had stayed in touch with one of her sons, and said H.G. must have never known the truth about his dad’s broken leg because he had relayed the story of his father doing it while pruning the grapevine.
But she said that on Sundays, Mrs. Wells would take the boys to church, and Joseph Wells would have a lady friend over to the house while she was gone. One day, the church bells rang early, indicating the service has ended early. Not knowing how to get his lady friend out of the house in time, he had helped her over the garden wall in back, and that’s how he really broke his leg, which ended his cricketing career (and set the Wells family on the path to Uppark and onward, forcing Sarah Wells to get a job). I had wondered about Wells’ sexual appetite (but only fleetingly since it’s not what I’m interested in) – it may well have come from his father. I don’t know that the story appears in any other source.
Having brought me everything, the archivists charge me £6.46 for a photographer’s license – they explained they hadn’t yet priced scanning, but would scan the articles for me and email them. They did this for all the articles in a matter of minutes. I was so grateful and got to my train in plenty of time to go to London.
I now have not only fewer items to demand from the Bodleian (though I may request them again if it means I can view the whole journal – the advertisements in these journals are often terrifically helpful), but a cool if apocryphal story about Joseph Wells, and much respect for the Bromley Central Library (which, oddly, does not have a restroom – I was directed across the street to Marks and Spencer).