The British Library

Today I went and got my Reader Pass at the grandmother of them all, the British Library.

I read up on all the requirements in advance, so while others were busy on their mobile phones trying to find a gas bill, I had my passport, driver’s license with address, letter from my college, and list of items with me, even though I wasn’t sure I’d have much time. They happily gave me a three-year Pass to use the library, though the young man who helped me would really rather have been in California – he loves it and hopes to return soon.

If you pre-register online (as I did) you then complete your registration there by showing them your stuff and promising not to damage anything and to abide by the rules. Then you go downstairs to the cloakroom and use a bag for your stuff. Trouble was, I couldn’t figure out whether I was supposed to put my purse in the bag or take the stuff I needed out of my purse and put that stuff in the bag. I looked around for clues, and it looked like the latter.


I went into the Humanities 1 Reading Room, where there were more helpful people. When I told the man who checked my pass that it was my first time, he immediately gave me a warm smile and said, “Welcome to the British Library!” I had gotten there late, and the last call for requesting items was 4 pm, but there was one item I just had to see – the Calendar from 1891 for the University Correspondence College.

Some background

After receiving the scholarship to go to South Kensington (Normal School of Science), H.G. Wells did great his first year, but then slacked off and got into socialism and journalism (this was where he wrote for the Science Schools Journal) and generally got annoyed by the bad teaching he felt he was receiving. So whereas in 1884-1885 he got a first and second-class passes in Biology and Mathematics, and wrote his father that he’d earned many science certificates and would graduate with a BSc from London University by 1888, by 1887 he was failing his exams. Instead of doing what his professors told him to, he was studying on his own for the many fields required for the matriculation examination. From his autobiography:

 In those days the matriculation examination of the London University was open to all comers; it was a discursive examination involving among other things a superficial knowledge of French, Latin and either German or Greek and I found German the easier alternative. I mugged it up for myself to the not very exacting standard required. I matriculated in January 1886 as a sort of demonstration of the insufficiency of the physics course to occupy my mind.

The General Register from the university for that year, featuring the names of those who matriculated, requested applicants to say where they had studied. Wells had put the Midhurst Grammar School and the Normal School of Science. Shortly after matriculating, he passed exams in Physics and Geometrical Drawing, but failed Astronomical Physics. In his last year, he passed the latter, but failed Geology and left the Normal School without attaining a degree.

He was qualified, however, to become a schoolmaster at Holt Academy in Wales, but was injured in a football match and began having lung haemorraghes that almost killed him. After a year of illness and doing the odd coaching for students to take South Kensington exams, he was hired at Henley House School in London. (Apparently only Yale University has issues of the school magazine, which he wrote for.) He seems to have been a good teacher, and developed solid pedagogical methods.

But throughout all of this, he schooled himself to pass the University of London examinations, starting with the Intermediate Examination.  He passed one in Zoology in 1889, and this time put the Normal School of Science and Private Study as his schools. But he was becoming a real teacher also, studying for teaching exams with the College of Preceptors, and earning prizes as well as a diploma of licentiate.

The University Correspondence College

In January 1890, he interviewed for a job with something called the University Tutorial College, run by a William Briggs of Cambridge. This would also be called the University Correspondence College, and it was run out of Bookseller’s Row in London. Briggs had created a new model to help students study for the London University exams, developing materials, hiring tutors, and establishing short-term and evening classes. Wells’ honours in the College of Preceptors exam impressed Briggs, and he hired him as a tutor. Reducing his hours at Henley House, Wells became a tutor by correspondence, also teaching in-person supplemental labs as the college built them. By 1895 he would be writing their first biology textbook, his first full-length publication.

So I want to know about the University Correspondence College, how they were set up, how they treated their tutors, what they thought they were doing. Much is attributed to the vision and energy of William Briggs, who would also provide the motivation for Wells to finish his B.Sc. to make him a higher-paid, more qualified tutor. Wells would get his BSc (two of them, technically) in 1890 as a result. The money he earned would enable him to marry and become an author of fiction.

This means that the Calendar of 1891 for the University Correspondence College might be useful, and indeed it was, because it wasn’t just the Calendar. When I was handed the booklet, it seemed heftier than a simple calendar should be, and indeed it contained an explanation by Briggs himself on what he was doing creating this crazy correspondence thing, and justifications for doing so, and assurances of having hired the finest tutors. Wells is proudly listed as both an earner of the B.Sc. as claimed by the school, and as a permanent tutor with an asterisk indicating Honours for his degree. Briggs points out in several places that these tutors are professionals – they have no other job.

The British Library lets you photograph with your own camera, which is good since otherwise it’s 86p per spread to scan it. I got a lot of information, just from one visit.