Students help with Midhurst mystery

When my friend and colleague Jenny Mackness added a comment on my recent post detailing my difficulties finding Mr Byatt’s house in Midhurst, saying it would be useful to students, it occurred to me that my students could help. And as I mentioned in my last post, I did have them help me*. So here I’m sharing the results of their work.

It’s a small group, my class – changing the name of the course from Western Civilization to Western Culture helped not a jot. We will now be changing it again to European History and Culture, but the fact of the matter is that various courses in Italian, French, and Chinese Culture have been approved by the curriculum committee. These courses, taught by my wonderful colleagues in the foreign language department, are much less rigorous (and thus more fun) than a real History class. But, the students who show up for class want to be there, and there were seven present the day I brought in my work.

I had run off copies of the Census pages, not only the one with Horace Byatt’s house (record #89) showing H.G. Wells was there, but also the pages before and after (more gifts from the mysterious public librarian). I told them I needed those documents back, as they are officially records and I’m technically not supposed to reproduce them (this may have added an aura of importance, now that I think about it). I had also brought photocopies of the maps, especially the one that showed the house buildings:


Our first issue was to determine which way the census taker was walking. Since the last house before South Street was one on West Street, we decided s/he turned right. #86 was the Spread Eagle Hotel, but that’s several buildings, and it’s changed over time. I had discovered that the building on the island, now part of the Hotel, was the Market Hall then, so it wouldn’t count. Then the students compared the map with the census rows, and we came up with some possibilities, the most likely being this:


There are, of course, some problems. The house fronting the street is small, seemingly too small for that many people (though other families are crowded too). But the big problem is the buildings off the street. Might this have been an extension of Byatt’s house? or are they different houses entirely? Storehouses?


Old photos aren’t much help. The tiny building above the courtyard appears to be a storefront of some kind, as does the one on the other side of the courtyard, which we agreed was most likely for Byatt’s house. The best photo we have is of the visit of King Edward in 1906, when the Sanitarium was opened:


There is a shop sign over the courtyard entrance, and it’s unlikely that the house showing behind the boy sitting on the chimney pots is a house large enough for the whole Byatt family. If one assumes, then, that the Byatts were in one of the houses on the courtyard, that’s unfortunate, because here’s that area now:


You’ll notice there’s nothing there now. Just backyard garden, maybe a patio. Which means the hunt is on for Byatt’s lease or property documents, likely to be found at the West Sussex Record Office. But without my students, I’d know far less than that!


* Students, and my family (who were a huge help), and anyone else who would stand still long enough for me to show them!

The problem of Mr Byatt’s house

H.G. Wells had two stints in the wonderful town of Midhurst, in West Sussex.

Wells loved Midhurst:

Midhurst has always been a happy place for me. I suppose it rained there at times but all my memories of Midhurst are in sunshine.

His mother had been from Midhurst, but Wells’ first stay was in 1880, when she apprenticed him to Samuel Cowap, who owned a chemists’ shop in Church Street. While he enjoyed the work, he only stayed one month before joining Midhurst Grammar School as a pupil-teacher (he was 14). In February of 1881, he became pupil #33. But the school was not yet rebuilt, having closed in 1859 due to fire. So Wells stayed with Horace Byatt, the headmaster who was redeveloping the school. Byatt lived “with his wife and three small children in a comfortable old house near the South Pond”.

I have been trying to find out which house. I thought perhaps if I could get the census of 1881, I could find out. When I went online, geneaology sites like would give me a peek:


But they wanted me to pay. The National Archives sent me to a paywall site, also I found an 1891 free page , and the house number was blank. I signed up for a free account at and found:


Totally fun —  there’s H.G.! and a female servant. But no indication of where the house was on South Street.

There aren’t that many choices. Here’s South Street in the Ordnance Survey 6 inch map (1888-1913) from 1895-6, from the National Library of Scotland:


And here’s the same from the Ordnance Survey 25-inch (1892-1905) from 1895:


There’s even an additional, wall map worthy, map from 1893.

And here it is on today’s Google Maps:


The Two Rose Cottages has a Wells Room, but I digress. Drop down in Street view and you see house numbers like this:


Being desperate, I sought a librarian. Within hours, our college’s wonderful librarian, Lauren, found this page, and thus told me he lived at 89 South Street. I was ecstatic! Then I was suspicious. I couldn’t really cite this source, obviously someone’s genealogical research mapped on Google.

So I asked, please, was there anyway to get an image of the census page? Lauren somehow obtained this page from someone at one of our public libraries, who could access such things:


Oh, dear. That’s not 89 South Street, it’s the 89th record (“No. of Schedule”), possibly the 89th house visited by the census taker. I can’t place the house. The numbers now are 6, 7, 8, so obviously 89 could never have been correct.

So the lesson here is really one of primary sources. A typed version of a primary source isn’t really a primary source – you need the real thing to discover that…you still don’t have what you were looking for. Another mystery to solve…


eaglehotelcensusMore clues have arrived thanks to the intrepid Lauren, our librarian. I now have the census page before this, indicating that stop number 86 was the “Eagle Hotel”, which I’m quite sure is the Spread Eagle Hotel, serving tavern-goers at the top of the street since the 15th century. So did the census-taker cross the street?

A bit of context, please

Image by Eden, Janine, and Jim via Flickr

Some of the current statues under attack, this time in New York City in addition to various locations in the south, is of a Victorian medical practitioner, J. Marion Sims. Already appalled by the unwillingness of  people to understand the mixed historical contribution of individuals like Robert E. Lee, I nevertheless find this one particularly provoking given my current studies.

The Washington Post article is here. Although it contains within itself a quotation from Sims’ autobiography making it clear that the surgeries in question were conducted “before anesthetics”, the protestors (and the title of the article) make the horrified announcement that he did it “without anesthetics”, as if he were practicing today.

Willing to consider he might be a butcher of enslaved young woman, I did what all historians to and went to the source. His autobiography is here for all to read. As near as I can tell on a quick overview reading, two of his crucial “experiments” on enslaved women with painful fistulas were not only consented to freely by the women involved (which the article says is doubtful), but cured them, because he persisted in working on the problem after others would have given up.

After only an hour of cursory research, it is clear to me that this doctor may have invented the speculum and a suturing technique that saved women from an extraordinarily painful condition. According to the article, he also performed the first successful gallbladder surgery. Although clearly a man of his time, his book shows compassion for all “negroes” under his care. Anesthesia was a rare, expensive, dangerous, and unproven technology at the time.

The women with blood on their clothes protesting the statues need to check out some context. I cannot find in Sims’ autobiography anything about him believing that black women can’t feel pain, as quoted by one of the protesters in the article. In fact, Sims describes the “constant pain and burning” that one patient, Anarcha, felt due to her condition. On another patient, Betsey, he doesn’t do a rectal examination because

I thought that this poor woman was suffering enough without my doing so disagreeable a thing

Saying people should “study history” doesn’t quite cover this sort of thing. What’s missing is any curiosity about alternate narratives, about discovering the history of things (like surgery) that we take for granted and that any of us might need. Admittedly, I only looked at his own report. But it at least provides an alternative explanation to the story that this man ruthlessly used enslaved women for experiments without conscience or a desire to help humanity. Context can provide a little balance, which these days would be a good thing.