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?

Midhurst Mystery

I received a mystery yesterday, in the package with a copy of Wells’ text-books (second edition, and beautiful). My correspondent, Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop in Midhurst, kindly shared with me a page from a book called Midhurst Town: Then and Now by V. and B. Mitchell, 1983.

It contained this caption on a photo of Church Street, Midhurst in the 1900s.

A Mrs. Allin arranged the post for Wells at the Grammar School?
This is the first I’ve heard of her. Well’s autobiography says he came up with the idea of contacting Byatt for an “usher” job when he was miserable in his indenture at Hyde’s Drapers in Southsea:

Finally I had the brilliant idea of writing to Mr. Horace Byatt at Midhurst.

Although Wells notes that, “I do not remember now the exact order of events in my liberation nor when it was I wrote to Byatt”, he was two years into the indenture so it was some time in summer 1883. He would be on his way to Midhurst in August.

There is no mention in Wells’ autobiography of Mrs. Allin, nor the ironmonger’s shop. So I did a quick check around the web.

The West Sussex Records office, where I had spent some time looking at the Grammar School prospectus, seems to have the records of the Allin Brothers’ business from 1879, but I doubt they would contain anything useful.

I also found the Allins’ son George, on a memorial web page  of those who had fallen in the Great War – his name is inscribed on the memorial in the town centre. George was born near the end of 1883, just after Wells returned to Midhurst to take up the position with Byatt. But Wells must have known Mrs. Allin (who would have been hugely pregnant with George when Wells arrived at Midhurst to teach) before this, if she helped him get the post.

Courtesy of Simon Wheeler, Wheeler’s Bookshop, Midhurst

So this is the mystery. If Mrs. Allin (her given name was Elizabeth) had something to do with obtaining the teaching post for Wells, how did that occur? Did she know Horace Byatt and suggest to him that he hire Wells? How did she know Wells wanted out of his indenture? Did Wells write to her (there is no evidence of this) or did Byatt show her Wells’ letter or tell her about it? Or had H.G. confided in her somehow before he left Midhurst the first time, when he was 14, in spring of 1881?

Wells suggests that his mother, who was from Midhurst but was working and living at Uppark, knew nothing of his plans when he confronted her, pleading that she end his indenture and allow him to return to Midhurst, so it’s unlikely that either Byatt or Elizabeth Allin had contact with his Sarah Wells.

What might have been the connection?

The value of local history

I don’t usually think of anything I do as “local” history. I have little interest in the history of southern California, for example. So somewhere along the line, it didn’t occur to me that I’m doing quite a bit of local history here (Midhurst, Uppark, the West Sussex Records Office). And since I was having trouble finding much on William Briggs, I took a quick glance at the Cambridge Central Library catalog online.

This isn’t the university library – it’s the public library. Open to everyone, including me, and located in an air-conditioned modern shopping mall (which doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize the kind of weather I’ve been experiencing here). And sure enough, they have a Reference Department, and, it turns out, an entire room called the Cambridge Collection, with a librarian at a desk to help you.

I asked for a book I had discovered in the catalog, written by a man who had worked at the Burlington Press for many years. Now, the Burlington Press was not around during the era I’m researching, when H.G. Wells was working for the University Correspondence College. Rather, it was set up by William Briggs in 1908 in Foxton.

Foxton became “famous” (in the local history sense) when the book, A Common Stream by Rowland Parker came out in 1976. Parker had used Foxton like James Michener used…well, everywhere, to tell the history of the land by focusing on one place, in this case a stream in Foxton. I had taken a look at the book at the Cambridge University Library, but as I mentioned, it had little about the Victorian or Edwardian age.

foxtoncrossBut at the Cambridge Central Library they had Don Challis’ Printing in the Park: The Story of the Burlington Press (1996). And in that book was quite a lot about Briggs and his personality and work methods. I’m not sure why Briggs has been so hard to track down. I found his obituary in a Royal Astronomical Society publication, he was a prominent freemason, and he did a lot for Foxton, including putting up a memorial cross there for the fallen of the First World War. But it’s difficult to get a handle on him, so I was grateful for this book.

Apparently, in 1886, Briggs’ International Correspondence College was located in London, but by the next year his renamed University Correspondence College was set up in Cambridge. If you look at all the UCC publications, the publisher is “W. B. Clive”. I had no idea who that publisher was. The book explains that the W.B. is Briggs, and that Clive was his son, who died in infancy. It’s Briggs’ original press name.

The book also explains that the University Tutorial College, set up in London to do labs and classes, was originally on the Strand but then moved to Red Lion Square, where it was apparently until 1981. Its remnants, I know, are the National Extension College, where wonderful people kindly scanned Anna de Salvo’s book on the UCC for me before my trip.


Briggs moved his Cambridge press to Foxton in 1908. The new printing works would change Foxton forever, employing its people and building new housing, the first in the area with running water and flush toilets. The weather vane on the factory had a bee instead of a rooster (for “busy as a bee”), and a sculpture over the portico proclaimed the motto “Fast bind, safe find”, the goal being books where the pages never fell out. Briggs also installed a belfry with a real bell instead of an obnoxious factory whistle. I looked it up and the Press building is still there, although there have been problems and buyouts and it’s now something else with a smaller print shop.

When I requested the other item, a picture of the old Burlington Press, the librarian brought out a huge book, called East Anglia in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Biographies from 1912, which had two pages of the history of the press as well as a photo.

All this, and a photocopier too. There’s a lot to be said for local history.