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.

Found it!

I suppose it’s silly to be excited about something as bizarre as answering an obscure question but hey, that’s why I like research.

After visiting museums and doing my usual scour-the-place-for-bookshops (yep, found some, and shipped ’em home), I returned to the library to check out College of Preceptors Annual Reports (turned out to be 1978 and 79), a book called The College of Preceptors (which turned out to be lost), and The Preceptors’ Trigonometry by William Briggs (nice but not much there except…trig).

But while waiting I asked for the 1880 College of Preceptors Calendar back (I had reserved it, so they hold it for 5 days). And this time I scoured it, for book-keeping certificates. I found book-keeping, under the “optional subjects” for the larger full licentiate exams. It didn’t appear to be a “commercial” subject, but was worth 200 points like anything else. I didn’t find Wells, but then I looked further and I found his exam: the exact exam in book-keeping examination he says he took, Xmas 1879.


I was pretty excited. Yes, it turned out there was a book-keeping exam, and he must have taken it. When I returned the book, I couldn’t resist telling the guy that it contained the exact book-keeping examination that H.G. Wells took when he was 12. First big smile I got out of any staff in the West Room (they’re a little dour – I’m not sure why).

In the book, it said that the names of all those who obtained a certificate would appear in the half-yearly Class List published in the Educational Times. Now, I know already that the Cambridge University Library doesn’t have the Educational Times (which is strange since they have so much College of Preceptor’s stuff). But the Bodleian does, so I planned to check.

Turned out I didn’t need to go to that trouble: it’s online. Take a look at page 47 – Wells, H. b (which must be book-keeping, although that’s supposed to be bk), Bromley Academy.

So only one mystery remains: Wells refers to “special certificates” in book-keeping, not just one, and I can’t see anything special about this one. He mentions Morley was apparently big on getting all the lads to take the test to get ready to be clerks in shops. Wells says he was

…bracketed with a fellow pupil first in all England for book-keeping, so far, that is to say, as England was covered by the College of Preceptors.

So maybe it’s in the missing 1881 Calendar, or elsewhere – at least I found the first one, and I can get many of the Educational Times online.

Next I seek more on William Briggs, and I remembered he set up his press in Foxton, and lived there. So after finding it missing in the open stacks, I returned to the Rare Book Room (they smile there) to request Rowland Parker’s The Common Stream (I have it at home, but I hadn’t finished it). It uses Foxton to do a fuller history of England. It took them only 10 minutes to get it for me (!) but no, no good – he really only goes up to industrialization, with a little bit on the world wars and after.

But even though it wasn’t there, looking for the book in the stacks sent me back down memory lane to graduate school, when I was an inveterate shelf-browser.


Shelf-browsing fires the imagination in a way that electronic search simply cannot — but that’s a post for another day.