Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) is now most famous for his novels, but he was also a very influential character in his time. He also had many connections with Camden. Born in Bromley, Kent, the youngest of four children, Wells’ father was an ineffective shopkeeper and his mother a ladies’ maid. He was brought up in a household which was unhappy and far from well off.
Education & early employment
As a boy Wells attended a dame school and then the Bromley Academy, where he learned handwriting, book-keeping and arithmetic. Although he showed promise, his family could not afford the fees so he was sent out to earn his way in life at the age of 13. He had a series of jobs: apprentice draper, pupil teacher, apprentice chemist, and then apprentice draper again. Throughout this period he devoted his spare time to self-education. It benefitted Wells that his mother had left his father and was working as the housekeeper at Uppark Park House (now owned by the National Trust). There she had access to the library. He also took lessons with the headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School.
In 1883, he became a pupil teacher at Midhurst, the following year winning a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (now part of Imperial College London) where for three years he studied biology and was taught by T H Huxley. His next two years as a student of physics and geology were dominated by his interest in socialism and his activities as a student journalist. He then failed his final exams.
He went back to teaching, initially in Wales before in 1889 taking up a post as a science teacher at Henley House School in 6 & 7 Mortimer Road (now Crescent) in Kilburn. At Henley House he taught A A Milne.
During this time he had enrolled for a part time BSc. degree at the University of London, finally being awarded a first class honours degree in Biology and Geology in 1890.
His early life and residences in Camden
In 1885 while studying at the Normal School, Wells lived in a boarding house with his Aunt Mary and cousin Isabel at 181 Euston Road. On returning from Wales in 1888 he lodged in an attic room in Theobald’s Road. He was briefly employed to spend time in British Museum reading rooms copying diagrams and textbooks to make teaching charts. From 1888-90, while teaching in Kilburn, he moved back to 12 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, again with his aunt and cousin. Later on they moved to 46 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill.
After his graduation in 1890 Wells moved to work at the University Tutorial College; first above a book seller in Holywell Street, and then at 32 Red Lion Square. He fell for his cousin Isabel, and they were married in 1891, moving to East Putney, then Wandsworth. To extend his income he started writing for the educational press. The marriage was not a success – Isobel was very conventional, and Wells was not. He had an affair with Ethel Kingsmill, a pupil of Isobel who was a photo retoucher by trade.
In 1894 he eloped with another student, Amy Catherine Robbins (known as Jane), and lived ‘in sin’ at 7 Mornington Place, Camden Town. The couple then moved to 12 Mornington Road (now Terrace).
1894 was the year in which Wells really established a reputation as an author. In his time in Mornington Road he wrote no less than 745 articles, five books and a serial for the National Observer, which later became ‘The Time Machine’. He also wrote ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ at this location, although it was not published until later.
In 1895 Wells obtained a divorce from Isabel, and earned nearly £800 from his books. He and Jane moved to Woking, but returned for three weeks to 12 Mornington Road, and then married at St Pancras Registry Office in October 1895 to his second wife Amy Catherine Robbins. They then returned to Woking.
Although he moved away from Camden, his books are full of references to the areas in which he lived and worked in the area. To give two examples, Dr Griffin, in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1897), is on Primrose Hill the day before he turns invisible. And in his most famous book. ‘The War of the Worlds (1898)’, the aliens land in Woking and in Primrose Hill, where they establish their headquarters.
His novels had a huge impact. Today we think of him as one of the earliest science fiction writers, but at the time he was greatly admired for his social commentary. Examples of his thinking included ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ (1933) which predicted a world war starting in January 1940, and in 1938 he promoted the idea of a world brain – effectively what we might see as the internet today.
Wells and Women
He remained married to Jane until she died in 1927, and had two sons with her, but he had numerous affairs during this time. Women seemed to fall for him, although he wasn’t conventionally attractive. He was rather short and had a squeaky high voice, but did have arresting blue eyes and a fascinating ability to talk all day long.
His lovers were many and included people like Dorothy Miller Richardson, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth von Arnim, Amber Reeves, and Rebecca West . Although his love affairs were kept private, in ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909), he extolled feminism and free love, basing his heroine on Amber Reeves, one of his real lovers.
Wells returned to Camden in 1909, buying the house at 17 Church Row in Hampstead. He lived here until 1912. Comedian Peter Cook later lived in this house.
His final years were in London on the Westminster side of Regent’s Park – from 1930 to 1936 in Chiltern Court, and rom 1936 to 1946 at 13 Hanover Terrace. He died here, aged 79, and left instructions that his body was to be cremated and the ashes scattered in the English Channel.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Wells, Herbert George
- Camden History Society volume 10 1982 “From Camden Town to Crest Hill: H G Wells in Camden”
- H G Wells Literature and Love https://eehe.org.uk/?p=24117
- Images of H G Wells https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12649/12649-h/12649-h.htm#fig4
- https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/young-hg-wells-claire-tomalin-city-of-dr-moreau-js-barnes-book-review/ (behind a pay wall)
Featured image is H G Wells taken from Project Gutenberg book Analyzing Character by Blackford and Newcomb, 1922