Celebrating the 150th birthday of ‘the father of science-fiction’
17:30 11 September 2016
The author was born in Bromley before moving to Sandgate, near Folkestone
This month will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the nation’s most pioneering authors – and one for whom the time he spent living in the county is recognised by scholars as one of his most productive.
HG Wells’ portfolio of work includes such classics as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and the War of the Worlds – all of which continue to
fascinate and intrigue long after his passing.
“Wells had a great nostalgia for rural landscapes and Kent most certainly impressed him,” says Paul Allen, the chairman of the HG Wells Society, an organisation which celebrates and champions the legacy he left behind. It has members as far spread as Russia, Spain and America.
Born in Bromley in 1866 as Herbert George Wells – his family would call him Bertie – he would later spend more than ten years of his life in Sandgate, near Folkestone.
The son of a domestic servant and a struggling shopkeeper – his father playing cricket for Kent to supplement the small income from the family shop – his early ambitions were in science, studying biology, and teaching.
But after a suffering from a serious kidney condition, the famous writer first moved to Sandgate in the summer of August 1898 on the advice of his doctor, who told him to move away from London for the benefit of the sea air.
Explains HG Wells expert Michael Sherbourne, author of the biography Another Kind of Life, who gave a talk on the author’s time in Folkestone to the Sandgate Society earlier this year: “Wells was in his early thirties, had recently divorced, remarried and embarked on a new life as a writer of science fiction, including The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau.
“With the success of these books, he could have settled anywhere in the country. He was not tied to a location by job or family, yet he chose to come here.
“More remarkably, despite a previous history of never remaining in one place for any length of time, he stayed for almost a decade.”
His work often saw the creation of fantastic worlds in which he could comment on the society that surrounding him. It was a method which would earn him the title of ‘the father of science fiction’.
He and his wife Catherine (who he always called Jane) first moved to Beach Cottage in Granville Road, Sandgate, which they rented before leasing a semi-detached villa named Arnold House – now 20 Castle Road.
HG Wells Society chairman Paul Allen explains it was during the time the author was in his second rented property in Sandgate Wells, that he masterminded the 1902 novel The Sea Lady, a tale where a mermaid appears offshore at Sandgate and lures a local politician to join her in the sea. Now the Mermaid Cafe on Lower Sandgate Road in Folkestone is named after the central character.
Eventually, Wells’ growing fame as a writer enabled him to build Spade House in Sandgate – with a commanding view of the sea, which is now occupied by Wells’ Nursing Home on Radnor Cliffe Crescent.
It was here that Wells penned
the 1908 classic War in the Air, which eerily depicts the use of aircraft to carry out raids on
foreign lands before the dawn of the horror of both the world wars.
Yet as HG Wells author and head of English at Durham University, Professor Simon James explains, his Sandgate home played an important part in Wells’ life as well as his work.
“Spade House was Wells’ first utopian project and his own perfect little retreat,” he explains. “It was the first private residence in Britain with all en-suite bathrooms, which Wells had purposely built with his mother Sarah in mind who had to continuously carry water up and down the stairs of the grand homes she worked in.
“Folkestone gave him a chance to create his own little world. Wells wasn’t just a writer but a utopian thinker, who spent much of his time imagining what the world would be like if it were made perfectly.”
Among Wells’ other works vividly situated in the local landscape includes the 1905 social comedy Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which features the adventures of a young draper’s assistant who lived in New Romney and worked in Folkestone.
But his literary works aren’t all the pioneering author had to show throughout his time in the seaside town. A notorious ladies’ man, Wells was well known for his sexual conquests – including the affair he
had with young Cambridge student Amber Reeves, with whom he
had a child during his time at Spade House.
As biographer Mr Sherbourne notes, the south coast was,
during Wells’ time there, a relatively booming literary area.
The American novelist Henry James had moved to Rye, in East Sussex, in 1897 and took a close interest in the young author’s development, alongside Heart of Darkness novelist Joseph Conrad in nearby Hythe exchanging visits, letters and reading matter with Wells.
As well as socialising with fellow authors, Wells also tried to fit into the community by serving as a magistrate for the Folkestone district.
As a restless soul, Wells eventually left Kent in 1909 and never returned, dying 37 years later in central London aged 80. But with an annual festival held every year in Folkestone to celebrate the author, it appears his legacy has not been forgotten.
The HG Wells Short Story Competition Festival is the brainchild of the former BBC aerospace correspondent Reginald Turnill, who interviewed Wells as a young reporter and wanted to commemorate his links to the area.
The festival culminates each year in the publication of a book containing the shortlisted entries and a £1,000 literary prize. It was set up and funded by Reg Turnill and his wife Margaret who continues to finance it from her home in Sandgate.
An awards ceremony takes place at The Grand on November 27 in conjunction with the Folkestone Book Festival, where 250 entries are currently being judged.