H G Wells - Father of Science Fiction or Boorish Philanderer?
2016 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of English author Herbert George (H G) Wells, famous for his ground breaking science based novels. He is often referred to as the 'Father of science fiction', although he disliked the soubriquet. He is revered the world over as a futurologist, having predicted many of the core technologies of modern life fifty years or more before they became a reality. To celebrate the his anniversary, we investigate whether his reputation and epithets are deserved, then take a trip of the places he lived.
H G Wells's career
Wells was born into a lower middle class family in Bromley. He was schooled nearby at Bromley Academy, where he proved to be exceptionally adept at book-keeping and mathematics. Aged 14, he was apprenticed out to a drapery in Windsor, then a pharmacist in Midhurst, then to another drapery in Southsea. He hated them all. In 1883, he persuaded his parents to buy out his apprenticeship so that he could take a job offer as pupil-teacher at Midhurst Grammar School, whereby he tutored younger pupils in exchange for attending lessons at the school. The following year he won a scholorship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, then the most advanced science college in Britain, now part of Imperial College.
Wells graduated in 1890, then trained as a teacher and took several teaching jobs. He wrote short stories and magazine articles to suppliment his income. The popularity of these works persuaded him to write a full length novel, 'The Time Machine', published in 1895. Encouraged by its popularity, his most famous works followed over the next six years: 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' in 1896, 'The Invisible Man' in 1897, 'The War of the Worlds' in 1898, and 'The First Men in the Moon' in 1901.
Having achieved fame, Wells wanted to be taken more seriously as an author. He dropped the scientific framework for a series of social comedies 'Kipps' (1905), 'Tono-Bungay' (1909), 'Ann Veronica' (1909) and 'The History of Mr Polly' (1910). And he increasingly wrote about his dreams for social utopia and liberal (especially sexual) freedom. These works were influential in the development of socialism in Britain.
After WWI, Wells decided that conflict was often caused by the teaching of biased history, which inflames feelings of injustice. He thought that the solution was a World State teaching objective global human history. After failing to find reputable historians that would write suitable reference material, he took on the task himself, eventually publishing 'Outline of History'. It became a widely used standard reference book; so widely used that it outsold any of his novels. We remember the famous historian A J P Taylor recommending it as the best introduction to world history for aspiring historians.
Wells realised on the outbreak of WWII that a World State was unlikely ever to become a reality. Instead, he promoted the concept of international laws to protect human rights. He played a major part in drawing up these laws, which were the basis for the formation of the United Nations.
It has to be said, despite all his good work, that Wells's character left a lot to be desired. He gradually turned into something of a buffoon, who was remorselessly ribbed for his squeaky voice, portly frame and weird take on utopianism. His writing became increasingly irrational after 1910. He promoted non-sectarian religion because he did not want to be tied down by monogamous relationships. He was a thoroughly nasty self-serving bully with a sordid sexlife. He once confessed: "I have done what I pleased, so that every bit of sexual impulse in me has expressed itself. I am a very immoral person. I have preyed on people who loved me." His victims included school girls, one of whom was the daughter of his friend and fellow left-wing activist E. Nesbit.
Finally, we have to mention two ways in which Wells has influenced MB lives. One is his muse that: "The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have done and what we might have been on the one hand, and the things we have made and the things we have made of ourselves on the other". It has driven our interests and aspirations since we were teenagers. The other is his theory of Inductive History, which he used to predict future technologies. Jonathan Starkey adapted this technique for his 2002 book 'The Great Regression' where it is used to predict that there will be no economically beneficial new technologies for the next thousand years, and what might be the consequences.
H. G. Wells's prescience
Wells is justly famous for his prophetic technological forecasts. Needless to say, he did not view them like this. He thought the technologies he invented were just concepts around which to structure a novel. Nor was he plucking at straws. He had a system for predicting future technologies. He referred to it as 'Inductive History'. Likewise, he had a system for predicting human social development, which he referred to as 'Human Ecology'. We just wish he had explained how they worked.
Many of Wells's best known technological predictions are in The War of the Worlds! (1898). They include
- Space travel, lasers, poison gas weapons, oxyacetylene welders, bulldozers, excavators, helicopters, blitzkrieg, mass evacuation and refugee columns
Other successful predictions in his novels include:
- TV, audiobooks and virtual assistants (like Alexa) described in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
- The messaging system described in Men like Gods (1923) which sounds uncannily like mobile email/voice-mail: "A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless."
- The 'World Encyclopaedia' described in World Brain (1938) is a dead ringer for Wikipedia and the World Wide Web: "... an index of human knowledge [that is] accessible to every individual ... It need not be concentrated in any one single place ... It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa."
- Aerial warfare described in The War in the Air (1914) predates any actual air combat by 15 years
- Splitting the atom and atomic bombs described in The World Set Free (1913) predate the real thing by 30 years
- Genetic engineering described in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) predated real genetic engineering by 70 years
- Tanks described in Land of the Ironclads (1903) predate real tanks by 15 years
Wells was nearly as good with his social predictions, perhaps most impressively in A Story of the Days to Come, which predicts the trends towards:
- Mass urbanisation, psychotherapy, skyscraper homes, urban transport based on moving sidewalks, intercity superhighways, ubiquitous public advertising, mass media and jet-speed air transport
He forecast that a global economic depression would lead to a world war which would destroy many countries in Europe. He predicted that, after this war, the countries of Europe would be forced to engage in a political union, uncomfortably in the case of the United Kingdom.
Covid-19 has reminded us about Wells's concept of 'Societies of Obedience' and 'Societies of Will'. His idea was that empires are built by Societies of Obedience, then destroyed by Societies of Will. His concept survives in whether or not national citizens, by and large, trust their government. When historians come to review why some countries have five times the COVID-19 death rates of others, we suspect it will be the modern Societies of Obedience, those that most trust their government, that fare best. Conversely, the places that fare worst will be countries with a history of poor government and, especially, global cities - most notably London and New York - where a large proportion of the population escaped from countries with dysfunctional governments. If we are right, the irony is that Europe's modern Societies of Obedience - Germany, Austria and Scandinavia - are inhabited by descendants of the Societies of Will that destroyed the ancient empires.
H. G. Wells's momentousness
Our introduction to Wells came through The War of the Worlds!, which we first started reading as 11 year olds. It shows why he became such a popular novelist. We loved the way he injected fantasy sciences into the real world, not unlike the way that J K Rowling injected magic into the real world. We were inspired by Wells's inventiveness. We accepted his fantasy technologies because of the authorative way he described them. We enjoyed the storytelling, up to a point. Conversely, The War of the Worlds! also shows at least two reasons why Wells's popularity has collapsed.
One is that he was too prophetic. Most of the fantasy technologies that Wells invented for his science based novels came into being. Most of them have run their course, so they are now obsolete or humdrum. Edwardians, who could barely imagine such things, were lifted out of their mundane lives with awe-inspiring visions of a glorious future. Modern readers tend to think of his science based stories as inaccurate historic documentaries. If Wells's fantasy technologies had been less achievable - more of the time-travel and invisibility, less of the lasers, helicopters and email - we think that his stories would have fared better.
The other is that, like many of his most popular novels, The War of the Worlds! is basically a didactic social critique with some rip-roaring adventure at the beginning to engage the reader. Sometimes the politics runs through the storyline in the background. In the case of The War of the Worlds! it takes over the story, at the point where the narrator starts wandering around post-apocalyptic London. But Wells's politics got left behind a hundred years ago, leaving these stories dangling purposelessly for modern readers. We gave up half way through The War of the Worlds! as 11 year olds. Several aborted restarts later, we eventually finished it when we were 40, and then found the ending so disappointing that we wished we had never bothered.
Wells's more serious works have faired no better. His comedies were written to lift his literary standing. Contemporary critics were mostly unimpressed. The consensus seems to be that, stripped of his scientific and visionary foundations, Wells was a competant novelist, though not an exceptional one. It all goes over our heads. We read The History of Mr Polly and Tono-Bungay at school. Not many laughs, but thought provoking. We therefore prepared to read the others with some enthusiasm. We started with Wheels of Chance, which isn't much of a story, but which we enjoyed because it is possible to follow Hoopdriver's route from London to the New Forest. We made a blog of these places as we followed in his wheel tracks, here. Kipps interested us because of its adaptation into the musical Half a Sixpence. Ann Veronica was apparently scandalous and racy when published. It isn't any more.
Literary critics reckon Wells's storylines reflect his lower-middle class upbringing in class-conscious Victorian England. It made him a life-long active socialist, pacifist, republican and global utopian. He tried to promote these values through his books. In the early days, most of the population were sympathisers. Two world wars later, the politics and class conflict had become obsolete. It undermines the central themes of his science romances and comedies. It makes nonsense of his overtly political works.
The upshot of all this is that Wells's work is almost never read these days, other than by students to pass exams. Audible recently re-recorded his most popular titles as audiobooks with great production and superb narrators. They re-recorded some contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes short stories around the same time. Holmes is 600 times more listened to than all Wells's audiobooks combined.
Not to worry. Like most of the novelists in our momentousness Top 10, Wells ranks highly because of who and what he influenced rather than the quality or lasting popularity of his work.
Top authors C S Lewis, Joseph Conrad and Nobel laureate John Galsworthy were fans. As were Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Arthur C Clark, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss, who collectively devised virtually all the great science-fiction stories of the 20th century. Burroughs's characters Tarzan and John Carter were a major influence on early superhero comics, from which today's Marvel superhero movies derive. Master film makers Steven Spielberg and James Cameron also cite Wells as a major influence. As does Rod Serling, who co-produced the Twilight Zone TV series and was therefore a huge influence on Sci-Fi and horror TV shows. Garrett Serviss and Doc Smith's 'space operas' were reinterpretations of The War of the Worlds. Space operas, in turn, were a major influence on George Lucas when he was creating Star Wars, and on the 'Spacewar!' and 'Space Invaders' computer games, from which modern computer console shoot 'em ups derive.
We worked out that, directly or indirectly, H G Wells inspired virtually every great Sci-Fi novel ever written and that since 2000 he has inspired half of the most popular films (admittedly mainly Star Wars and Marvel), a third of the most popular computer games, and a quarter of the most popular TV shows.
It is difficult to know how much influence Wells's inventions had on the eventual development of those technologies, but it was tangible. Churchill is known to have been influenced by them. He specifically said that WWI tanks were inspired by Land of the Ironclads. Robert H. Goddard said that he was inspired to dedicate his life to space flight after reading The War of the Worlds! as a 16-year-old. There must have been countless others. After all, in the 20th century, innovative new technologies were far more difficult to conceive than to implement.
Wells was a lifelong active socialist. He promoted socialism in newpaper articles all his adult life. He promoted socialism on popular radio shows. He was an early member of the Fabian Society. He was friends with Lenin and Roosevelt. He stood as a Labour MP. His most popular novels were published around the same time as the foundation of the Labour Party. He was not alone among as a celebrity socialist - others included George Bernard Shaw and E Nesbit - but he was by far the most popular. He must have been a major influence on the development of the Labour party, although it is tough to quantify.
Wells was passionate about civil liberties and human rights too. He thought the best way to guarantee them was a World State. WWII put paid to that. Instead, he promoted the concept of international laws to protect civil liberties and human rights. This started out as a series of letters to The Times. In 1940 he published 'The Rights of Man' as a framework for these laws. He became the main contributor to Lord Sankey's 'Declaration of the Rights of Man'. This in turn became the basis for the United Nations 'Declaration of Human Rights', the EU 'Convention on Human Rights' and the establishment of the International Court for Human Rights in The Hague. He also founded the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty.
As the image above hints, H G Wells effectively invented the wargame. Tabletop war simulations known as Kriegspiel - German for war game - had been around since the 18th century. But they were used for military training, with no element of chance, turns, tactics or strategy. Wells was sitting around one evening with his friend Jerome K Jerome when he came up with the idea of 'Kriegspiel for fun' and created a basic set of rules. Eventually those rules were embodied in a game he named 'Little Wars', which is still played today. They were adapted for the first versions of Dungeons and Dragons, which has grown through adaptations like Warhammer into a global phenomenon with millions of active players. When personal computers and games consoles arrived, these in turn were adapted for computer battle games like 'World of Warcraft' with hundreds of millions of players and tens of billions of dollars turnover.
For good measure, in later life Wells, a diabetic himself, founded (what is now) Diabetes UK, the world's first diabetes charity.
Our idea of momentousness means lasting impact. It is not an attribute normally applied to novelists. We have therefore created our own measurement system - explained here - to rank them. We will reveal each author’s position on the list as we come to them. Wells, like Dickens, is unusual in that he was almost as momentous for his non-literary exploits as for his novels. Even based on just his literary legacy, H G Wells comes third on our list of Britain's most momentous novelists.
H. G. Wells's inspiration
One of our main interests is in where creative people get their inspiration (because we don't have any ourselves). This often turns out to be beyond our comprehension. Wells is no exception. He had a complicated character, which he talks about in his autobiography. It is not necessarily as accurate as readers might assume. Its name - An Experiment In Autobiography - suggests it is not straightforward. Some contemporary critics reckoned that he invented much of it. There is enough substance to show that his political views, which underlie most of his novels, derived from his lower middle class upbringing and a love-hate relationship with his mother.
Wells's writing style, as one would expect of a mid-Victorian child, comes from Dickens, Hardy, Cooper and Swift. For his science based novels, this was augmented by the writings of Jules Verne and what he referred to as Inductive History, his technique for inventing future technologies. He described it in a lecture entitled 'The Discovery of the Future' that he presented at the Royal Institution in 1902. His idea was that future technologies could be predicted by extrapolating trends of earlier technologies. It clearly worked for him, although this might only be because he studied under Thomas Huxley, one of the most brilliant science advocates that has ever lived.
'Father of modern science fiction'
H G Wells is often referred to as the 'Father of modern science fiction'. There are only two candidates: himself and Jules Verne. Nearly everyone that created Sci-Fi novels, Sci-Fi screenplays and Sci-Fi games was inspired by both of them, even if indirectly. So which deserves it more?
Neither Verne or Wells thought of their work as science-fiction. They both referred to their science based stories as 'science romances'. It is a good description of Verne's stories, which read rather like 'Last of the Mohicans' transferred to submarines, spacecraft or hot-air balloons. Less so of Wells. Verne said that his own novels: "were based on physics whereas Wells's were based on invention". In other words, he was saying that Wells was writing science fiction, before the term had been coined. But, by and large, he was proved wrong, after his death, with most of Wells's fictional inventions becoming reality. Perhaps, Wells had more vision or a better understanding of physics. It is probably true then that most of Wells's science based novels were romances, but The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds! at least were science fiction.
Sci-Fi authors tend to write more in Wells's style than Verne's. In part this is because they were writing closer to Wells's time. In part it is because most of them adopt Wells's 'new system of ideas' which is a framework for writing Science Fiction. On the other hand, Wells was Verne's protégé. He would probably not have written any science based novels or devised any rules, unless Verne had paved the way.
If there is any fathering going on, it is clearly coming from Verne. In our opinion, the epithet 'Father of modern science fiction' should go to Jules Verne, but if he really didn't want it, H G Wells is the only plausible alternative and a more than worthy substitute.
H. G. Wells tour
Wells was born at 47 High Street, Bromley. His first school was nearby at 8 South Street. His second was along the High Street at Bromley Academy, often referred to as Mr Morley's Commercial Academy, named after its proprietor and only teacher. Despite being a brilliant scholar - he came top in the entire country in book-keeping exams - he left school at 14 to take a series of apprenticeships.
First, a drapery, 'Messrs Rodgers and Denyer' off the High Street in Windsor. His employers didn't like him, so he returned to his mother at Uppark House, near Petersfield, where she worked as a housekeeper. Next, Cowaps pharmacy in Church Hill, Midhurst. His family could not afford the training costs, so he left after just two weeks. Then Hyde's Drapery Emporium in Southsea, where he spent two years. In Spring 1883, still only 17, he persuaded his mother to buy out his apprenticeship so that he could become a pupil-teacher at Midhurst Grammar School.
Wells's place of birth is marked with a blue plaque to the right of the Primark entrance in Bromley High Street. 100m away, next door to the Five Guys and behind the old town pump, was a huge mural based on his works. It has been replaced recently by a Darwin mural, with a Well's portrait stuck on the side. 8 South Street (above), with its DIY plaque, is a few streets away.
The drapers in Windsor is now an HSBC Bank in the High Street. The plaque is displayed inside. Uppark House is now a National Trust property, without Wells references as far as we know. Cowaps phamacy was in the building now occupied by Church Hill DentalCare, right opposite the Lloyds Bank in Midhurst. Hyde's Drapery Emporium has gone. Back in Midhurst, the Grammar School where Wells studied and taught was at Capron House in North Street. During his two years there, he lodged above a sweet shop, now 'The Olive and Vine', almost nextdoor to The Angel Inn in North Street. All these places have plaques (below), apart from Uppark and Southsea.
In 1884, Wells won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (now part of Imperial College) in South Kensington, where he learned biology under Thomas Huxley. He left in 1888 without graduating to try his hand at journalism, spending three months with his newly married college friend William Burton at 18 Victoria Street, Basford (below). Having outstayed his welcome, he took a temporary teaching job at Holt Academy, near Wrexham. There he suffered liver damage in a malicious attack on the football field, which forced him to return to Uppark House to convalesce. In early 1889, he got a teaching job at Henley House School, where he taught A A Milne, then another at William Briggs University Correspondence College. These teaching jobs gave Wells enough time and money to complete his degree, eventually graduating with a 1st in Zoology in 1890.
Henley House School was at the location now occupied by Remsted House in Mortimer Crescent, Kilburn. It does not have a Wells plaque, but it does have a plaque for A A Milne, who was born there. The Correspondence College was at 32 Red Lion Square during Wells's tenure. It has been demolished. During his time teaching Wells stayed with his Aunt Mary at 12 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill. There he fell in love with her daughter (his first cousin) Isabel. They married in October 1891 and moved to 28 Haldon Road. Both these houses survive, although neither of them has a plaque. In May 1892 Wells had a haemorrhage which made him too ill to teach. He chose instead to become a freelance journalist and text-book author.
In January 1894, Wells left his wife for Amy Catherine Robbins, one of his former pupils, who he referred to as Jane. In quick succession, they moved to 7 Mornington Place, Camden, then 12 Mornington Terrace, Camden, then 23 Eardley Road, Sevenoaks (above), where Wells started writing The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau. All three of these houses still exists and all three have plaques.
In May 1895, Wells and Jane moved to 141 Maybury Road, Woking. It was here, during an amazing 18 month creative deluge, that Wells finished The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau, and wrote his two other most popular works, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds! He also managed to squeeze in The Wonderful Visit, The Wheels of Chance and a dozen or more short stories.
Wells married Jane in October 1895. He had a bunch of homes in Britain over the remainder of his life:
1896 - 'Heatherlea', The Avenue, Worcester Park
1898 - Granville Cottage, Granville Parade, Sandgate (above)
1901 - Spade House, Radnor Cliff Crescent, Folkstone
1909 - 17 Church Row, Hampstead, London
1910 - Easton Glebe, Little Easton, Essex
1930 - 47 Chiltern Court, Clarence Gate, London
1936 - 13 Hanover Terrace, London
All these houses still exist, apart from Heatherlea which was demolished in 1955. They can all be viewed, although Spade House is now a nursing home that does not encourage visitors. Those that survive all have blue plaques apart from Easton Glebe and Church Row (well, Chiltern Court has a brown plaque for some reason). One would have to be a dedicated fan (or a deranged blogger) to visit them all. We found them unremarkable. Wells wrote in all of them. His best regarded works after The War of the Worlds! were his non-science based novels, most of which were written in Spade House. He died in 1946 at his Hanover Terrace home. His ashes were scattered in the English Channel.
War of the Worlds! tour of Woking
Wells represnted Woking and Surrey in The War of the Worlds! exactly as they were when he lived there. We always loved it because the early events happened just a few miles from where we grew up. We used to cycle around Chertey and Woking as kids. On the 125th anniversary of the story's publication, we thought it would be fun to follow in its tripod-steps.
War of the Worlds commences with a puff of smoke seen rising into the Martian atmosphere from telescopes on earth. Another follows each day for the next nine days. Our narrator sees the second emission from his friend Ogilvy's observatory. This building is only described as near Ottershaw, overlooking Ottershaw and Chertsey. We guess it must have been on Fern Hill.
Several months later Ogilvy sees the first cylinder land between Horsell, Ottershaw and Woking. The next morning he finds it near the Sand Pits (2) on Horsell Common. For the next two days the action moves between here and Woking (A) and the narrator's home on Maybury Hill (C). It is a triangle no more than 2km on the longest side. Easily walkable.
To Ogilvy's evident shock and horror on that first morning, the cylinder starts to unscrew. He rushes towards Woking to raise the alarm. On the way he meets a potman at 'The Wheatsheaf' public house (7) on the Chobham Road. When he explains what he has seen, the potman thinks he must be mad and tries to lock him in the tap room. Ogilvy escapes. He then meets Henderson, a London journalist. Ogilvy takes Henderson back to Horsell Common (2) to see for himself. By the time they arrive the top of the cylinder is unwound enough for air to be hissing in. They try to make contact with the occupants by hitting the cylinder with a stick. Receiving no response they walk to Woking station (A) where Henderson telegraphs the news to London.
By the following morning, a Friday, a crowd of spectators has gathered beside the cylinder (2) on Horsell Common. By now the top of the cylinder is completely off and the Martians have plopped out into the pit. The narrator spends most of the day watching them unload the cylinder and beaver away doing something that produces puffs of green gas. That evening some of the spectators try to approach the cylinder. Forty of them, including Ogilvy, Henderson and the Astronomer Royal named Stent, are killed by a Martian heat ray. So that is what they had been doing all day: building killing machines.
Our narrator runs home (C). He crosses what he refers to as Ottershaw Bridge over the Basingstoke Canal, then the railway bridge (D). On the other side of the railway he passes people talking in a row of pretty gables known as Oriental Terrace. They are presumably in Oriental Road. His home is on Maybury Hill (C).
We picked up the story at the Sand Pits, parking in the free Horsell Common car park (1) on the Shores Road (51.333487, -0.547726). The Sand Pits (2) are 450m north of the car park along a pale coloured gravel path (51.337423, -0.548619). Oddly, we could find no mention of its War of the Worlds association. Perhaps the charity that runs Horsell Common does not want to attract too many tourists.
We have never seen anywhere quite like Horsell Common. It has deep natural sand at the surface, like an inland beach. Pine trees grow out of it, as if they are mangroves. Judging by the number of artificial lakes in the surrounding area, surface sand must once have been common in these parts, but presumably most of it has been extracted. Perhaps Horsell Common was spared thanks to its War of the Worlds association. Even so, enough sand has been extracted here for the pits to be 2m or more below the level of the surrounding tree roots.
On the Friday, when our narrator is watching the Martians emerge from their space ship, he says that he is standing knee deep in heather. The area around the Sand Pits (above) has no heather. We guess that the narrator was standing 100m or so north of the sand pits (3) where the ground is indeed covered knee deep by heather.
Detour: If you like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Bleak House is only 500m away. It is where the League stay when they investigate the Martian invasion. The route is along a path just north of the Sand Pits. It ends up on the Chertsey Road, some 300m south of Sands at Bleak House (51.338849, -0.543171). The easiest way back to the car park is south down Chertsey Road to the Six Crossroads roundabout, then west along Shores Road.
We wanted to follow Ogilvy's path as he rushes from the Sand Pits to Woking with news of the cylinder. He took a shortcut across the fields. There must once have been a footpath parallel to and 500m northwest of Chertsey Road. It isn't there now; just lots of modern houses. The closest we could get was to cross Shores Road beside the modern car park (1) and take the footpath immediately next to the Horsell Common car park sign (4). It leads to a house with a green turret roof on Woodham Road (5). We turned right here and followed Woodham Road for 1km until it reached the Chobham Road (6), where we turned left.
Five hundred metres south of the junction between Woodham Road and Chobham Road is 'The Wheatsheaf' public house (7) where Ogilvy encounters the potman (i.e. a barman). It is now a restaurant, but the building has probably not changed much in the meantime. We poked around inside, finding a few wall photographs of the place in Wells's day, but no War of the Worlds memorabilia.
Henderson's house must have been between The Wheatsheaf and the ornate Horsell Bridge (8) over Basingstoke Canal. It could have been any of the half dozen or so dental surgeries that now occupy that 100m stretch of road. The only clue is that the narrator says that it had white railings. It has no houses fronted by white railings now.
Ogilvy and Henderson return to the Sand Pits. On the evening of that first day, they retrace their steps from Horsell Common back to Horsell Bridge on their way to Woking station. We picked up their route at Horsell Bridge, where the Chobham Road crosses the canal. Heading south towards Woking, the route passes another half-dozen or so dentists (something wrong with the fluoride in Woking's water?). We stopped at Victoria Way.
Detour: 'The Lightbox' museum and gallery is the gold, yellow and stain-streaked box on the right (9). We had to visit because it gives a 25% discount to Art Pass card holders for all exhibitions and a discount on food. The exhibitions change every few months, so it is best to check what is on before you leave home. Entry is free to the non-exhibition areas. After an exhausting morning Martian hunting, we enjoyed lunch in the Seasons cafe.
Ogilvy and Henderson crossed Victoria Way and kept going up the Chobham Road. It is a busy dual carrage way now. There are traffic lights on the far side of the Chobham Road from The Lightbox, but we used the nearby underpass where they have installed a War of the Worlds! mural. We were a little disappointed. It could have been brilliant, but it is far too cartoony.
Both pedestrian crossing and underpass emerge in front of Victoria Gate where Wesley Harland's H G Wells sculpture has been re-installed. He is depicted with something from each of the novels he wrote or conceived in Woking. He is looking at a scale model of his cavorite space ship from The First Men In The Moon. His jacket buttons are bicycle wheels from The Wheels of Chance. There is red weed from The War of the Worlds! creeping up the back of the chair. And the year 802701AD from The Time Machine is inscribed on the back of the chair. Nothing from The Invisible Man ... or is there?
Chobham Road, now pedestrianised, passes between Mercers and Victoria Gate. A tripod (i.e. Martian fighting machine) is 100m south of the H G Wells sculpture. It is 'only' 1/4th scale, although still 7m high. It seems to have lost its power pack for the heat ray. It has miserable short stunted tentacles, if indeed that is what they are. And the articulation on the legs is too high. Of course, this would not have been a problem if the silly old Martians had not cut production costs to leave their fighting machines with only thee legs.
Underneath the tripod is a plaque explaining why it is there. It claims that Woking is the 'Birthplace of modern science fiction'. Hmm, well, we talk about this above. Our inclination is that the epithet deserves to be Paris, where Jules Verne wrote his most popular stories, with Woking as more of as 'Incubator of modern science fiction'. Sorry Woking.
Fifty metres further south along the vestigial Chobham Road is a stylised Martian spaceship embedded in the sand pits .
Woking was only a village in Victorian times. Ogilvy and Henderson would have been walking along the main road where the pedestrian walkway now passes the tripod and cylinder, on their way to the station (A). We followed their route up the vestigial Chobham Road. It goes past a Hawker Hunter mounted on a pole then we turned right into Chertsey Road. The station (A) is straight ahead. It is just about to be destroyed in the book.
From the station, we turned left into The Broadway and followed the railway lines for just over a kilometre. The Broadway turns into Maybury Road half way along. On the left, 100m before the junction with Maybury Hill, is Wells's house at number 141 (B). It has a blue plaque outside explaining that he lived there between 1895 and 1896. It doesn't look much, especially as it has been extended since he lived there. Yet it has to be one of the most momentous literary properties in the world. It is where he finished The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, where he wrote The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds!, The Wheels of Chance and The Wonderful Visit, and where he conceived The First Men In The Moon and others. This modest building is surely the site of the most inventive 18 months in literary history.
At the end of Maybury Road we turned right onto Maybury Hill then walked under the railway bridge. First street on the right is Oriental Road. If there were ever any pretty gables here, as described by the narrator, they are gone now. There is now a hideous shopping mall whose only merit, if you are desperate for a pick-me-up or the loo, is a Costa. Pembroke Road is not mentioned in the book so he could not have gone that far. The narrator's home is described as being at the bottom of the hill. It must have been between Oriental Road and Pembroke Road (C). There are no Victorian houses there now.
The narrator walks to and fro between his house and the Sand Pits on three or four occasions. He would obviously have gone along Monument Road. We followed his route to get back to our car. From his house we headed back up Maybury Hill, past ASDA and under railway bridge (D). On the second day, this is where the soldiers set up a road block. He talks to some sappers under the bridge. On the previously day he just kept going to Ottershaw Bridge. This is Monument Bridge over the Basingstoke Canal.
Detour: We wanted to check out the bronze age barrows near Monument Bridge (E) which date to between 1400 and 1200 BC. If you are driving, park in the free Britannia Wharf car park which is on the eastern side of Monument Road just north of the bridge. The map above is from its information board. One of the barrows is right beside the car park. The best of the three is on the other side of the road. As the map shows, there is a footpath leading to it. Indeed, the footpath goes up one side, across the top and down the other side. It looks like it is used by BMX'ers to practice jumps. We were rather outraged. This is, after all, the most important bronze age relic in Surrey.
If you take the detour to the western barrows, the best return route to Monument Road is along the Bedser Trail - a yellow aggregate path just north of the barrows - which ends at the (free) Bedser Trail car park on Monument Road. If you don't visit the barrows, just keep walking up Monument Road until you reach the Bedser Trail car park. Six Crossroads roundabout (F) is 50m north up Monument Road. The Horsell Common car park (1) is 50m along Shores Road from the roundabout.
There are many places named Monument this and Monument that around Woking and Weybridge. We kept a lookout for some sort of monument as we walked but saw nothing. Upon checking when we got home, we got the impression that in there was a monument in the 18th century but it was knocked down.
Back to the story, our narrator spends Saturday night in his home accompanied by an artilleryman. The next morning they set off up the Old Woking Road. They arrive at Byfleet and keep going along Parvis Road. Then they turn left into Brooklands Road as they head towards Weybridge where the artilleryman hopes to rejoin his regiment. At 'The Heath' they turn right into Hanger Hill. They have lunch at the drinking fountain (depicted above) on the junction of Hanger Hill and Princes Road. We tried hissing at it, but Slitherin's monster would not come out. No water either. Still, we were transfixed by the water outlets, each of which is an exquisite little bronze daffodil with a 'Push' button as its stamen. Don't you just love the Victorians?
After lunch our narrator and his friend keep going up Hanger Hill, veering left at Sainsburys. They pass another (different) Monument Road and turn right into Thames Street. This road takes them to Shepperton Lock. We parked in the free rowing club car park on Walton Lane.
Our narrator stands beside the locks and explains that he can see an inn and church across the river. The trees on the other side must have been a lot lower in those days because we could not see them. In order to get a look at what he would of seen, we walked east along the tow path and crossed Desborough Channel on the bridge. On the far side we took a kissing gate on the left and walked north along the eastern bank of the Thames. After about 500m we eventually got a view of Warren Lodge Inn and St Nicholas' Church in Shepperton. Of course, we were on the wrong bank and a huge willow tree blocked the view of the church, but this was the best we could do. Very picturesque it is too.
Back at the lock, our narrator sees the tripods coming from the direction of Chertsey, which is west of here, beyond the locks. He hides under water as the tripods zap all and sundry with their heat rays. The river water starts to boil. One of the tripods walks within a few yards of the narrator then gets blasted in the face by an artillery shell. The Martian inside is killed. His tripod totters around blindly, then lurches off north towards Shepperton village.
Shepperton is on the other side of the river. Luckily the ferry that the narrator mentions is still there (below), just 50m or so from the Warren Lane car park. It runs every 15 minutes - or whenever someone rings the bell - and costs just £3 return. The ferryman told us that his boat was an SAS landing craft in its youth. As we pootled across the Thames at 2mph, we had a jolt of empathy towards it.
Shepperton ferry is one of just four scheduled services left on the Thames; the others being at Twickenham, Hampton and Woolwich. It had already been there for 300 years when the Martians tried to stamp it out. We get the impression that they have used the same ticketing system since Tudor times - R for return.
Disembarking on the Middlesex bank of the Thames, we walked up Ferry Lane, then turned right into Chertsey Road. Warren Lodge Inn and St Nicholas' are on the right. The tripod hits the church tower, breaking part of it off. And, blow us down, the church tower is of a different construction to the rest. It does look as if it has been knocked down and rebuilt. We reckon the tower is 40' high. A Martian fighting machine would have been twice as high. It would have been an awesome sight.
Eventually the tripod topples into the Thames at the end of the road between the church and Warren Lodge. It would have been where the willow tree is now. Its Martian chums come and take away the bits then retreat to Horsell Common to work on their Black Smoke rockets.
Detour: If you do not want to retrace your steps back to the ferry, Walton Bridge is only a 3km detour. Return to the Chertsey Road and turn right. It morphs into Church Road. After 250m turn right at the roundabout into Russell Road. After 600m turn right at the roundabout into New Zealand road. Walton Bridge is 500m away. The current (6th) version of this bridge was only completed in 2013. It's a shame it isn't as pretty as the matchstick 1754 version painted by Canaletto (below). We tried to work out where Canaletto was standing. He was clearly looking south from the Middlesex bank with Mount Felix in the background. We reckon somewhere around Swan Walk. The footpath back to the rowing club car park is along the river bank on the Surrey side of the bridge.
Apart from the battle at sea where the ironclad 'Thunder Child' defeats two tripods - hurrah, stick it to them humans! - this is where we lose interest. We don't like to think of Martians wiping out humanity as if we were insects. Still, it was fun while it lasted.