H.G. Wells is one of those writers everyone has heard of. Sixty years after he died, Steven Spielberg filmed his novel War of the Worlds, a book that famously caused uproar when adapted for the radio. Wells was also a highly political animal, with wide-ranging interests that ranged from tackling inequality to developing world government.
In short, he was an interesting guy with maverick views, and I was chuffed when an old friend helped organise an exhibition in Sandgate, Kent, where Wells lived from 1898 to 1909. He controlled the design of his new house, favouring a functional approach with clean lines and simple features, in deliberate opposition to what he saw as the fussy, cluttered and unhygienic homes of the Victorian bourgeoisie.
The War of the Words exhibition gives due attention to Wells’ life, loves, ideas, and connections. His modernist approach to Spade House was, it seemed, very much of a piece with his political as well as his aesthetic views. This included his view of education as a means of promoting equality and efficiency, while also ensuring ‘the training of all men and women for free co-operation and happy service in the common life of the State’.
Wells also shared the wider Fabian interest in labour colonies, but in terms of his wider view of education rather than as a form of punishment. Writing in 1903, he advocated ‘a general conscription and a period of public service for everyone’, mainly as a means of promoting ‘a sense of civic obligation’, with ‘every class in the community having a practical knowledge of what labour means’. This seems to me a defensible view of a universal labour service, and it is also one that Wells continued to advocate.
Less admirably, he also supported a Private Members’ Bill introduced in the House of Commons in 1912, called ‘the Feeble-Minded Bill’, which called for the introduction of compulsory labour colonies for ‘mental defectives’. Wells was interested in eugenic thought, and it may be that he thought – as did others – that labour colonies were a good way of preventing the ‘feeble-minded’ from breeding. In fairness, though, I should add that as John Partington has shown, he repeatedly made it clear that his ideas were not racially based, and he was consistently opposed to racial prejudice of any kind.
By the time he lived in Sandgate, Wells was a respected man of letters who counted Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw and Rebecca West among his many literary visitors. He also befriended Sir Edward Sassoon, describing dinner houses at the Liberal MP’s nearby home, with distinguished guests such as Winston Churchill, as ‘as unbracing mentally, and as pleasant as going to a flower show and seeing what space and care can do with favoured strains of some familiar species’.
The exhibition, reasonably enough, doesn’t focus on Wells’ ideas on labour colonies and eugenics, but I did learn plenty about the context in which he wrote about these issues. In a quirky footnote to Wells’ time in Sandgate, Spade House was later the birthplace of the great comic actor Hattie Jacques.