On H. G. Wells and the allusions made by “the Journalist”

Following my recent post here on the original of Weena, I think I can also trace the root of another couple of elements in H. G. Wells’s famous The Time Machine, these being a contemporary allusions made by the Journalist and the Newspaper Editor.

The narrator mentions a “Hettie Potter”, about whom the Journalist tells amusing “anecdotes” at dinner, just after the Time Traveller returns…

“The Journalist tried to relieve the tension by telling anecdotes of Hettie Potter.”

The Wellsian scholars and academics alike have until now failed to find this Potter, and…

“no commentator has adequately identified this person … it can be said with some certainty that there was no real celebrity of this name active in 1894” (Science-fiction Studies, 28, 3, Nov 2011).

It’s correct to say — something first noticed by John S. Partington, so far as I can tell — that there was an actress Hettie Potter, sister of the star Gertie Potter. But it’s also correct to say that she was likely not born when The Time Machine was being written (started 1888, but mostly written during 1894)…

“Gertie Potter was born in Suffolk in 1895, became one of the best loved child stars of English early pioneering comedy and trick fantasy films, pretty young dark-haired girl who starred in many Cecil Hepworth movies from 1905’s ‘Children v Earthquakes – Earthquakes Preferred’, she would be most often under the direction of Lewin Fitzhamon, probably her best known film role as the mischievous youngster in ‘The Fatal Sneeze’ in 1907, in her last film at the age of 18 she played the title role in ‘Cinderella’ a short sound version [the earliest British talkie], a Vitaphone film, synchronised to a Columbia record made at Hepworth Film Company in 1913, she was not seen on screen again. Sister of actors Hetty and Bertie Potter, whom she often appeared on film with.”

One wonders, however, if this implied a small ‘time-travelling’ jest being played on the reader by Wells. Had Gertie Potter just then been born to a family of theatre people circa 1894, to a family known to Wells, might Wells have chanced to put her name in the book? On the assumption that there was a very strong possibility she would be a child stage actress some ten years later? At which time readers would start to be be astounded that an 1895 novel had named used her name long before her fame?

But that amusing possibility seems a long stretch. Far more likely is that “Hettie Potter” was meant to be a slightly veiled allusion to the most famous Potter — indeed, the most famous actress — on the stage at that time: Cora Potter.

“She signed a contract with a London theatre company in 1887 and moved to that city. She and her husband subsequently lived apart and divorced in 1900. As a society woman performing on the stage, Mrs. Potter received coverage in the press and gave interviews in which she spoke disparagingly of the Potter family, blaming them for attempting to stifle her artistic pursuits.” (Frederick Law Olmsted, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Early Boston Years, 1882–1890)

“In those days the name of Cora Potter … was as familiar to the average person as are now [in 1921] the names of her daughter “Kifi” and [another then-famous actress]. [After 1887] “Potter took her fortunes at their tide and was swept along to victories of which she had not dreamed. Honored by the English queen, flattered by the Prince of Wales, she usurped Mrs. Langtry, “the Jersey Lily”, as the late Albert Edward’s [Prince of Wales] favorite” (Los Angeles Herald, 2 April 1921).

As such she appears to have been very gossip-worthy, and often bitterly so by those who resented her swift success and glamorous lifestyle. She moved easily between a well-established home in London and regular work in New York and on tour, as detailed in the recent book Cora Urquhart Potter: The Victorian Actress as Provocateur (2010)…

“On the occasion of her death in 1936, a New York newspaper wrote that actress Cora Urquhart Potter “probably accomplished more for the cause of feminism than the efforts of all the equal rights organizations of her day. … abandoning her position in New York society, undertook a professional career spanning more than two decades. Potter’s defiance of convention both mirrored and propelled the changes transforming fin de siecle theatre and society. In advancing the concept of the New Woman, both on and off stage, she became a lightning rod for criticism within a social milieu and a profession still fervidly clinging to Victorian ideals.”

As such, Wells must surely have been aware that his readers of 1895 would instantly pick up on the use of the name “Potter”, in the context of amusing “anecdotes” told by a London journalist. Wells could have relied on readers to mentally translate “Hettie” to “Cora” — one of the most famous and indeed radical stage actresses of the day. And in doing so to instantly ‘fill in’ a little of the character of the “loud” Journalist in terms of his professional interests (society news rather than hard political news) and politics (possibly somewhat casually against ‘the New Woman’) and habits (he has met her more than once in circumstances that give rise to tell-able anecdotes, presumably first-hand ones, and thus he must mix in theatrical circles).

The mention of Potter comes just a few paragraphs shortly after the mention of the equally famous Rosebery, by the Newspaper Editor, seeking “the lot” (i.e.: all the details) on the fate of the then-shaky British government…

“Tell us all about little Rosebery, will you? What will you take for the lot?”

Despite being a hugely popular national celebrity, Rosebery had became a notoriously vulnerable Prime Minister from March 1894. Expected to fall at any moment, he and his government survived until June 1895. A contemporary copy of the satiric Punch magazine clearly demonstrates the popular political use of the “little” in “little Rosebery”…

Aye, little Rosebery — and well called — for you’re the roundest, the rosiest, the raciest candidate in all the City … vote for your Rosebery — good Little Rosebery …” (1)

Rosebery wanted to create a bold upright “imperial race”, inclusive of Scots and Irish, to do justice to Great Britain’s manifest destiny in ruling the world of the future. After his fall, the decline of Empire slowly but inexorably began to take hold. His grand plan has an obvious link with the key themes of the novel.

Cora Potter was equally famous among the public, her name known throughout America and the British Empire. For instance, her name had such world reach that in April 1894 Cora Potter had just… “toured Australia, India, and other parts of the British Empire in the eastern hemisphere in 1893-94” and was returning home with the well-announced (from April 1894) intention of staging the play Charlotte Corday in New York (it opened in New York in the spring of 1895). The play was about the woman who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat during the early part of the French Revolution. Marat was a major scientist “with interests in electricity and light”, but who — as a figurehead of the revolution — had shortly before his assassination come to publicly advocate the mass murder of the French aristocrats in order to ‘liberate’ the masses. It seems to me that there might be a tangential link here with some of the broad themes of The Time Machine, something that Wells may also have noticed. Certainly such a play would speak to the tensions between the Fabian and violent varieties of socialism, tensions that a decade later Wells would be deeply involved in.

I can also explain the Journalist’s slightly earlier use of the phrase “Amateur Cadger”…

“What’s the game?” said the Journalist. “Has he been doing the Amateur Cadger? I don’t follow.”

Note the capitalisation, suggesting the title of a book or play rather than a common phrase. “The Amateur Cadger: or, Twelve Hours in a Common Lodging House” was a popular pamphlet by a reporter who… “dressed in rags in order to give a true unvarnished account of a Common Lodging House — the Vagabond’s Home — a place that abounds in character and crime”. The Journalist thus implies that the Time Traveller’s rags may indicate he had returned from covert slumming among the London low-life, as part of some research project (Richmond was well connected to London by cab and train). Again, this helps suggest the character of the Journalist, by helping to indicate his age, since he vividly remembers a pamphlet — and possibly an old newspaperman’s trade slang term — from some decades before. (2)

These three allusions — Potter, Rosebery and the Amateur Cadger — each helps subtly foreshadow the themes of the novel, at least in the mind of the contemporary politically-aware reader of 1895. Rosebery evoked the idea of the creation of a perfect ruling race. Potter evoked ‘free love’ and free expression, and the coming ‘New Woman’. The Amateur Cadger evoked the danger inherent in a sudden inversion between the master and the underclass, as well as visually evoking the fetid underground lodgings of that underclass.


(1) This quote must disprove the rather casual earlier theories that the Editor’s reference is somehow about a racehorse owned by Rosebery. Rosebery’s horses were called Ladas and Sir Vistor, and with them he had a string of big race wins in 1894 and 1895. But no high-standing gentleman of the time would be so crass as to name a racehorse after himself. The Editor’s “What will you take for the lot?” should have long since persuaded any scholar to disregard any theory about a racehorse, since a common racing tip on a winner would not be referred to as “the lot”.

(2) So far as I can find, there had been no 1890s stage play adaptation of this pamphlet, though it seems a likely candidate for a play.

“Cadger” appears to have been a word most in common use in print in the 1860s and 70s…

“The [kidnapped] boy is in the Cadger’s Cavern, hidden a thousand feet below the Thames; there is to be a grand jollification among the rogues that night, a dance and a feast. … Here they [the cadgers, roguish beggars] come trooping in by scores, the halt and the lame, black sweepers, one-legged fiddlers, the climber mots, the fly-fakers, the kedgoree coves…” — Thackery, “Dickens in France” (being a recounting of his circa 1860s viewing of a French stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickelby (1838)).

In America the term seems to have been later briefly used in place of “hawker”, a travelling pedlar who carries a basket of small goods or birds for sale. In the UK it may have shifted over time to become to the later “codger”, being a disgruntled and seedy old man who has little or no money. It is still somewhat in use as “can I cadge a lift”, meaning “can I have a free ride in your car” or “can I cadge a fag” meaning “can I have free cigarette”.

Some characters from The Land of Pots

Some early Etruria characters, extracted from the reminiscence “The Land of Pots” in TITAN: A Monthly Magazine, 1859.


William Theed, another gifted artist and most amiable man, for a long time devoted all his talents to the improvements at Etruria. He lived rent-free in one of the cottages on the Basford bank, and was married to a charming little French woman, whose foreign manners and broken English seemed out of place in that dull smoky land.

Among the chemists [in the early days at Etruria] were Leslie, long professor in the University of Edinburgh, who is described as fat and ugly, yet, like many a hideous mortal, intensely vain of his person; and Chisholm, a worthy old bachelor, who worked out the ideas and suggestions of others.

In fact, Etruria soon became the resort of scientific men, among whom was Sir James Hall, the father of Basil Ball, and a great oddity.

For a long time there was no church or chapel at Etruria, and those who could not or would not go to Stoke or Hanley to hear the gospel, were addressed by a working potter, a Wesleyan who roamed from place to place carrying a lantern under his coat to light him home at night.

Canals were the railroads of those days, and a person who lived for many years in Etruria remember seeing the red jackets [soldiers], and hearing the shrill note of the bagpipes of the Highlanders, passing down on barges during the long war.

Walking by the sea at Penzance one day, Thomas Wedgwood [of Etruria] saw a boy picking up seaweed and rock plants. He spoke to him, and was so pleased with his answers, that he undertook to secure for him an education which should develop his latent capacities. He wrote in his behalf to Dr. Beddoes … The Doctor received [Humphry] Davy as assistant at Clifton, and Mr Wedgwood supplied the necessary funds.1

(No Davy Lamp would have meant no deep coal mining, thus no industrial revolution that lasted, and thus no modern world… )


(1) This is corrected a little by the book A Group of Englishmen (1795 to 1815) Being Records of the Younger Wedgwoods

“What were the benefits conferred on Davy by the Wedgwoods [in Cornwall in winter 1797, for their health] is not stated; but he certainly did not owe to them his [initial] introduction to Beddoes. That was due to Davies Giddy…”

However I would suggest that an introduction by letter, by a rather limited local antiquarian, of a promising local lad is one thing. An introduction by Thomas Wedgwood, with a donation of £1,000 attached, is quite another.

The first photograph?

A facsimile sketch of one of the few remaining heliotype photographs made by Thomas Wedgwood in a series at Eturia, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1791-3.

From the book A group of Englishmen (1795 to 1815) being records of the younger Wedgwoods and their friends (1871).

Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells

The 260-page book Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells: a record of a personal and a literary friendship (1960, Hart-Davis / University of Illinois Press) is sadly not available in any library in the Potteries. It’s not on the Staffordshire or Keele catalogues, and Stoke Local Archives is listing it as “0, reservations unavailable” which seems to imply “stolen or lost”. According to Copac the nearest copy is down at Birmingham University.

However, I’m pleased to see it’s actually online at Archive.org for free: Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells: a record of a personal and a literary friendship. It’s been scanned and placed online by the University of Florida. Good for them. There’s even a Kindle ereader edition. The letters are annotated.

Here’s Wells at the opening of their correspondence, in 1897…

“… years ago I spent two or three months at Etruria and the district [the Potteries] made an immense impression on me. I wish I knew the people. I felt dimly then and rather less dimly today vast possibilities there. Think of Trentham, white Newcastle, and that Burslem Hanley ridge jostling one another — the difference in the lives and “circles of thought” there must be! And I’ve sat in ‘Trury woods [Etruria Woods] in the springtime, bluebells all about me, and seen overhead the smoke from Granville’s (I think it’s Granville’s) Iron Works streaming by under the white clouds. But I don’t know the people and “cram” is vile. I shall never do it.

Yours very faithfully

H. G. Wells.”

What does he mean by “cram”? Presumably not what Tolkien meant by it: a sort of mealy dry biscuit, sustaining but quickly unpalatable. He’s not talking about having to live on stale oatcakes if he were to live here. If he were, he would have written: “But I don’t know the people and the “cram” is vile. I shall never eat it.”

Rather I think he alludes to “cram” as in schoolboy “cramming” and “crammers” — swotting up on third-hand knowledge so as to have a smattering of patter than will enable one to just-about ‘get by’ when tested on a subject. So I think he means that he would rather admit that he doesn’t know the people of the Potteries, rather than come across as the sort of weaselling socialist who would pretend to be ‘in with the industrial workers’ through easy first-hand and intimate conversation with them.

Bennett replied…

“… you are the first man I have come across whom the Potteries has impressed, emotionally. There are a number of good men in the Potteries, but I have never yet met one who could be got to see what I saw; they were all inclined to scoff.”

Since the book has been placed “Out of copyright”, here are the front portrait pictures, extracted by me at their highest resolution. Feel free to re-use.