H.G. Wells in Stoke

Updated and expanded: June 2017.

H.G. Wells once lived in the Potteries, on Basford Bank in 1888. He spent about three months at 18 Victoria Street with friends, recovering from an illness. He had not yet seen literary success, and wrote to a friend from Stoke that…

“Some day I shall succeed, I really believe, but it is a weary game.”

Yet the unique environment of the Potteries was certainly an inspiration. He wrote in another letter to Arnold Bennett, recalling his time at Etruria…

“the district made an immense impression on me. I wish I knew the people.”

He also recalls his time here, in his autobiography. There are also letters, such this letter to his father about a visit to the old 18th century Wedgwood manufactory in 1888…

“Considering the great reputation of the firm, I was rather surprised at the ramshackle state of the works, which are, with extensions and innumerable patchy alterations, the same that the immortal Josiah erected a century ago; they consist of big, hive-shaped ovens and barn-like but many storied buildings where the potters and painters work, standing towards each other at angles, with queer narrow passages and archways penetrating them, with flimsy wooden staircases outside the building and with innumerable windows opaque with dirt and crusted like bottles of ancestral wine with cobwebs and mouldy matter. There are grinding mills moreover, which creak and groan as the mills roar round and which are dirty when you enter”.

The stay in Stoke-on-Trent resulted in the macabre short-story “The Cone” (1895, contemporaneous with his famous The Time Machine) set in the north of the city. Here’s an extract from “The Cone”, which can be found in the Wells collection The Country of the Blind and Other Stories

“A blue haze, half dust, half mist, touched the long valley with mystery. Beyond were Hanley and Etruria, grey and dark masses, outlined thinly by the rare golden dots of the street lamps, and here and there a gaslit window, or the yellow glare of some late-working factory or crowded public-house. Out of the masses, clear and slender against the evening sky, rose a multitude of tall chimneys, many of them reeking, a few smokeless during a season of “play.” Here and there a pallid patch and ghostly stunted beehive shapes showed the position of a pot-bank, or a wheel, black and sharp against the hot lower sky, marked some colliery where they raise the iridescent coal of the place. Nearer at hand was the broad stretch of railway, and half invisible trains shunted–a steady puffing and rumbling, with every run a ringing concussion and a rhythmic series of impacts, and a passage of intermittent puffs of white steam across the further view. And to the left, between the railway and the dark mass of the low hill beyond, dominating the whole view, colossal, inky-black, and crowned with smoke and fitful flames, stood the great cylinders of the Jeddah Company Blast Furnaces, the central edifices of the big ironworks of which Horrocks was the manager. They stood heavy and threatening, full of an incessant turmoil of flames and seething molten iron, and about the feet of them rattled the rolling-mills, and the steam hammer beat heavily and splashed the white iron sparks hither and thither. Even as they looked, a truckful of fuel was shot into one of the giants, and the red flames gleamed out, and a confusion of smoke and black dust came boiling upwards towards the sky.”

Recalling his time in the Potteries in his later autobiography, written in his mid 60s, he remembered that…

“I found the Burtons and their books and their talk, and the strange landscape of the Five Towns with its blazing iron foundries, its steaming canals, its clay whitened pot—banks and the marvellous effects of its dust and smoke-laden atmosphere, very stimulating.”

He was staying with his former school-friend Burton who had taken a job at the nearby Eturia Works pottery, experimentally trying to re-discover the original Wedgwood glazes. Shortly after he first arrived he took a first convalescent walk in what was left of Etruria Woods. Through a chance meeting with a young girl during that walk, he recovered the will to live. In recording this encounter he inadvertently preserved the local folk-name for wood anemones, “wind stars”. Later he took longer walks, to the other side of Eturia Station and wandered among the heavy industry of the city.

“The Cone” was, according to something Wells wrote in the 1920s, the remaining fragment of what was originally…

“to have been a vast melodrama, all at that same level of high sensation.”

His autobiography elaborates slightly…

“I projected a vast melodrama in the setting of the Five Towns, a sort of Staffordshire Mysteries of Paris conceived partly in burlesque, it was to be a grotesque with lovely and terrible passages.”

The Potteries may have missed out on a rip-roaring melodrama, but popular science-fiction was rather usefully birthed instead — when Wells published seminal and enduring works such as The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1897). Though we might perhaps glimpse a little of Wells’s impression of Stoke, in the underground industrial city of the Morlocks in his famous breakthrough novel The Time Machine. In The War of the Worlds Wells also compares the sight of the devastation wrought by the Martian heat-rays to “the Potteries at night”. Certainly we know from his autobiography that the earliest writing for The Time Machine was begun in Stoke-on-Trent…

“… I stayed at Etruria for nearly three months waiting for opportunity to come and find me. … And at Etruria my real writing began. I produced something as good at least as my letters, something I could read aloud to people I respected without immediate shame. It was good enough to alter and correct and write over again. … it was a sign of growing intelligence that I was realizing my exceptional ignorance of the contemporary world and exploring the possibilities of fantasy. That is the proper game for the young man, particularly for young men without a natural social setting of their own. … Moreover I began … the original draft of what later became The Time Machine …”

Pictures: The top picture probably evokes the somewhat ‘wan and pensive’ look which Wells is said to have often had during his convalescence. The bottom picture sees Wells recovered, around eight to ten years after 1888, being by that time a confident “young and rising novelist”. Printed in The Review of Reviews, Vol.17, 1898.

After his fertile early period in the 1890s, Wells continued to write but his work became increasingly peppered with and distorted by his impracticable politics. The later Wells science-fiction novel In The Days of the Comet (1906) depicts the district as the home place of the narrator, with Wells condemning our industry and daily life in tediously socialistic terms, and melodramatically depicting in a crude stereotype the sour lives of its people. A student socialist hothead falls in love with a gardener’s daughter, Nettie. But she elopes with an upper-class young man, so the student resolves to kill them both. In this opening plot we probably see something of what Wells’s “vast melodrama” of the Potteries would have been like, before the novel’s science-fiction element of a ‘green gas’ intervenes, which instantly ushers in a socialist utopia and thus erases the murder plot.

The first half of the novel is set in the Potteries. Following the example of Arnold Bennett, Wells tries to cloak the Potteries under new names. His Potteries become the ‘Four Towns’; Hanley becomes ‘Swathinglea’; Burslem is ‘Clayton’; Newcastle-under-Lyme is ‘Overcastle’; ‘Checkshill Towers’ is Alton Towers; Leek is ‘Leet’. I’ve extracted all the relevant descriptive parts of the novel here.

His late novel The New Machiavelli (1911) also has an opening chapter “Margaret in Staffordshire”, in which there is an semi-autobiographical account of the narrator walking in the industrial district of what is now termed the ‘Five Towns’. This passage must surely recall the author’s own walks into the city, as his strength returned in May and June of 1888…

“I prowled alone, curious and interested, through shabby back streets of mean little homes; I followed canals, sometimes canals of mysteriously heated waters with ghostly wisps of steam rising against blackened walls or a distant prospect of dustbin-fed vegetable gardens, I saw the women pouring out from the potbanks, heard the hooters summoning the toilers to work, lost my way upon slag heaps as big as the hills of the south country, dodged trains at manifestly dangerous level crossings, and surveyed across dark intervening spaces, the flaming uproar, the gnome-like activities of iron foundries.”

Much of the rest of this blatantly propagandist opening chapter is devoted to giving an unflattering description of the narrator’s Uncle, a fictional pottery manufacturer, and his “exploitation” of the workers. The Uncle is used to “illustrate Marx” for the reader. Later in the book there is a fleeting condemnation of the Bursley Wakes fair in Burslem, as distracting pap for the masses, but no description. It seems a pity that Wells never “knew the people” of the Potteries, only the landscapes, or he might have come to understand things here rather differently.

Further reading:

R.G. Hampson, “H.G. Wells and the Staffordshire Potteries”, Wellsian, 3 (1980), pages 1-5.

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4 comments on “H.G. Wells in Stoke

  1. […] A more substantially “Stoke” short story is by H.G. Wells. His story “The Cone” (1895) can be found in The Country of the Blind and other Selected Stories, or for free online since it is in the public domain. It’s a macabre story, apparently inspired by a news report of someone throwing themselves into a melting pot and by Wells’s own time in the Potteries. He vividly evokes the works at Etruria in Stoke. For details of Wells in the Potteries, see my short article on the topic. […]

  2. David Haden says:

    According to one leading Wells scholar, it seems that the “vast melodrama” of the Potteries was actually written – only to be judged inferior by Wells and it was said to have been destroyed by fire.

  3. Andrew Platt says:

    The first chapter of one his most famous works, “The Time Machine”, contains the following Potteries reference:

    “…Filby tried to tell us about a conjurer he had seen at Burslem.”

    In “The War Of The Worlds” he describes a scene of devastation the Martians have created thus:

    “It was the strangest spectacle, that black expanse set with fire. It reminded me, more than anything else, of the Potteries at night.”

  4. […] short blog post “H. G. Wells in Stoke”, which noted his Etruria story “The Cone” and his short time living in Basford, has […]

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