H. G. Wells and the Potteries – an update

My short blog post “H.G. Wells in Stoke”, which noted his Etruria story “The Cone” and his short time living in Basford, has been updated. I’m not one of those people who thinks that the text of blog posts are sacrosanct once posted. When new information arises, texts can be updated and tweaked. It’s the way of the Web.

I’ve added more details of his depiction of the Potteries in the later novels In The Days of the Comet (1906) and The New Machiavelli (1911). The re-naming of places in In The Days of the Comet had previously led me to think that it was set elsewhere, in some generic industrial Midlands place of the 1900s. But I now learn that a good deal of the scenes are meant to be in the Potteries. I overlooked this matter because Wells followed Arnold Bennett in cloaking the Potteries under new names. His Potteries become the ‘Four Towns’; Hanley becomes ‘Swathinglea’; Burslem is ‘Clayton’; Newcastle-under-Lyme is ‘Overcastle’; Leek is ‘Leet’ and so on.

I’ve also skimmed the novel for 90 minutes and have extracted all the relevant descriptive sections. I’ve corrected the American spelling from the American edition scan.

The first thirty pages of the novel begin it with this pungent description of the Potteries, in which the first half of the novel is set. Be warned that the Potteries are here shown in a very unsympathetic light. The young socialist narrator (of the violent type, “I’m a disciple of Nietzsche” he says at one point) goes for a walk in the summer evening, with his young friend the ‘scientific’ socialist Parload…

… we walked together up the narrow street, outside his lodging, up the stepway and the lanes toward Clayton Crest and the high road.

But my memories carry me back so effectually to those days before the Change that I forget that now all these places have been altered beyond recognition, that the narrow street and the stepway and the view from Clayton Crest, and indeed all the world in which I was born and bred and made, has vanished clean away, out of space and out of time, and wellnigh out of the imagination of all those who are younger by a generation than I. You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beerhouse with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure — some rascal child — that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and down which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses. You cannot see these things as I can see them, nor can you figure — unless you know the pictures that great artist Hyde has left the world — the effect of the great hoarding by which we passed, lit below by a gas-lamp and towering up to a sudden sharp black edge against the pallid sky.

Those hoardings! They were the brightest coloured things in all that vanished world. Upon them, in successive layers of paste and paper, all the rough enterprises of that time joined in chromatic discord; pill vendors and preachers, theatres and charities, marvellous soaps and astonishing pickles, typewriting machines and sewing machines, mingled in a sort of visualized clamour. And passing that there was a muddy lane of cinders, a lane without a light, that used its many puddles to borrow a star or so from the sky. We splashed along unheeding as we talked.

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was gray oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.


This was the scene of many a talk we two had held together. And if in the daytime we went right over the crest and looked westward there was farmland, there were parks and great mansions, the spire of a distant cathedral, and sometimes when the weather was near raining, the crests of remote mountains hung clearly in the sky. […] Far away, distant, beautiful, irrelevant, from out of a little cluster of second- hand bookshops, ecclesiastical residences, and the inns and incidentals of a decaying market town, the cathedral of Lowchester [Lichfield] pointed a beautiful, unemphatic spire to vague incredible skies.

Having acquired a loaded revolver, stolen some money from a vicar and planning murder, the young socialist narrator then encounters a wide view of the Potteries…

… this was not a case of murder yet, but only the theft of four sovereigns.

I had argued away all anxiety before I reached Clayton Crest. At the Crest I looked back. What a world it was! And suddenly it came to me that I was looking at this world for the last time. If I overtook the fugitives and succeeded, I should die with them — or hang. I stopped and looked back more attentively at that wide ugly valley.

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshippers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

I was descending a steep, cobbled, excavated road between banked-up footways, perhaps six feet high, upon which, in a monotonous series, opened the living room doors of rows of dark, low cottages. The perspective of squat blue slate roofs and clustering chimneys drifted downward towards the irregular open space before the colliery [coal mine] — a space covered with coaly, wheel-scarred mud, with a patch of weedy dump to the left and the colliery gates to the right. Beyond, the High Street with shops resumed again in good earnest and went on, and the lines of the steam-tramway that started out from before my feet, and were here shining and acutely visible with reflected skylight and here lost in a shadow, took up for one acute moment the greasy yellow irradiation of a newly lit gas-lamp as they vanished round the bend. Beyond, spread a darkling marsh of homes, an infinitude of little smoking hovels, and emergent, meagre churches, public-houses, board schools, and other buildings amidst the prevailing chimneys of Swathinglea. To the right, very clear and relatively high, the Bantock Burden pit-mouth was marked by a gaunt lattice bearing a great black wheel, very sharp and distinct in the twilight, and beyond, in an irregular perspective, were others following the lie of the seams. The general effect, as one came down the hill, was of a dark compressed life beneath a very high and wide and luminous evening sky, against which these pit-wheels rose.

And ruling the calm spaciousness of that heaven was the great comet, now green-white, and wonderful for all who had eyes to see. The fading afterglow of the sunset threw up all the contours and skyline to the west, and the comet rose eastward out of the pouring tumult of smoke from Bladden’s forges. The moon had still to rise.

After the mysterious comet has narrowly passed Earth by, and its veil of green gas has mysteriously ushered in global socialism…

“All these vast cities have given way and gone, even as my native Potteries and the Black Country have gone […] As I look back into the past I see a vast exultant dust of house-breaking and removal rise up into the clear air that followed the hour of the green vapours, I live again the Year of Tents, the Year of Scaffolding … [this is accompanied by a great deal of “dustman’s work”, the tearing out of fences and the mass burnings of unwanted books and art … ] Kite and revolver had gone now, and all my hot and narrow past, its last vestiges had shrivelled and vanished in the whirling gusts of the Beltane fires. So I walked through a world of gray ashes at last […]

Spot the cat

A new paper, “The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world”

In order to trace the origins of the domestic cat, the authors examined DNA of 230 ancient and modern cats from Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia, spanning around 9,000 years, from the Mesolithic period to the twentieth century CE.

The first major [domestication] event was probably in the Fertile Crescent about 7,500 years ago, from wildcats originating in Anatolia. “Cats can then be seen moving with human populations as early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, as farmers spread from the Near East into Europe, and also with seafaring communities,” […] “Cats appear to have traveled along maritime trade routes … The second major wave of domestication occurred in the Greek and Roman periods, when a fad for Egyptian cats led to a movement of domestic cats descended from North African Felis silvestris lybica to Europe. … “The fad for Egyptian cats very quickly spread through the ancient Greek and Roman world, and even much further afield [specifically] the presence of the Egyptian lineage IV-C1 [cats] at the Viking port of Ralswiek 7–11th century AD”.

The team also analysed one of the rare genetic markers of domestication in cats: the colouring of their fur. “The gene coding for spots and mottling is found only in domestic cats, while the fur of wildcats is always striped,” the authors said. “And here we stumbled on a surprise: spots only began to appear under the Ottoman Empire, between 500 and 1300 CE, becoming more common after 1300 both in the Ottoman Empire and in Europe. This is a very late development in relation to other species. … this phenomenon constitutes irrefutable evidence of selection by humans …”

New revised version of the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus

I see that in 2007 the famous British science-fiction author Brian Aldiss has updated his famous Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus (1973). The original book was one of the strongest surveys of what was then the best short science fiction published during the 1940s-1960s. Doubtless I read that book in the 1980s, when I read everything worth reading in science-fiction except for the novels of Heinlein and Rand. Regrettably I was gullible and thus easily put off those two great writers by socialist critics and commentators, who sought to dissuade the young from reading anything that might be ‘libertarian’.

Aldiss’s new 560-page edition of the book has added his choice of the very best science-fiction short works from the intervening 30 years, bringing the book to 31 stories. Newly added are works such as the novella “Great Work of Time” by John Crowley (whose Nabokovian Little, Big I still have on my shelves) which concludes the volume. Sadly I see that there’s no audiobook version, which I thought there might have been for such a major book from Penguin.

I occasionally nibbled at bits of literary science fiction after leaving it in the late 1980s, but only really returned to print science-fiction in 2008 with Stephenson’s superb door-stopper novel Anathem. As such I’m still winkling out the various nuggets I missed in the 20 year gap. It’s proven to be rather a useful time-saving strategy actually, as I can now bypass all the mediocre, leftist and politically-correct, ‘middle-age angst’ and ‘young adult’ books and can just go straight to the very best. Ideally in audiobook format, too.

I discovered Aldiss’s new expanded Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus via a roundabout route. I was reading a short interview with the curator of the London Barbican’s excellent new major exhibition on the history of science fiction (on until September 2017), and read that…

Gyger said his favourite science fiction book was John Crowley’s novella “Great Work of Time”, explaining: “Crowley did a lot of Science Fiction, and still does, and his Great Work of Time is a very small novel about time-travel, and is very nostalgic and very powerful about people trying to kind of perpetuate the British Empire forever.”

‘That sounds fun’, I thought, for a moment confusing Crowley with Cowper. ‘Where is it?’ I found that the late-1980s steampunk-ish novella is included in Aldiss’s 2007 edition of Science Fiction Omnibus, and I’m looking forward to dipping into it on the Kindle ereader. Apparently Crowley’s “Great Work of Time” is a little more than just ‘fun’, though, as you might expect on such a topic. It’s said to be a lyrical work on time-travel, about the dangers of civilisational stagnation and the ways in which one has to make harsh choices for the wider good.

Free British Sapi5 voices

It’s interesting to learn that there are new text-to-speech Sapi5 voices, available in regional British variants:

* Welsh voices, Geraint and Gwyneth for text-to-speech as either Welsh-accented English or Welsh. Free, but an email request is required — registered blind people can request the voices directly from the RNIB.

* Scottish Voices, Heather and Stuart, plus Ceitidh for Gaelic. Educational non-commercial use only, and free — but registration is required.

* There are no other free accented voices, such as Cornish or Brummie, so far as I can tell. But as the cost of developing a Sapi5 TTS voice comes down, via automation of the process, and as the systems that drive the voices make them sound less robotic, I foresee a future in which some distinctive British regions and cities develop and offer their own ‘voice’.

There’s also Microsoft Hazel, a very good British voice and better than the previous Microsoft British variants. This voice shipped as standard with Windows 8 and 8.1. The quickest way to tell if a Windows 8 user has it seems to be to install the best genuinely freeware TTS reader for Windows, Balabolka.

If you don’t have Microsoft Hazel you may be able to get it from Windows Control Panel: Language Pack | Add a Language | Select | the wait until you see the “Download is ready…” link appear. (You can apparently also get a free French-accented Sapi5 voice, Hortense, this way. Just download the French language pack for Windows).

Survey and analysis of the place-names of Staffordshire (2003)

David Horovitz, A survey and analysis of the place-names of Staffordshire (2003), freely available for download…

“The main body of this work consists of a gazetteer of all of the main, and many of the minor, place-names of Staffordshire (meaning any places which are or were at any time known to have been in what was, or became, Staffordshire), with early spellings, and observations on the likely or possible derivation of those names, often in a rather more discursive form than standard works on place-names, particularly where uncertainty exists as to the derivation.”

The springs at Willowbridge Wells, near Newcastle-under-Lyme

A new letter, purchased by The Bodleian library this week…

“Lady Gerard’s discovery of a ‘healing spring’ at Willowbridge in Staffordshire would be recorded in 1676 by her chaplain Samuel Gilbert in a pamphlet entitled ‘Fons sanitatis’ (London, 1676). She died in 1703. … The present letter reveals Lady Gerard to have had a serious interest in writings on witchcraft”.

The springs appear to have been about 8 miles south-west of Newcastle-under-Lyme…

“Willowbridge Wells are on the north side of the parish, nearly 2 miles North of Ashley, and in the neighbourhood of extensive woods which supply immense quantities of crate-wood for the Potteries, and timber for the manufacture of oak baskets. The wells in the now enclosed park of Willowbridge were formerly in great celebrity for their medicinal virtues.” — from William White’s History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire, 1851.

Roy Booth has dug up the relevant text from “Fons sanitatis, or, The healing spring at Willowbridge in Stafford-shire found out by the Right Honourable the Lady Jane Gerard”, and gives an extract…

“This Spring was first taken notice of, and several experiments tryed with it, by the most Ingenious and true vertuosa, that Right Honourable Lady Jane Gerard, Baroness of Bromley, of Sandon in Staffordshire, whose Charitable care and charge, in damming it out from the common Water, into which it delivered it self, (a large Pool through which the River Terne runs, taking its beginning about half a mile above it,) causing it to be divided into two large Baths; the one for Men, the other for Horses.”

I’ve also searched Google Books. I see that the whole of Fons sanitatis is available there. Thomas Pennant’s account of The Journey from Chester to London (1783) notes…

“I RETURNED into the great road by Winnington forge and Willowbridge wells. The last were once in high esteem for their sanative waters, strongly impregnated with sulphur. They were formerly much frequented on account of bathing…”

The “once” suggests they had declined in repute or power, by the 1780s.

William Pitt’s A Topographical History of Staffordshire (1817) add more…

The North Staffordshire Field Club visited a century later in 1917, a short while after the woods had been denuded for war-time timber needs…


April 28th, 1917.

The opening excursion of the season was favoured with the usual “Club weather” and on alighting at Pipegate Station the members at once made their way to the outskirts of Willowbridge Wells, where the leader gave a short address. He stated that the place owed its name to the large number of sulphurous springs, as no less than sixty of these had been noted within an area of ten square yards. In the 17th and 18th Centuries the waters were highly esteemed on account of their curative properties, and Dr. Plot, who visited the district in 1686, quaintly remarks:—

“It cures many diseases by its balsamic virtue and great subtlety and volatility, easily permeating the closest texture and most inaccessible parts of the body, when once
heated by the stomach if taken inwardly, or by the external heat of the skin, if applied outwardly by way of a bath.”

The road led through Willowbridge Woods, which have suffered heavily from the recent demand for timber, and here Mr. Ridge addressed the party on the ecology of the district, tracing the steps by which the once dominant type of forest vegetation became converted into heather moor.

There’s no mention in the 1917 report (given in the 1918 volume) of the springs still being in existence, or the relics of their stone enclosures visible. In which case one has to assume that the transition from woodland to heathland may have dried them up long before the First World War fellings. The mention of “wells” in the 1851 text (see above) suggests the natural water level had sunk quite deep by the 1850s, deep enough that wells were required to get to the sulphurous waters that once flowed on the surface.

‘Tolkien in Staffordshire’ – at Newcastle-under-Lyme from 24th June 2017

I’m pleased to see that the “J.R.R. Tolkien in Staffordshire” touring exhibition reaches the Brampton Museum soon, opening there on Saturday 24th June and running until 22nd July 2017. It’s my nearest venue, and I’ll be popping along at some point.

“Brampton Museum” seems to be a fairly new moniker for the museum, and as such won’t be recognised by many. When I first saw the name on the list I assumed it must be some obscure rural Staffordshire village. It’s actually the council-run museum in Newcastle-under-Lyme, located in Brampton Park on the northern edge of the town centre.

I see there’s also a talk in Newcastle-under-Lyme from the active local branch of The Western Front Association. Dave Robbie will talk on ‘J. R. R. Tolkien and The Great War’, 10th July 2017, 7pm until 9pm at “Newcastle Methodist Church”. That could be one of many such Methodist churches, but judging by the map on the website it’s the former church lecture hall in Merrial St., close to the Council offices…

Possibly there will be other such talks and events in the town. “Tolkien in Staffordshire” is not a major show in size, but I happen to know that the assistant at the town’s Museum is a big Tolkien fan. So possibly there will be add-on events around the exhibition.