H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells

Herbert George Wells, the son of an unsuccessful tradesman, was born in Bromley on 21st September, 1866. After a basic education at a local school, Wells was apprenticed as a draper. Wells disliked the work and in 1883 became a pupil-teacher at Midhurst Grammar School.

While at Midhurst Wells won a scholarship to the School of Science where he was taught biology by T. H. Huxley. Wells found Huxley an inspiring teacher and as a result developed a strong interest in evolution. Wells founded and edited the Science Schools Journal while at university. Wells was disappointing with the teaching he received in the second year and so in 1887 he left without obtaining a degree.

Wells spent the next few years teaching and writing and in 1891 his major essay on science, The Rediscovery of the Unique , was published in The Fortnightly Review. In 1895 Wells established himself as a novelist in 1895 with his science fiction story, The Time Machine. This was followed by two more successful novels, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898).

Wells also became very popular in the United States. The popular magazine Cosmopolitan serialised two of his books, The War of the Worlds (1897) and First Man in the Moon (1900). His work also appeared in Collier's Magazine, the New Republic and the Saturday Evening Post.

Wells also began writing non-fiction books about politics, technology and the future. This included Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (1901), The Discovery of the Future (1902) and Mankind in the Making (1903). These books impressed the three leaders of the Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb. Wells accepted their suggestion that he should join the society.

Once a member of the Fabian Society, Wells tried to change it. Rather than a small group of intellectuals discussing socialist reform, Wells thought that it should be a large pressure group agitating for change. When the existing leadership resisted these ideas, Wells attempted to gain control of the organisation. Wells managed to gain election to the Fabian Society's Executive Committee but gained little support for change from the rest of the group.

In 1904 Beatrice Webb wrote: "We had a couple of days with H. G. Wells and his wife at Sandgate, and they are returning the visit here. We like him very much - he is absolutely genuine and full of inventiveness, a speculator in ideas, somewhat of a gambler but perfectly aware that his hypotheses are not verified. In one sense he is a romancer spoilt by romancing, but in the present stage of sociology he is useful to gradgrinds like ourselves in supplying us with loose generalizations which we can use as instruments of research."

Wells resigned from the Fabian Society in 1908 but continued to be active in the campaign for socialism. His book A Modern Utopia expressed a desire for a society that was run and organised by humanistic and well-educated people. Wells, who was extremely critical of the role that privilege and hereditary factors in capitalist society and in his utopia, people gain power as a result of their intelligence and training. Wells argued: "The Socialist (asks) what freedom is there today for the vast majority of mankind? They are free to do nothing but work for a bare subsistence all their lives, they may not go freely about the earth even, but are prosecuted for trespassing upon the health-giving breast of our universal mother. Consider the clerks and girls who hurry to their work of a morning across Brooklyn Bridge in New York, or Hungerford Bridge in London; go and see them, study their faces. They are free, with a freedom Socialism would destroy. Consider the poor painted girls who pursue bread with nameless indignities through our streets at night. They are free by the current standard. And the poor half-starved wretches struggling with the impossible stint of oakum in a casual ward, they too are free! The nimble footman is free, the crushed porter between the trucks is free, the woman in the mill, the child in the mine. Ask them! They will tell you how free they are."

In his early scientific writings Wells predicted the invention of modern weapons such as the tank and the atom bomb. He was therefore horrified by the outbreak of the First World War. Unlike many socialists, he supported Britain's involvement in the war, however, he believed politicians should use this opportunity to create a new world order.

Wells was encouraged by the news of the communist revolution in Russia. He visited the country and lectured Lenin and Trotsky on how they should run their country. Wells was disillusioned by what he saw in Russia and in 1920 Wells published The Outline of History. The book described human history since the earliest times and attempted to show how society had evolved to the present state. Wells illustrated the triumphs and failures and pointed out the dangers that faced the human race. The main theme of the book was that the world would be saved by education and not by revolution.

Wells book was widely discussed and the abridged version, A Short History of the World, published in 1922, sold in large numbers. In the 1922 General Election Wells was the Labour Party candidate for London University. One of those who helped him in his campaign was Ella Winter. She later recalled in her autobiography, And Not to Yield (1963): "The constituency consisted of London University teachers and students anywhere in the world, present and past; the campaign was carried out mainly by mail. I had known Wells slightly, but never before seen him troubled about the effects of his well-known unconventional behavior. Had we not regarded him as the apostle of women's rebellion and women's freedom? I was disillusioned when he wondered whether he ought to send out a letter justifying, possibly excusing, those actions. I was also surprised to find how little he knew of, and how childish he seemed about, practical politics." The campaign was unsuccessful and Wells only won 19% of the vote.

Wells was now considered to be one of the world's most important political thinkers and during the 1920s and 30s he was in great demand as a contributor to newspapers and journals. In his books and articles H. G. Wells argued that society had reached the stage where it needed world government and strongly supported the League of Nations that was established after the First World War. Wells also stressed that society needed to establish structures that ensured that the most intelligent gained power. Some socialists criticised Wells claiming that he was now preaching a form of elitism.

David Low became one of his friends: "H. G. Wells had the rare ability to make himself clear, to make difficult ideas assimilable, to excite curiosity and to prompt enquiry. Scientist, novelist, sociologist, prophet - but primarily the co-ordinating link between all these and the ordinary man, who, without his like, must live forever in darkness of mind. He was most effective in print, and more effective among a private company of half a dozen or so than at a public meeting. That was his trouble, because frequently he liked a public meeting, and he just hadn't the equipment. The vibrant baritone of his writing came out a peevish soprano in his speech. The handicap of a high-pitched voice that squeaked when he got wound up was easily imitated and ridiculed." Clement Attlee was another one who remarked on his speaking voice: "H. G. Wells was on the platform, speaking with a little piping voice; he was very unimpressive."

Some socialists became critical of his attitude towards the Great Depression: The left-wing MP Jennie Lee wrote about a meeting with Wells in 1929: "H. G. Wells was one of the bright guiding stars of my youth. I read avidly everything he wrote. That day in Parliament there had been a violent debate about all the issues that meant most to me - the cruelty and indignities of the Means Test, failure to get on with the building of urgently needed houses, schools and hospitals, and all this against a background of hundreds of thousands of unemployed building workers. I arrived at Great College Street brimming over with indignation. H. G. Wells brushed aside anything I tried to say, returning obsessively to the teaching of history in schools. We began glaring at one another with growing hostility. So this was H. G. Wells, this dumpy little man with the squeaky voice, totally indifferent to the problems that concerned the great mass of ordinary people."

In his novel The Shape of Things to Come published in 1933, Wells describes a world that had been devastated by decades of war and was now being rebuilt by the use of humanistic technology. David Low pointed out: "H. G. Wells had the rare ability to make himself clear, to make difficult ideas assimilable, to excite curiosity and to prompt enquiry. Scientist, novelist, sociologist, prophet - but primarily the co-ordinating link between all these and the ordinary man, who, without his like, must live forever in darkness of mind."

In 1934 Wells visited the Soviet Union and the United States. Although Wells clearly preferred what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to do, some people believed he was far too sympathetic to Joseph Stalin. One of his main critics was his old adversary at the Fabian Society, the successful writer, George Bernard Shaw.

Wells was appalled by the outbreak of the Second World War and wrote extensively about the need to make sure that we used the conflict to establish a new, rational world order. Herbert George Wells died on 13th August, 1946, while working on a project that dealt with the dangers of nuclear war. Margaret Cole later wrote: "I was just one of the many young who over three generations at least took their hope of the world from the vivid, many-gifted, generous, cantankerous personality, and accepted, not merely once but again and again over forty years, his eager conviction that the ideal of Socialism, which included world government, the abolition of all authority not based on reason, and of all inequality based on prejudice or privilege of any kind, of complete freedom of association, speech and movement, and of an immense increase of human welfare and material resources achieved by all-wise non-profit-making organisation of economic life, both could and would save humanity within a measurable space of time. Only at the very end, when he was all but on his death-bed, did H. G. Wells give up hoping for humanity."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (19th April, 1904)

We had a couple of days with H. G. Wells and his wife at Sandgate, and they are returning the visit here. We like him very much - he is absolutely genuine and full of inventiveness, a 'speculator' in ideas, somewhat of a gambler but perfectly aware that his hypotheses are not verified. In one sense he is a romancer spoilt by romancing, but in the present stage of sociology he is useful to gradgrinds like ourselves in supplying us with loose generalizations which we can use as instruments of research.

(2) H. G. Wells, New Worlds for Old (1908)

The Socialist (asks) what freedom is there today for the vast majority of mankind? They are free to do nothing but work for a bare subsistence all their lives, they may not go freely about the earth even, but are prosecuted for trespassing upon the health-giving breast of our universal mother. Consider the clerks and girls who hurry to their work of a morning across Brooklyn Bridge in New York, or Hungerford Bridge in London; go and see them, study their faces. They are free, with a freedom Socialism would destroy. Consider the poor painted girls who pursue bread with nameless indignities through our streets at night. They are free by the current standard. And the poor half-starved wretches struggling with the impossible stint of oakum in a casual ward, they too are free! The nimble footman is free, the crushed porter between the trucks is free, the woman in the mill, the child in the mine. Ask them! They will tell you how free they are.

(3) H. G. Wells, New Worlds for Old (1908)

That Anarchist world, I admit, is our dream; we do believe - well, I, at any rate, believe this present world, this planet, will some day bear a race beyond our most exalted and temerarious dreams, a race begotten of our wills and the substance of our bodies, a race, so I have said it, 'who will stand upon the earth as one stands upon a footstool, and laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars,' but the way to that is through education and discipline and law. Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices, create a system of social right-dealing and a tradition of right-feeling and action. Socialism is the schoolroom of true and noble Anarchism, wherein by training and restraint we shall make free men.

(4) Ella Winter, And Not to Yield (1963)

The constituency consisted of London University teachers and students anywhere in the world, present and past; the campaign was carried out mainly by mail. I had known Wells slightly, but never before seen him troubled about the effects of his well-known unconventional behavior. Had we not regarded him as the apostle of women's rebellion and women's freedom? I was disillusioned when he wondered whether he ought to send out a letter justifying, possibly excusing, those actions. I was also surprised to find how little he knew of, and how childish he seemed about, practical politics.

(5) H. G. Wells became involved in the campaign in Britain against the conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in America. The New York Times refused to publish his article, The Proposed Murder of Two Radicals. It eventually appeared in his book of essays, The Way the World is Going, in 1929.

The elementary education of the American citizen is cheap and poor and does not fit him for his proper role in the world; next, that the methods of democracy used by the States are crude and ineffective and that they hamper the moral and intellectual development of what is still the greatest, most promising of human communities; and, thirdly and finally, that the American sense of justice is clumsy and confused.

(6) In her book My Life With Nye (1980), Jennie Lee described meeting H. G. Wells at a dinner party in 1929.

H. G. Wells was one of the bright guiding stars of my youth. I read avidly everything he wrote. That day in Parliament there had been a violent debate about all the issues that meant most to me - the cruelty and indignities of the Means Test, failure to get on with the building of urgently needed houses, schools and hospitals, and all this against a background of hundreds of thousands of unemployed building workers. I arrived at Great College Street brimming over with indignation. H. G. Wells brushed aside anything I tried to say, returning obsessively to the teaching of history in schools. We began glaring at one another with growing hostility. So this was H. G. Wells, this dumpy little man with the squeaky voice, totally indifferent to the problems that concerned the great mass of ordinary people.

(7) Margaret Cole was one of the many young people converted to Socialism by books written by H. G. Wells.

I was just one of the many young who over three generations at least took their hope of the world from the vivid, many-gifted, generous, cantankerous personality, and accepted, not merely once but again and again over forty years, his eager conviction that the ideal of Socialism, which included world government, the abolition of all authority not based on reason, and of all inequality based on prejudice or privilege of any kind, of complete freedom of association, speech and movement, and of an immense increase of human welfare and material resources achieved by all-wise non-profit-making organisation of economic life, both could and would save humanity within a measurable space of time. Only at the very end, when he was all but on his death-bed, did H. G. Wells give up hoping for humanity.

(8) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

H. G. Wells had the rare ability to make himself clear, to make difficult ideas assimilable, to excite curiosity and to prompt enquiry. Scientist, novelist, sociologist, prophet - but primarily the co-ordinating link between all these and the ordinary man, who, without his like, must live forever in darkness of mind.

He was most effective in print, and more effective among a private company of half a dozen or so than at a public meeting. That was his trouble, because frequently he liked a public meeting, and he just hadn't the equipment. The vibrant baritone of his writing came out a peevish soprano in his speech. The handicap of a high-pitched voice that squeaked when he got wound up was easily imitated and ridiculed.

(9) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

I remember very well the first Fabian Society meeting we attended at Essex Hall. The platform seemed to be full of bearded men: Aylmer Maude, William Sanders, Sidney Webb and Bernard Shaw. I said to my brother, "Have we got to grow a beard to join this show. H. G. Wells was on the platform, speaking with a little piping voice; he was very unimpressive.

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© John Simkin, April 2013