A town the colour of sunlit sandstone and ironstone

The Sussex town of Midhurst features in at least three novels by H. G. Wells.

It is Bramblehurst in The Invisible Man; Wimblehurst in Tono Bungay (“Wimblehurst is an exceptionally quiet and grey Sussex town. I found something very agreeable in its clean, cobbled streets, its odd turnings, and abrupt corners”); and Sussexville in The Man Who Could Work Miracles.

As a young man, Wells worked for a short time in Samuel Cowap’s chemist shop in Church Street, Midhurst. In An Experiment in Autobiography (1934), he writes:

“I do not know how my mother hit upon the idea of making me a pharmaceutical chemist. But that was the next career towards which I (and my small portmanteau) were now directed. I spent only about a month amidst the neat gilt-inscribed drawers and bottles of Mr. Cowap at Midhurst, rolled a few score antibilious and rhubarb pills, broke a dozen soda-water siphons during a friendly broom fight with the errand boy, learnt to sell patent medicines, dusted the coloured water bottles, the bust of Hahnemann (indicating homœopathic remedies) and the white horse (veterinary preparations), and I do not think I need here devote very much space to him and his amusing cheerful wife, seeing that I have already drawn largely upon this shop, and my experiences in it, in describing aunt and uncle Ponderevo in Tono Bungay

I was reluctant to abandon this start because I really liked the bright little shop with its drawers full of squills and senna pods, flowers of sulphur, charcoal and such like curious things, and I had taken to Midhurst from the outset. It had been the home of my grandparents, and that gave me a sense of belonging there. It was a real place in my mind and not a morbid sprawl of population like Bromley. Its shops and school and post office and church were grouped in rational comprehensible relations; it had a beginning, a middle and an end. I know no country to compare with West Sussex except the Cotswolds. It had its own colour, a pleasant colour of sunlit sandstone and ironstone and a warm flavour of open country because of the parks and commons and pine woods about it.”

A squill is a plant used for lung diseases including chronic bronchitis, asthma with bronchitis, and whooping cough.

In those days, a pharmaceutical assistant was required to know Latin, so Wells took lessons with Horace Byatt, the headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School (MGS). Byatt found his pupil an avid learner and steered him towards studying for state examinations in elementary science. Such was his success that in 1883 Wells became a pupil teacher at MGS and a year later entered the eminent biologist T. H. Huxley’s class at the Normal School (later Royal College) of Science, London, on a government scholarship for trainee teachers.

In an 1891 article, Wells described Midhurst as “a remarkably pretty little town, rapidly undergoing hidification at the hands of cheap cottage builders; there are stocks, a new town hall with a clock, and a grammar school where Sir Charles Lyell, Cobden, and myself were educated.” Fortunately, the town survived its hidification and today proudly displays three blue plaques commemorating a man whose prolific writings include 51 novels from The Time Machine (1895) to All Aboard for Ararat (1940).

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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