Herbert George Wells

The Other ‘Mr Wells of Woking’ – a mysterious local artist

Everyone knows that Herbert George Wells, otherwise H G Wells, the famous author, lived for a short while in Woking. It was while at 141 Maybury Road, where he stayed from May 1895 until late 1896, that he wrote perhaps his most famous novel ‘The War of the Worlds’, which is so detailed that the reader can relate almost every site quoted in the book to actual places in Woking and its immediate environs. Some characters in the book are even real people – for example, the proprietor of the ‘College Arms’ pub, Maybury (sadly now demolished), was a Mr Jolley, who appears in the 1891 census for Woking, and is named as such in the novel.

However, possibly very few people know that another ‘Mr Wells of Woking’ was also living there at the same time as H G Wells – confusingly also in Maybury Road, and rather coincidentally almost the same age. In another almost fantastically unbelievable coincidence, his name was … Herbert George Wells!

The full 1891 census entry for this Mr Wells appears thus:

Image of the 1891 census entry for Herbert George Wells. Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk

1891 census entry for Herbert George Wells. Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk. Click on the image to see a larger copy.

Here, he is clearly named as Herbert G Wells, aged 23 (H G Wells the author was at this time 25), born in ‘Middlesex’, making his year of birth about 1867/8. Birth records show that a Herbert George Wells was registered in Camberwell in September 1867. There can be no confusion with the author, who was famously born in Bromley, Kent, and was registered there in December 1866 as Herbert G Wells.

Detail from the 1891 census entry for Herbert George Wells showing his place of birth as Middlesex. Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk

Detail from the 1891 census entry for Herbert George Wells showing his place of birth as Middlesex. Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk.
Click on the image to see a larger copy.

The number of the house in Maybury Road is not given (the number seen is the census schedule number), but from the surrounding details of the census – notably minor streets leading off – the house can be identified as the one now named ‘Flexbury’, near the station end of the road.

It is the occupation of this ‘other Mr Wells’ that is the most interesting, and the most frustrating, aspect of his existence. The entry reads ‘Artist’ and has been augmented in pencil with ‘sculp[tor]’.

Detail from the 1891 census entry for Herbert George Wells showing his profession as Arist Sculp[tor] Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk

Detail from the 1891 census entry for Herbert George Wells showing his profession as Arist Sculp[tor] Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk.
Click on the image to see a larger copy.

This Mr Wells does not appear (as far as I can find) in any list of 19th-20thC artists or sculptors. It is difficult to make any kind of search under this name, as all recorded roads point to the author. Perhaps he only practised locally and was more well-known to the inhabitants of just this part of Surrey. The 1891 census shows that he was an employer, and his two male boarders, also in craft occupations, may have been assistants to his work.

Interestingly, a Herbert George Wells entered service with the Royal Engineers in 1891. His attestation papers give his age then as 24 and his place of birth as Camberwell – thus making him almost certainly the man from the Woking census. His occupation is given as draughtsman designer – not, perhaps, a sculptor, but certainly an artist; he states that he was formerly apprenticed with George Ward & Hughes of London, who were manufacturers of stained glass. His papers were later amended to show that he had married Eliza Harriet Taylor in 1900; two sons, William Herbert and Harry Leslie, are also noted. The same man was recalled in 1914 to the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the 19th Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment; however his conduct this second time around left much to be desired – his apparent frustration with being called up again at the age of 46 shows clearly in the number and nature of his disciplinary comments, for example using obscene language to an NCO, instances of neglect of duty and disobedience of orders, and going AWOL.

This second Mr Wells and his family can be traced quite readily through online census and other genealogical records – for example, he appears as a child on earlier Surrey censuses, and he and his wife and two sons are living with his mother-in-law Katherine Taylor in 1911. He died in 1923, although his probate details name his eldest son William Herbert (at that time an analytical chemist) not his wife, who may have died earlier (there are several women named Eliza Wells of about the right age dying in Surrey between 1911 and 1923).

Unfortunately his artistic career is not so easy to discover, as it seems to be in abeyance after his first stint in the army – on the 1911 census, he is described as an unemployed ex-soldier. Perhaps he was neither a very good artist, nor a successful one and simply gave it up when duty called. However, it would be interesting to find out whether he ever resumed his artistic interests before he died – does anyone know of any existing work of his?

One can imagine the confusion of the 1890s postman as he tries to deliver the correct post to two men named H G Wells in Maybury Road, Woking, during the author’s 18 month stay. I wonder whether either man called on the other to hand in each other’s letters? And imagine if the possibly unsuccessful Mr Wells discovered the later popularity of the world-famous author! I wonder if he was ever tempted to use his name for gain?

Marion Edwards
July 2019

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