HG Wells in Sandgate

HG Wells lived in three houses in Sandgate between 1899 and 1909. He initially moved to the seaside because of poor health and rented houses in Castle Street and Granville Road. He clearly liked Sandgate and following his earlier literary success he commissioned the architect CFA Voysey to design a house for himself and his family. The Wells family moved in on Saturday 8 December 1900 [ 1 ].

Voysey had been influenced by Pugin and shared his ideas of ‘ornament and decoration confined to the structural necessities of the building’. He was also inspired by Ruskin (whom he met as a child) and his belief that artists and architects should look to nature for inspiration.

Voysey is seen by some as incorporating both Arts and Crafts and Modernism; his influence was widespread and included Frank Lloyd Wright and Bauhaus. Voysey was known as a complete designer (as had been Pugin), working to harmonise the architecture of the building with the interior design itself through a holistic approach. Pevsner described him as the twentieth century successor to William Morris. He produced around sixty domestic houses and they have provided a pattern which has been repeated in suburban housing around the world. Of his work he said;

‘Our reference to the past should be only to learn the possibilities and limitations of the material we propose to use. We are in the midst of life, and must concern ourselves with living things, thoughts and feelings’.

The house which Voysey produced for Wells came to be known as Spade House. Voysey wished to use a heart as a symbol, Wells said no, protesting that he did not wish his heart to be displayed in such a way. The heart was turned upside down, the spade was born.

It was at Spade House that Wells continued his extraordinary literary output. Not only were his books original, covering a range of genre, they dealt with social issues and the big and small questions of the day. While living there his books included, The Sea Lady, Kipps, Tono Bungay, In the Days of the Comet and the Suffragette novel, Anne Veronica. Many of his works had local references. The Sea Lady comes ashore at Sandgate and the Folkestone of Mr Polly and Artie Kipps and Ann Pornick can still be traced along the Leas and in the streets and shop fronts. Anne Veronica caused great scandal – it coincided with the growth and development of the militant Suffragette movement. One wonders how many young women read this book of female desire and sexual emancipation and were influenced to becoming involved in the wider political struggles which were taking place.

Wells was also a political activist, speaker, lecturer and writer of pamphlets and newspaper articles. He wrote This Misery of Boots in Sandgate which remains a powerful argument for socialist change. For a while he was involved with the Fabians, Beatrice and Sydney Webb visited him in east Kent. He debated with George Bernard Shaw. He caused outrage with his advocacy of ‘free love’ and in particular, his affair with Amber Reeves. For a while he was associated with the Romney Marsh Group of writers which included Edith Nesbit, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Hueffer (later Ford) and Stephen Crane. His writing was always direct and accessible; his private and public lives were full of complexity.

The house rented by Wells in Castle Street (above).

The house rented in Granville Road – ‘Beach House’ (in green) which overlooks the channel. Wells was a keen cyclist. He moved there on 29 September 1899.

There was a rowing regatta in the sea today. This is more or less the view from Well’s house on the sea front.

Sandgate High Street still has many good buildings. These would all have been familiar to Wells. The shop might the very same that Mr Polly worked in.

But today Sandgate suffers the plague of motorism. The High Street is dominated by motor vehicles. Very few are likely to be using the local shops or services. It’s strange how this is seen as ‘normal’. Even while I was walking along it was easy to spot people driving while using their mobile phones to send text messages, accelerating as much as possible whenever there was a gap between the car in front, revving up modified exhausts making excessive noise. Wells was a great lover of technology but I can’t imagine him thinking much of this. The overall ambiance of this is horrible.

I took the train to Folkestone West. There used to be a train station at Sandgate itself, and perhaps Wells used that to travel up to London. But it was never more than a branch line. The original plan was to have carried on the line to Folkestone Harbour and build a new station closer to Sandgate itself but that never happened. Folkestone West station was opened in 1863 as Shorncliffe Camp. It was enlarged in 1881.

Today the station is only partially staffed and more than partially ‘boarded up’. This creates a sense of neglect. Another example of ‘surplus building’ which is not put to any social use. When first built there were four tracks here. The two in the centre, which have now been removed, enabled the boat trains to pass local trains.

Most of the walk towards Spade House was along Coolinge Lane, with a few detours. The area would have been much more open with far fewer buildings in the early 1900s. Coolinge Farmhouse is from the late 18th century. The beginnings of the industrial revolution and a period of intense enclosures of land throughout England.

This part of Folkestone has a gated ‘community’. I had to think about this. ‘Gated’ ‘Community’. I don’t really think that makes sense.

The gated housing is next to a low rise estate which looks as if it was once local authority. It’s a well established place with a lot of greenery and trees. It is now ‘owned’ by Southern Housing Group. It’s difficult to see how ‘community’ can work across these different spaces.

This is the centre of the gated development. A former boarding school which is now luxury apartments. The developers are Quinn Estates who state, ‘Delivering major community gains is in our DNA’.

It is noticeable that the local primary school children are served by a panel building with rusty pipes. And nursery age children are served by a pre-fab. One cannot but wonder why the former boarding school could not be put to the use of the local children?

Not only was a little of the life of HG Wells discovered, but something distinctly Wellsian was discovered too.

The Leas in Folkestone in the early 1900s. To reach Spade House, continue walking west and you will find a footpath that takes you down to Sandgate and the world of HG Wells.

[1] An HG Wells Chronology – J.R.Hammond

%d bloggers like this: