HG Wells: A short cricketing history of the great writer

HG Wells © Getty Images

HG Wells, born September 21, 1866, was one of the greatest authors in English language. However, it is rarely recounted that his father Joseph Wells was a useful First-class cricketer and Wells himself harboured a passion for the game even if he did not play it. Arunabha Sengupta traces the cricketing connections of the author of ‘The War of the Worlds’ and talks about a brilliant essay he penned about cricket.

The ball was short, a long hop that deserved to be banished with firm hands into the distant corners of the country. At the crease was young CB Fry, the scholar extraordinaire, the best student Repton had seen in years. He excelled at Latin Prose, Greek Verse, Latin Verse and French. He was not too bad at German either, as well as being the foremost cricketer and footballer of the school.

Leg hits had been frowned upon till a decade back before the ebullient EM Grace made them both pragmatic and fashionable. And his brother, the great WG, liked to start his innings with a boundary to square-leg. One knows not whether Fry, the greatest student of batsmanship that ever drew breath, grappled with these considerations in in his mind. It is far more likely that he did what a juicy delivery of that length whispered in the ears of a red-blooded youngster. He gave the ball a mighty whack, hitting it with the middle of his bat with the crack of thunder, sending it directly towards the yon regions beyond square-leg where boundaries were vast and fielders few.

Yet the ball did not get to the fence. It traced the speed of a bullet and trajectory of a cannonball and landed squarely on the forehead of the umpire standing at square-leg. The poor soul was knocked out, and revived with smelling salts, moistened towels and loads of concern. Happily, he got up and resumed his duties. In fact, they were indeed his duties — he was the professional cricketer employed by Repton as groundsman.

CB Fry had come tantalisingly close to killing the grandfather of Mr Polly and Kipps. The man in question was Joseph Wells, the father of the peerless novelist and socio-political commentator HG Wells.

With Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau and Invisible Man, HG Wells has gone down as one of the most brilliant writers of science fiction. At the same time his genius extended to many other genres of fiction and non-fiction.

Kipps and The History of Mr Polly made him a worthy successor of Charles Dickens in depicting lower middle class in fiction and Tono-Bungay is perhaps as great a work of satire as any in English language. While one of his short stories, The New Accelerator, inspired the Star Trek episode Wink of an Eye, another called The Door in the Wall is eerily similar to the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel The Secret Garden. From social commentary to utopian novels to attempts at popularising history, Wells was a multi-faceted talent. And in his dazzling glory and immensity of works, his personal history involving a cricketing father is often left undiscovered in the darkness of the background.
Emma meets Mr Polly

Joseph Wells was a cricketer of considerable skill, who represented Kent in eight First-Class matches in the early 1860s. In 1862, he had become the first bowler in history to take four wickets in successive balls when he dismissed James Dean, Spencer Leigh, Charles Ellis and Richard Fillery in a match against Sussex at Royal Brunswick Ground, Hove. Wells, presumably bowling medium pace, ended with figures of 6 for 36 and followed it up with 3 for 7 in the second innings.

Incidentally, Austen-Leigh, one of his four record-creating scalps, was the great-nephew of Jane Austen. Hence Emma met Mr Polly across the 22 yards and Mansfield Park was spotted alongside The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Nephew of a Penshurst bat and ball manufacturer Timothy Duke, Wells senior was a man of modest means with a talent for picking up wickets. After marrying Sarah Neal, a former domestic servant, the young couple used an inheritance to acquire a shop selling china and cricketing goods. The business did not take off — the goods were old and the location poor.

Cricket was played to supplement his earnings. However, the payment was unreliable, and depended upon voluntary donations for successful players during the matches. Additionally, the hosting club paid a meagre amount. As a means of livelihood, cricket proved too fickle. Wells did not play after 1863, his eight First-Class games bringing him 15 wickets at 9.14 apiece.

In 1866, four years after the four-wicket feat, the couple had their fourth and last son, ‘Bertie’ while living at the Atlas House, 46 High Street, Bromley. This son grew up to become HG Wells. As we have seen, Joseph Wells took on the role of the groundsman at Repton.

In 1910, a year after the publication of Tono Bungay, HG Wells was busy rewriting his dystopian novel When the Sleeper Awakes. It was in this year that Wales senior died at Liss in Hampshire.
HG Wells and cricket

Did his cricketing ancestry rub off on HG Wells?

The writer did join enthusiastic author-cricketers like JM Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle for eating, drinking, smoking and sparkling conversation as a part of the Idler at Homes — a group formed for like-minded literary men. They generally met in the eateries in Arundel Street just off the Strand. Wells was also a tutor of the young AA Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh — another author who, like Barrie and Conan Doyle, went on to play for Barrie’s oddball cricket team Allahakbarries.

However, in spite of appeals by Barrie, Wells never turned out in flannels. “You have a secret desire to spank them to leg and lift beauties to the off, and you probably can’t, and so you are qualified for my cricket team, elected whether you grumble or not,” Barrie tried to entice him in a letter. However, Wells declined.

Later Wells did write about a day that he had spent with his father when he was 18, when his father “discoursed very learnedly on the growing of willows to make cricket bats and how long it took for a man to learn to make a First-Class cricket bat. That was a great day for father and me.”

Another enthusiastic cricketer among authors, PG Wodehouse, remembered Wells mentioning his father in a cricketing connection. Wells had invited the young Wodehouse and a number of other writers to dinner. The great writer of comic fiction remembered: “we had barely finished the initial pip-pipping when he said, a propos of nothing: ‘My father was a professional cricketer.’ If there’s a good answer to that, you tell me. I thought of saying ‘Mine had a white moustache’ but finally settled for ‘Oh, ah.’”

HG Wells: A short cricketing history of the great writer

HG Wells (seated right) with Charlie Chaplin (seated left) © Getty Images

The Veteran Cricketer

But, even if Wells did not play the game, a fondness for cricket did find its way to his versatile heart and pen. He did write a delightful essay, The Veteran Cricketer, which formed a part of the collection Certain Personal Matters published in 1897.

The piece is a pen portrait of a fictitious cricketer of yore, having fallen upon difficult circumstances, making his meagre living by umpiring village cricket games.

The erstwhile cricketer is bitter, plagued by sciatica and a tendency to put on weight. He lives alone, unhappy, with a gift for satire that repels neighbours and friends. Yet, the description of his umpiring, ‘done as it were in red ink, vivid, without respect of persons’ makes any cricket lover’s heart beat in the same rhythm as this old, querulous man. And the magic of Wells makes even readers uninitiated to the game feel for this ancient quirky man who goes about overseeing cricket matches with curious zeal.

His remarks when catches are missed, his disregard for the eminent and esteemed, and his censure at faulty techniques are almost palpably real. We can almost see him leaning on a stout cabbage stick and announcing his decisions — “out Billy Durgan, and one you ought to ha’ hit for four”. Through his rebuke our souls can revel in the sights and sounds and atmosphere of village cricket.

It is his interactions with the vicar that touches the most sensitive cricket loving chord in us.

The vicar goes out to bat, in spite of his tendency to myopia, because it is his duty to encourage cricket by participation. “He reaches the wicket and poses himself, as the convenient book he has studied directs. ‘You’ll be caught, Muster Shackleforth, if you keep your shoulder up like that,’ says the umpire. ‘Ya-a-ps! that’s worse!’

And when the vicar attempts to exchange a word or two to soothe the ruffled feathers during his stint at the wicket, Wells describes the scene as only he can: “The misguided cleric, ever pursuing a theory of foolish condescension to his betters at the game, and to show there is no offence at the ‘Yaaps’ takes the opportunity, although panting, of asking my ancient if his chicks–late threatened with staggers–are doing well. What would he think if my cricketer retaliated by asking, in the pause before the sermon, how the vicarage pony took his last bolus? The two men do not understand one another… I sympathise with his malice. Cricket is an altogether too sacred thing to him to be tampered with on merely religious grounds.”

We still cannot be sure that he likes the game himself, but the last sentence leaves no doubt that he knows every nook and cranny of the heart of a cricket lover.

And he knows the game too. The old cricketer reminisces about the ‘throwing controversy that agitated Nyren’, about the beginning of over-arm bowling. And the narrator talks about verifying his lofty claims — obviously hinting poring over editions of Wisden. Was the model for this ancient cricketer old Joseph Wells? Perhaps. There is a fondness for this bad-tempered character that borders on the filial.

It is towards in the final paragraphs that Wells gives himself away. As the narrator, he confesses that he has a soft spot for the Old Cricketer. “His yarns of gallant stands and unexpected turns of fortune, of memorable hits and eccentric umpiring, albeit tending sometimes incredibly to his glory, are full of the flavour of days well spent, of bright mornings of play, sunlit sprawlings beside the score tent, warmth, the flavour of bitten grass stems, and the odour of crushed turf. One seems to hear the clapping hands of village ancients, and their ululations of delight. One thinks of stone jars with cool drink swishing therein, of shouting victories and memorable defeats, of eleven men in a drag, and tuneful and altogether glorious home-comings by the light of the moon.”

Yes, Wells was indeed one of us. Words such as these cannot be written by a pen that has not been dipped in the blood and soul simmering with passion for the game.

And finally, like any great literature, it transcends the boundaries of time. The last few words are as valid in this degenerate age as they were in the day of Wells.

“His were the Olympian days of the sport … before the epoch of special trains, gate-money, star elevens, and the tumultuous gathering of idle cads to jabber at a game they cannot play.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)