The History of Mr Polly is an account of a disillusioned and bored shopkeeper in the clothing business whose little shop was located in the busy High Street of a fictitious town called Fishbourne. Ever threatened with bankruptcy, Polly was fed up with his work, his life, his wife, his neighbours, and his prospects. But he came up with a great solution – set the shop on fire and commit suicide so that it will look like an accident. In this way, he thought, he would get out and the wife would get the insurance money. But in the event the plan went wrong. “Ouch!” The razor was not supposed to hurt like that and he ended up a hero after rescuing an elderly neighbour from the fire. Some months later he mysteriously vanished assumed drowned and subsequently found happiness with the landlady of a Thames-side pub. If you have watched The fall and rise of Reginald Perrin, you’ll recognise the story-line.
The story, like other works by HG Wells’, is semi-autobiographical. Wells was from the lower middle class. He knew about the retail trade because for part of his childhood he was brought up in his father’s failing shop. He also knew about the drapery business because he was twice apprenticed as a draper. But he hated the experience and was glad to get out of the business. So the argument is that when HG Wells saw the little clothing shop in St Botolph’s Street run by a Mr H G Polley, it brought it all back to him and out of that grew his famous comic novel The History of Mr Polly. In effect, Mr H G Polley became Mr Alfred Polly and Mr Alfred Polly was H G Wells. Wells and his hero Polly both hated the retail trade, Polly as a clothier and Wells as a draper’s apprentice which was in much the same business. Both married their cousins. Both went off their cousins. Both loved to cycle. Both loved to read. Both hankered after better, more fulfilling lives.
The usual assumption is that the novel was based on the High Street in Sandgate, Kent. Certainly no significant connection has ever been made between Wells and Colchester, far less that it was the inspiration for any of his work. But there is some evidence that this was really the case.
Fishbourne High Street was St Botolph’s Street
St Botolph’s Street was a busy little street filled with the full-range of small shops just like Fishbourne High Street described in The History. Although the famous Roman palace at Fishbourne was not discovered until the early 1960s, Fishbourne village was known in Wells’ time for its Roman remains (a bath-house and various floors). Effectively then, Fishbourne was code for Colchester.
The named traders in Fishbourne High Street are Mr Polly (taylor), Mr Hinks (sadler), Rumbold (china shop), Chuffles (grocer), Tonks (another grocer), Boomer (wine merchant), Tashingford (chemist), Rusper (ironmonger), and Clamp (toy shop). Of these nine names, two were the names of real traders in St Botolph’s Street in 1909, ie Mr H G Polley (taylor) and J H Clamp (outfitter, pawnbroker & upholsterer) and three others must have been invented by Wells because they don’t appear in the 1911 census. In other words, of the six real names in Fishbourne High Street, two of them were to be found in St Botolph’s Street. The 1911 census also indicates that the surnames Polley and Clamp were rare so that the occurrence in both streets of not just one rare name but two is unlikely to be simply a matter of chance.
Wells knew about Colchester and had the opportunity to visit it many times
Wells started to live in Essex at Easton Glebe near Dunmow around the time he wrote The History of Mr Polly. He lived in London for some years leading up to about 1914 but he had sometimes visited Easton Glebe before that. He is likely to have had first hand knowledge of Colchester at this time. Certainly Colchester figures in some of his other works, notably War of the Worlds and Mr Brisher’s Treasure. The latter in particular reveals a more than superficial knowledge of Colchester because it is about the discovery of a buried hoard of silver coins. Plainly Wells associated Colchester with the Romans and buried treasure (although in this case the coins were modern forgeries). Wells also knew of at least one of Colchester’s more important citizens because a principal character in one of his books was based on a Benham from Colchester (see opposite).
HG Wells used a famous murder case in St Botolph’s as inspiration for his plot
In 1893, the badly charred body of a tailor called Alfred Welch was found in the burnt remains of his shop at No 1 St Botolph’s Street. A rope was found around his head giving the impression that he had committed suicide and hung himself after setting fire to the premises (although this would be a strangely complicated way of killing youself). However, it was subsequently concluded that Welch had received a blow to the head and that he had been murdered and left to look as if he had hung himself. Arthur Blatch, who worked for Welch as a porter, was suspected of the murder but he vanished immediately after the event. Almost seven years later, a man identified as Blatch but known as Lillywhite (!) was arrested in New Zealand. A Colchester policeman and a keeper from the Town Hall went out there and escorted the suspect back to Colchester to face trial. Eventually the man was acquitted despite being identified by the two men who brought him back to the UK.
The case was a famous one which Wells could well have read about it in the press. There are a number of features of the case which suggest that Wells knew about it and incorporated elements of it in his plot for The History of Mr Polly. These can be summarised as follows.
Alfred Welch died in his shop about 75 m away from Mr Polley’s on the opposite side of the street. Alfred was a tailor just like the real Mr Polley. Mr Welch and HG Wells’ Mr Polly were both called Alfred. His body was found in the ashes of his shop just as HG Wells’ Mr Polly was to be. Welch was supposed to appear to have committed suicide just as his shop went up in flames. Mr Polley was to have died in his shop as it too went up in flames except his death was to be a suicide disguised as an accident. The owner of the rebuilt shop was Clamp.
THE Research Magnificent is a comic novel about living up to one’s ideals come what may. Wells’ character, William Porphyry Benham, travels the world obsessively in pursuit of what he calls a noble or aristocratic life and gets into a lot of trouble as a result. The book tells how Porphyry documented the project and kept the results in his house in London. After Porphyry’s unexpected death, a writer friend of his visited Porphyry’s home to assess the value of his life’s work – ‘The Research Magnificent’ and found nothing but an undigested mass of paperwork. ‘There is no book in it’, declared his friend. ‘It was not a story, not an essay, not a confession, not a diary…. It was a vast proliferation. It wanted even a title.’
Interestingly, there are in The Research Magnificent some curious resonances with a successful book called A book of quotations, proverbs and household words by prominent Colcestrian William Gurney Benham. In fact, the apparent connections between the two works are so marked that they suggest that The Research Magnificent was a cruel satire of Gurney Benham’s book.
William Gurney Benham was a scholar, a publisher and, for many years, editor of the Essex County Standard. He was also three times mayor of Colchester including in 1908/9 when The History of Mr Polly must have been in gestation. Like The Research Magnificent, his book was a mammoth piece of work. It was basically a huge compilation of 50,000 entries which could be sarcastically described by somebody so inclined as a ‘Research Magnificent’ with no story, point or even title. Moreover both works have an international aspect that’s important to their stories. Porphyry Benham’s idealistic drive took him physically round the world whereas Gurney Benham’s passion took him there intellectually as his book’s daunting subtitle reveals (see above).
As it happens, Benham was a Wells’ family name – it was the maiden name of one of Wells’ grandmothers – but nevertheless it is hard to avoid associating The Research Magnificent with Gurney Benham. The latter’s great tome was first published in 1907 and then reprinted for the first time in 1914. A year later year out came ‘The Research Magnificent’ featuring a fictitious William Porphyry Benham whose name was uncannily close to the Colchester Benham. By replacing the name Gurney with Porphyry, Wells was not just playing with words, he was lacing his own work with a hidden reference to Gurney Benham and his book. Porphyry was the name of a famous ancient Phoenician philosopher, and proverbs, as Aristotle once famously said, were the earliest form of philosophy. Thus William ‘Gurney’ Benham became William ‘Philosopher’ Benham, author of a book of proverbs and would-be author of a magnificent piece of research.
Wells had been famous long before the publication of The Research Magnificent and it is difficult to believe that Gurney Benham would not have heard about the remarkable coincidence of names. Gurney Benham would hardly have failed to conclude, even if it was not intended, that Porphyry Benham was himself and that he and his book of quotations were being mocked by Wells.
Of course Wells was writing a work of fiction where anything goes. He could and would weave lots of different ideas together in complicated ways to create something new and different without necessarily having to be logical about it. Hence Wells could have been poking fun at Gurney Benham through his hero Porphyry but he may also have seen something of himself in this person since Wells, like Porphyry, was strongly principled in his approach to life and made waves as a result.