The Henley Regatta

We’ve said goodbye to Farnborough for the foreseeable future, but the railway is stringing out the farewell by obliging us to change at Woking, a town largely developed in the Victorian era on land sold off by the London Necropolis Company.

Robin McKie, science editor of The Observer, wrote on 28 February 2016, of “the town’s most famous resident, HG Wells, who wrote his great science fiction novel The War of the Worlds while living in Woking and who, in its pages, describes in unsparing detail how the town is turned to cinders by Martians and their terrible heat rays.

In 1891 Wells married his cousin Isabel Mary Wells, but they separated after he fell in love with Catherine Robbins. With her consent, Wells went on to have affairs with several women, including the American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and the novelist and feminist Rebecca West who bore him a son, Anthony West, in 1914.

Wells went to live in Woking with his new partner, Catherine Robbins, in 1895 in order to avoid the polluted air of London. Their little house in Maybury Road is pebble-dashed today and part of a long line of semis that face the main railway line to London – though at the time it was relatively isolated.

In the afternoons Wells worked on his books but took morning trips – on new-fangled safety bicycles that were then becoming popular – to Horsell Common on the outskirts of town before cycling over Ottershaw bridge and into the neighbouring towns of Chobham and Send. He noted the landscape in detail: the sandpits on the common, its squatters’ camps, the canal, public houses and rail lines and recalled in his autobiography that he “wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians”.”.

William Ernest Henley, born in 1849, was a noted editor, man of letters, and poet as well as collaborator with Robert Louis Stevenson on four dramatic works. As editor of several important London and Edinburgh periodicals Henley published contributions by such distinguished writers as Barrie, Hardy, Kipling and Yeats. The “hearty,” realist, and imperialist writers particularly associated with Henley in the 1890s—sometimes known as the “Henley Regatta” – were seen as an alternative to the Decadent writers of the period.

It was Henley who encouraged Wells to develop his early versions of The Time Machine into a full-length book, publishing the novel in serial form in The New Review. Wells’ gratitude was such that he dedicated the book to him.

At the age of 12, Henley had been diagnosed with tubercular arthritis that necessitated the amputation of one of his legs just below the knee; the other foot was saved only through a radical surgery performed by Joseph Lister.

Henley spent his final years at Heather Brae, Maybury Hill, Woking. In 1902, Henley fell from a railway carriage at Coombe and Malden Station, while trying to board a train. This accident caused his latent tuberculosis to flare up, and he died of it on 11 July 1903, at the age of 53, at his home in Woking. His body was cremated locally, at St John’s Crematorium (Britain’s first crematorium), and the ashes interred in his daughter’s grave in the churchyard at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire.

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