The Battles of Hook’s Farm and St Martins Hill – H. G. Wells’ Experiment in Autobiography and Little Wars

H G Wells (1866-1946) in his lengthy Experiment in Autobiography (1934) mentions Little Wars (1913) only once:

https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/wellshg-autobiography/wellshg-autobiography-00-h-dir/wellshg-autobiography-00-h.html#Page_76

Here we get a glimpse of Little Wars and the Battle of Hooks Farm in his boyhood imagination forty years earlier, The Battles of Martin’s Hills, Bromley, Kent.

Page 74: “I had reveries—I indulged a great deal in reverie until I was fifteen or sixteen, because my active imagination was not sufficiently employed—and I liked especially to dream that I was a great military dictator like Cromwell, a great republican like George Washington or like Napoleon in his earlier phases.

I used to fight battles whenever I went for a walk alone. I used to walk about Bromley, a small rather undernourished boy, meanly clad and whistling detestably between his teeth, and no one suspected that a phantom staff pranced about me and phantom orderlies galloped at my commands, to shift the guns and concentrate fire on those houses below, to launch the final attack upon yonder distant ridge.

The citizens of Bromley town go out to take the air on Martin’s Hill and look towards Shortland across the fields where once meandered the now dried-up and vanished Ravensbourne, with never a suspicion of the orgies of bloodshed I once conducted there.

https://bromleytownparks.wordpress.com

“Martin’s Hill indeed is one of the great battlegrounds of history. Scores of times the enemy skirmishers have come across those levels, followed by the successive waves of the infantry attack, while I, outnumbered five to one, manœuvred my guns round, the guns I had refrained so grimly from using too soon in spite of the threat to my centre, to enfilade them suddenly from the curving slopes towards Beckenham.”

St Martins Hill in Bromley – image source: Bromleytownparks.wordpress.com – Who walking there today could imagine the epic battles that once were waged there in HGW’s young head?

“Crash,” came the first shell, and then crash and crash. They were mown [p. 75] down by the thousand. They straggled up the steep slopes wavering. And then came the shattering counter attack, and I and my cavalry swept the broken masses away towards Croydon, pressed them ruthlessly through a night of slaughter on to the pitiful surrender of the remnant at dawn by Keston Fish Ponds.

And I entered conquered, or rescued, towns riding at the head of my troops, with my cousins and my schoolfellows recognizing me with surprise from the windows. And kings and presidents, and the great of the earth, came to salute my saving wisdom. I was simple even in victory. I made wise and firm decisions, about morals and customs and particularly about those Civil Service Stores which had done so much to bankrupt my [shopkeeper] father. With inveterate enemies, monarchists, Roman Catholics, non-Aryans and the like I was grimly just. Stern work—but my duty….

In fact Adolf Hitler is nothing more than one of my thirteen year old reveries come real. A whole generation of Germans has failed to grow up.

My head teemed with such stuff in those days. But it is interesting to remark that while my mind was full of international conflicts, alliances, battleships and guns, I was blankly ignorant about money or any of the machinery of economic life. I never dreamed of making dams, opening ship canals, irrigating deserts or flying. I had no inkling of the problem of ways and means; I knew nothing and, therefore, I cared nothing of how houses were built, commodities got and the like.

I think that was because nothing existed to catch and turn my imagination in that direction. There was no literature to enhance all that. I think there is no natural bias towards bloodshed in imaginative youngsters, but the only vivid and inspiring things that history fed me with were campaigns and conquests. In Soviet Russia they tell me they have altered all that.

[76] ”For many years my adult life was haunted by the fading memories of those early war fantasies. Up to 1914, I found a lively interest in playing a war game, with toy soldiers and guns, that recalled the peculiar quality and pleasure of those early reveries.”

“It was quite an amusing model warfare and I have given its primary rules in a small book “for boys and girls of all ages” Little Wars.”

“I have met men in responsible positions, L. S. Amery for example, Winston Churchill, George Trevelyan, C. F. G. Masterman, whose imaginations were manifestly built upon a similar framework and who remained puerile in their political outlook because of its persistence.”

“I like to think I grew up out of that stage somewhen between 1916 and 1920 and began to think about war as a responsible adult should.”

H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, 1934

A gathering of Generals and Staff Officers (Little Wars illustration by J.R. Sinclair)

It is easy to gain a sense of Wells the adult writer trying to recapture the world of Wells the imaginative child (in his hindsight autobiography) yet you can see elements in his recreation of childhood fantasies in his War of the Worlds and other such late Victorian and Edwardian Invasion Literature.

I am also sensing some thing a little bit similar to the Brontes’ warlike ImagiNations juvenile fiction in their Little Books – explored in my blog page / posts here https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/gaming-the-bronte-family-imaginations-of-glasstown-angria-gondal-and-gaaldine/

To be honest who amongst us, like H. G. Wells, has not as a child in their Wide Games over parks, woods and gardens had such imaginary battles as knights, cowboys, backwoodsman and troops, especially to relieve the monotony of repeated walks? It is what Baden Powell / Gilcraft in Scouting Wide Games (1933) called the Cloak of Romance. Puck of Pook’s Hill, Treasure Island …

STS Little Britons & BP’s Cloak of Romance reading list for imaginative Scouting Wide Games

I used, like Wells, on my several mile walks to school as a tweenager / teenager, especially if late, be marching uphill as head of a flying column or parade to get the pace up (music in your head, no Walkmans allowed in school then) before knocking on others doors to collect them and keep going. I had seen Star Wars but had not then seen the film Billy Liar. Thankfully I did not too often have to do the trumpet fanfare running March (of the Italian Bersaglieri) to avoid being late for school.

As a result I find it interesting to see the evolution of the boyhood imaginary heroic man “General H.G.W.” of the young child and early teenage days on St Martins Hill back into the equally imaginative adult “General H.G.W.” of Little Wars in 1913.

In his 1934 Experiment in Autobiography, his teenage ImagiNations now have to compete with the disillusion of WW1, his Shape of Things To Come (1933, later filmed) and the then topical modern world of the 1930s, of Hitler and Soviet Russia, the disillusion of their future crimes still then unknown.

Maybe our own modern War Games and Role Playing Games are a way to recapture these Wellsian “early reveries” and “fading memories of these early War fantasies” of our own ImagiNations, yard games and garden war games.

Not having sisters or daughters, I presume that, akin to or alongside my schoolboy heroic fantasies, that girls had their own versions.

The charm of Wells’ Little Wars were brought to an end by WW1. The Falklands and the Gulf Wars brought some more such gritty reality to our view of things for my generation.

https://archive.org/details/littlewarsgamefo00well/page/62/mode/2up.

Wells wrote more about his often quarrelsome relationship with Frank and his brothers

Later on I grew up to my brothers, so to speak, and had great talks with them. With Frank, the eldest, indeed, I developed a considerable companionship in my teens and we had some great holiday walks together. But at the time of which I am writing all that had still to come.

Our home was not one of those where general ideas are discussed at table. My mother’s ready orthodox formulæ were very effective in suppressing any such talk. So my mind developed almost as if I were an only child.

My childish relations with my brothers varied between vindictive resentment and clamorous aggression. I made a terrific fuss if my toys or games were touched and I displayed great vigour in acquiring their more attractive possessions.

I bit and scratched my brothers and I kicked their shins, because I was a sturdy little boy who had to defend himself; but they had to go very easily with me because I was a delicate little fellow who might easily be injured and was certain to yell. On one occasion, I quite forget now what the occasion was, I threw a fork across the dinner table at Frank, and I can still remember very vividly the missile sticking in his forehead where it left three little scars for a year or so and did no other harm; and I have an equally clear memory of a smashed window behind the head of my brother Freddy, the inrush of cold air and dismay, after I had flung a wooden horse at him.

Finally they hit upon an effectual method of at once silencing me and punishing me. They would capture me in our attic and suffocate me with pillows. I couldn’t cry out and I had to give in. I can still feel the stress of that suffocation. Why they did not suffocate me for good and all I do not know. They had no way of checking what was going on under the pillow until they took it off and looked.

A little later Wells mentions another of these Billy Liar-type fantasy moments to relieve boredom when a young teenage apprentice in a draper’s shop:

Part 4 First Start in Life—Windsor (Summer 1880)

…. The one bright moment during the day was when the Guards fifes and drums went past the shop and up to the Castle. These fifes and drums swirled me away campaigning again.

Dispatch riders came headlong from dreamland, brooking no denial from the shop-walker. “Is General Bert Wells here? The Prussians have landed!”

He refers back to his Hitleresque (based in the word Chaplinesque) fantasies once gain later (Part 5 p. 533?)

Sadly Martin’s Hill now has its own war memorial, proving the point of Wells’ last chapter in Little Wars about the perils of the Great Wars that occurred merely one year later and a quarter of a century later https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1116976

For a glimpse of Old Bromley in Wells’ childhood you can buy repro maps of 1861 from https://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk/kent0716.htm in case you wish to recreate the Battles of St. Martin’s Hill for yourself as a Little Wars gaming scenario (a change from Hook’s Farm?)

Is Hook’s Farm a real place?

Intriguingly maps of Wells’ imaginative battle areas in 1860s 1870s Bromley feature an area called Hook and Hooks Farm Road (road name still there) . Just as wells wrote about people he knew under different names, maybe he recycled and wrote about real places under other names too?

“The land was still mainly used for farming, divided up principally between Hook Farm to the west of Bromley Common, situated in the location of what is today the car park of Norman Park, and Turpington Farm to the east, close to the junction of Crown Lane and Turpington Lane.

Hook Farm was owned by the Norman family of The Rookery, and Turpington Farm belonged to the Wells family of Southborough Lodge (both of these residences are now destroyed).”

https://thehistoryofchattertonvillage.wordpress.com/bromley-common-in-the-early-1800s/

The Wells family of Southborough Lodge – any relation I wonder to H.G. Wells? He came from a large family, as did his his father Joseph Wells.

Firely (Church) does not seem to exist but there is the exotically named Farwig!

Free historic maps can be found at the Bromley Local History Society https://www.bblhs.org.uk/maps

https://www.bblhs.org.uk/bromley-common#&gid=1189361799&pid=6

One to explore on the old maps for future gaming scenarios and wide games maps.

Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, February / March 2021

6 thoughts on “The Battles of Hook’s Farm and St Martins Hill – H. G. Wells’ Experiment in Autobiography and Little Wars”

  1. Another brilliant piece of detective work of great interest , I’m interested that Hook’s farm is/was a real place , When I have caught up with my back-log of books to read I must start reading his autobiography . Cheers Tony .

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  2. Terrific work again, definitely feel there is a paper or book in all this. I too didn’t know that Hook’s Farm was a real place.
    I must confess that when commuting to South Queensferry and back daily by train there were certain parts of the journey through areas I regularly imagined were battlefields. The combination of hedge lines, streams , farms and boggy ground made one think about troops from different periods of history using that ground. Ironically the train did pass a real ECW battlefield, battle of Inverkeithing but the ground had changed somewhat and it didn’t catch the imagination to the same degree.

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    1. Thanks Alan – I know Hooks Farm as a battle is imaginary but it has some ground-ing in a real landscape.
      As do the Scout Wide Games maps based on Gilwell. Just added some interesting map examples of Hooks Farm in a new post.
      I think we probably all quietly do the military scoping of landscape, just like some of Henry Reed’s Naming of Parts poem series from WW2 including the map reading) one. Some of the Cornish hedgerows were great bocage for ambush by musketeers in the ECW such as Lostwithiel battle area.

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  3. Another great read. I think you’re right about imagi-nations being a way to recapture the Wellsian world of conflict, a stark contrast to the world wars.

    “Adolf Hitler is nothing more than one of my thirteen year old reveries come real” – there was certainly something juvenile about his behaviour at times!

    Liked by 1 person

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