In January 1939, H.G. Wells visited Australia and raised the ire of the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons for describing the fascist dictators Hitler and Mussolini as ‘criminal Caesars’ (among other things).

Wells achieved enormous fame and notoriety in the first half of the 20th century as an extremely successful novelist, futurist, agitator, socialist, republican, radical and (eventually a rather disillusioned) utopian.

Wells’ father earned a meagre and inconsistent living as a shopkeeper and a professional cricketer for Kent [1], his mother was a domestic servant. Wells was unhappily apprenticed as a draper’s assistant in his early teens. With a ferocious intellect, great personal drive, ambition and self-confidence, and a voracious appetite for knowledge he later was able to continue his education and obtain several teaching positions.

On spare evenings he worked on his writing. Before the end of the century he had published the novels he is still famous for: The time machine (1895); The island of Doctor Moreau (1896); The invisible man (1897) and War of the worlds (1898).

Early editions of two of H G Wells most famous novels. The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)

Early editions of  The time machine (1895) and The island of Doctor Moreau (1896)

A prolific writer, he published almost a novel a year for the rest of his life, together with a vast number of non-fiction titles and numerous short stories and articles.

As if his writing didn’t take up enough time, he was also a supporter, and enthusiastic practitioner, of free love and ‘open’ marriage. He engaged in numerous affairs while his long suffering wife Jane typed his manuscripts and provided a stable home.

In January 1939, as war clouds were gathering ominously about Europe, Wells visited Australia at the invitation of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, delivering provocative papers at their Canberra conference. [2]

Wells arrived in Melbourne after a relaxing and picturesque journey by car from Adelaide, via the Otways. When asked for his opinion of Hitler and Mussolini, he was very forthright:

“It is a personality period. You have a little group of men in Germany, particularly Hitler, whom I regard as a certified lunatic. Mussolini is a fantastic, vain renegade from the Socialist movement. These men, with their freaks and fancies, take unto themselves power in human affairs, which is more like a condition of things under the criminal Caesars.” [3]

The Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, following British PM Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Hitler, chose to admonish Wells.

“I would prefer that Mr Wells should exercise his undoubted gifts for the promotion of international understanding rather than international misunderstanding … I have tried to make it perfectly clear that the views expressed by Mr Wells are not the views of the Federal Government. My statement indicates emphatically that the Federal Government is not to be associated with remarks which have been made by our visitor.” [4]

Cartoon depicting British PM Chamberlain licking Hitler's boots with Australian PM Lyons looking on

Cartoon depicting British PM Chamberlain licking Hitler’s boots with Australian PM Lyons looking on in support.  The peace to end peace : Czechoslovakia — what next?  by LP Fox

Lyons’ stand received enthusiastic support from Germany which welcomed:

“the protest by the Australian Prime Minister against the attack by Mr HG Wells on Hitler and Mussolini … It would be pleasant if the British wireless announcement of Mr Lyons’s protest were a sign that the people of Britain wished polemics to be uttered respectably.” [5]

No doubt enjoying the PM’s discomfort at receiving the endorsement of Nazi Germany, Wells chose to respond graciously to Mr Lyon’s remarks. ‘As a free man I insist on the freedom of Mr Lyons to express his own opinions.’ [6]

Wells had been a foundation member of the writers group PEN when it was established in London in 1921. The organisation’s aims were to defend literature and promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among the world community of writers. Fittingly he addressed the inaugural meeting of the Melbourne chapter of PEN on 7 January 1939.

Wells was a man of strong opinions that were expressed freely and forthrightly. At a Sydney dinner hosted by the Fellowship of Australia Writers he provocatively observed that until the present methods of censorship were swept out of existence Australia could regard herself only ‘as a half-Fascist nation.’ [7]

His strident views found friends and enemies. Australian Broadcasting Commission member, Richard Orchard publicly commented that when Wells ‘discloses the liverish side of his nature we are glad to say good-bye’ adding that ‘some people regarded him as a rather quarrelsome, bad tempered old gentleman.’ [8]

It is hard now, 80 years later, to envisage the vast level of Wells global fame during his lifetime. Here was a best-selling, prolific author who met privately, without deference, with Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, and whose ideas and opinions were reported and debated around the world.

His visit to Australia was brief, but like the rest of his life, provoked controversy and enormous interest. The man who first described World War I as ‘the war that will end war’ [9] lived long enough to endure a second global conflagration. The horrific evil of the Nazi regime, fully revealed to the world after the war, was perhaps even beyond Well’s imagination. He died in 1946.

PEN Melbourne, launched all those years ago by Wells, is still going strong.

 


Further reading

The most famous of H.G. Wells novels are held widely across libraries. Our Library holds an extensive collection of novels, short stories and non-fiction. We also hold a large collection of works about H.G. Wells. He continues to be extremely popular with film makers with over 100 cinema and television series based on his work.

Notes

[1] Wells’ father Joseph  became the first man to capture a double hat-trick in first-class cricket: Lilywhite’s cricket scores and biographies Vol viii 1861-1862 p. 297-8 “Wells got four wickets (not in the same over) with four successive balls. Namely Dean, Leigh, Ellis and Fillery!” His match figures were 6/35 and 3/7.

[2] A provocative paper on the poison called history and The role of the English in the development of the world mind. The second paper was published in the Report of the 24th  Meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science January 1939

[3] HG Wells thinks & talks The Age  5 January 1939, p8

[4] Mr Lyons and Mr. Wells The Age 7 January 1939, p25

[5] German praise for Mr. Lyons The Advertiser 9 January 1939, p18

[6] Soft answer given by Mr. Wells-  The Argus 9 January 1939, p9

[7] Censorship attacked The Sydney Morning Herald  26 January 1939, p11

[8] Attack on Wells – glad to say good-bye The Argus 27 January 1939, p12

[9] Wells, H.G. The war that will end war

This article has 3 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this , l am passing it on to my children as they try and cope with today’s political circus. I did not remember that HG Wells came to Australia , he was one of my favourite authors at school. So timely and l imagine that was your intention. I am so grateful for our Libraries and Trove .

  2. Fascinating, I had no idea

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