The thrill of the chase has always been a strong motivation in the day to day running of our rare book business. Whether it be attending an auction, studying dealer catalogues or jumping on a train, plane or automobile to follow up a lead, it’s always been the thrill of the chase. But part of the advantage of a very busy fair schedule and having an open shop is every now and again something great comes to you.
It started with an email from a gentleman who had inherited some books and was interested in finding out more about them. The collection was formed over a 60 year period by Sir Richard Gregory, and had remained in the family by descent. The name Sir Richard Gregory was not one I was immediately familiar with, but the author of nearly all of the books in the collection was someone most of us would know immediately; H. G. Wells. We were advised that Sir Richard and H. G. Wells had been good friends and that most of the books were copies that the author had given to him. I was invited to view the collection and after a little research and receiving a few grainy images of the shelved books I was intrigued and set off to have a look.
Arriving at the house I was shown to the bookcase where I spent the next hour and a half going through each and every item. Most were indeed presentation copies with H. G. Wells’ penned inscription to nearly every one. There were around 90 books in total including the obvious highlights- The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau- as well as his lesser known titles and the occasional offprint. Laid into some books were bits of typescript, autograph drafts and a letter. One notable absence was The Invisible Man; well, I couldn’t see it anyway.
What was very quickly evident was that each book was a genuine presentation copy, inscribed and dispatched on, before or very close to publication. All of the first editions were in their earliest issue states and where H.G. was unable to inscribe or send the book himself he made sure the publisher sent a copy with his compliments. There was a mix of UK and US editions, not necessarily in the order of first publication but, as some of the UK and US editions differ either in text or illustrations, we assume the copy sent was the edition Wells was most happy with. It was clear that Gregory was someone very important to Wells and vice versa; the books spanned Wells’ entire publishing career. I asked the owner about the missing Invisible Man, wondering if perhaps it had been retained by another family member. He had no idea what had happened to it but was pretty sure the collection had remained as is for decades so it was unlikely to have been removed. I relayed my enthusiasm for the collection and explained that there was almost certainly, although I didn’t know it yet, an interesting and possibly important story around it. I advised that the collection was a valuable one and that should it be for sale, we would love to buy it! I left the house with a bid on the table and wondered as I headed home with rain battering the car whether I would ever see the books again.
It took a while but several weeks later I received word that if our offer of purchase stood then the collection was ours. Thrilled! we collected and the research and cataloguing process began. The only real itch to scratch was this missing Invisible Man. Why wasn’t it here? We searched auction records, dealer catalogues, online, for any reference to a copy of the Invisible Man inscribed to R. A. Gregory, RAGs or even Gigglecrums, but drew a blank. We found reference to Gregory’s papers at the University of Sussex library; no books were held but his documents, letters and manuscripts were all there. We then turned to biographies both of Wells and of Gregory. Nearly all biographies of Wells have significant reference to Gregory and the biography of Gregory a whole chapter dedicated to H. G. Wells so there was a mountain of information to be had. Bingo! In a letter from Gregory to Wells in February 1898 after reviewing The Invisible Man for ‘Nature’ and ‘Academy’ magazine he writes “I have retained the Academy copy of the book so you need not worry about sending me one”. Presumably the copy was later returned to the Academy but as far as presentation copies go, The Invisible Man was never there.
Mystery solved, we set about the details of what proved to be an extraordinary relationship and two exceptional careers.
Sir Richard Arman Gregory FRS, FRAS (29 January 1864 – 15 September 1952) and Herbert George Wells (21 September 1866 – 13 August 1946)
Richard Gregory and the “small, shabby hobbledehoy called H. G. Wells” first met whilst they were pupils at the Normal School for Science in South Kensington. It was here that Wells co-founded and edited the Science Schools Journal assisted readily by Gregory and a life-long friendship was born. Gregory was the author of many books including three text-books, the first of which, Elementary Physical and Astronomical Geography, published in 1891, ran to seven editions. His fourth, a biology course book entitled Honours Physiography  was a collaboration with Wells which, on account of mutual financial embarrassment, they sold outright to the publisher for £20- splitting the proceeds down the middle. Gregory’s enthusiasm for science was rewarded in May 1893 when he was appointed by Norman Lockyer to the staff of the prestigious scientific journal Nature. As Wells settled down to write essays in the scientific occult like The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau he would often turn to Gregory for encouragement. That Gregory would take advice and seek the support of Wells for his own work indicates the reciprocity of feelings and interests between the two friends. They were each, in their own way, doing essential work for science; Gregory concentrating on the exposition of the laws of Nature, Wells on their imaginative exploitation.
Wells, with his romances of science, did for generations what Gregory could never do: he unlocked the imaginations of thousands, and buoyed them with new hope. In 1919 Gregory took over as editor of Nature, establishing it in the international scientific community. He introduced weekly editorials on social and political issues, so much so that Nature was dubbed “the most important weekly written in English” and banned in Nazi Germany for criticising the expulsion of Jewish scientists. Memorable moments in science under Gregory’s editorship included the discovery of the neutron and an entire special issue devoted to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Wells wrote for and was reviewed extensively in Nature. He considered it an ideal platform to convey his ideas to an influential audience. Despite decent scientific credentials (first-class honours in zoology and second-class honours in biology), he never managed to obtain a much-coveted Fellowship of the Royal Society and thus wrote as an outsider to the scientific establishment. From their 1886 first meeting at the Normal School for Science up until Wells’ death in August 1946, Gregory and Wells remained in close contact and the best of friends. Indeed it is recorded that Gregory is the only person with whom Wells never quarrelled. Even after Wells’ death, Gregory worked tirelessly in trying to “keep alive this considerable body of thought”, attempting to form a Wells Fellowship (the Wells Memorial).
It is perhaps best left to H. G. W. himself to sum up their extraordinary 60 year relationship. In his 1895 first book of fiction “Select Conversations With an Uncle”, the printed dedication reads:
“To my dearest and best friend R. A. G.”
The papers of Sir Richard Gregory reside at the University of Sussex Library (Special Collections). The archive was donated by Lady Gregory in April 1970.
Armytage, W.H.G.: Sir Richard Gregory; Partington, John S. (ed.): H.G. Wells in Nature 1883 – 1946; West, Geoffrey: H. G. Wells