The End Of The 20th Century In South London

Prophecies from William Morris and H G Wells

In the last years of Victoria’s reign several authors wrote their predictions for the 20th century and beyond. Local places featured in some of these forecasts by writers with local connections.

William Morris. Morris had a mill at Merton Abbey on the River Wandle, where textiles and wallpaper were produced, to his designs. He wrote ‘News from Nowhere’ in 1890: ‘Nowhere being a literal translation of the Greek word ‘Utopia’. He describes the Thames from South West London when it has become a clear sparkling river by 2013 with no factories and just pleasant riverside houses as at Barnes, Chiswick and Hammersmith. Incidentally, when he took over Merton Abbey in 1881; the water of the Wandle was ‘abundant and good and the seven acre site was very pretty’.

The Crystal Palace in 1999. H. G. Wells from Bromley wrote several stories forecasting the 20th Century and the end of the Century in various settings, some in a Utopian vein and some as science fiction. When he was a student at the (Royal) Normal College of Science in 1887 he wrote ‘A tale of the 20th Century’ published by the Science Schools Journal. It starts:

‘It was July 19th 1999. The nave of the Crystal Palace was brilliantly lit and gorgeously adorned. All the able, all the eloquent, all the successful, all the prosperous were banqueting below. In the galleries, clustered unnumbered mediocrity; innumerable half guineas had been paid to secure the privilege of watching these great men eat’.

He goes on to list all the illustrious persons present.

Other stories included in 1898 ‘The War of the Worlds’, in 1902 ‘The Discovery of the Future; 1905 ‘A Modern Utopia’; and in 1901 ‘The First Men in the Moon’. All these stories have some accurate forecasting with an element of fantasy built in. 

South London on 2100

Another story written in 1899 ‘When the Sleeper Awakes’ is a prediction of a socialist state by the year 2100. This includes a description of South London. By this time, a group of flying stages have been built which he describes thus: 

‘These formed three groups of two each and retained the names of ancient suburban hills or villages. They were named in order, Roehampton, Wimbledon Park, Streatham, Norwood, Blackheath and Shooters Hill. They were uniform structures rising high above the general roof surfaces. Each was about four thousands yards long and a thousand broad, and constructed of the compound of aluminium and iron that had replaced iron in architecture. Their higher tiers formed an open work of girders through which lifts and staircases ascended. The upper surface was a uniform expanse, with portions – The Starting Carriers – that could be raised and were then able to run on very slightly inclined rails to the end of the fabric. Save for any aeropiles or aeroplanes that were in port, these open surfaces were kept clear for arrivals.

During the adjustment of the aeroplanes it was the custom for passengers to wait in the system of theatres, restaurants, newsrooms and places of pleasure and indulgence of various sorts that interwove with the prosperous shops below.

This portion of London was in consequence commonly the gayest of all its districts, with something of the meretricious gaiety of a seaport of city of hotels. And as for those who took a more serious view of aeronautics, the religious quarters had flung out an attractive colony of devotional chapels, while a host of brilliant medical establishments competed to supply physical preparations for the journey. At various levels through the mass of chambers and passages beneath these ran, in addition to the main moving ways of the city which laced and gathered here, a complex system of special passages and lifts and slides for the convenient interchange of people and luggage between stage and stage. A distinguished feature of the architecture of this section was the ostentatious massiveness of the metal piers and girders that everywhere broke the vistas and spanned the halls and passages, crowding and twining up to meet the weight of the stages and weighty impact of the aeroplanes overhead.’

There is no glittering banquet hall at the Crystal Palace now – only a piece of ground that has been the subject of a many plans and much argument. Yet it looks as though there may be some truth in H. G. Wells’ prognostication as far as the building goes anyway. Will this be the ‘Shape of Things to Come?.

Betty Griffin

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