In the previous Historian I made reference to a journal produced by the Hinckley and District Conservative Club between 1891 and 1892. Sharrad Gilbert, who is the subject of a biography elsewhere in this edition, was editor of the Club land Journal. In July of 1891 there began a romance which included many references of a political nature. The author took the pseudonym of Vithlede and may well have been Gilbert himself. Clearly in the days when Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were producing science fiction, local Conservatives demanded similar scientific revelations related to their home town of Hinckley. The serial story ran until February of 1892, painting a rather different picture of the town in the 1990s from that which occurred in reality. Not a single car or television is portrayed.
The story began by describing Hinckley in terms which the readers of the 1890s would clearly recognise:
'Prologue - To the eyes of the approaching stranger, the town of Hynkel appears to doze peaceful and calm 'neath the rays of the afternoon sun. The smoke from the various factories streams in vertical lines into the warm air, undisturbed by the faintest zephyr. In the midst of the clustering dwellings stands the grey and ancient church, rearing towards heaven its tapering spire. Hynkel seems at peace with itself and with all the world.’
This was clearly the town of 1891 where piped water was being introduced after a considerable local struggle and where gas provided the source of lighting and electricity was only a scientific dream. The author paints a picture of the conflicting political party pressures in the town involved in the election of the Local Board, for the Urban District Council would not be created until 1894 and hold its first meeting in 1895. The party causing troubles in the town was named the 'Sorrystone' Party, clearly reflecting the Liberals. Its rival party, the 'Primulas' had, by the end of the twentieth century, been ousted from local politics. Disraeli, the old Conservative leader who had died in 1881, had adopted the primrose as 'his favourite flower' and a Conservative Primrose League had been established after his death. The 'Primulas*were 'the better and more educated' group but the Sorrystones had come to dominate local affairs and driven the town into debt to a sum of over £400,000. The fifteen leading' Sorrystones’ had constructed a reservoir called 'Fallacy Lake' and had made everything in Hinckley by the end of the twentieth Century, electrical, clearly something shunned by those Conservatives who had an abiding interest in the local Gas Company.
The story continues by describing a telegram despatched to The Comet newspaper on 10th September 1991 stating that Hynkel was 'cut off from communications' with the rest of the nation. Two men closely associated with 'The Comet'. Mr. Keen and Mr. Quick, attempt to penetrate the 'death belt' which surrounds the town. The reports from Hynkel are horrifying, and in the best traditions of science fiction. The following descriptions are only part of the story:
'Communication is cut off within a radius of twenty miles of the ill-fated city (for such Hynkel had become). All the railroad tracks entering the doomed region (in Huntingshire) were twisted as if clawed by a maddened monster. Relief expeditions were repelled on reaching the dead line... a fearful death brooding over a vast area, once the garden of civilisation' (an interesting view of Hinckley). 'Only a few sinister hawks and other birds of prey wheeled their flight high over Hynkel. People who crossed the fatal line experienced a convulsion of the limbs... insensibility and generally death ensued... Many who were with difficulty rescued, and who finally recovered, averred that they experienced an overcoming odour, acid and penetrating such as is peculiar to ozone when manufactured in a chemical laboratory.' The reference to ozone is interesting one hundred years ago!
The two intrepid reporters arrive near the scene by rail, stopping at Someaton (Nuneaton). Mr. Quick acquires a horse and trap for the exorbitant sum of £120 and together the heroes go to view the 'yellowish cloud of gas' which surrounds Hynkel. It is Mr. Quick who devises a plan for crossing the death belt, a solution which to this point had not occurred to any rescuers.
'Mr. Keen. By Jove I have it. I will go to Hynkel, or over Hynkel, IN A BALLOON'.
The two gentlemen hire the services of Captain Ether, the owner of a balloon, who had hoped to use it for ascents from Hynkel Flower Show. They ascend above the cloud and in conversation with the balloon pilot become aware of how the town has become a ‘slave to electricity' with cabs, lights, shampooing, cigars, sewing machines, boats, ironing, cooking and even the phonograph being electrically lit or powered. This reliance on electricity provided by half a dozen 300 foot high windmills had been the cause of Hynkel's untimely end. The solitary, motionless, blasted plain.'
The courageous pressmen pass over 'Fallacy Lake1 and espy a woman in a wooden boat. After some difficulties they rescue this ‘damsel in distress’, Miss Electra Magnet, the sole survivor of the disaster and the Society Reporter of the 'Hynkel Times' (Hinckley Times first published in 1889). She has from the first been aware of the dangers of electricity and has had a bed and chair placed on glass tumblers which as she observes are 'good non conductors'. Meanwhile the rest of the Hynkel population enslaved by electricity received increasing shocks and when an effort was made to increase the number of crops per year to four produced 'Incalculable volts of uncontrollable electricity acting and acted upon by nascent oxygen and hydrogen.' Miss Magnet, no doubt reflecting the antipathy of the author to electricity, states, 'Better a city without electricity than electricity without a city’. Not as much as a fragment of bone nor a single brick is left standing but the electrical death belt now recedes and Miss Electra and Mr. Keen are married in London in a church lit by gas.
Hynkel many years later develops as a new city, 'Noble in its proportions, rich in its splendid edifices... Wise laws now direct the people and happiness shines on every face'.
I will make no comment on the moral of the story least of all for shareholders of East Midlands Electricity including myself!
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine