The Life of William Hope Hodgson, Part 3

A early photo of WHH.  I am not sure of the year but probably roughly around 1903 or so.

A early photo of WHH. I am not sure of the year but probably roughly around 1903 or so.

This, the 3rd part of our reprinting of R. Alain Everts’ essay, relates some otherwise unknown glimpses of Hodgson’s early life and times with his family.  Sadly, WHH does not come off too well in some of these stories as you will see.  The article that is reprinted here did actually appear in a local Blackburn paper and it is generally believed that it was a publicity piece that Hodgson wrote himself.

Again, this article represents some vital biographical information that is not available anywhere else.  It is for that reason that we are reprinting it here.  No copyright infringement is intended or implied.


by R. Alain Everts

The Early Years, Part 3

Hope returned from sea permanently slightly before the turn of the century—and he was well known in Blackburn for the tales he spun of his many and varied adventures at sea.  Some of his excellent photographs of the sea in her many moods of storming were published about 1900 in the London Illustrated News. It was also at this time that his grandfather, William Hodgson died–in late 1900—which enable the Hodgson family to move to better quarters in Park Mount—a pleasant suburb of Blackburn—to a large house on Revidge Road.  And in early 1901, Hope was able to establish his celebrated School of Physical Culture in Blackburn—thanks to the money his grandfather left the family, as well as some beautiful antique furniture that Hope carted off to his school located on the second floor of 13 Ainsworth Street—of course over the protestations of his mother and sisters.  Needless to say, the furniture was ruined by Hope’s clientele.  Hope had continued his body-building exercises, and he was able at this point to lift a full-grown man over his head with one hand.

Hope also had a great interest and ability in sports—he was an excellent boxer, a strong swimmer, a good horseman and cricket player.  He also loved to go on long walks, sometimes accompanied by the children.  Once he took his brother Chris on a long midnight walk—and Chris recalls that his brother Hope would stop from time to time to listen to sounds that Chris could not hear.  Hope was also quite a health-food addict—and also somewhat of a hypochondriac about his own health, fearing any small sign as some major illness.  He also delighted in practical jokes—often he would appear at the second story windows of his home or neighbors.  Of course, Hope was tickled to death at the reaction he provoked.  Another time, he loaned a neighbor, Mr. W. R. Horner, a copy of H. G. Wells’ book The Time Machine, and late at night, Hope climbed up the drainpipe on the outside of the house, scaring Homer.  Hope repeated this trick with his sisters several times—driving them to distraction with his stunts—especially climbing up the outside of the house at midnight.  One of his jokes really did backfire—Hope tried to make some fireworks, and was drying the powder in the family over, when it suddenly exploded, totally destroying the oven.

His brother Chris also recalls times when Hope would attempt more grandiose schemes.  Once, Hope made an eight-foot box kite, hoping to lift Chris with it, but fortunately he was only able to lift a chair.  Hope also tended to be very short with his sisters—whom he taunted and mocked quite severely at times.  Once one of them spoke back to him and he chased her around the dining room table several times waving a large knife—another time he got into a fight with Mary and in his anger threw a heavy crystal vase at her, missing her head by inches.  During this period, Hope’s mother began to deteriorate—she was to become an invalid before long; but also Hope would be extremely short with her from time to time—he was totally atheistic and quite contemptuous of the Church and religion in general.

Along with his temper, Hope carried an enormous amount of courage—all accounts remark his total lack of fear.  One of his fearless feats was long remembered in Blackburn; the article from the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, 30 August 1902, also seems to have been written by Hope himself:


A Daring Feat at Blackburn

                Once upon a time a certain very daring young man issued a challenge to fate by riding down the steps of the Capitol at Washington.  He might have broken his neck, he might have barked his shins but he did neither.  He simply rode down the steps.  The story of his daring was wired the world over, his portrait appeared in the papers, the magazines treated his ride in progressive numbers—first step, second step, third step and so on—the nations gushed over him.

                In the natural order of things the feat should have been at once eclipsed by others still more daring and more wonderful—down the steps on one wheel, for example, down the steps backwards, down the steps in a millionth part of a second less time than no. 1, and so on, but no, nothing of the sort.  From that day to this he has reigned alone in all his glory—on the steps of the Capital.

                During the week however, Blackburn has produced a feat equally astonishing and equally daring—on all fours, in fact, with that of Washington.  And if the Washington hero was hoisted high on the pedestal of fame, why not also he of Blackburn?  Hence this article and hence this picture.

                During the summer months workmen have been busily engaged in improving the means of access to Revidge by the conversion of that old-time lovers’ lane, known to some as the Ginnell, to others as the Snickett, and in more recent times as Spion Kop, into a modern road to be known henceforth as Brantfell Road.  According to some authorities the town has one, or maybe two, hillside streets stepper than this one even, but the official mind holds a contrary view for it has ruled the Snickett, etc., too steep for ordinary treatment, and has turned it into a street of steps, the only one that Blackburn is able to boast.  Now the old narrow, limb-twisting lane lying at the bottom of a couple of ugly walls has been replaced by a wide road on which a series of steps has been laid—the said steps numbering sixty in all, each about a couple of feet in width.  On the Red Rake side a handsome wall, to be surmounted by iron railings, had been built, and as a protection to unwary drivers who might mistake the street for one of the common or garden variety, five iron posts have been implanted.  Don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s to keep the flies off.

                Now, although a cart or a carriage may not be squeezed between the posts, there is nothing on earth to prevent a bicycle being pedaled through.  Prudence would, of course, dictate a very wide detour in preference to a short cut down the steps, and ninety-nine men out of a hundred would vote such a ride a flat impossibility.  There are some men however, to whom fear is an unknown quantity and danger merely an element to be conquered, and one of these is Mr. W. H. Hodgson, the well-known professor of physical culture, who has this week cycled down the “steppy” precipice without breaking his neck.

                It was on Tuesday afternoon, and the workmen engaged in putting the finishing touches to the new thoroughfare were hard at work when Mr. Hodgson appeared on the scene and electrified them by dropping his well-braked free-wheel over the top step.  Breathlessly one and all watched him as he calmly hopped form ledge to ledge, every bound full of dire possibility.  Second followed second, the snap, the slip, the crash, fearfully looked for failed to come.  Mr. Hodgson’s guardian angel was on duty that day—and only a few more steps remained to be negotiated.

                At this point a touch of comedy was thrown into the scene.  Among the watchers was a good lady resident of the street, and just before the rider reached her dwelling she rushed out of her garden-gate, and with outstretched arms barred the path, exclaiming, “Here, this isn’t a road for carts and Bicycles”.  Her motive was not doubt good, but little did she realize how she was adding to the peril of the situation.  Happily Mr. Hodgson had is machine so completely under control that—most wonderful part of his performance—he had no difficulty in throwing himself from the saddle and landing on his feet.  This was on the 58th step, and having safely navigated the steep thus far Mr. Hodgson, determined not to be beaten, managed to mount again and proceed on his way rejoicing.

                Since then I have heard something of another attempt being projected, but it is to be hope that cycling “down the golden stairs” will not become one of the favored pastimes of Blackburn wheelers.  Else the corporation will surely have to be invited to equip the track with nets and all sorts of life-saving contrivances… And, of course, they will joyfully respond!

The Vagabond

[To be continued…]


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