London Top Destinations

Sherlock Holmes’ London

As the detective stalks movie theaters, our reporter tracks down the favorite haunts of Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous sleuth

The city, in all its brooding grandeur, takes center stage in stories featuring the master of deduction. (Stuart Conway)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

One summer evening in 1889, a young medical school graduate named Arthur Conan Doyle arrived by train at London’s Victoria Station and took a hansom cab two and a half miles north to the famed Langham Hotel on Upper Regent Street. Then living in obscurity in the coastal town of Southsea, near Portsmouth, the 30-year-old ophthalmologist was looking to advance his writing career. The magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual had recently published his novel, A Study in Scarlet, which introduced the private detective Sherlock Holmes. Now Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly, a Philadelphia magazine, was in London to establish a British edition of his publication. At the suggestion of a friend, he had invited Conan Doyle to join him for dinner in the Langham’s opulent dining room.

Amid the bustle of waiters, the chink of fine silver and the hum of dozens of conversations, Conan Doyle found Stoddart to be “an excellent fellow,” he would write years later. But he was captivated by one of the other invited guests, an Irish playwright and author named Oscar Wilde. “His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind,” Conan Doyle remembered. “He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour, and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning.” For both writers, the evening would prove a turning point. Wilde left with a commission to write his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in Lippincott’s June 1890 issue. And Conan Doyle agreed to produce a second novel starring his ace detective; The Sign of Four would cement his reputation. Indeed, critics have speculated that the encounter with Wilde, an exponent of a literary movement known as the Decadents, led Conan Doyle to deepen and darken Sherlock Holmes’ character: in The Sign of Four’s opening scene, Holmes is revealed to be addicted to a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine.

Today the Langham Hotel sits atop Regent Street like a grand yet faded dowager, conjuring up a mostly vanished Victorian landscape. The interior has been renovated repeatedly over the past century. But the Langham’s exterior—monolithic sandstone facade, with wrought-iron balconies, French windows and a columned portico—has hardly changed since the evening Conan Doyle visited 120 years ago. Roger Johnson, publicity director of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, a 1,000-strong band of Holmes devotees, points to the hotel’s mention in several Holmes tales, including The Sign of Four, and says it’s a kind of shrine for Sherlockians. “It’s one of those places where the worlds of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes come together,” he adds. Others include the Lyceum Theatre, where one of Conan Doyle’s plays was produced (and a location in The Sign of Four), as well as the venerable gentlemen’s clubs along the thoroughfare of the Strand, establishments that Conan Doyle frequented during forays into the city from his estate in Surrey. Conan Doyle also appropriated St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in central London as a setting; it was there that the legendary initial meeting between Holmes and Dr. Watson took place.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of Charles Doyle, an alcoholic who would spend much of his later life in a mental institution, and Mary Foley Doyle, the attractive, lively daughter of an Irish doctor and a teacher; she loved literature and, according to biographer Andrew Lycett, beguiled her children with her storytelling. Marking the sesqui­centennial of Conan Doyle’s birth, Edinburgh held a marathon of talks, exhibitions, walking tours, plays, films and public performances. Harvard University sponsored a three-day lecture series examining Holmes’ and Conan Doyle’s legacy. This past spring, novelist Lyndsay Faye published a new thriller, Dust and Shadow, featuring Holmes squaring off against Jack the Ripper. And last month, of course, Holmes took center stage in director Guy Ritchie’s Hollywood movie Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson.

A persuasive case can be made that Holmes exerts just as much hold on the world’s imagination today as he did a century ago. The Holmesian canon—four novels and 56 stories—continues to sell briskly around the world. The coldly calculating genius in the deerstalker cap, wrestling with his inner demons as he solves crimes that befuddle Scotland Yard, stands as one of literature’s most vivid and most alluring creations.

Conan Doyle’s other alluring creation was London. Although the author lived only a few months in the capital before moving to the suburbs, he visited the city frequently throughout his life. Victorian London takes on almost the presence of a character in the novels and stories, as fully realized—in all its fogs, back alleys and shadowy quarters—as Holmes himself. “Holmes could never have lived anywhere else but London,” says Lycett, author of the recent biography The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “London was the hub of the empire. In addition to the Houses of Parliament, it had the sailors’ hostels and the opium dens of the East End, the great railway stations. And it was the center of the literary world.”

Much of that world, of course, has been lost. The British Clean Air Act of 1956 would consign to history the coal-fueled fogs that shrouded many Holmes adventures and imbued them with menace. (“Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets,” Conan Doyle writes in The Sign of Four. “Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement.”) The blitz and postwar urban redevelopment swept away much of London’s labyrinthine and crime-ridden East End, where “The Man With the Twisted Lip” and other stories are set. Even so, it is still possible to retrace many of the footsteps that Conan Doyle might have taken in London, to follow him from the muddy banks of the Thames to the Old Bailey and obtain a sense of the Victorian world he transmuted into art.

He first encountered london at the age of 15, while on a three-week vacation from Stonyhurst, the Jesuit boarding school to which his Irish Catholic parents consigned him in northern England. “I believe I am 5 foot 9 high,” the young man told his aunt, so she could spot him at Euston station, “pretty stout, clad in dark garments, and above all, with a flaring red muffler round my neck.” Escorted around the city by his uncles, young Conan Doyle took in the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Crystal Palace, and viewed a performance of Hamlet, starring Henry Irving, at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End. And he went to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, then located in the Baker Street Bazaar (and on Marylebone Road today). Conan Doyle viewed with fascination wax models of those who had died on the guillotine during the French Revolution as well as likenesses of British murderers and other arch-criminals. While there, the young man sketched the death scene of French radical Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed in his bath at the height of the Revolution. After visiting the museum, Conan Doyle wrote in a letter to his mother that he had been irresistibly drawn to “the images of the murderers.”

More than a decade later, having graduated from medical school in Edinburgh and settled in Southsea, the 27-year-old physician chose London for the backdrop of a novel about a “consulting detective” who solves crimes by applying keen observation and logic. Conan Doyle had been heavily influenced by Dr. Joseph Bell, whom he met at the Edinburgh Infirmary and whose diagnostic powers amazed his students and colleagues. Also, Conan Doyle had read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including the 1841 “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” featuring inspector C. Auguste Dupin. Notes for an early draft of A Study in Scarlet—first called “A Tangled Skein”—describe a “Sherringford Holmes” who keeps a collection of rare violins and has access to a chemical laboratory; Holmes is aided by his friend Ormond Sacker, who has seen military service in Sudan. In the published version of A Study in Scarlet, Sacker becomes Dr. John H. Watson, who was shot in the shoulder by a “Jezail bullet” in Afghanistan and invalided in 1880 to London—“that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” As the tale opens, Watson learns from an old friend at the Criterion Bar of “a fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital [St. Bartholomew’s],” who is looking to share lodgings. Watson finds Holmes poised over a test tube in the middle of an “infallible” experiment to detect human blood stains. Holmes makes the now-immortal observation: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” (Holmes pieces together a series of clues—Watson’s deep tan; an injury to his left arm; a background in medicine; a haggard face—to deduce that Watson had served as an army doctor there.) The physician, intrigued, moves in with Holmes into the “cheerfully furnished” rooms at 221B Baker Street.

The address is another shrine for the detective’s devotees—although, as any expert will attest, 221 Baker Street existed only in Conan Doyle’s imagination. In the Victorian era, Baker Street went up to only number 85. It then became York Place and eventually Upper Baker Street. (Conan Doyle was hardly a stickler for accuracy in his Holmes stories; he garbled some street names and invented others and put a goose seller in Covent Garden, then a flower and produce market.) But some Sherlockians have made a sport out of searching for the “real” 221B, parsing clues in the texts with the diligence of Holmes himself. “The question is, Did Holmes and Watson live in Upper Baker or in Baker?” says Roger Johnson, who occasionally leads groups of fellow pilgrims on expeditions through the Marylebone neighborhood. “There are arguments in favor of both. There are even arguments in favor of York Place. But the most convincing is that it was the lower section of Baker Street.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus