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

(Continued from page 1)

One drizzly afternoon I join Johnson and Ales Kolodrubec, president of the Czech Society of Sherlock Holmes, who is visiting from Prague, on a walk through Marylebone in search of the location Conan Doyle might have had in mind for Holmes’ abode. Armed with an analysis written by Bernard Davies, a Sherlockian who grew up in the area, and a detailed 1894 map of the neighborhood, we thread through cobblestone mews and alleys to a block-long passage, Kendall Place, lined by brick buildings. Once a hodgepodge of stables and servants’ quarters, the street is part of a neighborhood that is now mainly full of businesses. In the climax of the 1903 story “The Empty House,” Holmes and Watson sneak through the back entrance of a deserted dwelling, whose front windows face directly onto 221B Baker Street. The description of the Empty House matches that of the old town house we’re looking at. “The ‘real’ 221B,” Johnson says decisively, “must have stood across the road.” It’s a rather disappointing sight: today the spot is marked by a five-story glass-and-concrete office building with a smoothie-and-sandwich take-away shop on the ground floor.

In 1989, Upper Baker and York Place having been merged into Baker Street decades earlier, a London salesman and music promoter, John Aidiniantz, bought a tumbledown Georgian boardinghouse at 239 Baker Street and converted it into the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

A fake London bobby was patrolling in front when I arrived there one weekday afternoon. After paying my £6 entry fee (about $10), I climbed 17 stairs—the exact number mentioned in the Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia”—and entered a small, shabby parlor filled with Victorian and Edwardian furniture, along with props that seemed reasonably faithful to the description of the drawing room provided by Watson in “The Empty House”: “The chemical corner and the acid-stained deal-topped table....The diagrams, the violin case, and the pipe rack.” Watson’s stuffy bedroom was one flight up, crammed with medical paraphernalia and case notes; a small exhibition hall, featuring lurid dioramas from the stories and wax figurines of Sherlock Holmes and archenemy Professor Moriarty, filled the third floor. Downstairs in the gift shop, tourists were browsing through shelves of bric-a-brac: puzzles, key rings, busts of Holmes, DVDs, chess sets, deerstalker caps, meerschaum pipes, tobacco tins, porcelain statuettes and salt and pepper shakers. For a weekday afternoon, business seemed brisk.

But it has not been a universal hit. In 1990 and 1994, scholar Jean Upton published articles in the now-defunct magazine Baker Street Miscellanea criticizing “the shoddiness of the displays” at the museum, the rather perfunctory attention to Holmesian detail (no bearskin rug, no cigars in the coal scuttle) and the anachronistic furniture, which she compared to “the dregs of a London flea market.” Upton sniffed that Aidiniantz himself possessed only superficial knowledge of the canon, although, she wrote, he “gives the impression of considering himself the undisputed authority on the subject of Sherlock Holmes and his domicile.”

“I’m happy to call myself a rank amateur,” Aidiniantz replies.

For verisimilitude, most Sherlockians prefer the Sherlock Holmes Pub, on Northumberland Street, just below Trafalgar Square, which is packed with Holmesiana, including a facsimile head of the Hound of the Baskervilles and Watson’s “newly framed portrait of General Gordon,” the British commander killed in 1885 at the siege of Khartoum and mentioned in “The Cardboard Box” and “The Resident Patient.” The collection also includes Holmes’ handcuffs, and posters, photographs and memorabilia from movies and plays recreating the Holmes stories. Upstairs, behind a glass wall, is a far more faithful replica of the 221B sitting room.

In 1891, following the breakout success of The Sign of Four, Conan Doyle moved with his wife, Louise, from Southsea to Montague Place in Bloomsbury, around the corner from the British Museum. He opened an oph­thalmological practice at 2 Upper Wimpole Street in Marylebone, a mile away. (In his memoirs, Conan Doyle mistakenly referred to the address as 2 Devonshire Place. The undistinguished, red-brick town house still stands, marked by a plaque put up by the Westminster City Council and the Arthur Conan Doyle Society.) The young author secured one of London’s best-known literary agents, A.P. Watt, and made a deal with The Strand, a new monthly magazine, to write a series of short stories starring Holmes. Fortunately for his growing fan base, Conan Doyle’s medical practice proved an utter failure, affording him plenty of time to write. “Every morning I walked from the lodgings at Montague Place, reached my consulting-room at ten and sat there until three or four, with never a ring to disturb my serenity,” he would later remember. “Could better conditions for reflection and work be found?”

Between 1891 and 1893, at the height of his creative powers, Conan Doyle produced 24 stories for The Strand, which were later collected under the titles The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. As the stories caught on, The Strand’s readership doubled; on publication day, thousands of fans would form a crush around London bookstalls to snap up the detective’s latest adventure. A few months after arriving in London, the writer moved again, with his wife and his young daughter, Mary, to Tennison Road in the suburb of South Norwood. Several years later, with his fame and fortune growing, he continued his upward migration, this time to a country estate, Undershaw, in Surrey.

But Conan Doyle, a socially and politically active man, was drawn repeatedly back to the bustle and intercourse of London, and many of the characters and places he encountered found their way into the stories. The Langham, the largest and by many accounts best hotel in Victorian London, was one of Conan Doyle’s haunts. Noted for its salubrious location on Upper Regent Street (“much healthier than the peat bogs of Belgravia near the River Thames favored by other hoteliers,” as the Langham advertised when it opened in 1865) and sumptuous interiors, the hotel was a magnet for British and American literati, including the poets Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne, the writer Mark Twain and the explorer Henry Morton Stanley before he set out to find Dr. Livingstone in Africa. It was at the Langham that Conan Doyle would place a fictional king of Bohemia, the 6-foot-6 Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, as a guest. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” published in 1891, the rakish, masked Bohemian monarch hires Holmes to recover an embarrassing photograph from a former lover. “You will find me at The Langham, under the name of Count Von Kramm,” the king informs the detective.

Another institution that figured both in Conan Doyle’s real and imagined life was the Lyceum Theatre in the West End, a short walk from Piccadilly Circus. Conan Doyle’s play Waterloo had its London opening there in 1894, starring Henry Irving, the Shakespearian thespian he had admired two decades earlier during his first London trip. In The Sign of Four, Holmes’ client, Mary Morstan, receives a letter directing her to meet a mysterious correspondent at the Lyceum’s “third pillar from the left,” now another destination for Sherlockians. Conan Doyle was an active member of both the Authors’ Club on Dover Street and the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall, near Buckingham Palace. The latter served as the model for the Diogenes Club, where Watson and Holmes go to meet Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft, in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus