BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1891: Sherlock Holmes is here to stay
Many people knew more about Sherlock Holmes than they did about members of their own families, thanks to a remarkable series of stories.
This year saw ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ in the July edition of The Strand. The magazine had been launched only the previous year, to serve the growing market for short fiction.
Dr Arthur Conan Doyle had been writing to fill in the long periods while he was waiting between patients in his newly-opened practice at Upper Wimpole Street. This was not the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes – that was in Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, but it was The Strand that made him a worldwide success.
Conan Doyle’s innovation was as much commercial as literary – he had realised that if the same character appeared in every story, that would create loyalty to a magazine and people would keep buying it in preference to others. By this means Holmes took the circulation of The Strand to 400,000. The stories pictured the world’s best known fictional detective with a fire burning in the hearth of the bay-windowed bachelor apartment at 221b Baker Street where brilliant Holmes and honest but plain-minded Watson would sit ruminating on a criminal problem. Holmes would berate his friend Watson with: “You see but you
do not observe.” Watson describes Holmes’ “cold, precise but admirably balanced mind”.
It did not dawn on Doyle that he was creating an immortal character and he was loose with details from one story to another, hardly imagining that future generations would pore over the chronology of Holmes’ casebooks. Some things are consistent, however. Holmes is a strange but gallant gentleman, who does not mind breaking the law, and who is unfazed whether talking to an aristocrat or a criminal. He plays the violin, is an expert swordsman and boxer, has a profound knowledge of chemistry and of botany (where it pertains to poisons) and a deep knowledge of sensational literature. Watson said: “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.” Holmes keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife to the centre of his wooden mantelpiece. He was depicted by Strand illustrator Sidney Paget as wearing a deerstalker hat and smoking a simple briar pipe – the curved calabash pipe was a later stage invention.
Holmes was a habitual user, if not an addict, of the then legal drug cocaine. Watson describes him as ‘ buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.’
When pressed Doyle would say that Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr Joseph Bell, his surgery instructor at the Edinburgh Infirmary where the writer studied medicine. Bell’s careful observation and deductive manner would judge a patient’s occupation and ailment before they had even opened their mouth. Some, including Bell himself, felt there was more than a little of Conan Doyle in Holmes’ approach.
Conan Doyle considered Holmes “a lower stratum of literary achievement” as compared to his other books but the public disagreed. He tried to kill Holmes off in 1893 in order to concentrate on other subjects, but fans insisted on his return, and the great detective was periodically brought back for new stories, which appeared until 40 years after his first outing. Your ancestors may have read one or more of the 56 stories and four novels, and they also had a chance to see Holmes in the flesh in the play Sherlock Holmes. It was written by Conan Doyle and William Gillette, an American actor-manager and playwright. It was he who wrote the line: “Elementary, my dear Watson”, which does not occur in the stories. The play had a long run and was frequently revived. In 1916 it was the basis of one of the most elaborate early films.
In April this year ‘telephonic communication’ was established between London and Paris. It was the first time a subsea telephone cable connected two countries. The engineers in the cable ship HMS Monarch relied on experience gained from laying international telegraph cables, and battled snowstorms and high seas to complete the link on schedule. The cable had first been laid underground on both sides, in St Margaret’s Bay, Dover and Sangatte, Calais. Then a cable laid on the floor of the channel linked the two.
There were three telephone exchanges where calls could be made: at the General Post Office, the stock exchange and Charing Cross. A caller could pay eight shillings for three minutes of conversation, but only two calls could be made simultaneously.
It shows the remarkable speed at which communications were developing in the world of your ancestors that the first telephone call in the world had been made only 15 years previously by Alexander Graham Bell. The development of immediate, spoken communication was something your forebears took to with great enthusiasm.
Your ancestors in the south of England this year experienced one of the worst storms of the century. Devon and Cornwall were cut off from the rest of the country by snow which drifted up to 15ft high between 9 and 13 March. Dorset, Hertfordshire and Kent were also affected by what was described as a blizzard: a massive snowstorm driven by a strong gale in below freezing conditions. Some 200 people died along with 6,000 animals, which froze in their fields.
Shipping in the English Channel was struck badly, the worst disaster being the cargo ship Bay of Panama which had sailed from Calcutta with a hold full of jute, bound for Dundee. Built in Belfast, it was considered by many to be the finest sailing ship afloat. When the storm blew up and visibility reduced to zero as they approached the Cornish coast, the captain decided to ‘ heave to’ which meant bringing the ship to a stop.
IT DID NOT DAWN ON DOYLE THAT HE WAS CREATING AN IMMORTAL CHARACTER
The blizzard worsened and the ship was being driven into the cliffs south of Nare Point. In the early hours of the morning huge waves broke over the deck, smashing lifeboats, swamping the main cabin and washing the captain, his wife and six crewmen over the side. The mate took charge and ordered the remaining sailors to climb the rigging as the deck was no longer safe. They spent the rest of the night in the freezing spray that quickly turned to ice, and some froze to death. The rest were rescued when they were found hanging there in the wreck, just off the Cornish coast.
The golden age of news
The death was announced this year of William Henry Smith, first lord of the treasury and leader of the house of commons. He had been a successful Conservative MP, but what he was really known for was the news-stands on all major railway stations, labelled WH Smith. As a man of only 21 working in the family business he negotiated the right to sell books and newspapers at railway stations. Smiths also ran a circulating library service from which books were lent out for an annual fee. While the pre-eminence of WH Smiths was a boon to your bookloving ancestors, it was not all good. WH Smiths would not stock the more racy reading material, which excluded modern novels of ‘realism’ and so exerted a negative influence on the development of literature. One of the newspapers for sale on Smiths’ news-stands had a change at the top this year. Rachel Beer took over the editorship of the Observer, becoming the first woman to edit a national newspaper. Her husband owned the title, which is always an advantage if you want to get ahead! Meanwhile, over at The Times, another woman was making her way at the serious end of newspapers: Flora Shaw was settling in to a new job as the paper’s first woman foreign correspondent. In 1893, she would become its colonial editor, another first for women working in journalism. Her fortnightly column ‘The Colonies,’ appearing throughout the 1890s, is an excellent guide to the events affecting your ancestors who were serving the Queen in the far-flung territories of the British Empire. She made no pretence at impartiality, commenting that one of her greatest journalistic achievements was “to have helped to rouse the British public to a sense of Imperial responsibility and an ideal of Imperial greatness”.
An 1891 illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the detective Sherlock Holmes The Bay of Panama was wrecked off the Cornish coast during extreme weather Who Do You Think You Are?
William Henry Smith, who expanded the WH Smiths stationery chain