Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jad Adams is a writer and Fel­low of the Royal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety

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.

Lon­don call­ing

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.

Ex­treme weather

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.


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

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