The link between author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes, and the city of Plymouth has been celebrated in a unique way. Doyle was a partner in a medical practice in Plymouth before hitting the big time with his iconic sleuth, writing a series of books spanning 23 years.
Holmes receives a mention in the Guinness World Records as the “most portrayed character” in the history of films, accompanied by his sidekick, physician Dr John Watson. The iconic detective has sparked a number of tributes in his honour.
A museum has been opened at 221B Baker Street in London (Holmes’ address in the novels) and Baker Street tube station was refurbished in the 1980s with unique tiles, carrying silhouette portraits of the detective wearing his famous deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe.
The author’s link with Plymouth was often overlooked by fans, until the local authority, in collaboration with Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, added some timely reminders to the streets.
It was Sir Arthur’s background in medicine that led to the creation of Holmes, who first appeared in the 1887 novel, A Study in Scarlet. The character was based on an Edinburgh-born surgeon, Joseph Bell, who was also a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.
Born in May 1859, Sir Arthur attended Hodder Place School in Stonyhurst, finishing his education at Stella Matutina School, in Feldkirch, Austria. He began studying medicine in 1876 at Edinburgh University’s medical school and also worked under Bell at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary while completing his studies.
In 1877, the 18-year-old would-be author was clerk to the 40-year-old surgeon at the infirmary. Sir Arthur first started writing short stories, based on Bell while he was a student, although with little commercial success at first.
Bell was inspirational, because he was way ahead of his time in his medical practices. He was known for emphasising the importance of close observation when making a diagnosis.
During his lectures, his “party trick” was choosing a stranger and deducing his recent activities and occupation, simply by observing him closely. He became a pioneer in the field of forensic science and pathology, thanks to his remarkable skills, as science wasn’t used much during 19th-century criminal investigations.
Time in Portsmouth
Sir Arthur continued to write while training to be a doctor. After completing his Doctor of Medicine degree, he found employment as a ship’s doctor, serving on several ships, including the SS Mayumba and the Hope of Peterhead.
In 1882, he opened a medical practice at 1 Durnford Street, Plymouth, with his business partner and fellow doctor, George Budd, who was a friend from medical school. However, it was said that the men found it difficult to work together, suffering a clash of personalities almost from the get-go.
Sir Arthur continued writing in his spare time, becoming increasingly involved in his stories, rather than medicine. He also became increasingly dissatisfied working with Budd – especially since they lodged together too! Their partnership soon dissolved.
The budding author moved to Southsea, where his writing career began in earnest. Following the publication of his initial 1887 novels, A Study in Scarlet and A Scandal in Bohemia, he started to make a living from it. In total, the author wrote 68 stories featuring Holmes, his last novel being published in 1927.
Hound of the Baskervilles
Holmes’ most famous case, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was inspired by Sir Arthur’s time in Devon. Written in 1901, the plot was set on foggy Dartmoor. It was inspired by real life, combined with local folklore.
A BBC documentary in 2001, celebrating the novel’s centenary, revealed the book had included an acknowledgement to the author’s friend, Fletcher Robinson, who had told him about the legend of a ghostly hound roaming the moors. The tale had been related one day when the friends were out walking on Dartmoor.
The origins of the legend date back to the 17th century, when Squire Richard Cabell lived at Brook Manor, near Buckfastleigh. He had a reputation for being a wicked man and legend has it that when he died in 1677, a pack of fire-breathing black dogs raced howling across Dartmoor.
Cabel was said to be the inspiration for the book’s character, Hugo Baskerville. He had been described as having sold his soul to the devil, while rumours circulated that he had murdered his wife, Elizabeth. It was said that after his death, Cabel’s ghost could be seen at night leading the pack of ghostly hounds hunting across the moor.
The novel features several real places, including Bellever Tor and Princetown. Fox Tor Mires was believed to be Sir Arthur’s inspiration for Grimpen Mire. The novel’s Baskerville Hall was said to be based on either Hayford Hall or Brook Manor.
The BBC documentary concluded that the exact details of the inspiration of the book would forever remain shrouded in mystery, adding to its appeal. There’s even a fan group based on the novel called The Baskerville Hounds.
Although the property at 1 Durnford Street was demolished pre-20th century, Plymouth Council has created a permanent reminder of the legendary author’s medical practice by embedding paving flags containing many of Holmes’ quotes in the street, including one from Hound of the Baskervilles: “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
Other quotes include, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” from The Boscombe Valley Mystery in 1891, and, “Good, Watson! You always keep us flat-footed on the ground,” from The Adventure of the Creeping Man in 1923. A quote attributed to Sir Arthur himself is also included: “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.”
The blue tourism plaque on Sir Arthur’s former home was officially launched by Holmes’ enthusiasts who travelled from across the country for the ceremony in September 2017.
Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were set during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, between 1880 and 1914. There were four novels and 56 short stories in all, most of which were narrated by Watson.
Holmes is the subject of many fans’ and literary societies and his mystery stories have been made into radio plays, stage plays, TV series, films and video games. Actor Basil Rathbone was one of the most famous Holmes actors on the big screen, as he starred as the detective, alongside Nigel Bruce as Watson, in 14 films for 20th Century Fox between 1939 and 1946.
Robert Downey Junior has portrayed Holmes, alongside Jude Law’s Watson, in two Sherlock Holmes films, in 2009 and 2011, with a third planned for 2020.
There’s no mystery about these chaps!
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