Step back to London, 1895.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are full of references to everyday activities and events from Victorian times that make the twenty-first century reader run to the reference shelf. Few, for example, are intimately acquainted with the responsibilities of a country squire, the importance of gentlemen's clubs, or the intricacies of the Victorian monetary system.
These twenty-four short essays explore various aspects of life mentioned in the original tales of Sherlock Holmes, providing modern-day insight into the nineteenth century world. Originally shared through various Sherlockian newsletters around the world, they are gathered here for the first time. Essays cover:
- The Life of a Country Squire
- The Holmes' Family Connection to the Vernets of France
- The Fate of Second Sons
- The Victorian Medical Practice
- Victorian Transportion
- The Origins of Scotland Yard
- The River Thames
- Apiculture in the 1800s
- Westminster Palace
- Sherlock's Christmas Spirit
- Practicing Law in Victorian England
- The Second Anglo-Afghan War
- Gentleman's Clubs
- 221B Baker Street
- Abductive Reasoning
- Dog Breeding
- The Monetary System
- The British Museum
These examinations bring deeper meaning and color to the adventures of the world's most famous consulting detective.
The president of The Crew of the Barque Lone Star, a Sherlockian Scion Society, notes this collection "brings life to a society which we have only dreamed of."
Whether a fan of Sherlock Holmes or a history enthusiast, this book offers interesting tidbits to all.
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THE LIFE OF A COUNTRY SQUIRE
In the short story "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson that his ancestors were "country squires." And other than that bit of information, along with the note that his grandmother was the sister of the French portraitist Vernet, Doyle provided little with respect to his most famous character's origins.
Knowing his father might have been country squire as well, however, provides insights into Holmes' social level and certain expectations common to those of his rank. A country squire would have owned enough land to rent to tenants and have lived in a manor house. While the squire's position was below a nobleman or large landowner, he still ranked high in the local social structure.
In addition to running his estate and ensuring the welfare of those under his tenancy, the country squire also held the position of Justice of the Peace. In this capacity, the squire had both civil and legal duties. Within the local government, the justices supervised parish (or county) officials, in particular those in charge of the maintenance of roads and bridges and the enforcement of the Poor Laws. As a legal position, Justices of the Peace served as magistrates during the Quarter Sessions, where they and a jury heard and decided on serious crimes such as theft, highway robbery, assault, burglary, rioting, drunkenness, profane swearing, and a variety of crimes against property (poaching, cutting estate timber and the like. Between these sessions, the justices would hold petty sessions where the least serious crimes were reviewed and decisions made without a jury.
Because the English system did not include a prosecutor for almost all crimes, the preparation of a case rested with the constable, from collecting evidence to presenting it at trial. Justices of the peace supervised and worked closely with the village constable, issued warrants, and determined whether to move a case to trial and to which court.
As a member of the gentry, Sherlock Holmes would have been in a position of privilege. If his father was a Justice of the Peace, he would have developed a familiarity with the criminal justice system and the law. For the consulting detective, the foundation for investigating and solving crimes would have come naturally to a descendant of country squires.
SHERLOCK'S FRENCH CONNECTION
In The Greek Interpreter, Sherlock Holmes gives two clues of his past. In addition to noting his ancestors were country squires, he also shares that art was in his blood, given his grandmother was the sister of Vernet, the French artist.
Some speculation exists as to which Vernet. Three generations of Vernets garnered patronage from both the French monarchy and Napoleon: Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714 – 1789); Antoine Charles Horace Vernet, known as Carle Vernet (1758 – 1836); and Émile Jean-Horace Vernet, known as Horace Vernet (1789 – 1863). Simple mathematics suggests the most logical choice would be the youngest Vernet. For Sherlock and Mycroft's mother to be between twenty and twenty-five at marriage, she would have to have been born between 1821-1826. Taking another twenty to twenty-five years or so for Sherlock's grandmother to be born, means a birth date of about 1795-1800 or earlier, clearly putting her as a contemporary of Horace.
In reality, Horace Vernet had one sister: Camille Françoise Joséphine (1788-1858) who married the French painter Hippolyte Lecomte (1781-1857) and whose son, Charles Emile Hippolyte Lecomte-Vernet, was also a painter. (2)
Obviously, Doyle could not have selected a better family than the Vernet dynasty to provide Sherlock his inherited artistic tendencies. Claude-Joseph was known for his landscapes and seascapes; Carle for his realistic horses, based on his own knowledge as an expert horseman; and Horace for portraits and realistic battle scenes. A little research also supplies some interesting facts for additional color in Sherlock's "ancestry." Horace Vernet was born in the Louvre, and his father, fleeing with his wife and children, barely escaped being shot during the French Revolution. Horace was also known for having an incredible memory, able to sketch a scene or face seen only once with total recall.
The Vernet family had an English connection as well. Claude-Joseph married an English woman, Virginia Parker, during his time in Italy, and British visitors on the Grand Tour were his most loyal patrons. It might have this British link that provided the basis for selecting the Vernet family for Sherlock's artistic inheritance, but his great-uncle's ability to remember a location years later seems quite Holmesian as well.
INHERITANCE AND THE FATE OF SECOND SONS
The brief review of the fate of Sir Charles' estate in chapter five of the Hounds of the Baskervilles provides a short guide to English inheritance laws applied primarily to the aristocracy and other large landowners. In this chapter, Dr. Mortimer notes that Henry Baskerville will inherit Baskerville Hall because it is entailed, and should he pass, the estate would then go to James Desmond, a distant cousin. Sir Henry, however, could distribute funds associated with the estate as he desired. The new baronet's response, however, was that the majority of the estate needed to be passed to the next in line to ensure the upkeep of Baskerville Hall.
When Sir Charles died, his title of baronet and all the land associated with it passed on to his closest living male relation (his nephew Henry) and would have done so regardless of any living female relatives. Beyond the oldest male descendent, any other children received whatever their father's will dictated. Thus, wives, daughters, and "second sons" could find themselves homeless if the inheritor was so inclined to turn them out (such as the fate of the Dashwood women in Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility.) With such future, most women sought as "fortunate" a marriage as possible while younger brothers prepared themselves to earn their own way, usually in such class-appropriate professions as the clergy or the military — although a "fortunate" marriage of their own was not out of the question. Some even took to go abroad such as Sir Henry's father did to Canada and Rodger Baskerville to Central America.
Given his country squire ancestry, Sherlock Holmes would have been all too aware that, with an older brother, he could anticipate little inheritance. As a "second son," he would have to make his own way in the world, and he carved out his own vocation. Unlike the traditional path, however, he created the unique profession of consulting detective.
Not only did English inheritance law in the 1800s provide the basis for the motive in many a plot, it also helped create one of its most intriguing and popular characters.
JOHN WATSON, THE VICTORIAN DOCTOR
In A Study in Scarlet, Watson shares that his medical education included a Doctor of Medicine from the University of London and additional studies in surgery with the British Army before shipping off to India. Just as Holmes' country squire ancestry places him among the gentry, Watson's profession and title indicate his standing as a Victorian gentleman. During this period, physicians could have their wives presented at court, but a surgeon without a medical degree would not have even been invited to dine with the Victorian upper classes. (1) That Watson completed studies in both medical practices illustrates how the distinction between the two diminished toward the latter part of the 1800s. Regardless, it is the "doctor" that puts him in the same class as his flat mate.
Social class also determined whom Victorians would consult in the event of illness. The poorest would visit an apothecary. In addition to dispensing drugs, often homeopathic in nature, the precursor of the modern-day pharmacist also provided medical advice, although they were only allowed to charge for their drugs. For broken bones, illnesses that required bleeding, or even tooth extractions, surgeons would be called in. Because these men had to touch their patients, they were considered manual laborers and carried the title of "Mr." When Holmes refers to "Dr. James Mortimer" in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the man corrects him, noting he is a "Mister — a humble M.R.C.S." The initials refer to his being a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, created in 1800.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, a man with the title "doctor" was more likely a clergyman with a Doctor of Divinity degree than a physician, but with medical practitioners' professionalization and certification, the title shifted to those who had completed a Bachelor of Medicine, or "M.B." Cambridge, Oxford, the University of Edinburgh (where Doyle attended) and the University of London offered such studies. As gentlemen, they rarely touched their patients (primarily from the upper class) beyond checking their pulse. Their practice consisted primarily of listening to a person's complaints and then writing a prescription to be filled by the apothecary.
By the late 1800s, as anesthesia became common practice and disease was linked to the spread of germs, both physicians and surgeons required more rigorous and practical training. The Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons began holding joint exams in the 1880s, creating the qualification "M.R.C.S. L.R.C.P." (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Licentiate by the Royal College of Physicians) and carried the distinction of "general practitioner."
Holmes' good friend, schooled in both medicine and surgery, missed this new designation by only a few years. Regardless, as a physician with a university degree, Watson represents Holmes' social equal, but as a surgeon, he is not above rolling up his sleeves to examine a patient or collect evidence for a case. This dual training makes him the perfect partner for his colleague and friend.
GETTING AROUND IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND
In "The Adventure of The Three Garridebs," the term "buckboards" tips Sherlock Holmes off that an advertisement purportedly from an English firm was actually written by an American. While the forms of transportation were quite varied in Victorian England, "buckboards," at least by that term, were not common.
The options for transporting goods and people changed greatly from the beginning to the end of the 19 century. As road surfaces improved in the early 1800s, long-distance travel depended primarily on coaches. These large, enclosed vehicles carried paying passengers along set routes. Pulled by two horses, the weight was great enough to require them to change horses about every ten miles (usually an inn was attached to these designated stops) and the ride was long, uncomfortable and expensive. The wealthy, however, would have gone by private coach and change horses at similar stops along the route as well.
Coaches were replaced by railways beginning in the 1840s. Besides being much less expensive, the ride was more comfortable and faster. Gentry would ride first class, their servants and trades people in second, and the rest in third. Over time, the sometimes roofless third class was upgraded, and second class coaches were eliminated.
Even with the expansion of the rail system, the horse remained the mainstay of nineteenth century travel. Whether pulling omnibuses (twelve-passenger public coaches) in the cities or carriages in the country, they kept the nation on the move. At the same time, they were expensive. Only about 100,000 of the 18 million living in England in 1848 had their own horses. In the country, different horses would have been kept for work, carriages, or hunting, and ponies and donkeys might pull a smaller, lighter wagon, such as a dog or donkey cart, for shorter visits or hunting. In the city, most would have stabled their animals at a livery because of the care required. The majority of city dwellers, however, would have opted for renting a horse from such stables — even if they had their own carriage.
The type of carriage owned was a simple social class marker. Closed carriages held the highest status, and with a coat of arms on the side, commanded the right of way on the road. Those pulled by four horses were more prestigious than two, and one horse indicated someone from the lower middle class.
For those without horses or carriages and living in the city, the hansom cab was the go-to vehicle for private travel. Because the driver rode behind the passengers, an unmarried woman riding in one with a non-relative of the opposite sex could easily ruin her reputation. The privacy afforded the occupants permitted an unseen kiss or two.
The subtleties of the choice of transportation described in Victorian writings might be lost on the modern reader, but for the nineteenth century English person, and especially for the trained observer such as Sherlock Holmes, they provided a great deal of information about its occupants. Thus, even before a person knocked on the door of 221B, their mode of arrival said much about who would soon be ascending the stairs.
THE ORIGINS OF SCOTLAND YARD
From the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, Scotland Yard plays a prominent role. By the time Dr. Watson takes up residence with Holmes, the consulting detective is already known to the inspectors and is shortly called out on a murder case because, as Inspector Gregson admits, "It's a queer case ..., and I knew your taste for such things."
For many around the world, the name "Scotland Yard" is synonymous with the whole of British law enforcement. Despite having a more limited scope, the force that once occupied a house in front of Great Scotland Yard represented a major step forward in the professionalization of London's police force.
In 1748 Henry Fielding, a Justice of the Peace in Bow Street, hired six honest, retired parish constables and created the "Bow Street Runners" to investigate crimes and arrest suspects. This salaried detective force was the first of its kind and remains as one of his major accomplishments. The Bow Street Runners were considered so effective, Parliament established seven additional police offices based on Fielding's model in 1792.
The police system, however, remained quite fragmented until the Act of 1829 consolidated a number of different patrols and forces into a single Metropolitan Police Force for the London area outside the City itself. Robert Peel oversaw the organization of the new entity along with two other commissioners. The officers came to be known as "Bobbies" or "Peelers" (from the commissioner's name), and their offices were housed at 4 Whitehall Place. The public entrance for the station was actually in the back and opened onto an area called the "Great Scotland Yard." Over time, the area and the detective force became synonymous, and even when the force moved out of the building, the name followed them to "New Scotland Yard.
The "Scotland" of "Scotland Yard" appears to have its origins prior to the 1500s when an English King provided land to a Scottish King to build lodgings for use when visiting London. "Hostilities" between the two prevented any construction, but the land was used as an encampment by Scottish contingencies until the two countries were united under the British monarchy. The street running to the side of this yard came to be known as "Great Scotland Yard," and was attached to the police force three hundred years later.
While "Scotland Yard" elicits any number of images, from the sometimes contentious relationship between its detectives and Sherlock Holmes to a modern and efficient police force, it played a pivotal role in British efforts to protect its businesses and citizens. Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade and another nineteen detectives who appeared in the Sherlock Holmes series can all be proud of that heritage.
THE RIVER THAMES
In The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson pursue a murder suspect down the Thames in a "mad, flying man-hunt." By the late 1800s, the time of this story, the river had become a much swifter and allowed for such a high-speed chase.
Nineteenth century MP John Burns described the River Thames as "liquid history," with settlements along its banks going back to Neolithic times. The name itself is believed to be the Latin derivation Tamesis of its Celtic name Tamesas, meaning dark. At 215 miles, it runs from Cotswold, beginning as a small stream, through London, and into the North Sea.
To facilitate commercial traffic, the river has more than forty locks that raise or lower boats along the way. Some of these locks date back more than 400 years and are still operated by hand. In the late 1700s various canals were constructed to create trade routes to and from London, enriching the towns along the river as barges carried coal, wool, grain, and timber to London and other goods back to the countryside until the latter 1800s when railroads took over.
Excerpted from "The Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes"
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Table of Contents
1 - The Life of a Country Squire; 2 - Sherlock's French Connection; 3 - Inheritance and the Fate of Second Sons; 4 - John Watson, The Victorian Doctor; 5 - Getting Around in Victorian England; 6 - The Origins of Scotland Yard; 7 - The River Thames; 8 - Victorian Apiculture; 9 - A Brief History of Westminster Palace; 10 - Sherlock's Christmas Spirit; 11 - Practicing Law in Victorian England; 12 - The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 13 - Clubbing, Victorian Style; 14 - Forty-Nine References to Tobacco; 15 - A World-Famous Address; 16 - The Abductive Reasoning of Sherlock Holmes; 17 - Going to the Dogs; 18 - Name Your Poison; 19 - If It's a Print, It Must be True; 20 - Your Frontal Development is Showing; 21 - Spreading the Word; 22-London on Eleven Shillings a Day; 23 - When a Museum is More than a Museum; 24 - A True Knock-Out