Derbyshire’s links to Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle
- Credit: Archant
Peter Seddon communes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on ‘The Case of the Derbyshire Links’
One hundred and thirty years ago in 1886 a 27-year-old doctor with writing aspirations secured a coveted publisher’s acceptance for the work of fiction which gave birth to the most famous detective in literary history. When A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle appeared in print a year later the inimitable Sherlock Holmes was empowered to solve his very first case in the public eye. Today the deductive brilliance of the ‘master sleuth’ shows no sign of waning and his global appeal has embraced new generations of fervent admirers.
Mindful of ‘Derbyshire connections’ it is a pity Doyle never expounded on the subject. But all is not lost. When the celebrated author died aged 71 on 7th July 1930 he passed to the other side a firm believer in afterlife communication. So in the spirit of the indistinct margins between reality and fiction that have always characterised the Sherlockian world, Mr Doyle has been encouraged to ‘come through’ for a Derbyshire Life exclusive!
‘They always ask me where I got the name. I scribbled down Sherrinford Holmes and Sherrington Hope and countless others – then finally Sherlock Holmes. Knowing my keenness for cricket it was later suggested by some of my followers that I had married the Derbyshire bowler Frank Shacklock – a native of Crich – to the Nottinghamshire wicket-keeper Mordecai Sherwin to create Sher-lock. They also intimated that I named Holmes’s brother Mycroft after the brilliant Derbyshire bowler William Mycroft – or else his brother Thomas another Derbyshire player.
It was not consciously done but it’s true those players were well-known to me. Indeed when Derbyshire played the MCC at Lords in June 1885 all four featured prominently on the scorecard. Soon afterwards I settled upon my characters – so perhaps my cricket subconscious was at work after all.
What I know with certitude is that Derbyshire had some very fine players around that time, one of whom, wicketkeeper William Storer, secured me my proudest sporting moment. We were both playing for MCC in August 1900 when ‘Bill’ caught a vertical skier from the great W G Grace off my own bowling – my sole wicket in first-class cricket. There was never a safer pair of hands than Storer – I was so delighted to dispatch ‘The Doctor’ that I celebrated the feat in verse. Poetry was never my strongest suit so I shan’t repeat it – save to confess that I rhymed Storer with ‘soarer’.
I am also indebted to a Derbyshire man for propelling my detective into wider public consciousness – the publisher George Newnes, a native of Matlock Bath. Having written two long Holmes adventures I decided to embark on a series of short stories and it was Mr Newnes who in 1891 published the very first A Scandal in Bohemia in his highly-popular Strand Magazine. The public became feverish for these regular offerings and it became rather a strain keeping up.
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In consequence in 1893 in The Final Problem I ‘killed off’ Sherlock Holmes to release me for other things. But it caused a veritable public outcry and in no small measure it was the persuasiveness of Mr Newnes that eventually convinced me to resurrect my most famous creation. His life resumed in The Empty House again in Strand Magazine in 1903 – fully ten years after Holmes had first ‘died’. Without such persistent Derbyshire chivvying Holmes might have enjoyed a long and leisurely retirement. But the redoubtable George Newnes kept us both at work. My Holmes short stories ultimately stretched to 56.
It was through a struggle with his enemy Professor Moriarty that Holmes met that first ‘end’ – falling to his ‘death’ at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. It is less well-known that the master-criminal Moriarty – ‘The Napoleon of Crime’ – had a lineage connected to a real felony curiously entwined with Derbyshire.
In 1876 the celebrated painting by Thomas Gainsborough of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire – then recently re-discovered after being ‘lost’ from Chatsworth House many years before – was stolen from a London gallery by an international arch criminal using the name Adam Worth. Although Worth was exposed as the thief only much later, he was greatly in the news for countless villainies at the time I created Moriarty. When later pressed on the matter by Sherlockian scholars I had to admit that James Moriarty was in many ways inspired by the cruelly-cunning Worth. I know that the painting is now again at Chatsworth where it surely belongs – you will gather that life on the other side is all-seeing.
I perhaps had the painting’s image in mind in A Case of Identity when a cruelly-deceived typist visits Holmes wearing what Watson describes as ‘a broad-brimmed hat which was tilted in a coquettish Duchess-of-Devonshire fashion over her ear.’
These passing brushes with Derbyshire remind me of the time Holmes and Watson actually journeyed there. The Adventure of the Priory School was set in what Watson called the ‘cold, bracing atmosphere of the Peak country’ out on the lonely moors close to Chesterfield. Nearby was Holdernesse Hall, seat of the Duke of Holdernesse, whose son had gone missing from the Priory. Holmes ventures out onto Lower Gill Moor and solves the mystery, his mental faculties doubtless sharpened by what he called ‘this invigorating northern air’.
I again featured Chesterfield in The Man with the Twisted Lip in which a mysterious and hideously disfigured beggar is unmasked by Holmes as the wealthy business man Neville St Clair, the son of a Chesterfield schoolmaster and a former pupil of a respected Chesterfield school. During my days as a medical student in Edinburgh I worked briefly in Sheffield, so the Peakland territory was well-known to me.
Holmes never visited Derby but it did feature in The Valley of Fear when an elusive cyclist being hunted by police had been spotted there. On another occasion I fear I may have rather offended some of the townsfolk. In The Adventure of the Three Gables Holmes is called to a house in Middlesex and asks the troubled lady owner ‘Have you some rare valuable in your home?’ When she replies ‘nothing rarer than a Crown Derby tea-set’ Holmes tersely counters ‘that would hardly justify all this mystery.’ I assure you it was never intended as a slight – Derby porcelain is among the very finest.
I should mention a Derbyshire connection that may not be widely-known on account of it not involving Sherlock Holmes. I do not mean to sound immodest in stating that I wrote prolifically on many different subjects away from the Holmes canon. The title of my short horror story The Terror of Blue John Gap might mystify many, but I would venture to suggest it strikes a very true chord with Derbyshire folk. Published in Strand Magazine in 1910, it concerns a doctor recovering from illness who goes to recuperate at a remote Derbyshire farm. In the event the caverns around Castleton delivered unexpected terrors, his encounter with a fearsome prehistoric creature precipitating his tragic death.
It was this tale that gave rise to the notion that I once stated that ‘Derbyshire is hollow’. Now I have to say I did not mean hollow in the ‘worthless’ sense – I was referring to Derbyshire’s vast network of underground voids. My character actually said: ‘All this country is hollow. Could you strike it with some gigantic hammer it would boom like a drum, or possibly cave in altogether and expose some huge subterranean sea.’ In time the story was rather forgotten but I believe it can now be had even on Kindle.
That is one of the great joys of an afterlife – never losing touch with events that come after one’s own passing. I particularly admired the way the actor Basil Rathbone portrayed Sherlock Holmes on film – he was educated at Repton School so that is something more I have Derbyshire to thank for. His time there is recorded by a plaque on his old dormitory ‘Mitre’ close to Repton Cross.
In touching on the afterlife I must talk painfully of war, for it was the personal losses I suffered as a result of the Great War which convinced me more than ever that my departed loved ones must never be out of reach. At the final counting I had lost my own son, a brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews.
Having witnessed the horrors of the trenches first-hand in 1916 I determined that men must be better protected. To that end I communicated with the Derbyshire manufacturer Ferodo in Chapel-en-le-Frith asking them to use their rubber brake-lining technology to create bullet-proof vests. They sent prototypes to my home which I approved – but the powers-that-be refused to take me seriously. That is one of my sadder links with Derbyshire – although it might have been a great one.
I trust these few reminiscences have been of some small interest – but I fear I am beginning to fade. Perhaps I may have more to tell another time….’ A.C.D. – May 2016.