Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

Picture of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from Wikimedia

Picture of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from Wikimedia

Creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle was born in Edinburgh, to an Irish Catholic family. In 1876, he began studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, and in 1877 became clerk to the noted surgeon and physician Dr Joseph Bell at the city’s Royal Infirmary. Bell’s characteristic diagnostic method involved deductions based on the patient’s background, occupation and recent activities: he would invite strangers to his lectures to demonstrate how much information he could discover by observation alone. Doyle would later portray such methods being employed by his hero Sherlock Holmes in order to solve crimes.

Doyle’s medical career seems never to have been greatly successful. He was in his early days employed as a ship’s doctor, and later worked in general practice, but on setting up by himself in Portsmouth in 1882, he could not acquire any patients. He later tried to specialise as an eye doctor in London but again failed to establish himself.

Lack of medical work allowed Doyle time to pursue his interest in writing. The novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’, his first Sherlock Holmes story, was published in 1886, and the second novel ‘The Sign of Four’ in 1890. Numerous short stories followed, featuring the detective and his friend Dr Watson, the narrator. The Sherlock Holmes character has become larger than fiction, the brilliant eccentric whose intellectual powers could overcome the most cunning plots of his criminal adversaries: ‘the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis’ (‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’), and the identification of the most mundane and overlooked details which prove crucial to the case (such as ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’, or the dog which didn’t bark, in ‘Silver Blaze’). The relationship of Holmes and Watson has equally become an enduring model in crime writing. Doyle’s prolific output included many other stories and novels, perhaps the best-known aside from Sherlock Holmes being ‘The Lost World’ (1912), in which dinosaurs are discovered still living on a plateau in South America. Doyle eventually became one of the best-paid writers of his time, thanks to the enormous popularity of Holmes.

Wearying of writing of Holmes’s adventures, Doyle attempted to end the series by the hero’s dramatic death in 1893, although he was later brought back by popular demand, the final story being issued in 1927. However, Doyle’s fame enabled him to publicise cases of miscarriage of justice (including the ‘Edalji case’ fictionalised in Julian Barnes’s novel ‘Arthur and George’) and to campaign for political causes. His campaigning contributed to the founding of the Court of Criminal Appeal in England and Wales in 1907. Doyle also lent his support to the promotion of spiritualism, to which he increasingly turned for consolation during World War I and after. His need to believe in the existence of the supernatural led most notoriously to his endorsement of the hoax photographs of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ (‘The Strand Magazine’, December 1920).

Letter to the Earl of Midleton from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 11th June 1902, SHC ref 1248/30/106/1

Letter to the Earl of Midleton from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 11th June 1902, SHC ref 1248/30/106/1

Doyle had moved to rural Surrey for the health of his first wife Louisa, who suffered from tuberculosis. ‘If we could have ordered Nature to construct a spot for us we could not have hit upon anything more perfect’, Doyle wrote of the site at Hindhead, where the house Undershaw was constructed according to his designs, and completed in 1897. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, perhaps the most famous of the Holmes stories, was written there. Doyle appears to have enjoyed becoming a part of Surrey society, accepting the post of Deputy Lieutenant of the county in 1902. The letter dated 11th June 1902 to the Earl of Midleton from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, Hindhead, is probably referring to his appointment as Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey in 1902. The headed paper from Undershaw has a crest; a rebus design of a hind’s head, and the Latin motto ‘patientia vincere’, or ‘by patience conquer’.

Photograph of Undershaw, 1908, SHC ref 6316/2470

Photograph of Undershaw, 1908, SHC ref 6316/2470

His time in Surrey was also the period in which Doyle fell in love with Jean Leckie, who was to become his second wife after Louisa’s death: the 1901 Census records Doyle with both Jean and his mother Mary at the Ashdown Forest Hotel in Sussex, rather than in residence at Undershaw. Louisa having died in 1906, Doyle left Surrey in 1907 and moved to Sussex, where he lived until his death in 1930. (Sherlock Holmes too, had retired to a life of ‘bee-farming’ on the South Downs.)

Composite image from the 1901 census showing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean E Leckie (Lechie) and Mary J Doyle at Ashdown Forest Hotel. Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk

Composite image from the 1901 census showing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean E Leckie (Lechie) and Mary J Doyle at Ashdown Forest Hotel. Image courtesy of Ancestry.co.uk. Click on the image to see a larger copy

The fictional Holmes lived at Baker Street, London, and flourished in the great variety of the metropolis, from the seedy and exotic East End, to the seats of government and fine residences of the upper classes. However, many of the Sherlock Holmes stories are set in the Home Counties, in particular Surrey and Hampshire. Holmes and Watson could most conveniently catch trains from Waterloo to arrive in pleasant suburbia or the beautiful countryside beyond, with its secluded mansions, peopled by the wealthy with their dark pasts from the wilds of the American west or the British colonies.

Stories set in Surrey:

Photograph of the countryside at Crooksbury Hill, the setting for the story ‘The Solitary Cyclist’ SHC ref 7828/2/64/68

Photograph of the countryside at Crooksbury Hill, the setting for the story ‘The Solitary Cyclist’ SHC ref 7828/2/64/68

The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ (‘Stoke Moran’ apparently based on Stoke D’Abernon). One of the greatest of the short stories, with its terrifying ex-colonial Dr Grimesby Roylott, his wandering menagerie of wild animals, and the vividly mysterious cause of death, ‘The Speckled Band!’ described with the last breath of the victim
The Reigate Puzzle
The Solitary Cyclist’ (Farnham)
The Yellow Face’ (Norbury, Croydon, then a quiet village)
The Norwood Builder

Sources held elsewhere

Haslemere Museum hold material relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Hindhead, for further details see http://www.haslemeremuseum.co.uk/index.html

For details of where archives are located relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle see the National Archives Discovery index https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/c/F70342

Portsmouth History Centre holds the Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest of papers relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Written by Isabel Sullivan