Model Dwellings 5: Bossy philanthropy

So far, this series has focused on ‘philanthropic’ companies, complete with shareholders and directors, which designed and built model homes for working-class families in Victorian South London. But alongside these were other smaller-scale initiatives, also ‘philanthropic’, but operating along different lines. Being smaller, they were liable to domination by strong personalities, and in South London, in the 1880s and 1890s, two such personalities stand out: Emma Cons and Octavia Hill.

Cons and Hill were exact contemporaries. They were both born in 1838, met when young, and were lifelong friends. They both died in 1912. Neither was born into money: their families were middle-class, respectable, devoutly Christian, but somewhat down-at-heel. Neither married. Both were fired by an evangelical zeal to help the poor. Both had an endless appetite for bossing about those who got in their way. And both left considerable legacies, encompassing the National Trust, the Old Vic Theatre, Morley College, and some exquisite South London cottages.

Their forays into working-class housing began in the 1860s, when Octavia Hill persuaded John Ruskin – the John Ruskin, the writer and critic – to let her manage some slum houses in Marylebone which he owned. Hill roped in Emma Cons to help her, and together they developed their own inimitable, highly personal, approach to the relief of poverty.

They started from a conception of poverty as material, behavioural, and spiritual. They agreed that material conditions must be improved; but insisted that the poor must also be educated, guided, and if necessary bullied, out of attitudes and practices which, in their view, helped to reproduce the problem. On one hand they rejected the widespread contemporary prejudice that poor people were inherently degraded; but on the other they insisted that they themselves, bossy, Christian, self-righteous, young middle-class women, had the right and the duty to tell working-class families how they ought to live their lives.

This was the philosophy which underpinned their approach to their tenants. They called themselves ‘rent collectors’, but what they actually did was more like a combination of social work, pastoral care, and scolding – all administered while also collecting the rent. They aimed to help their tenants live ‘better’ lives but they themselves defined what ‘better’ meant; among other things, it meant abstinence from alcohol and attention to personal hygiene.

For fifteen years they pursued various housing and other charitable projects, until in 1879 Hill bought Surrey Place, a derelict cottage at the junction of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road. It was this that brought her and Cons to South London, and led to their first building project.

Emma Cons took the lead. She formed the South London Dwellings Company and engaged the architect Elijah Hoole to develop the Surrey Place site by building Surrey Lodge, a quadrangle of tenements and cottages. The layout of the tenement blocks was perhaps influenced by the standard Peabody design – Peabody Square on Blackfriars Road was only a short walk away – grouped around a central open space. The blocks’ appearance was however less utilitarian than Peabody, based on an underlying classicism but with fussy and indiscriminate Dutch, French and Gothic detail. Access was by external stair-cases and balconies. Until her death Cons herself lived in one of the cottages, right in the middle of the estate, over-seeing the lives of her tenant/neighbours. Nothing now survives of Surrey Lodge, and the site is occupied by a hotel.

From 1880, Emma and Octavia Hill took different paths. They both still held to the principle that poverty must be tackled in the round, but where Cons focused increasingly on education and entertainment, Hill sought antidotes to urban life as such.

Managing a large housing estate was apparently not enough to keep Cons busy, so she also took on the lease of a failing music-hall in Waterloo, the Royal Victoria Theatre, and set out to reinvent it as a venue for respectable entertainment (nothing bawdy or vulgar); educational improvement (‘penny lectures’ by leading writers and scientists); and wholesome refreshment (tea and coffee, no alcohol). In the heart of working-class South London, in search of a bit of a laugh, this might sound like a recipe for high-minded failure, but somehow Cons made it work. The failing music-hall morphed into the Old Vic, its façade redesigned by her favourite architect Elijah Hoole;

the penny lectures morphed into Morley College, still going strong today;

and when Cons recruited her niece Lilian Baylis to help her run the Old Vic, she unwittingly inspired the later creation of Sadlers Wells.

Octavia Hill meanwhile was still involved with working-class housing, but with an increasing focus on design and environment. We have already seen in this series that, from the 1860s onwards, there was a trend for housing projects in inner areas to take the form of tenement blocks, while projects in the suburbs took the form of cottage estates. This was largely driven by money and population density: land was cheaper in the suburbs so a more generous use of space was possible; and housing need was greater in central areas, where tenements offered a large-scale response. But from the 1880s Hill argued that tenements reproduced the problem, that they trapped people in a world of brick and mortar and noise: ” … the need of quiet, the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs, common to all … “.

Redcross Cottages and Redcross Garden, built in 1887-8 in the heart of Southwark, just off Marshalsea Road, sought to realise this vision.

Designed, of course, by Elijah Hoole, this short terrace of cottages is almost ridiculously picturesque, slightly Tudorish in its first-floor projection, a nice combination of brick, timber and tile. And the Garden facing the cottages is lovely, accessible yet secluded.

It’s a little patch of country-in-the-city – but hemmed in by modern tower-blocks, and just yards away from the Victorian tenements of Peabody’s Marshalsea Road Estate. This stark contrast between the cottages and their surroundings sums up the problem with Hill’s vision; appealing though it was, it could not address the sheer scale of London’s housing problem.

I’m sure Octavia Hill understood this, and would doubtless have argued that Redcross Cottages and Garden were no more than an exemplary model. And perhaps it was because she understood this that she moved on in the 1890s to pursue a similar goal from the opposite direction: if you can’t bring the countryside into the city, you can at least protect bits of the countryside as such, and make it easier for the city to visit from time to time. Hence her best-known legacy, the National Trust.

Model Dwellings 4: The Artizans: Two estates and a scandal

The origins of the Artizans Labourers and General Dwellings Company – ‘The Artizans’ – differed from those of the other companies covered so far in this series. It was created neither by philanthropic aristocrats nor by philanthropic businessmen. Its founder was William Austin, farm labourer, navvy, drainage contractor, teetotaller, and a passionate advocate of working-class self-improvement. In 1867, at the age of 63, with minimal capital, he got together with a few friends and colleagues to form The Artizans. Over the following decades the company would build thousands of homes – but would also descend into bitter rivalry and intrigue.

First, the housing.

The Artizans started out as a boot-strap operation, with company members sinking their own personal assets in the construction of a few houses in Rollo Street and Landseer Street near Battersea Park – both roads are now long gone, Charlotte Despard Drive occupying the space where they once stood. Austin mortgaged his own home to underwrite the job, and once the new houses were up the company had to sell them at once in order to get its money back, which it promptly reinvested in its next project. In this hand-to-mouth way it got projects off the ground, not just in London but throughout the country: Birmingham, Gosport, Liverpool, Salford, and elsewhere. In South London it is best known for two estates: the Shaftesbury Estate off Lavender Hill, and the Leigham Court Estate in Streatham.

It was the Shaftesbury Estate, designed by Austin, which made the company’s name. We have seen in previous posts that different ‘philanthropic’ housing companies had different views about the relative merits of blocks of flats and cottage estates. Thus the Peabody Trust was known for its blocks, while the Metropolitan built the first cottage estate in Penge in the 1860s, sited close to a railway station. The Artizans were also champions of the cottage-estate-with-railway-connection: the Shaftesbury Estate is only a short walk from Clapham Junction.

The site covered 40 acres and work began in 1872. The houses were solid Victorian terraces of London stock with red brick dressings. The most striking aspects of the estate’s design are its generous use of space, and its commitment to greenery. All the houses had gardens, and the streets were not only wide but were planted with trees, a real innovation for a working-class district in the 1870s. It has been suggested that the Shaftesbury was a precedent – perhaps even an inspiration? – for the garden-suburb and garden-city concepts of the early twentieth century.

Front doors were set in pairs, many with high pointed porches carrying the company’s logo and date of completion.

When finished, the estate provided 1,200 new dwellings. Not only was it the company’s biggest project to date, but it also marked its acceptance by the establishment: the foundation stone was laid by the Tory social reformer Lord Shaftesbury (hence the estate’s name), and the second phase was opened by the Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

By the time the Artizans turned its attention to the Leigham Court Estate, almost twenty years later, it was well-established. This was a large site of 66 acres, close to Streatham Hill station, and although most of the building was done in the 1890s, some dates from the 1920s.

As with the Shaftesbury, there is a generous use of space here, with wide roads and trees. The first impression is of long frontages of red brick,

but this encompasses a variety of different designs, porches, materials, mouldings and decorations. Pevsner describes the style as “faintly Jacobean”.

The 1920s houses, of course, express a very different aesthetic, the inter-war suburban style in which windows expanded, air and light trumped red-brick dignity, and stark white replaced patterned brick and mouldings.

When finished, the estate contained almost 1,000 dwellings, maisonettes, flats and houses, some of which included such luxuries as fitted baths, undreamt of in the days of the Shaftesbury.

So much for The Artizans’ South London houses. What about the rivalry and intrigue?

This takes us back to the company’s earliest years. We’ve seen that William Austin was the founder, but quite quickly another figure, William Swindlehurst, became a key player. Swindlehurst was an engineer who established himself as the company’s manager and secretary as well as being a director. He was responsible for day-to-day administration, was closely involved in the management of building projects, including purchases of land and materials, and until 1877 he seemed to be doing a good job. It was on his watch that Lord Shaftesbury was persuaded to act as patron of The Artizans, and Disraeli agreed to open the second phase of the Shaftesbury Estate.

However, in 1877 one of the company’s shareholders accused Swindlehurst and others of taking bribes from suppliers, and inflating profit estimates in order to justify excessive dividends. Among the shareholders were three Liberal MPs, Evelyn Ashley, Samuel Morley, and Thomas Brassey, all of whom joined the Committee set up to investigate the accusations.

Things very quickly got very nasty. Swindlehurst was forced to resign, and was then arrested for fraud along with two others. All three were tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty and imprisoned. Meanwhile, control of the company fell into the hands of shareholders who had taken part in the Committee of Investigation, including Evelyn Ashley.  

Swindlehurst, however, continued to protest his innocence, and published a pamphlet after his release from prison to try to clear his name. In this he admitted that he had naively accepted financial ‘gifts’ in good faith, but insisted that when he realised they had been improper, he had offered to pay them back. All well and good – but these ‘gifts’ had been enormous, equivalent to hundreds of thousands of pounds today. It seems to me that it would have required an heroic level of naivety not to suspect something dodgy.

Nevertheless, Swindlehurst put up an interesting defence against the other charge, of inflating profit estimates. He argued that his estimates had been justified given the company’s practice of managing its building projects in-house, rather than putting them out to tender and handing them over to contractors. And he pointed out that the new management, after briefly experimenting with tenders, had reverted to exactly the same practice.

There is little doubt in my mind that the whole scandal was linked to the company’s origins as an under-capitalised boot-strap operation, and to its attempts to transform itself into a reliable investment prospect. In order to attract investors, it talked up its potential profitability – whether naively, or dishonestly, we will never know. But a consequence of this talking-up was that it prompted some suppliers to offer bribes in order to secure a slice of the promised action; and it seems that some of the company’s officers found the offer impossible to resist.

There is also another, quite different but equally murky aspect to all this. The Artizans’ political support when Swindlehurst was running the company came from Tories: from Lord Shaftesbury, on the evangelical social reform wing of the party; and from Disraeli, the champion of a new cross-class alliance embracing respectable workers. Meanwhile, prominent among the shareholders who forced Swindlehurst out were three Liberal MPs, Ashley, Morley and Brassey. There seems to be a party-political angle to the whole affair, with Liberal shareholders up against a Tory manager.

And the plot thickens even further when we realise that the Liberal MP Evelyn Ashley was the son of the Tory Lord Shaftesbury! So we have not only party politics in play, but family politics too.

There is clearly a story here, begging to be told, but right now I don’t know quite what it is. At some point, when I have the time, I mean to find out …

Model Dwellings 3: Peabody

The choice between ‘blocks’ and ‘cottages’ has already come up in this series, and was a constant theme in the provision of working-class housing in nineteenth-century London. Many factors played upon it: questions of taste; architectural and philanthropic assumptions about working-class family life; land-prices; public transport. In broad terms, tenement-blocks were likely to have the edge in central, densely-populated areas where land-prices were relatively high; while cottages might be favoured further out in the suburbs, where land was cheaper, so long as transport links were good. But institutional tradition also counted, as can be seen in the case of the Peabody Trust in two very different projects: Peabody Square on Blackfriars Road in Southwark; and Peabody Cottages off Rosendale Road in Herne Hill.

Of all the nineteenth century associations set up to provide working-class housing in London, the Peabody Trust was then, and is still, the best known. The reason is simple: money. All these housing associations were more or less philanthropic, but Peabody was under-written by an act of philanthropy the sheer scale of which dwarfed the rest. In 1862, the American banker George Peabody established the Trust, funded by personal donation, to improve the living conditions of the working classes in his adopted home-city of London. His initial gift was £150,000, and the final total was £500,000 – a huge sum, equivalent to over £6 billion today. The Trust’s legal charter allowed for a range of charitable activities, but it quickly came to focus on housing.

Peabody’s early projects were all in densely-populated districts north of river, in Spitalfields, Islington, Shadwell, Westminster, and Chelsea. Henry Darbishire, the Trust’s architect from the 1860s to the 1880s, produced its characteristic design: brick blocks of tenements, typically five storeys high, arranged around a central open space, all on a scale which other associations were unable to match. Within each block, individual dwellings were organised into ‘associated’ groups with shared sculleries and toilets. And as for the tenants, Peabody’s policy was the same as that of most of the other philanthropic housing associations: it aimed to house ‘artisans’, respectable skilled workers and their families. It did not aim to house the very poor: casual labourers, chronically unemployed, or paupers.

Peabody Square

The Trust’s first venture south of the river came in 1870, when it acquired land on Blackfriars Road, a short distance north of Elephant and Castle.

The site was larger than usual, reflecting the fact that land-prices south of the river were reliably lower than those to the north, and here yet another ‘Peabody Square’ took shape.

As elsewhere the design was based on open central courts surrounded by tenement blocks, but here the site’s size allowed for two linked courts, a more imaginative arrangement and variety of blocks, and a more generous use of space.

It was generally felt that this was Peabody’s best project to date, and other South London estates followed in Camberwell, Lambeth, Southwark and Walworth. By the 1880s the Peabody Trust had a significant presence south of the river.

Peabody Cottages

For years the Trust remained wedded to the block concept, which achieved its climax in its vast estate at Pimlico, twenty-nine blocks laid out like barracks. But the cottage idea was always in the air, and eventually Peabody responded. It purchased a suburban site in Herne Hill, at the top end of Rosendale Road by Brockwell Park, and there in 1901 it constructed its first cottage-estate.

Just as the Blackfriars Road project still holds its own, so too do the Peabody Cottages. Technically of course, like most ‘artisan cottages’ of the period, they are not cottages at all but terraced houses. Essentially they share a common design, though with two choices of front entrance: either individualised; or with neighbouring doors sharing a single arched porch.

The repeated gable-ends with vertical beams hint, perhaps, at Arts & Crafts – but if so it is only the faintest of hints, for Arts & Crafts is above all picturesque, and the very fact of repetition works against it. In fact the street layout is marginally more picturesque than the architecture, a hybrid parallelogram/rectangle generating gentle but pleasing visual collisions.  

Like Peabody Square on Blackfriars Road, and like most (all?) of the other Peabody projects, the Cottages bear the Trust’s name: perhaps this relentless in-your-face branding helped establish Peabody as the nineteenth-century association which we still remember. This, plus the fact that the Trust is still alive and kicking. And, of course, all that money.

Model Dwellings 2: Five Per Cent Philanthropy

The previous post covered the earliest interventions in working-class housing in mid-nineteenth century London, by prosperous Christian philanthropists. But the sheer scale of the housing problem would always dwarf the efforts of philanthropy alone. Something else was required – a model capable of delivering practical results in a society which took laissez-faire capitalism for granted.

Hence ‘Five Per Cent Philanthropy’, an early exercise in ethical investment, a business model with a moral twist, in which investors were invited to help fund a social good in return for a modest but dependable return. The first company established specifically for this purpose was the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (‘the Metropolitan’) whose founding resolution declared it to be:

” … an association … formed for the purpose of providing the labouring man with an increase of the comforts and conveniences of life, with full return to the capitalist.”

Without this promise of a regular return, there would have been no investors, and therefore no houses. But in order to honour this promise the Metropolitan, and companies like it, were obliged to follow the money. They were obliged to prioritise their rental income, which in turn meant that they were obliged to favour not the tenants in most need, but the tenants best placed to pay their rent in full and on time. In other words, they favoured skilled workers and artisans in regular employment, whether in traditional areas such as building and decorating, or the furniture trades; or in newer occupations such as gas supply, print, or public transport. Consequently, labourers’ dwellings of the later nineteenth century were mostly aimed at these relatively prosperous workers, and not at the unskilled, casually-employed or chronically-unemployed who, according to Booth, made up nearly a third of London’s population.

The Metropolitan was formed in 1841, around the same time as the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (‘the Society’), the well-connected Christian charity discussed in the previous post. The two organisations worked closely together. Both engaged the same architect, Henry Roberts; the Society played a ‘public relations’ role promoting his designs, while the Metropolitan applied them practically through its building projects. Most of these projects were in crowded central areas where, land prices being high, it built multi-storey blocks of flats so as to maximise the number of dwellings on any given site.  

The same strategy was pursued by another ‘five per cent’ company, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (‘the Improved Industrial’), set up in 1863 by politician and philanthropist Sydney Waterlow. (His name lives on in Waterlow Park, next door to Highgate Cemetery where Karl Marx is buried). The Improved Industrial built only one project south of the river: Cromwell Buildings, a block of flats put up in Southwark in 1864.

Waterlow’s company had no formal links with the Society, but Cromwell Buildings provides a sort of connection. Its design is said to have been inspired by the Society’s ‘model lodge’, displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and then re-erected as ‘Prince Albert’s Model Lodge’ at Kennington Park (pictured in the previous post). But of the two, Cromwell is by far the finer. Not only is it on an entirely different scale, but its tiered balconies, with iron railings fronting classical arches which hint at arcades beyond, are immensely dignified. Cromwell Buildings is in a different class altogether from the lodge at Kennington.

In the mid-1860s, the Metropolitan struck off in a new direction, pioneering a trend which would become increasingly important in the following decades. Through the 1850s and 1860s, London was acquiring a dense network of suburban railways stretching out into Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. Parliament had responded to this by legislating for ‘Workmen’s Fares’, obliging the railway companies to run special early services, with cheap tickets, enabling workers to commute. The directors of the Metropolitan realised that this opened up new housing possibilities. Rather than concentrating exclusively on blocks of flats on central sites, they could start building dwellings out in the suburbs, close to railway stations, for tenants who could benefit from the Workmen’s Fares. And because land in the suburbs was cheaper than land in the centre, there was less pressure to put up multi-storey blocks of flats; instead, they could build estates of neat little workers’ cottages. An early flowering of this new approach can be seen in Penge.

The Alexandra Estate was built by the Metropolitan in the late 1860s, a few yards from Penge Station (now Penge East), on the London Chatham and Dover Railway Company’s new line from Victoria. It consists of semi-detached cottages, with entrances at the sides rather than facing the street; the brick is London stock, with modest red-brick adornment; the roofs pitched slate. Because the estate is made up of many separate buildings rather than terraces, there is room for gardens, sheds, trees and shrubs, and the whole has a distinctly village feel.

More information about its history and architecture can be found at the Alexandra Residents Association website at .

Hard on the heels of the Alexandra Estate, just three miles away, a second estate appeared, driven by the same logic. The Suburban Village and General Dwellings Company (‘the Suburban’) was set up to build working-class homes in Herne Hill, again taking advantage of the Workmen’s Fares. The Suburban’s start-up money came from families keen to acquire these new homes, who nearly lost everything when the company came close to collapse. But it was saved at the last minute when a firm of architects stepped in, and building started in 1868, along Milkwood Road, Lowden Road and surrounding streets. At the official opening in March 1869 the “first stone of the new village” was laid by Lord Shaftesbury, founder of the Society back in the 1840s – so here again we have a connection reaching back to his original philanthropic initiative.

Like the Alexandra Estate, the Herne Hill dwellings are built of stock brick with red brick dressing and slate roofs. But unlike the Alexandra, whose separate cottages made a generous use of space, the Herne Hill project aimed at a higher ratio of residents per square yard by erecting long uninterrupted terraces. Even so, it was not built to a rigidly uniform design. Many different builders were involved, and within the common theme of terraces, and stock with red brick, they delivered a fair measure of variety.

For instance: much of the rationale for terraced housing is that the repetition of party walls enables neighbouring houses to ‘mirror’ each other and to share structures and services such as chimneys and plumbing. One visible sign of this is the regular appearance of pairs of front doors, sometimes even with a single shared porch. But even within the confines of a brick-built two-storey terrace, the porch provides an opportunity for variety. So, on the Herne Hill estate, we find classical arched porches:

and pointed Gothic porches:

and even baroque porches with pediment:

There are also some bigger, three-storey houses, clearly intended for a more prosperous class of resident:

The Suburban was set up to promote this single project in Herne Hill, and unlike the Metropolitan and the Improved Industrial which built for rent, its houses were built for sale. Prices started at £200, and residents bought them outright, or by instalment, according to circumstance. Perhaps this focus on owner-occupation, plus the involvement of numerous builders with their own ambitions, explain why the original notion of housing for working-class families was eroded somewhat, and gave way to a reality which was more socially-mixed. Certainly, some of the larger dwellings were beyond the means of any working-class family, however skilled and respectable. In the early 1870s five houses on Lowden Road went onto the market for over £1,700 each, a very considerable sum.

Model Dwellings 1: Lords and Chartists

London is still, overwhelmingly, a Victorian city. Most of the railway lines, many of the public parks and green spaces, and a fair number of the roads, date from the C19th. To take Penge as an example: look at a map of the place in 1890, and then at a map of the place today, and you have to squint to spot the differences. A great many of London’s houses are Victorian too: long terraces adorned with cheap floral mouldings chosen by their long-dead builders; neat little Tudorish cottages; romantic Gothic villas. For me, they are a constant joy.

But the brutal truth is that the Victorian houses which survive are a skewed and flattering sample, because this was also a time of jerry-built tenements, of dank courts and rookeries, long since demolished. In the 1890s Charles Booth and his team of social geographers found that about 30% of London’s population, 1.3 million people, lived in poverty, many close-packed in over-crowded slums.

From the 1840s onwards, there was a series of interventions intended to tackle the scandal of working-class housing in London; a series of projects, often referred to as ‘model houses’ or ‘model dwellings’, many of which survive. To visit these buildings today is always fascinating, and sometimes quite moving. But to appreciate them fully we need to understand by whom, and why, they were built.

For those who like to attach neat labels to historical periods, the 1830s and 1840s were the age of the Reform Act, or of Young Victoria, or of the first railways – or, perhaps, the age of the Chartists.


The Chartists were Britain’s first mass working-class movement, sparked by a sense of betrayal by the limited changes to the Parliamentary franchise in 1832. The central demands of the ‘People’s Charter’ were universal male suffrage, secret ballots, and annual Parliaments. But the Chartists also supported strikes, generated a vast radical literature, and launched their own ‘Land Plan’ to settle urban working-class families on self-managed rural estates. The movement combined diligent constitutionalism and polite petitioning with industrial action and proto-revolutionary outrage.

Ruling class responses to Chartists and other radicals took many forms, from straightforward repression, through attacks in the press, to ‘softer’ initiatives intended to persuade workers of the good intentions of their social betters. Among these was the ‘Labourers’ Friend Society’ formed by Lord Ashley, an evangelical Tory aristocrat who later became Lord Shaftesbury and won fame as a champion of social reform. Ashley sought harmony. He accepted the established social order, but he also believed that the wealthy had a Christian duty to help the poor. So for instance, the Labourers’ Friend Society’s encouraged philanthropic landowners to offer plots of land for working-class allotments.

In this, it faced direct opposition from Chartists who did their best to persuade people to refuse such offers. Chartism had inherited a strong streak of agrarian utopianism from its radical forebears stretching back to the seventeenth century. The Chartist Land Plan reflected this, with its vision of factory proletarians transformed into self-sufficient yeomen. So Chartists were very keen on working-class allotments, but they wanted allotments as a right, not as a matter of upper-class charity. Hence their hostility to the Labourers’ Friend Society.

‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’

In 1844, the Labourers’ Friend Society transformed itself into the ‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’, and set about recruiting prestigious sponsors and supporters. Lord Ashley was still a central figure, and by 1850 more than sixty Lords, Earls, Viscounts, Archbishops, MPs and others were publicly associated with the Society, whose Patron was Queen Victoria, and whose President was Prince Albert.

The new Society set itself the task of building ‘model dwellings’ for the ‘labouring classes’, and engaged the architect Henry Roberts to come up with a portfolio of designs. Roberts defined the Society’s “important object” as:

“the erection and completion of one model of each description of building … and … the demonstration that such buildings may … be made to yield a fair return on the outlay”.

In other words the Society was a charitable pump-primer for commercial investment, seeking to prove that building houses for working-class tenants could be a profitable venture. Its model projects in London included family blocks at Lower Road in Pentonville and Streatham Street in Bloomsbury; lodging houses at Drury Lane, George Street and Hatton Gardens; and an asylum for destitute sailors at Dock Street.


In 1848, the year of revolution across Europe, the Chartists embarked on their last great campaign. They collected an enormous petition demanding franchise reform, and called a mass rally on Kennington Common, a regular meeting place, as the prelude to a march intended to deliver the petition to Parliament.

The Government anticipated mass violence or an armed insurrection, but none occurred. The petition was ignored, and the whole episode is often cited as Chartism’s final defeat, though this was far from clear at the time, and the movement continued its agitation through the 1850s.

For instance, Chartist hostility to the old Labourer’s Friend Society was carried over to its successor, the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes. G.W.M. Reynolds, author of popular melodramas, editor of Reynolds’s Weekly News, and a voluble Chartist, descended on the Society’s annual meeting in 1850 with a few comrades, tried to speak, protested vigorously when he was prevented, and was assaulted by one of the peers on the platform. The incident was portrayed as an appalling example of radical vulgarity in the mainstream press, and as an appalling example of aristocratic bullying in the Chartist press. With heavy sarcasm, Reynolds used his own paper to summarise the Society’s real message:

“Working men, this Society is doing all it can for you, and you must go down on your knees and thank the disinterested noblemen and kind-hearted gentlemen who are taking so much trouble on your behalf … Whatever we do for you is for motives of pure philanthropy … Be obedient, docile, submissive and follow our advice in all things without venturing to have an opinion of your own … ”

The following year, 1851, was the year of the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. Prince Albert played a leading role in its organisation, and given that he was also President of the Society, it had no difficulty in securing space at the Exhibition to showcase a ‘model lodge’ designed by Roberts, an ideal home capable of housing four working-class families. The style was mildly Tudor, which was also the favoured contemporary style for alms-houses. When the Exhibition was over the great glass pavilion of the ‘Crystal Palace’ was dismantled and brought to South London to be re-erected at Penge Place, and many exhibits came with it.

Kennington re-defined

But not the model lodge. The model lodge was dismantled and re-erected, but not at Penge. Instead, and uniquely, it was placed in Kennington. More specifically, it was placed on the site of the former Kennington Common, because from 1852 this edgy radical gathering-place, firmly associated in the public mind with mass meetings of Chartists, was transformed into Kennington Park.

Whether by design or accident, this was a powerful act of symbolic appropriation; the erasure of a longstanding informal gathering place with radical associations, and its replacement by a formal space structured to enable not public political passion, but polite private leisure. And the appropriation was completed by the presence of the Society’s model lodge bearing Prince Albert’s name, planted on the very ground which Chartists had once made their own.

South London Holmes: Whisper Norbury in my ear

This is the ninth and last of my series of posts on ‘South London Holmes’, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s constantly recurring use of South London as the setting for Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. Over the course of the sixty Holmes stories, Doyle sends the detective to South London more frequently than to any other single vicinity. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been remarked upon before. If you know better, please get in touch.

Times and places

Brixton is by far Holmes’s most-visited place in South London. It plays a significant role in the very first tale, the (brilliant) A Study in Scarlet published in 1887; in one of the very last, the (lame) The Veiled Lodger written forty years later; and in three other stories in the intervening years: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Naval Treaty, and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. It also crops up in passing in other stories, such as The Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of Black Peter, as a quick way of identifying the social standing of particular characters. Brixton was, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an expanding middle-class and skilled-working-class suburb, and Doyle returned constantly to it because he judged that its modest and diligent respectability provided a nicely ironic backdrop for his tales of passion, greed and violence.

Norwood and Lee are equal-second in popularity. Each appears in the first batch of stories written in the 1890s: Norwood in The Sign of Four, Lee in The Man with the Twisted Lip. And each appears again when Doyle resurrected Holmes in the early 1900s: Norwood in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and Lee in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.

Other locations appear only once. Grouped chronologically, they are:

The early stories of the 1890s: Beckenham (The Greek Interpreter), Croydon (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box), Norbury (The Yellow Face), Streatham (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet).

The ‘resurrection’ stories of the 1900s: Chislehurst (The Adventure of the Abbey Grange), Kennington (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons), Woolwich (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans).

The late stories of the 1920s: Kingston (The Adventure of the Illustrious Client), Lewisham (The Adventure of the Retired Colourman).  

Overall, about 30% of the Holmes short stories include South London settings, more than any other locality. The second most popular arena is the West End or “fashionable London”, flexibly defined to include 221B Baker Street. Next come the Home Counties, especially country houses in Sussex or Surrey. And there are one or two tales set in the City of London, and the East End.

The paucity of East End locations is especially interesting, because it was only a year after the publication of A Study in Scarlet that Jack the Ripper made his appearance in Whitechapel. Once the Ripper murders had taken place, Doyle could easily have homed in on the East End as a regular setting for his stories. He had already staked out his claim to write London-based tales of criminal detection, and fate had now provided him with a locality indelibly associated in the public mind with the most horrific crime, so it must have been tempting to cash in on this association. But he did not. He decided to set most of his stories not among London’s poor, but among its respectable middle and upper classes. This was a narrative choice rather than an expression of social conscience, and possibly reflected nothing more than a preference to focus on a social milieu with which he, and his intended readers, were familiar. Nevertheless it was an important choice, because from it emerged the Holmes, and the Watson, that we know. Holmes would not be Holmes, nor Watson Watson, had Doyle chosen differently.

Domestic drama

If I were to suggest that many, even most, of the Holmes tales were essentially domestic dramas, I think most Holmes readers would instinctively rebel. They would do so for two reasons.

Firstly: we all tend to associate Holmes with forensic skill, a talent for close observation, for analysing that observation, and for drawing inferences from the analysis. It is this talent which constantly astonishes Watson (and, in the process, underpins our affection for him). And yet: a possible consequence of this focus on physical process is to deflect our attention from questions of human agency and motivation.

Secondly: we all tend to associate Holmes with crime, complex crime, high-concept crime requiring high-concept detection. Professor Moriarty is a key figure here, Holmes’s arch-enemy, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, a perverse genius lurking at the centre of a web of evil. And yet: however darkly attractive Moriarty may be, he only crops up in two or three tales. Most of Holmes’s adventures have nothing whatsoever to do with organised crime.

Instead, if we look at the stories themselves; if we push to one side Holmes’s forensic skills; if we concentrate instead on the circumstances and motivations behind the crimes and mysteries which he investigates; then time after time we find ourselves looking not at high-concept crime, but at domestic drama. Of sixteen South London stories, no fewer than twelve feature family or sexual tension or jealousy.  

Misunderstanding or deception between husband and wife is the driving factor in The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Yellow Face, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, and The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.

Jealousy and lust for revenge on the part of rejected lovers fuel the drama in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and The Adventure of the Illustrious Client; while jealousy and lust for revenge between rival suitors is the motivation in A Study in Scarlet.  

A daughter’s concern for her father is the starting point for The Sign of Four; and misunderstanding between father and son provides the pathos in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.

Even the two tales of espionage and treason, quintessentially high-concept affairs in which Holmes successfully staves off national disaster, involve family betrayals: betrayal of brother-in-law by brother-in-law in The Naval Treaty, and of brother by brother in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

To conclude: when we strip away the forensic paraphernalia of blood-stains and cigar-ash, of hat-bands and walking-sticks, we find that Sherlock Holmes’s real function is to reveal the family as a reservoir of discontent, passion and violence.

Whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear

I finish with the final lines of The Yellow Face, the setting for which is Norbury. This is a subtle little tale of inter-racial marriage and a mixed-race child. Surprisingly, it has a happy ending, but we only reach it after Holmes has misinterpreted the evidence, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and generally messed up. However, he has the grace to admit his errors to Watson:

“Watson” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear and I shall be infinitely obliged to you”.

‘Whisper Norbury in my ear’. A poignant note on which to end: mildly ridiculous, somewhat touching, and undeniably South London.

South London Holmes: Strangers, Aliens & Conspiracies

Holmes (2)

On the first page of A Study in Scarlet, the first-ever Holmes story, first-person narrator John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, describes London as:

“ … that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”.

This is a powerful and pungent metaphor, coined by Doyle before he himself had ever lived in London at all. Over the course of the many Holmes stories which he wrote over the following decades, he constructed a version of London which is rather more subtle than a cesspool – but even so, the essential insight remained. Whether expressed in terms of drainage, or magnetism, or greed, or necessity, Holmes’s London is a centre of attraction. People of all types and conditions from across the globe are drawn to it, and bring with them their various devices and desires. And from these arise certain odd little problems which Holmes is called upon to solve.

There are two themes here which I want to explore: Doyle’s use of outsiders, of strangers and aliens, in the South London Holmes stories; and his association of these outsiders with secret societies and conspiracies.

Strangers and aliens

All detective fiction starts from a mystery, a problem demanding solution, intended to prick the reader’s interest. When the mystery is given a setting which is familiar to the reader, a setting which is comforting or homely, then the story may provoke a pleasurably unsettling shiver of estrangement. We twenty-first century readers of the Holmes stories miss this. We read them not because their late Victorian and Edwardian settings are familiar, but precisely because they are not; to us, the setting is as enticing as the mystery. But Doyle wrote these stories not for us but for his contemporaries. For them, the familiarity of the setting was at odds with the strangeness of the mystery, and this contradiction created the potential for a narrative charge, a shock, which is not available to us.

Doyle was a product of the Victorian British middle class, and his intended readers were also members of that middle class. Most of the Holmes tales were written between the late 1880s and the start of the First World War, and middle-class normality and received ideas of those years, middle-class ideology, was Doyle’s starting point, the standard against which he posited his mysteries. And an obvious source of mystery, then as now, is the stranger, the outsider, the person who is present but is not one of us – which in the Holmes stories means to say, not a member of the late Victorian and Edwardian British middle class.

The Empire, with its many peoples, was a ready source of outsiders: in The Sign of Four we meet three Sikhs and an Andaman Islander; and in The Man with the Twisted Lip a “sallow Malay” and “rascally lascar” in the London docks. People of colour are regularly portrayed in the Holmes stories as frightening or ugly in appearance, a casual racism which reminds us that these stories were written by a white, middle-class man for white, middle-class readers.

Alongside this racist description is an occasional theme of honour. It appears, for instance, in The Sign of Four, where the Sikhs are faithful to their oath, and Tonga the Andaman Islander is mourned by Jonathan Small as an honourable friend:

“He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate”.

This does not cancel or excuse the racist description, but it qualifies it. It adds another dimension to these fictional figures, it moves them beyond mere stereotype and invests them, at least in a preliminary way, with some vestige of personality and agency.

The USA was another source of outsiders which Doyle drew upon repeatedly. A Study in Scarlet tells of a murder in Brixton triggered by a marital feud in Utah. The back-story to The Yellow Face, set in Norbury, is an inter-racial marriage in Atlanta, Georgia. And there are other tales falling outside our South London remit which also refer to America, and also tell of sexual or marital dispute or disaster: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Valley of Fear. I’m not sure why Doyle repeatedly associated America with sexual rivalry and dispute, but he did; maybe there’s a PhD in here somewhere, but I’m not the one to write it.

Continental Europeans, and people of European descent, are another obvious category of stranger, and here we see Doyle making use of off-the-shelf national and ethnic tropes which his readers will recognise and with which they will feel comfortable. Latins and Greeks, for instance, are conventionally passionate and prone to extravagant acts of revenge, as seen in both The Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge. In the very last paragraph of the former tale, we learn that the Greek heiress Sophy has had her fatal revenge upon the two Englishmen who killed her brother. And the convoluted plot of Wisteria Lodge turns on an assassination attempt by Latin American conspirators against their former dictator; they fail, but again we learn, on the final page, that a subsequent attempt has succeeded and that “justice, if belated, had come at last”.

The equally conventional contrast between passionate southern Europeans and phlegmatic northern Europeans is vividly drawn in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, when Holmes and Watson visit the works where busts of Napoleon are made. The manager is German, “big, blond” with “blue Teutonic eyes”, friendly and helpful, only roused to anger when reminded of a former worker, the Italian Beppo, who knifed a colleague. Beppo, meanwhile, is a very different character, a creature of greed and passion, “an alert, sharp-featured simian man”.

This portrait of the affable German is not, however, Doyle’s last word. History matters here. As stressed above, most of the Holmes stories were written in the twenty-five years before the First World War. For much of this period, there was no popular sense in Britain that Germans were enemies, and certainly no sense of national rivalry with Germany equivalent to the historic rivalry with France. But as tensions mounted from the turn of the century, there was a growing unease, and we can see this reflected in the Holmes stories.

In The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, published in 1904, perceptions were still relaxed enough to allow for the German workshop manager to be portrayed as a genial figure. But by 1908 things were more tense: Britain was now openly aligned with France against Germany, and a public Anglo-German naval arms race was under way. The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans, published in that year, concerns the theft of top-secret naval documents from Woolwich Arsenal. Holmes is called in by his brother Mycroft to work on the case, and Mycroft provides him with details of the three foreign agents in London who are most likely to be involved: one (La Rothière) has a French name, while two (Meyer and Oberstein) have German names. Holmes quickly identifies Oberstein as the agent responsible.

Finally, there is the case of the missing Jews. From 1881 Britain and other countries were confronted with large-scale refugee migration as thousands of Jews came west, fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland. Many headed for the USA, but about 150,000 settled in Britain, especially in London, around Whitechapel. Inevitably they suffered racist abuse, and inevitably there was public discussion including old and new anti-semitic slanders. The debate on Jewish immigration was live at exactly the time when the Holmes stories were being written and yet, strangely, Jewish characters hardly figure within them.

I can think of only one such appearance in the South London stories, a minor and unhappy one. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Holmes takes Watson for lunch at an hotel in Croydon, and “with great exultation” tells Watson how he paid less than £3 to “a Jew broker in Tottenham Court Road” for a Stradivarius violin worth at least 500 guineas. Holmes is gleeful not merely because he got a bargain, but because he got a bargain from a Jew; all the age-old fables of Jewish usury and sharp practice lurk within the anecdote. It reflects no credit on Holmes as a character, or on Doyle as his creator.


Like most of us, Doyle liked secrets. And like some of us, he liked conspiracies. He liked the idea of secret societies, sinister cabals of murky miscreants, using plots and passwords and codes to achieve their criminal aims and upset society’s natural order.

In the Holmes stories, although these conspiracies are acted out in London, they are not of London. They originate elsewhere. Conspiracy is something done by outsiders, and London itself is the setting, but not the cause, of their mischief. It is no accident that the greatest conspirator of all, Holmes’s arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ who directs the activities of the under-world as a conductor directs an orchestra, has an Irish name. So too does his brutal side-kick Colonel Moran.

The South London Holmes stories offer a range of examples of conspiracy as an exotic import. A Study in Scarlet brings in a religious conspiracy from the USA; The Sign of Four, a compact between thieves from India; The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, theft and murder by members of the Mafia (which is oddly described by Lestrade as “a secret political society”); and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, a failed plot to assassinate a South American dictator. London hosts these intrigues, or attracts those seeking refuge from them, but it does not initiate them.

The great attraction of conspiracies, both in fiction and in life, is that they reduce the complex to the simple. They posit a world in which the common-sense of everyday life, where individual decisions have identifiable consequences, also applies beyond everyday life; a world in which economic and political trends and processes are explained not by collective agencies or interpretive categories or complex systems, but simply by sinister individuals manipulating events. Conspiracies are satisfying because they are consistent with everyday experience (we all know manipulative people); they grant a gratifying sense of hard-headed realism to the believer (those clever-dicks think it’s all about dysfunctional systems, but I know it’s all about a Bad Man); and they suggest easy solutions (solve the problem by finding and removing the Bad Man).

Hence Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls. By 1892 Doyle was fed up with Holmes and wanted to move on to other writing projects. He sought to get rid of the detective by writing a final story featuring a doubly-fatal encounter between Holmes and the master of criminal conspiracy, Professor Moriarty. The Final Problem, published in 1893, killed off both of them, and set Doyle free of Holmes for the next decade. He only resumed the tales in 1903, in response to a generous financial offer which he felt unable to refuse.

The Final Problem was a neat solution to Doyle’s personal frustration as a writer, but it involved a shameless narrative sleight of hand, because this is the first that we have ever heard of Moriarty and his vast criminal conspiracy. There is no mention of any of this in the twenty-odd preceding stories. It is only within The Final Problem itself that we learn (a) that Moriarty exists, (b) that he is the arch-conspirator behind much of London’s crime, (c) that there is to be a show-down between him and Holmes, and (d) that both of them die. Doyle retro-fits the Moriarty conspiracy onto Holmes’s career as a detective, for the express purpose of bringing it to a clean and simple end – for if the Bad Man is dead, then the conspiracy must be over, and if the conspiracy is over, then there is nothing significant left to detect.

It follows that, when Doyle revived Holmes a decade later in The Adventure of the Empty House, he was also forced to revive the conspiracy in the homicidal form of Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s associate, hell-bent on revenge.


South London Holmes: The Adventure of the Cardboard Box


The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is one of my favourite Holmes stories, for three reasons. 

Firstly, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only Holmes story which features Penge. Admittedly there are only a couple of brief mentions, identifying it as the previous home of one of the characters, but nevertheless there it is. Penge’s existence in the world of Sherlock Holmes is officially acknowledged.

Secondly, the story is set in Croydon, also close to my heart. As usual, Doyle gives us a fictional address – Cross Street – but in the course of the story we learn that Cross Street is five minutes’ walk from the railway station at which Holmes and Watson arrive; and that it is about a mile from Wallington. This means that Holmes and Watson must have arrived at West Croydon Station, travelling down on the line from London Bridge; and that Cross Street must be somewhere south and west of the station, towards Waddon.

Map - Cardboard Box

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Thirdly, and most importantly, as a story The Cardboard Box is strange, awkward, and unbalanced. And it is the subject of a minor mystery which is, I believe, inseparable from this awkwardness. 

The twenty-five year delay 

The mystery is simply stated: why did Doyle withhold book publication for twenty-five years? 

He wrote The Cardboard Box in the summer of 1892, during his first year in his new home in Tennison Road, South Norwood. These were still early days in Doyle’s career as a writer, and he was working hard to build on the success of his first Sherlock Holmes tales. Several of these had South London settings, including the two novellas which introduced Holmes and Watson, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four; and some early short stories including The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, and The Man with the Twisted Lip.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was one of several tales which Doyle turned out during that summer. Like the others, it was published soon after in the Strand Magazine, which gave it brief public exposure. But while the other short stories written at this time were quickly re-published as a collection in book form, as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle withheld The Cardboard Box. It was only published in book form twenty-five years later, in the collection entitled His Last Bow. Why?

One possibility is that Doyle felt that the story was simply too gruesome. Its title refers to a cardboard box containing two freshly severed human ears, delivered by post to a respectable elderly lady living in Croydon. Personally I think this is great: the juxtaposition of almost comic grotesquerie and suburban primness is a delight. But, possibly, Doyle felt differently.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that his reticence sprang from a fear that the theme, a double-murder provoked by female sexual jealousy, would be considered too racy. I’m not convinced, because he had already written several stories in which he was willing to court mild scandal in his approach to sexual themes. For instance, the back-story to A Study in Scarlet is a lurid vision of Mormonism in Utah, which he portrays as a proto-Gilead, a totalitarian patriarchy with strong implications of institutionalised sexual violence. Meanwhile, in a very different vein, Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia is positively celebrated for her glamour, intelligence and chutzpah, while making it perfectly clear that she is a high-class courtesan.

I think there is a third, more convincing explanation.

Browner’s version 

Holmes finds this case remarkably easy to solve; in fact he wraps it up in a single morning and goes off with Watson for a pleasant little lunch in a Croydon hotel. But we as readers only learn the full story – or at least a version of it – when the murderer, Browner, is arrested and makes his confession. Briefly summarised, it goes as follows:

The respectable retired lady in Croydon to whom the cardboard box is delivered is Miss Susan Cushing, the eldest of three sisters. Her circumstances – she was a landlady when she lived in Penge, and can afford a young servant girl in her house in Croydon – suggest that the Cushings are lower middle class. The youngest sister Mary has stepped somewhat beneath her social station to marry James Browner, a steward on a passenger ship (Holmes calls him “a man of limited education”). The couple go to live in Liverpool where his work is based. All is well until the unmarried middle sister, Sarah, comes for a visit and takes a fancy to her brother-in-law. Browner rejects her. She seeks revenge by driving a wedge between the married couple, and by encouraging Mary to take up with another man, before returning to Croydon. Browner, who had ‘taken the pledge’ and forsworn strong drink when he married Mary, returns to the bottle, and in a drunken rage murders his wife and her supposed lover. Blaming Sarah for the whole catastrophe, he then posts the victims’ ears to what he believes to be her address, as a way of punishing and horrifying her. But the address is not hers, and the ghastly package is delivered instead to her blameless sister Susan.

Doyle clearly intends us to accept this tale, Browner’s tale, as a reliable account of this claustrophobic, over-heated, intensely domestic tragedy. In this account Browner admits the murder, but insists that the blame for it lies with Sarah, who is incapable of controlling either her passion for him, or her jealousy and spite once rejected.

A complex tale, too simply told

But there is a problem here. Doyle has been too clever for his own good. He has constructed a rich and complex situation, replete with sexual and psychological tension, capable of supporting extended treatment at least in the form of a novella. But he has done so within the confines of a short story, which he needs to bring to a conclusion. He therefore tries to square the circle by ignoring all the complexities which he himself has put in play, and by opting for a single one-dimensional version of events which has the advantage of boiling down to a familiar maxim that many readers will recognise and with which they will feel comfortable: ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’.

We can perhaps dramatise the inadequacy of this strategy through a comparison with another work. There is a remarkable similarity of plot between The Cardboard Box and Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. In both cases a younger sister marries an attractive man from a lower social class. In both cases an unmarried older sister comes to stay. In both cases there is a sexual/social uneasiness between husband and older sister. And both cases result in an explosion of male violence. Streetcar is of course an incomparably finer and more sensitive work than The Cardboard Box – but would that still be true if Streetcar’s story were told exclusively from the point of view of Stanley Kowalski? If all the intricate detail of Blanche DuBois’s life, its yearning and self-delusion, were reduced to his understanding of it? I ask because that is, in effect, what we get in The Cardboard Box; a version of complex events as understood by a male participant ill-equipped to grasp their meaning, and with a motive to pin blame elsewhere.

Browner insists that the blame lies with Sarah: she propositioned him, and her efforts to alienate Mary from him were revenge for his rejection of her. But the bald facts are equally consistent with a very different version of events in which he propositions Sarah, and she rejects him, so that her efforts to alienate Mary from him become the actions of a loving sister who knows her brother-in-law to be a faithless sexual predator.

Sarah Cushing’s silence

Of course there is no ‘true’ or ‘correct’ version, because this is just a story, a fiction. But the point is this: in both versions, Sarah Cushing has agency. Her choices and her actions alter the emotional geometry of the household in Liverpool and thus drive the story forward. Whether out of revenge or out of sisterly love, Sarah has agency. Browner however has none. He is a cipher. His response to the train of events set in motion by Sarah is simply to revert to type; to resort to the bottle and to violence fuelled by the bottle.

I think that this may explain the twenty-five-year delay in book publication. The Cardboard Box is ‘unbalanced’, and the source of its unbalance is the mis-match between content, and narrative voice. Doyle has created a complex web of domestic relations and he has – perhaps inadvertently – established Sarah Cushing as the key character, the key actor. And yet he does not place her centre-stage, and he does not give her a voice, because this would complicate his attempt to tell a straightforward short story of detection. So he condemns Sarah Cushing to silence, and gives a voice instead to the unsatisfactory figure of Browner.

The overall result is awkward and off-balance. We know that we have been told a rich, intriguing and tragic tale, but we have heard it from the wrong person, and we are left with a lingering sense of unfinished business.

I suspect that Doyle was aware of the awkwardness, aware that there was something about this story that didn’t quite work, and that this was why he delayed book publication for a quarter of a century.

South London Holmes: Lee

The man with the twisted lip

Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

Two Sherlock Holmes stories involve Lee in Kentish south-east London. In one it is a significant location, while in the other it serves to signify a certain social type. Neither presents Lee in a flattering light, offering it to us as a place where suburban middle-class respectability becomes either deceitful or pompous.

When he wrote the first Lee story Doyle had only just moved to London and he probably knew very little about the place. But there were plenty of guides and gazetteers, including Edward Walford’s Old & New London published in the late 1870s. According to him, Lee was:

“ … a favourite place of residence for City merchants and men of business … ”.

This had been the case since the 1860s, when the South Eastern Railway arrived and built Lee Station, with a direct connection to the new terminus at Cannon Street. According to Walford this sparked a building frenzy:

“ … every available plot of ground has been covered with terraces of detached and semi-detached villas and genteel cottages for their accommodation; and such names as Belmont Park, Manor Park, Dacre Park, Grove Park, &c., in which the more respectable class of houses are built, imparts a somewhat pretentious air to the locality”.

Lee map #2 (2)

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

The Man with the Twisted Lip

This genteel suburb, favoured by City gents, was a key location in The Man with the Twisted Lip. Doyle wrote it in the summer of 1891, as he was settling in to his new home in Tennison Road, South Norwood, and sent it off to the Strand Magazine, which promptly commissioned six more tales and raised his fee from £35 to £50 per story. It’s no wonder that the Strand was impressed, because this is one of the most complex yarns in the Holmes canon, narratively sly and morally troubling.

The central figure is Neville St. Clair, who lives with his wife and children at The Cedars, Lee: “a large villa which stood within its own grounds”. He appears to be a wealthy and successful businessman and he commutes to the City daily by train. But one day his wife, on a private errand of her own, catches sight of him in Upper Swandam Lane: “ … a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge”.

Lee map #1

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Topographically this is not far from the offices and counting-houses where St. Clair might be expected to conduct his business. But socially it is a world away, a haunt of thieves and opium addicts, dangerously cosmopolitan to a visitor from prim Lee, inhabited as it is by “sallow Malays” and “rascally lascars”.

Believing that her husband must have been abducted, Mrs. St. Clair – “by rare good fortune” – runs into a troop of policemen who happen to be patrolling the neighbourhood. They break into the room where her husband had been, but he has disappeared. Instead, they find a “crippled wretch of hideous aspect”, Hugh Boone, a professional beggar well-known in the City. St. Clair’s abrupt disappearance looks like foul play, and Boone is arrested on suspicion of his murder.

At this point Mrs. St. Clair brings in Holmes to solve the mystery. Holmes in turn brings in Watson after bumping into him in an opium den in Upper Swandam Lane, where Holmes is masquerading as an addict, and Watson is on a mission of mercy. (Since this story is set during the period of Watson’s marriage, Doyle requires a bit of narrative licence to get them back together, and a chance meeting in an opium den serves as well as any other).

The mystery is therefore set up for us around a pattern of binary oppositions stemming from two opposed worlds: Lee (safe, domestic, wholesome, British, middle-class) is set against Upper Swandam Lane (dangerous, feral, filthy, foreign, lumpen); St. Clair (upright businessman) is set against Boone (disfigured beggar); and the respectable, legitimate business of the City is set against the criminal business of begging and murder.

But all these binaries are misdirections. As the story unfolds we discover that there are not two worlds, but only one. Boone is neither St. Clair’s abductor nor his murderer – Boone is St. Clair. He arrives every day by train in the guise of St. Clair, changes in Upper Swandam Lane into the guise of Boone, and makes his way to his regular pitch on Threadneedle Street to start his day’s begging, because it is begging that has made him rich. Once his ruse has been exposed, St. Clair reveals that he was previously a newspaper reporter, and in the course of researching a story on begging he decided to act the part himself for a day – and was astonished to find how much money he took: “You can imagine how hard it was to settle down to arduous work at £2 a week when I could earn as much in a day by smearing my face with a little paint, laying my cap on the ground, and sitting still.”

Lee and Upper Swandam Lane belong to the same world, for the prosperity of the former requires the presence of the latter. Upright St. Clair and disreputable Boone are one and the same. And the respectable business of the City joins hands with the demeaning business of begging in their common pursuit of money.

This is a moral tale of sorts, but it is peddling two distinct and contradictory moral codes. Firstly, by setting up St. Clair as a respectable City businessman, and then revealing that his business is to beg in the guise of Boone, it punctures the City’s pretensions and exposes its money-grubbing for what it is. Boone’s pitch on Threadneedle Street – the very heart of the City, the home of the Bank of England – is no accident. And by extension, the story also exposes Lee and all the other prim suburbs whose prosperity springs from this money-grubbing.

But alongside this is another, nastier moral, highlighted by the fantastic figure of a wealthy beggar. The story suggests that begging is a rational career choice leading to a villa in the suburbs; that far from being the last resort of the desperate it is a cynical scam; that the appearance of poverty is just an act; and, in effect, that poverty itself is voluntary. Plenty of affluent folk entertained these vile, self-serving fantasies in Doyle’s day, just as plenty do today. But it is depressing to find Doyle himself promoting them.

The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge

Lee plays a different role in the 1908 story The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge. It is never visited, only referred to, but the references are essential in establishing the nature of a key character.

The story opens with Mr. John Scott Eccles, of Popham House, Lee, bursting in upon Holmes and Watson to beg their help in making sense of his extraordinary experiences of the previous night. Hard on his heels comes Inspector Gregson of the Yard, in search of the same Mr. Eccles, who is the prime suspect in a case of murder.

This is of one Doyle’s exotic conspiracies, a dark tale of Latin American brutality and revenge, secret messages and assassinations, with a bit of voodoo thrown in for good measure. Eccles’s role in all of this can be summed up quite simply; he is a useful idiot.

Eccles is the epitome of the dull, middle-aged English bourgeois: “From his spats to his gold-rimmed spectacles he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree.”

And yet we learn that this dull and unprepossessing character has been befriended by Aloysius Garcia, a lively and attractive young man, who actively seeks out Eccles’s company, and invites him to stay at his house near Esher. Once there, however, Eccles finds Garcia unfriendly and uncommunicative. He retires to bed, disgruntled, only to be woken in the night by Garcia who tells him, for no good reason, that the time is one o’clock. Eccles goes back to sleep, and awakes to find himself alone in the house, Garcia and servants having disappeared. Furious at having apparently been the butt of some practical joke, Eccles hastens to Holmes in search of an explanation, where he is met by Inspector Gregson who tells him that Garcia’s body has been found and that he, Eccles, is suspected of his murder.

You have, of course, worked out why Eccles was invited to Esher; he was invited to give Garcia an alibi. His function was to witness to Garcia’s presence in the house at one o’clock in the morning. And for that purpose his dull and unimaginative conservatism was a positive asset. As Holmes puts it: “I see no charm in the man. He is not particularly intelligent … Has he any one outstanding quality? I say that he has. He is the very type of conventional British respectability, and the very man as a witness to impress another Briton”.

It turns out that Garcia’s intention, having established his alibi with Eccles, is to assassinate the fugitive former dictator of his home country, who is living incognito close by. But the plan goes wrong, and Garcia himself is killed instead.

There are not many figures of fun in the Holmes stories, but John Scott Eccles, “gray-whiskered and solemnly respectable” with “heavy features and pompous manner”, is one of them. A pillar of convention, charmless, unintelligent, monumentally respectable, and a resident of Lee: the perfect candidate to serve as a useful idiot in the subtle designs of cleverer folk.


Taking the two stories together, it has to be said that Doyle is not kind to Lee. In each tale he uses it to signal an unattractive variant of middle-class respectability: in the first case, bogus respectability; and in the second, dull respectability. To paint Lee in such colours is arguably unfair, but it serves no purpose to complain. They are, after all, just stories.

South London Holmes: Guilty Norwood

In a previous post I argued that in the Sherlock Holmes stories not just people, but also places, can be guilty: that there are places where crime lives and belongs, places proper to wrong-doing, where it is engendered and cultivated and brought to fruition. On that understanding, and on the basis of its two significant appearances in the Holmes canon, Norwood is an emphatically guilty place.

Where is Norwood?

Norwood takes its name and its bearing from Croydon, referring to the wooded hills and valleys to the north of the town. Historically it had no precise boundary, because it never corresponded to a parish or manor. It was an indeterminate tract of land spilling incontinently into five parishes: Battersea’s outpost at Penge, Croydon, Streatham, Lambeth and Camberwell.

Map - Cary 1786 London (2)

From John Cary’s map of London, 1786 

By the late nineteenth century, as the whole area became thoroughly suburban, Norwood’s earlier absence of definition was replaced by a riot of competing identities and place-names. The metropolitan borough of Lambeth, and the London County Council, both had electoral districts called ‘Norwood’, as if laying claim to the whole territory; while both Croydon County Borough and Penge Urban District contained wards called ‘Upper Norwood’ which disputed that claim. In addition, there were the tricky questions of South Norwood’s relationship with Selhurst, and of Lower Norwood’s re-branding as West Norwood.

Our primary interest, of course, is not in Norwood but in Sherlock Holmes – although even that distinction becomes blurred when we realise that Norwood is where Sherlock Holmes’s creator lived.

Conan Doyle plaque

From 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle lived at 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood. Here he wrote most of the first two batches of short stories which established Holmes as a popular fictional figure. These were initially published in The Strand Magazine, and then in two collections, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It is not too much to say that Holmes’s personality, his little tricks and foibles, and his sardonic/affectionate friendship with Watson, were honed and refined right here in modest, suburban South Norwood.

However, neither of the two stories which are set in Norwood were written while Doyle actually lived in the place. The Sign of Four was written in 1890 when he still lived in Portsmouth. And he wrote The Norwood Builder in 1903, after leaving Norwood for a new house in the Surrey countryside at Haslemere. Did he positively avoid Norwood settings while he himself was a Norwood resident? Impossible to say. We cannot analyse stories that he never wrote – so let’s turn instead to two stories that he did.

The Norwood tales 

The Sign of Four was Doyle’s second Holmes story, a novella like the first, and also like the first a tale of foreign exotica, in which crimes and passions aroused far away seek consummation here in London. It is a tale of honour among thieves, and dishonour among army officers. A gang of four – three Sikhs and a white man – steal and hide a great treasure during the Indian Mutiny. Afterwards they are imprisoned, but they persuade two army officers to help them escape in exchange for a share of the treasure. One of the officers, Major Sholto, betrays them, seizes the whole treasure for himself, flees to England, and sets himself up at Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood. There he is tracked down first by his fellow officer, and then by Jonathan Small from the original gang. These encounters trigger Holmes’s involvement. (I should add that this summary is a brutal simplification of a morally and narratively complex tale which, among other things, positively reeks of late Victorian racism).

Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood is, we are told, “a huge clump of a house, square and prosaic … (of) vast size”, standing in its own grounds, surrounded by a grim high wall secured against intruders. It is an ugly, guilty house, furnished with stolen wealth, a monument to theft and betrayal, even the allure of its exotic name belied by its prosaic and vulgar bulk.

Map - Upper Norwood (2)

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Late Victorian Upper Norwood liked to think of itself as the height of prosperous repute, but Doyle’s story acknowledges that money has history, and that today’s respectable wealth is all too often born of yesterday’s shabby crime. We expect bad things to happen in a place as flawed as Pondicherry Lodge, and we are not disappointed.

As for the other story, here again we are given a precise address. Jonas Oldacre, The Norwood Builder, lives at Deep Dene House, Deep Dene Road, Lower (a.k.a. West) Norwood. Oldacre has made his money building suburban houses, and he too lives in a suburban house which he himself has built. It appears to be an entirely unremarkable place, “a big modern villa of staring brick”, a practical house built by a practical man. But appearances are misleading.

Oldacre has designed his house as an engine of revenge. Hidden within it is a secret room, whose existence is known only to himself, the key element in his plot against a woman who refused his offer of marriage many years before. His plan is to destroy her happiness by framing her son John McFarlane for murder. To achieve this he entices McFarlane to Deep Dene House, fakes his own death, and leaves false evidence pointing to McFarlane as the killer. Oldacre himself meanwhile is in his secret room, alive and well. It goes without saying that Holmes is not fooled and succeeds in flushing him out.

Deep Dene House in Lower Norwood is therefore guilty in its very fabric, in its timber, plaster and staring brick, positively designed for malice. And when it is placed alongside Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood, that ugly monument to dishonour, we are left in no doubt: Norwood is South London’s guiltiest place.

South London trek

Two other issues arise from these Norwood stories, one touching on South London as a whole, and the other on a particular character.

The climax of The Sign of Four involves the pursuit of Jonathan Small, which ends with a celebrated chase down the river, and Small struggling in the mud of the Plumstead Marshes. But before the river chase, when Holmes is still trying to trace Small’s route from Norwood, he and Watson trek on foot across South London guided by Toby the mongrel tracker-dog. Toby leads them from Upper Norwood through Streatham, Brixton, and Camberwell to Kennington Lane, then cuts to the east of the Oval, and after some brief confusion leads Holmes and Watson to Mordecai Smith’s wharf on the Lambeth riverside, from which Small has hired the steam launch in which he hopes to make his escape.

I find this journey fascinating, because it seems to me to signal Doyle’s early commitment to the narrative possibilities of South London. Remember, this was only his second Holmes story. The first, A Study in Scarlet, concerned a murder in Brixton. This one concerns a mystery (and subsequently a murder) in Norwood. Both are South London stories, and both were written while Doyle was still living in Portsmouth. At this time he had no first-hand knowledge of South London, he certainly didn’t know that he would end up living there, and (according to his own later account) he probably used a Post Office map to work out the details. But in The Sign of Four he was already sufficiently committed to the narrative potential of unfashionable, suburban South London to send Holmes and Watson on an extended tramp right across the territory, as if staking a claim for future tales.

Mary Morstan 

Finally: Norwood is the place most intimately associated with Dr. Watson’s wife, Mary Morstan.

Among Holmes obsessives Mary Morstan is a controversial figure. Some acknowledge that she was Watson’s fiancée, but argue that he married not her but some other, unnamed, woman. Others argue that he had two wives. Others again say that he had many. And so it goes on.

I take a brutally conventional view. Watson’s role, as the fictional narrator of the Holmes stories, is not to tell us about his love life, but to tell us about Holmes’s cases. When he does tell us about his love life, its narrative purpose is to add depth and colour to his relationship with Holmes. Mary, like Mycroft and Lestrade and Moriarty and all the other characters who are present in more than one story, is entirely secondary when set against the central relationship of Holmes and Watson.

Mary is the only character in all the stories to whom Watson declares his love, and she declares hers in return, so when in subsequent stories Watson refers to his wife, it is simply perverse to suggest that this wife might be someone other than Mary. It is perverse at the detailed level of coherent story-telling. And it is even more perverse at a larger level in that it mistakes the meaning of the stories themselves; it confuses what is primary with what is secondary in what is, after all, an entirely fictional world.

The reason why Norwood is relevant here is that Watson meets and falls in love with Mary in the first Norwood story, The Sign of Four; and after her death, after Watson has moved back to Baker Street, his first case with Holmes is the second Norwood story, The Norwood Builder. Norwood therefore frames Mary’s brief presence in poor old Watson’s fictional life.