South London Holmes

Map Booth sheet 9 (2)

As Coronavirus sweeps the world, shuts down the economy, and teaches us all what an ‘essential worker’ really looks like, I suppose I shouldn’t complain that it’s also knocked this blog off its stride.

For the past few months I’ve been taking myself off to the archives, to look out documents which shed light on life in Penge when it was still an expanse of woodland. But the Lockdown has changed all that. While many archives and archivists are doing great work in making certain items from their collections available online, this doesn’t include the obscure documents that I’m interested in. Consequently, this particular line of research is suspended for the time being. In fact, any line of research which involves leaving home is suspended.

So: I have been looking for a new theme which is (a) consistent with the spirit of the Pengepast blog – i.e. truly committed to Penge, but always up for a flirtation with Greater South London; (b) do-able without leaving the house; (c) nothing to do with Coronavirus; and (d) pure escapism. I think I’ve found one. I’m calling it ‘South London Holmes’.

We might think that there’s nothing left to say about Sherlock Holmes. He is, after all, the most famous detective in human history, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories have been best sellers for over a century, generating stage-plays, films, TV series, spoofs, reinterpretations, and libraries full of literary analysis.

But why? What makes the Holmes stories special? They did not pioneer detective fiction: Edgar Allen Poe wrote his Dupin tales half a century earlier. Their plots are not fiendishly clever: many of them rely on frankly unconvincing accidents or chains of association. The Holmes/Watson relationship in their shared rooms in Baker Street is part of the answer, but even this starts as a contingent, practical response to a deeper problem. The name of that problem, and the reason why the Holmes stories are special, is London.

Sherlock Holmes is not just a detective, but the quintessential London detective. Doyle’s vision of late Victorian and Edwardian London suffuses the Holmes tales. It is a powerful vision of horse-drawn cabs and gas-lit streets, suburban villas and mean terraces, comfortable drawing-rooms and sinister riversides, which has stamped its imprint on popular culture to this day, not only through Doyle’s writing but also through the film and TV productions inspired by that writing. Within the stories, we are told that Holmes himself is a connoisseur of London; he knows its secret ways, its back-streets, alleys and courts. This implies that his creator, Doyle, was also a connoisseur, and that the urban intimacy which he attributes to Holmes was in fact his own. But this was not the case.

Doyle hardly knew London at all when he kicked off the franchise with his first two stories, the novellas A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. He was living in Portsmouth at the time, and his personal knowledge of London was based on a few brief visits. But he could not fail to be aware of the clichés through which the city lived in the popular imagination, clichés both self-congratulatory (‘World’s Greatest City’, ‘Capital of Empire’) and self-condemnatory (‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’). His genius was to realise that if he could write some rattling good yarns which put this Popularly Imagined London centre-stage, acknowledging its familiar parameters (so as to reassure his readers) while also challenging them (so as to scandalise and excite his readers), he might sell a few copies.

And here’s a thing. When we consider all the London locations in which Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are set or to which they refer, three constantly recur. First is the iconic address at 221B Baker Street; no surprise there. Second is the West End; no surprise there either, because the West End naturally figures in stories featuring privilege, power or money; and also because it was a familiar element of Popularly Imagined London. But the third location is a surprise. The third constantly-recurring location is South London.

The Popularly Imagined London of the 1890s happily embraced the poverty and peril of the East End, but it did not really reach south of the river. Sherlock Holmes, however, did. His adventures in South London took him to Beckenham, Blackheath, Brixton, Chislehurst, Croydon, Kennington, Kingston, Lambeth, Lee, Lewisham … and that’s just the first half of the alphabet. Penge is on the list too, in a minor way. It seems to me that Doyle used South London’s suburbs to challenge the familiar parameters of the Popularly Imagined London of his day, by presenting it as a whole new territory of greed, passion, theft and violence, ripe for the attention of the world’s first consulting detective.

In the next post we’ll start to map out Sherlock Holmes’s South London, and identify some of his favourite haunts.

The map shows parts of Lambeth/Walworth/Southwark as depicted in Charles Booth’s poverty maps of the 1890s. No known copyright. More information available at https://booth.lse.ac.uk/map/