South London Holmes: Brixton (part 2)

The previous post focused on two of Sherlock Holmes’s cases – one a murder, the other an attempted murder – in which Brixton figured prominently.

Brixton also appears, in passing, in a number of other stories – but just because a reference is casual does not mean that it is unimportant. On the contrary, a casual throwaway comment may tell us a great deal. It may tell us that the writer is making a firm but subsidiary point in the story – for instance: ‘This guy is a bully, and that’s all we need to know’. Or, it may tell us that the writer is counting on a shared understanding with the reader, and can therefore settle for brevity, confident that the reader will do the rest of the work and flesh the matter out.

In these particular cases, I think that Doyle assumes a shared understanding with his reader. More specifically, he assumes a shared middle-class understanding. All the Holmes stories are written from an emphatically middle-class point of view, so that passing references to middle-class characters or circumstances have a very different tone and flavour to references to working-class characters or circumstances. Let’s take some examples.


We saw in the previous post that late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton was, mostly, a comfortable and respectable suburb, and this is often its role in the Holmes stories. Brixton’s purpose in The Greek Interpreter (1893), The Adventure of Black Peter and The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (both 1904) is to signal middle-class respectability. In the first story it is the address of a friend of an heiress. In the second it is revealed as the home of Inspector Stanley Hopkins, “a young police inspector, for whose future Holmes had high hopes”. In the third it is the scene of an apparently pointless crime in which a burglar breaks into a doctor’s surgery in order to smash a plaster bust of Napoleon.

But for our purposes, the narrative details are less important than the social clues. What sort of man is likely to be the personal friend of an heiress, if not a man who is himself prosperous? What sort of neighbourhood is a police inspector likely to live in, if not a thoroughly respectable neighbourhood? And what sort of man is a GP, if not the acme of bourgeois esteem? All these references, brief as they are, reveal Doyle using Brixton to signify solid, suburban, middle-class repute.


But Brixton also had its working class which also appears, occasionally, in the Holmes stories. And when it does appear, it is treated very differently.

In The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892) Mrs. Oakeshott, sister to hotel attendant James Ryder, runs a small poultry business from her home on the Brixton Road. This is a Christmas story, populated by several humble and semi-comical characters: an honest commissionaire, a decayed intellectual, an acerbic goose-seller, and the pathetic thief Ryder. The tale is set in motion by his opportunistic theft of a jewel from the Countess of Morcar, a guest at the Hotel Cosmopolitan where he works. In a state of panic, he hides the jewel in the crop of one of his sister’s geese, while crouching behind the shed in her back-yard. This vulgar little scene is offered as a glimpse of plebeian Brixton, low-life Brixton, a far cry from Doyle’s, and Holmes’s, and the presumed reader’s, middle-class world. It is intended to raise a condescending chuckle.

The second example, The Naval Treaty (1893), is different again. The tone here is sombre, because the story concerns a weighty matter, the theft of a crucial diplomatic document; and the main characters are of high social status, upper middle class and aristocratic, senior members of Government, elevated and elegant gentlemen.

Naval Treaty #1

Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

Set against these elegant gentlemen is Mrs. Tangey, a Foreign Office charlady, who lives at 16 Ivy Lane, Brixton, and who is initially suspected of being the thief. The portrayal of Mrs. Tangey is highly unsympathetic: “a large, coarse-faced, elderly woman” who drinks and is in debt. It could be argued that these details are necessary for her role in the story, which is to offer us a suspect as unlike the elegant gentlemen as possible – female, coarse, unreliable, working class – in order to misdirect us, because the real culprit is indeed one of the elegant gentlemen. This narrative job could, of course, have been done without the casually contemptuous portrait of a working-class woman with which Doyle chooses to present us. But Doyle is confident that his presumed reader will raise no objection.

Finally: despite their different moods, these two stories share a certain similarity of structure. Each involves a theft from a prestigious Westminster address, one a fashionable hotel, the other a government office. Each involves a victim who is a person of social status and consequence. And each lays emphasis on these themes of social and geographical ascendancy by confronting them with their opposites: upper-class Westminster on the banks of the Thames meets working-class Brixton south of the river.


South London was largely outside the ‘Popularly Imagined London’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Proper London, landmark London, self-congratulatory London, the London where stories about London belonged, sat north of the river. South London was somewhere else, across the river, on the other side of the river, transpontine.

So: by establishing Holmes so emphatically as the pre-eminent London detective, and then sending him off so regularly to the suburbs south of the river, Doyle was being a bit deviant, a bit scandalous, and was at the same time cleverly serving his own story-telling purposes. He was challenging comfortable assumptions about what London was; and he was laying claim to a whole new narrative territory. And Brixton, that recently-emerged and rather shapeless suburb, was of all South London places most open to his peculiar knack for a yarn.


South London Holmes: Brixton (part 1)

Brixton is one of the most frequently recurring locations in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s not the most frequent: that’s 221B Baker Street. But Brixton is the scene of the very first murder in the very first Holmes story, published in 1887; and it is the hiding-place of a mysterious recluse in one of Doyle’s last stories, published 40 years later. In the intervening decades Holmes is summoned to Brixton by numerous thefts and a grisly attempted murder; and Brixton residents caught up in his investigations include a poultry keeper, a charlady, the friend of an exotic heiress, a police inspector, and a bogus clergyman. Doyle kept sending Holmes back, time after time, to the streets of Brixton.

Historically, Brixton was the name not of a hamlet or parish, but of a region. The medieval ‘Brixton Hundred’ covered much of South London, from Barnes to Bermondsey, and Battersea to Streatham. Brixton only started to appear in its own right in the nineteenth century, as builders threw up houses along Brixton Hill and Brixton Road. And perhaps the absence of a sense of historical identity, a sense of place, which an old parish church or village centre might have bequeathed to it, meant that as the new suburban Brixton emerged, it was somewhat characterless.

If this sounds unlikely, it’s because we’re thinking of modern Brixton. Brixton today is far from characterless: socially and ethnically mixed, deprived, gentrified, affluent, poor, loud, cool, edgy, sexy … But places change. History happens, people happen, and places change. Brixton today still has many of the same buildings and street-names as late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton, but it is not the same place.

Late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton, Sherlock Holmes’s Brixton, was a shapeless, unremarkable suburb whose builders aimed initially at the well-to-do middle class, and then from the 1870s shifted their focus to smaller houses for the lower middle and skilled working classes.

Map Booth Sheet 11 (3)

(Detail from Charles Booth’s Map 11. No known copyright. More information available at

Booth’s colour-coded poverty map, constructed in the 1890s when Doyle and Holmes were at their most active, shows the result. The solid red along main roads and substantial side-roads indicates middle-class affluence. Pink signals lower middle class and skilled working-class households which, while not wealthy, are “comfortable” (one of Booth’s key terms). The purple and light blue show areas of increasing distress; and the fragments of dark blue and black represent dire poverty. There are such fragments in Brixton, but only a few. This was not a glamorous or fashionable place in the 1890s, but it was, for the most part, comfortable and respectable.

We cannot know whether Doyle knew, or cared, about Booth’s carefully-researched social geography. It certainly didn’t influence his early Brixton stories, which pre-dated its publication. But his portrayal of the place, its social mix, its domestic privacy, its dominant atmosphere of prim propriety, broadly matches Booth’s findings.


A Study in Scarlet is the first Holmes story, in which he meets Watson; and it tells of the first crime which they investigate together, the murder of Enoch Drebber whose body is found at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road. Watson reports that the house “wore an ill-omened and minatory look” when they arrive, part of a small terrace, half-occupied, with several ‘To Let’ signs in the area. This is a drab and obscure neighbourhood, a lonely place – which, it turns out, is precisely why the killer chose it. Brixton’s first function in the Holmes canon is therefore to offer anonymity, to turn a blind suburban eye, an ideal place to accommodate dark secrets and dead bodies.

Sinister Brixton is equally in evidence in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, in which it serves as the lair of ‘Holy Peters’, a.k.a. the Reverend Doctor Schlessinger, a particularly unpleasant confidence trickster. In this story, published in 1911, Peters and his equally obnoxious wife kidnap Lady Frances for her money, and seek to get rid of her by burying her alive. They arrange a normal, legal, dignified funeral in the name of another woman, whose death has been properly registered – but they intend that Lady Frances, drugged, will also be in the coffin. Peters’s home, where he imprisons her and at which the horrible plot is hatched, is at 36 Poultney Square, Brixton, “a great dark house”.

Here, we are in affluent, middle class Brixton, where the appearance of propriety offers a screen behind which Peters seeks to hide. Here, respectability is crime’s accomplice. The house is in a respectable neighbourhood – but it harbours kidnap and horror. Peters appears to be that most respectable of men, a clergyman – but he is a thief and a would-be murderer. His scheme involves that most respectable of public rituals, a funeral – but it is a cover for homicidal deceit. Brixton’s solid respectability makes it the perfect hiding place for the confidence trickster, the crook who specialises in hypocrisy, and trades on the gullibility and prejudice of others.

But this is just the start. In A Study in Scarlet and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax Brixton figures prominently, but there are many other stories in which it makes more fleeting, but equally significant, appearances. The true meaning of Doyle’s Brixton, Holmes’s Brixton, can only emerge when all these tales are considered together.

Next time in South London Holmes: Brixton (part 2).


South London Holmes: Guilty Places


Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

This is the second in a series looking at Arthur Conan Doyle’s repeated use of South London to provide settings for his Sherlock Holmes stories. In my last post I suggested that he re-imagined South London’s suburbs as a new territory of crime, and now I want to push that a bit further. Specifically, I want to start to explore the relation between crime and place in the South London Holmes stories.

Crimes, of course, are committed not by places but by people. Or are they? Surely life is more complex, weird and interesting than this. All human activity has a context, and a place is a context. No place is neutral, every place is a particular place, exerting its particular influence on those who pass through it, and this is true both in the lives we live and in the stories we tell. So when a writer of fiction chooses to tell us that a certain crime has been committed in a certain place, it means that the place participates in the crime. It may even mean that it shares in the guilt.

In the course of his South London stories, Doyle describes many crimes committed in many places, to the point where patterns start to emerge. Firstly, there are guilty places: places where crime lives and belongs, where it is engendered and cultivated and brought to fruition. Secondly, there are places which are guilty by association: places which act as magnets for criminality whose intent and origins lie elsewhere. And thirdly, there are innocent places: places where crimes occur which are unrelated to them, arbitrary violations of their suburban peace.

Let’s start with somewhere guilty.

Chiselhurst: Guilty

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, published in 1904, is in my view a nasty little story – though it is also the story in which Holmes awakes Watson with the iconic cry “The game is afoot!”, which is I admit a redeeming feature. The crime around which it revolves occurs at Abbey Grange in “Marsham, Kent”, but we are told that the house is only a couple of miles from Chiselhurst Station, so as far as I’m concerned it’s in Chiselhurst, and therefore a legitimate South London setting.

Sir Eustace Brackenstall, in the prime of life and very wealthy, is brutally murdered at his home, Abbey Grange. His beautiful young Australian wife, Lady Mary – “blonde, golden-haired, blue-eyed” – is also injured. Some detail with wine glasses throws suspicion on the Randalls, an enterprising family of burglars from Lewisham. But Holmes uncovers the truth: Brackenstall was an alcoholic bully who beat his wife (that is how she came by her injuries) and he was killed by her lover as he sought to defend her. This lover is Captain Crocker, a “tall … golden-moustached, blue-eyed” Adonis, his skin “burned by tropical suns”, who met and adored Mary, before she became a Lady, on the boat from Australia. In deference to this romance, Holmes and Watson take it upon themselves to decide that the golden, blue-eyed, and now presumably very rich young couple is innocent, and withhold their full knowledge of the affair from the police.

This legally-dubious gambit may be touching, but what about the Randalls? The damning detail with the wine glasses, which appears initially to mark them out as murderers, is no accident: it is deliberately set up by Lady Mary and Captain Crocker. They intend not just to deflect attention from themselves, but actively to focus it on these entirely innocent burglars who happen to have been in the news recently. It is a cold-blooded attempt to frame them for murder. Holmes is not fooled of course, because Holmes is Holmes, and the Randalls turn out to have an alibi, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is a frame-up, a callous attempt to get the wrong men hanged for murder, and yet it is passed over in the story as a matter of no account. Apparently, so long as you are young, golden and rich, you will not be judged for such things.

Chiselhurst is therefore a doubly guilty place. It is the scene of an unhappy marriage, in which a young woman is bullied and brutalised by her drunken husband, leading ultimately to his murder by her lover, and the story tells us as much. And it is the scene of an attempt to frame the Randalls, which is also a crime, but which is disgracefully unacknowledged as such within the story. The guilt of Abbey Grange starts with Brackenstall, but spreads like a stain to encompass Lady Mary and Captain Crocker, and Holmes and Watson, and seeps beyond the story to Doyle himself.

Beckenham: Guilty by association

The Greek Interpreter, which appeared in 1893, is notable for introducing us to Sherlock’s brother Mycroft: brilliant, obese, lazy, and endlessly re-imagined in film and TV adaptations. In this first appearance he introduces Holmes and Watson to Mr. Melas, a Greek interpreter who comes to a sticky end.

The story tells of an English crook who worms his way into the affections of a young Greek heiress, and then kidnaps her brother and tries to force him to sign over the family fortune. But the brother speaks only Greek, so the crook kidnaps Melas to act as interpreter, driving him in a window-less carriage to a mysterious house where the brother is imprisoned. While interpreting, Melas discovers who the young man is. He is then released with dire warnings from the crook to keep his mouth shut, warnings which he promptly ignores by seeking advice from Mycroft, and which Mycroft also ignores by placing a public advertisement in the Daily News giving full details of the whole affair. This advertisement attracts a reply from a friend of the Greek sister, revealing her address to be “The Myrtles, Beckenham”. But it also signals to the crook that Melas has talked. Consequently, the poor man is kidnapped again. Holmes and Watson rush down on the train from London Bridge to Beckenham, but by the time they arrive at The Myrtles the crook has fled, having locked up the Greek brother and Melas in a small room full of poisonous fumes. The brother survives, but Melas does not. A post-script suggests that the Greek sister takes her fatal revenge upon the crook some months later, and then disappears.


Map - Greek Interpreter

The Myrtles, we are told, stands within half a mile of Beckenham station (today’s Beckenham Junction), and is “a large, dark house standing back from the road in its own grounds”. In other words, it is modelled on the many large detached houses with which late Victorian Beckenham was peppered, along Foxgrove Road perhaps, or The Avenue, some of which still survive. Each of these houses was built with an eye to upper-middle class domestic privacy; a privacy which for Doyle suits criminal purposes very well. Beckenham is not therefore a guilty place: it does not hatch the crime. But its genteel and private respectability positively recommends it as an ideal place to prosecute the crime. It is guilty by association.

Finally, regarding Mycroft: if he’s so clever, why does he place that disastrous advertisement in the press, which effectively dooms Melas? And why does he suffer no criticism, within the story, for this thoughtlessness? Sherlock comments that Melas is now in danger, and warns him to watch his back, but that’s as close as we get to a reprimand.

Narratively, of course, the ad is ‘just’ a plot device to hurry the story along, a quick way to pinpoint the location of the mysterious house. In just the same way, the attempted frame-up in the Abbey Grange story is ‘just’ a plot device, allowing Holmes to strut his stuff by refusing to snatch at a proffered solution. There is nothing wrong with plot devices, when they are sensitively handled and worked into the fabric of the story. But there’s everything wrong when they are used as blunt instruments, and these two instruments are decidedly blunt.

The problem is that Doyle uses each of these plot devices to perform a particular narrative function, while refusing to face up to the wider narrative consequences of that function. In each case, the device requires an initiator within the story: the Abbey Grange frame-up is put in place by the golden lovers; the Beckenham ad is put in place by the brilliant Mycroft. But these actions contradict everything that Doyle has told us about these characters, for it is hardly golden to frame innocent men for murder, or brilliant to betray a friend to a violent crook. Doyle, however, chooses not to see this. He passes over these incidents as matters of no account. He refuses to confront the narrative consequences of his own narrative manoeuvres. This is lazy writing.

Croydon: Innocent

Here I will be brief.

In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Miss Cushing, a quiet elderly spinster living alone in Cross Street, Croydon, receives a gruesome package: a box containing a severed human ear. And yet the place to which this horrid package is delivered, Miss Cushing’s “neat and prim” little house, is itself quite innocent. It has engendered no crime, and done nothing to attract crime to it. In fact the atmosphere within which the story unfolds is created precisely by the paradox of such a ghastly item turning up in such a blameless place.

I will say no more about the package, or the explanation for it, because I intend to dissect this story in more detail in a future post. My reason for mentioning it here is simply to make the point that South London is not always guilty.

Next time

Sherlock Holmes’s Brixton