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.