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.

Unfair?

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.

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