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.     


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

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