Portsmouth, Home of Great Writing Part III: Arthur Conan Doyle

In the third of an exclusive series on Portsmouth’s literary heritage, author and historian Matt Wingett explores the relationship between Portsmouth and the creator of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is perhaps the writer who most deserves to be identified with Portsmouth but whose connection is little enough known inside the city, let alone without it.

Let’s not understate his connection to the town.  Portsmouth and Southsea gave Conan Doyle so much that would be vital to him in his writing career.  His transformation from a young doctor with a passion for writing to a literary giant occurred on the island.  His greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, recognised throughout the world as an iconic figure took root here.

Like Robin Hood or King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes has so entered the public psyche that fact and fiction blur.  It is a testimony to the writing of one of the most energetic and active writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries that many people throughout the world believe that Sherlock Holmes really did exist.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s connection with Portsmouth contrasts those of Kipling, Besant and Dickens.  For Besant, the city is filled with memories of his childhood.  For Dickens, the town is a faded memory from a distant part of his life.  For Kipling the town is a place of torture and the crucible that forms much of his character.

But the alchemy that works on Conan Doyle is different again. For Doyle, who arrived in the town in 1883 a young man of 23 years old standing 6 feet two inches tall and weighing a lean and muscular 15 stone, the town of Portsmouth was a land of opportunity.

In the thinly veiled accounts of his arrival in Southsea in his book The Stark Munro Letters, Conan Doyle reveals that on his arrival at Clarence Pier off of the steam packet from Plymouth in September 1882, he was so poor that he paid a porter to carry his bags from the pier to his lodgings in Old Portsmouth to save 4 pence on the taxi fare.

When he arrived, Conan Doyle had just £10 in his pocket and had knocked down the price of his rented rooms in a discussion with the landlady from 13/-  a week to 10/6.

He set about immediately in setting up a practice.  Since it was illegal for doctors to advertise at the time, he bought a map of the town and drew up a plan of action to walk every street of it, in order to see where the competition lay.  Over the next week he did exactly that – but not before, on his first day, he had an adventure.

After listening to a band for an hour in Victoria Park he headed home in his best coat and top hat, only to find a crowd gathered round a shabbily dressed man who was beating his wife. Proud of his prowess at boxing, Conan Doyle stepped in immediately to protect her. When one of his opponent’s wild swings hit a sailor, the tar decided to finish the job and Conan Doyle retired, breathless and sweating to think on his first day in dear old Pompey.

The place was lively for sure. Certain too, Conan Doyle was equal to it.

No 1 Bush Villas, in the leafy shade of Elm Grove was the perfect position for Conan Doyle’s practice. To the north were the artisan quarters of dockyard workers, to the south, the more genteel villas of traders and merchants.

Moving in, Conan Doyle recalls a macabre Sherlockian moment as he explored the basement of the house.  ‘In every corner,’ he writes, ‘piles of human jaws were grinning at me… But as I approached and picked up one of them the mystery vanished. They were plaster-of-Paris, and were the leavings of the dentist, who had been the last tenant.’

Those early months were hard for Conan Doyle.  But he knew that to get on, he must make connections.

Over the next few years in between writing and practice, he could be found playing bowls with Portsmouth’s Lord Mayor, cricket with the higher echelons of society and football with the lower classes, playing as goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club under the pseudonym A C Smith.

He read the Evening News assiduously, filled with horrific accidents, murders and deaths – all grist to his authorial mill.  And in one report of 4 January 1883, the investigating officer of a fracas in London is named as Inspector Sherlock, of B Division.  Is it possible that reading that account in Portsmouth’s own Evening News was enough to lodge the name in his mind?

With his upbeat attitude to life, Conan Doyle flourished here.  He soon employed his brother at his practice and began having success with books written in the town in his spare time.

He also partook of the town’s intellectual life. Invited to speak at Portsmouth’s Literary and Scientific Society, on 4 December 1883 he gave a talk on the Arctic Seas.  His sense of showmanship was evident, as he recalls in his Memories and Adventures:

[The Lecture] gave me a quite unmerited reputation as a sportsman, for I borrowed from a local taxidermist every bird and beast that he possessed which could conceivably find its way into the Arctic Circle. These I piled upon the lecture table and the audience concluding that I had shot them all, looked upon me with great respect. Next morning, they were back with the taxidermist once more.

In the social milieu of Southsea and Portsmouth Conan Doyle also initiated his own investigations into the paranormal.

It all started in 1883 when Arthur Conan Doyle met Major General Arthur Wilkes Drayson of the Royal Artillery, an eccentric Southsea resident.

Alongside a book entitled The Art of Practical Whist and dozens of articles in The Boy’s Own Paper, Drayson had published several astronomical works, one of which propounded the theory of a “second rotation” to the earth, which Drayson argued, accounted for the Earth’s Glacial Periods.

Conan Doyle considered Drayson a genius, so when he invited Doyle to a table turning seance, he couldn’t resist.  He was not impressed, however.  As he wrote later:

They sat around a dining-room table which after a time, their hands being upon it, began to sway and finally got sufficient motion to tap with one leg.  They then asked questions and received answers, more or less wise and more or less to the point. They were got by the tedious process of reciting the alphabet and writing down the letter which the tap indicated. It seemed to me that we were collectively pushing the table and that our own wills were concerned in bringing down the leg at the right moment.

Nevertheless, Conan Doyle’s curiosity was awoken, and he began a series of paranormal experiments in telepathy with Southsea architect Henry Ball.

‘Again and again,’ Doyle recalls, ‘sitting behind [Ball], I have drawn diagrams, and he in turn has made approximately the same figure. I showed beyond doubt that I could convey my thought without words.’

Then, in 1887, his spirituality was solidified by a singular event that occurred in Southsea.  At the end of June of that year, he was introduced to an elderly gentleman who was reputed to have considerable mediumistic power.  He later wrote about the incident to the spiritualist magazine Light.

…for some days I had been debating in my mind whether I should get a copy of Leigh Hunt’s Comic Dramatists of the Restoration… I had thought the matter over, but had dismissed it from my mind a day or two before the seance. On sitting, our medium came quickly under control and delivered a trance address containing much interesting and elevating matter. He then became clairvoyant, describing one or two scenes which we had no opportunity of testing. So far, the meeting had been very interesting, but not above the possibility of deception. We then proposed writing. The medium took up a pencil and after a few convulsive movements he wrote a message to each of us. Mine ran: ‘This gentleman is a healer. Tell him from me not to read Leigh Hunt’s book.’  Now, sir, I can swear that no one knew I had contemplated reading that book, and moreover, it was no case of thought-reading, for I had never referred to the matter all day. I can only say that if I had had to devise a test message I could not have hit upon one which was so absolutely inexplicable on any hypothesis except that held by Spiritualists.

Doyle believed that something entered his memory and probed it. In his eyes, this was incontrovertible proof of something above and beyond simple telepathy.

He thus began to attend more séances. When he was disappointed by apparently wrong and misleading replies from spirits, up popped Drayson to argue that some spirits are mischievous and deliberately misleading, so they would no doubt give him wrong information.

By the time he left Southsea in 1890, Arthur Conan Doyle was not only the inventor of arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, but his firm conviction in a world of spirit was also instilled here.