Discover Sherlock Holmes's London - from 221B Baker Street to the bar where it all began
As the BBC's Sherlock travels to Victorian London, explore the city in the footsteps of the great detective...
In the Sherlock special on New Year's Day, Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes will be transported back in time to 1895 to solve a Victorian puzzle. Devotees of Arthur Conan Doyle will already be familiar with the London in which he finds himself: a city of fog, hansom cabs, steam trains and frock coats.
Indeed, Sherlock would be nothing without 221B Baker Street, the West End and the crime-ridden streets of London. Begin with a cappuccino or full English at Speedy's Sandwich Bar & Café on 187 North Gower Street – as the BBC's Sherlock does – and then explore the Holmes heartlands, from the West End to Piccadilly Circus...
"We met next day as he had arranged, and inspected the rooms at No. 221B, Baker Street, of which he had spoken at our meeting. They consisted of a couple of comfortable bed-rooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows." – Dr Watson, A Study in Scarlet
At Christmas 1874, a 14-year-old schoolboy visited London for the first time, staying by turns with relatives at Earl’s Court and Maida Vale. In a whirlwind three weeks, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was taken to London Zoo in Regent’s Park, to the Crystal Palace, the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey. He saw the Shakespearean actor Henry Irving in Hamlet at the Lyceum Theatre—but what must have made the most lasting impression were waxwork effigies at the museum of Madame Tussaud, and especially the Chamber of Horrors.
“I was delighted with the room of Horrors and the images of the murderers,” Arthur wrote to his mother, Mary. Today the waxworks gallery is around the corner on Marylebone Road, but in the 1870s it was on a road that Doyle would go on to immortalise—Baker Street.
Any tour of Sherlock Holmes’s London must begin at the legendary 221B Baker Street, where Holmes lived from 1881 to 1904. At that time there was no such address—nor, of course, would a street door be marked “B” (a discreet brass plate by the bell-pull might have read “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective; John Watson, FRCS”) but we won’t obsess on trifles as Holmes did.
Five lines serve Baker Street Station, among them the Metropolitan, the world’s oldest underground train line, opened in 1863. A Sherlock Holmes silhouette suggests a shadow thrown up on the station’s tiled walls. Emerging onto Baker Street you are met by a statue of the caped detective, courtesy of the Abbey National Building Society. Following the reassignment of street numbers in the 1930s, the Abbey occupied a building on what had been 215–229 Upper Baker Street, and employed a full-time secretary to deal with the correspondence that poured in from around the world, addressed to Sherlock Holmes.
Turn right and cross the road to reach the Sherlock Holmes Museum, marked 221B, which, sitting between 237 and 241, should properly be numbered 239. The upstairs rooms are presented as a Victorian bachelor pad cluttered with Holmes’s possessions—his pipes, his magnifying glass and violin, his books and scientific instruments—while jolly costumed characters are on hand to make you welcome and to answer questions. There is a wealth of period detail—a bathroom with decorative ceramic basin and lavatory, Dr Watson’s room with thumbed and dog-eared textbooks, and, amid the fireside chairs and trappings of a bachelor life, Mrs Hudson’s more feminine room with a pretty fireplace.
North of Baker Street is Regent’s Park, and the London Zoo, where the schoolboy Arthur Doyle “saw the animals being fed and the seals kissing their keeper”—but we are going the other way.
Baker Street itself is choked with traffic, being on 13 different daytime bus routes—but this is London. Heading south, take a left onto Wigmore Street, as Holmes and Watson did on their way to the Alpha Tavern in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. You cross Welbeck Street, where, in The Final Problem, Holmes had to jump for his life to avoid being mown down by a two-horse van.
(South of this is Vere Street, where a brick lobbed from a rooftop shattered at his feet.) You are passing through the “doctor’s quarters” of Wimpole Street, Harley Street, and Cavendish Square, where, as Dr Percy Trevelyan complained in The Adventure of the Resident Patient , a specialist would need substantial capital to pay enormous rents and furnishing expenses, besides hiring a presentable horse and carriage. It is the same today—but for the horse and carriage.
A left at Langham Place, leading to Portland Place, brings us to the Langham Hotel (No. 1C). Built in 1863–5 and opened by the Prince of Wales, the Langham was the largest and most up-to-date hotel in London, with 600 rooms, 300 lavatories, 36 bathrooms, and the first hydraulic lift in Britain. It was, then, the natural choice for the King of Bohemia, who stayed there under the alias Count Von Kramm in A Scandal in Bohemia.
A strapping 6 feet 6 inches (2m) tall, with “the chest and limbs of Hercules,” wearing a cloak of deep blue lined with flame-colored silk, furtopped boots, and an eye mask, the king, visiting incognito, naturally did not want to draw attention to himself.
In 1889 Doyle was entertained at the hotel, along with Oscar Wilde, by Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of the Philadelphia-based Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The two writers, much encouraged, went their separate ways, Doyle to write The Sign of Four (in which Captain Morstan checked in at the Langham Hotel, only to go missing, leaving behind some clothes and books, and curiosities from the Andaman Islands), Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray. (The claim that the tradition of afternoon tea was born at the Langham’s Palm Court would perhaps have surprised Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, usually credited as the “inventor” in the 1840s of that civilised English repast.)
South now down Regent Street, where Holmes and Watson shadowed the disguised Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles before he gave them the slip in a hansom cab. A right turn onto Conduit Street brings us to the top of Savile Row, synonymous with the finest in men’s tailoring.
Clothes make the man
Doyle gives us few insights into Holmes’s sartorial style beyond Watson’s comment that “he affected a certain quiet primness” of dress. What we think we know—and it is a tenacious conviction—is that he wore a deerstalker hat. Nowhere in the text does it say he did. On the other hand, nowhere does it say that he didn’t. Sidney Paget, illustrator for The Strand Magazine (who modeled Holmes on his brother Walter), portrayed him in one. The actor William Gillette played him in one, onstage and in a silent movie, and it is almost impossible to picture that thin, hawk-like Holmes profile without it. (Holmes’s calabash pipe, it is said, was another Gillette innovation; thanks to its curly shape he was able to speak while holding it between his teeth—a straight pipe would have wagged about.)
We do know that both Holmes and Watson sported those caped daytime coats known as “ulsters” with cravats. And in The Red-Headed League we find Holmes in a pea jacket, a boxy, eight-button seaman’s coat with slash pockets to warm the hands and large lapels to protect the ears from chill blasts. In the Royal Navy, where it is standard issue, it is called a “reefer.” Entirely practical, then, but not the coat of a dandy.
Around the Baker Street apartment we hear of Holmes often in a dressing gown—blue, purple, or “mouse”—and in Persian carpet slippers. His wardrobe extended, for the purposes of disguise anyway, to the broad black hat, baggy trousers, and white tie of a nonconformist clergyman.
Where Sherlock shopped for his clothes, we can only hazard, but for the dedicated follower of male fashion, Savile Row is a great place to start. If Holmes or Watson could pass by here with us, they would recognise Henry Poole & Co., “the founders of Savile Row,” at No. 15. A family business begun in 1806 as a specialist in military tailoring, Henry Poole can claim to have created the original tuxedo. It received royal warrants from Napoleon II in 1858 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1976. Its list of past customers includes the Victorian novelists Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, and Bram Stoker; the former Prime Minister (and novelist) Benjamin Disraeli; the actor Sir Henry Irving; King Ferdinand I of Romania; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; King Alfonso XIII of Spain; and Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond Von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, King of Bohemia.
If Sherlock was not the Savile Row type, brother Mycroft, with his role in government, indeed was. At our first sight of him in the episode “A Study in Pink” from the BBC’s Sherlock, he was wearing a three-piece tailored suit from Gieves & Hawkes at No. 1. In the Crimean War the enterprising James Gieve sailed to Sebastopol aboard a floating tailor’s shop to offer his services as a military tailor, and in the 1880s he became sole owner of Gieves & Co. Thomas Hawkes, a military hatter, set up shop at No. 1 in the early years of the 20th century. The companies merged in 1974. Among their military lines are some splendid swords and scabbards.
At Vigo Street we swing back onto Regent Street, following its graceful curve to the Café Royal, across the road at No. 68. It was outside here that—who could forget?—Holmes was set upon by two men with sticks in The Adventure of the Illustrious Client before the assailants escaped by racing through the building into Glasshouse
Street. What a shame he had not armed himself at Gieves & Hawkes, for wasn’t he “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman”?
Opened in 1865 by a French wine merchant, the Café Royal was, by the 1890s, the haunt of a modish set who quaffed Veuve Clicquot while gilded mirrors reflected their beauty back and forth to infinity. What they would have made of hoodlums tearing through, brandishing cudgels, is anybody’s guess. The legendary Grill Room with its fabulous Louis XVI detail, gold-leaf ceiling and moldings, has been renamed the Oscar Wilde Bar, for it was here, in 1891, that Wilde fell for Lord Alfred Douglas, his “Bosie.” Douglas was the author of the lines “the love that dare not speak its name.” It is a far cry from “High Society afternoon tea” at the Café Royal to hard labor in Reading Gaol, which was to be the fate of Wilde just four years later.
The Criterion on Piccadilly Circus has happier associations, for it was here, while standing at the bar, that Watson felt a tap on his shoulder and, turning, saw young Stamford, in A Study in Scarlet. Opened in 1874, the Criterion is a study in opulence, a neo-Byzantine extravaganza.
Purchase a glass of champagne in the Long Bar and you will be buying more than just a drink. For one thing, this was where, with a chance meeting, it all began.
This is an extract from Sherlock Holmes's London by Rose Shepherd
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