The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest is a fantastic source of material for all Sherlockians and Doyleans (fans of Sherlock and Conan Doyle). It contains literally thousands of documents, books and objects on a variety of aspects of Doyle’s life and the history of Holmes. Almost all of the collection was gifted to the Portsmouth Library Service by Richard Lancelyn Green (although thanks to his donation, they have been adding to the collection ever since). The staff at the collection do a lot of work to advertise their presence in the city of Portsmouth and to get people excited about archives. For someone who has never visited an archive before, it can seem like an intimidating place to visit or somewhere only ‘serious academics’ would be interested in going. This is not the case! Archives are great fun and have so much to offer. The vast quantity of material available can be daunting, but with a little guidance from archivists, you can end up learning a lot, even just for fun.
Archives nationally are trying to get the public interested in, and give them easy access to, collections up and down the country. As part of this there is National Archives Week, where museums and archives put on a whole host of events to show off what they have to the general public. In November 2015 the Portsmouth Library Service ran a number of events to celebrate National Archives Week and one of them was me talking about Conan Doyle’s time in Portsmouth – a piece of local history that many people in the city are unaware of.
Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at Edinburgh University and when he qualified he set up a practice in Plymouth with his friend Dr Budd. However, in 1882 the two friends fell out and Conan Doyle decided to set up his own practice elsewhere – somewhere with a similar clientèle. He chose Portsmouth as it was a naval city like Plymouth, and so he arrived in Portsmouth on 24th June 1882 with only £10 in his pocket. Portsmouth was a lively town with a naval and military base, the people living there were mostly soldiers and the families of soldiers. The city was expanding fast as housing was being built inland from Portsmouth to Southsea to Cosham (all now under Portsmouth City Council).
Conan Doyle chose Elm Grove to set up his medical practice. It was away from the main shopping area (still called Commercial Road) but was central enough to attract clients. He moved into 1 Bush Villas, kitted out the front room with what money he had and bought a plaque with his name on it. The back room where he slept remained almost bare as he did not have enough money to furnish the whole place, only the bits that would be seen by his patients. He reportedly lost a lot of weight in the first few months of moving to Portsmouth as his savings were almost gone and the money Dr Budd had promised him to help him set up (£1 a week) never materialised. In those days it was illegal for doctors to advertise their services and so Conan Doyle struggled to let people know he was there. One day there was an accident just outside his home as a hansom collided with a pedestrian and Conan Doyle was the first doctor on the scene. When the incident was reported in the press, Conan Doyle ensured that his name and his practice was mentioned – this was the only form of advertising he could get!
The medical practice never really took off and Conan Doyle struggled to make ends meet. His patients were not rich and so even when he had patients, they were never able to pay him very much. Consequently Conan Doyle took to writing in his spare time and sent off bits and pieces to be published to supplement his income. He used the time to explore and develop his skills as a writer and wrote various novels and short stories h, including The Captain of the Polestar and other Stories (published in March 1890), a historical novel set in the seventeenth century, Micah Clarke (published in February 1889), and The Mystery of Cloomber. He also began writing another historical novel, set in the Middle Ages, The White Company. Conan Doyle later wrote about his time in Portsmouth in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Stark Munro Letters, published in 1895. However, Conan Doyle’s best known works from his time in Portsmouth are his first SHERLOCK HOLMES stories: Study in Scarlet (published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887), and The Sign of Four (published in February 1890). And so, I like to think, Sherlock Holmes was born in Portsmouth.
It was in Portsmouth that Conan Doyle discovered and honed his skills as a writer, although it was not until much later that he gave up medicine entirely. Yet it was not just his professional career that was heavily influenced by his time in Portsmouth – it was there that he met his first wife Louisa. One of his patients was a man called Jack Hawkins who came to him with cerebral meningitis. By the time he came to Conan Doyle, the disease was too far gone to treat and so Conan Doyle took Jack in as a live-in patient to give him end of life care. Louisa Hawkins, Jack’s sister, spent a lot of time visiting Jack in his final weeks and it was during this time that she and Conan Doyle gradually fell in love. They were married in 1885 (not in Portsmouth) and their first child, Mary, was born in 1899.
It was also in Portsmouth that Conan Doyle was first introduced to the ideas of Spiritualism. He was part of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, a society where intellectual men from the city would meet and listen to talks given by other members on all kinds of topics of expertise. Conan Doyle gave two during his years in Portsmouth: one on the Arctic and one of John Ruskin. It was at these meetings he met Colonel Drayson, a Spiritualist, who introduced him to the idea and there is evidence to suggest that Conan Doyle became a believer during this time. He attended séances and wrote articles for Light, a magazine for Spiritualist writings.
Arthur Conan Doyle left Portsmouth in December 1890 to pursue his career in medicine. However, by the time he left Portsmouth his name was already known in this country and across the Atlantic as an author, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He returned many times during his lifetime and had established many interests that he would continue throughout his life.
All images are from the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest, other than those specified that have been used with permission from the Portsmouth Library and Archive Service, Portsmouth City Council. For more information or to use these images, please contact the Portsmouth Library and Archive Service.