My PhD thesis looks at the fan culture surrounding Sherlock Holmes from Holmes’ appearance in The Strand Magazine up to the death of Conan Doyle (1890s-1930). However, it was not until 1934 that an official British or American Sherlock Holmes society existed and this fascinates me. Why the 1930s? Was this because Conan Doyle had passed and readers felt they then had more freedom of expression? Was it just part of a wider increased popularity in ‘clubs’? Did the age of the society members influence when the society was first formed (most members were young when the stories were first published)? I would love to be able to answer all of these questions, but sadly I have not been able.
The amount of information available on The Sherlock Holmes Society is limited, but one person who did a large chunk of research on the topic was Richard Lancelyn Green. In 1994 Richard gave a talk to the Sherlock Holmes Society of London (the later society, formed in 1951, and still going today) on the pre-war society. Richard’s research for the talk can be found at the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at Portsmouth Library.
I first became aware of The Sherlock Holmes Society when I was curating a display for Portsmouth City Museum. Its theme was ‘The History of Fandom’ and so I wanted to make sure it represented a span of years from Holmes’ publication through to today. In my search I found a number of copies of The Baker Street Studies (1934) – a collection of essays written by authors such as H W Bell, crime-writer Dorothy L Sayers, and A G Macdonnell. The latter I discovered was the Honorary Secretary of the Sherlock Holmes Society and the author of the inscription in the 1st edition pictured below. The addressee, the President of the society, was none other than Rev. Dick Sheppard.
I was curious about this society – who were they? where did they meet? why was the society formed? All of these questions, rather conveniently, were answered by Richard’s talk and subsequent article in the Sherlock Holmes Journal (Vol 22. No.1). I quote parts of the article here:
The Sherlock Holmes Society came into existence in April 1934 when A. G. Macdonell invited a number of enthusiasts to a sherry party. According to S. C. Roberts, ‘those present declared themselves to be the Sherlock Holmes Society. No one seemed very clear about the objects or activities of the Society except that we should hold an annual dinner on, or near, the date of Derby Day.’
[…] The core members of the Society had chosen themselves: A. G. Macdonnell, S. C. Roberts, H. W. Bell, Dorothy Sayers, Helen Simpson, T. S. Blakeney, Desmond MacCarthy, Edward Behrens and R. Ivar Gunn. Many of the others were drawn from the Detection Club which Dorothy Sayers and Anthony Berkeley had founded in 1928. The Club had premises in Soho and was supported by the royalties of books written by the members – such as Ask a Policeman (1933).
[…] The President-elect was H. R. L. ‘Dick’ Sheppard, the famous vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields who pioneered religious broadcasting and was known across the country as the author of a weekly column in the Sunday Express. He was a leading figure in the pacifist movement and was greatly admired by Macdonnell, his neighbour in Surrey.
[…] Among others there was Alan Thomas, who later became the editor of the Listener, and Frank Morley, who worked for Faber and Faber and had published in the Criterion Miscellany. He was acting as a go-between for his brother Christopher who had founded The Baker Street Irregulars of New York earlier in the year.
Richard goes on to describe the events at the first Sherlock Holmes Society dinner and the subsequent meetings. Such fun tit-bits include two members turning up to the dinner in a hansom cab; the Honorary Secretary getting uproarious at Dorothy Sayers’ suggestion that Holmes had attended Cambridge University because he ‘was emulating Watson’s example by drinking copious amounts of wine’ (Beaune to be precise); and the presentation of an ear-flapped cap and a naval treaty under a metal dish to the President at every dinner. The aim of the society seemed to be to have fun, discuss Holmes, and enjoy the company of like-minded people.
The society disbanded in 1938 when the Honorary Secretary sent an unsigned postcard to all the former members, stating:
‘THE SHERLOCK HOLMES SOCIETY – LIKE THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE- IS DISSOLVED’
Richard’s article is thorough, but like every good researcher, there were aspects even he was not sure about and wanted to know more. While composing his talk, Richard attempted to contact Mr John Macdonnell, a relation of A G Macdonnell (Honorary Secretary). Richard and John had both been on the Swan Hellenic Cruise in August 1987 and met while on board. Richard wrote a letter to John asking a number of questions: he asked about the rumour that A. G. Macdonnell had an affair with the wife of Dick Sheppard, as well as the circumstance of Macdonnell’s death, as it was unclear whether Macdonnell died in an air raid, ‘syncope’, or suicide. Asking about such delicate topics had the potential to be perceived as insensitive, but Richard’s polite style and clear aim for truth rather than gossip gives the letter warmth. Unfortunately, Richard did not have the address for John Macdonnell and so sent the letter via the cruise company who were unable to assist in forwarding the letter on and so it was returned and kept in Richard’s collection.
Richard attributes the disbanding of the society in part to the relationship between Macdonnell and Mrs Sheppard, and partly to the death of Dick Sheppard in October 1937. It would take 13 years for another Sherlock Holmes Society to form in Britain, meanwhile the Baker Street Irregulars continued to meet in New York and expand.
* If anyone has any further information about the pre-war Sherlock Holmes Society, I would love to hear from you.
** My special thanks go to Roger Johnson, Peggy Perdue, and Nicholas Utechin for their generous sharing of information and for helping me direct my searches in and outside of the archive.