Sherlock Holmes' London

London has always been the choice for literary-focused travel, as one of our writers elementarily discovers.

Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (including me) all agree that TV’s Sherlock got it absolutely right. Not only was Benedict Cumberbatch the perfect modern Sherlock Holmes, but the show’s creators, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, understood that the true heroes of the Holmesian canon were Dr Watson and the city of London. The only slightly absurd thing about the TV show was that none of the characters had ever heard of Sherlock Holmes, who once lived at 221b Baker Street. Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes.

It is not easy to find the London of Sherlock Holmes, the city that Dr Watson called “That great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”. You can go to Baker Street but you will not find him there, partly because there never was a 221b (Doyle made it up) and because it is hard to imagine Holmes living close to the corporate headquarters of Marks & Spencer, Madame Tussauds wax museum or the adjacent Planetarium, where the night sky is projected inside its dome.

Holmes told his new housemate Dr Watson that he had no interest in the solar system: “You say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon, it would not make a penny-worth of difference to me or to my work.” Baker Street is a thoroughly boring London street that does not speak of the fog and mysteries of Sherlock Holmes’ London. But you can track Sherlock Holmes down in today’s London if you use your experiences of life in modern Malaysia. As the makers of Sherlock have shown us, to find Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, you must see not the oldness of London, but only its newness.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the perfect modern Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle MD

Like many, if not most, Londoners, Doyle was not born in London, but the city has the ability to ingest newcomers and very quickly turn them into proper Londoners. Nineteenth-century London is principally associated with Charles Dickens, who was also not born in London, but the teeming and iniquitous city he had written about in the 1850s had already grown from two million to six million by the 1880s, when Doyle arrived as a hopeful Scottish doctor. After stints as a doctor on a whaling ship and unsuccessful medical practices on England’s south coast, Doyle decided to specialise as an ophthalmologist in London, where he said he never had a single patient. While lounging and waiting for customers who never arrived, he remembered Joseph Bell, his charismatic lecturer at Edinburgh University who, according to Doyle, “prided himself that when he looked at a patient, he could tell not only their disease but very often their occupation and places of residence.”

Doyle started writing and his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, was released in 1889. It was an instant sensation and the subsequent stories would go on to make Doyle globally famous and forever regretful that he had created Sherlock Holmes. Within only two years, he wrote to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all.” His mother responded on behalf of millions: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!”

Jack the Ripper

Doyle wrote brilliant descriptions of London in the first two Sherlock Holmes mysteries, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, but after that, he did not. This must be partly because he wrote the four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories between 1888 and 1927, so he needed to create the sense of a timeless and ageless Sherlock Holmes. But this must be mainly because Sherlock Holmes is a creature of the London in the 1880s and that London was long gone by the 1920s. Our modern world’s obsession with murder and mayhem came into being in the 1880s. Doyle’s friend and fellow Edinburgh Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson had explored the grotesque in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, about an idealistic young doctor who turns himself into an evil monster, and such a creature appeared to be slicing its way through London’s East End in the same year that Doyle created Sherlock Holmes. The East End’s murderer of prostitutes, who was never caught, came to be known as Jack the Ripper.

From 1888 to 1891, one or several persons killed at least five and possibly eleven prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel. In today’s Whitechapel/Brick Lane area, you can find clear evidence of Sherlock Holmes’ London even though it is only a short walk from the modernity of the City, where trillions are traded every day. Please join one of the excellent if somewhat sensational walking tours and your guide will show you where the crimes were committed in Whitechapel’s tight streets, which are still much as they were back then, and then you can finish your trip with a delicious Bangladeshi meal.

Brick Lane is the heart of London's Bangladeshi community

For centuries, the Whitechapel/Brick Lane area was where London’s immigrants first arrived and settled. There is now a mosque in Brick Lane that was created when Bangladeshis moved into the dilapidated area in the 1970s. Before that, the building was a synagogue for 19th-century Russian Jews and before that, it was a church for 17th-century French Protestants, the Huguenots. And nearby, next to what were once the largest docks in the world, is Limehouse, where Malay, Indian and especially Chinese sailors would live while on shore leave and which became notorious for its opium dens that Sherlock Holmes used to frequent, ostensibly to research a case.

A friend of mine used to own an old house on Princelet Street off Brick Lane, outside of which one of Jack the Ripper’s victims was discovered. In the 1980s, I was living in London and my friend paid me a paltry sum to clean his house, which led to a private trip back in time and not much work being done.

Back in the 1700s, it would have been a fine house in a good neighbourhood and it had traces of the silk wallpaper that the Huguenots were famous for making, but by Sherlock Holmes’ time, the whole area had descended into abject squalor. Three families may have been crammed into a small room or a rope may have been hung across a room and people paid to hook an arm over it and try to catch some sleep. Pigs may have been kept in the cellar. As one charity worker discovered, a dead baby was left on a table for days because the parents could not afford to have it buried.

I found a drawer with photographs left behind by a Jewish family. There was an old photo of two laughing boys and I recognised the brick wall that was behind them. I found the wall and lined up the photograph and suddenly before me were two boys from the 1920s.

The house has since been converted into a beautiful slice of 18th-century London and you can stay there, if you pay £1,383 per night.

Jack the Ripper’s crimes were sensationalised in the new newspapers that catered for London’s exploding middle class and although the readers were horrified by the grisly details, nobody really cared. Whitechapel was where foreigners lived and who cared how they died when everybody knew they lived happily in squalor. Almost all the dead prostitutes were Irish (the first victim was Swedish) and if the engravings in the newspapers are to be believed, well, they did not look like Heather Graham, who played one in the awful movie, From Hell. In those days, the English thought the Irish were essentially subhuman and in drawings of them, they were usually given apelike characteristics. I once met a salt-of-the-earth Londoner with an Irish name who complained bitterly about “them Pakis” who are “not like us”. When I pointed out to her that the Irish were once considered to be subhuman, she said, “I don’t know nuffink about that.”

The middle-class London of the 1880s did not care about the victims and, if anything, the awful demises merely confirmed racial prejudices, but nice people were becoming concerned that the vileness of Whitechapel could spill out to nice areas and that the police were hopelessly unable to solve the crimes. The police were becoming, it was whispered, incompetent. London’s police chief Sir Charles Warren was sacked but not because of the failure to find Jack the Ripper but because he had allowed a demonstration by hungry East End dockworkers to enter the fashionable West End where a riot ensued. Warren was quietly “transferred” to Malaya where he became the head of the armed forces and he caused a sensation when inspecting the troops in Kuala Lumpur because nobody so famous had ever visited this backwater before.

Detective work was a low priority for the Victorian police compared with suppressing London’s revolting natives and into this void stepped the “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes. London was growing so fast and the newspapers were filled with stories of horrors that the police were simply unable to solve, so when Holmes arrived fully formed in A Study in Scarlet, he was received with thanks by a frightened middle class. While looking for clues in this very first crime, Sherlock Holmes immediately castigates the bumbling officer (Inspector G Lestrade was not there) for allowing his men to trample over any footprints and for generally destroying a crime scene: “If a herd of buffaloes had passed along, there could not be a greater mess.”

Whitechapel... where Jack the Ripper committed his crimes

With the wisdom of his very own study of different types of cigar ash, bicycle tyres and even different types of mud, he inspected the dead body and the room. “He whipped out a tape measure and a large magnifying glass,” writes an amazed
Dr Watson, who had only just met Holmes. “With these two implements, he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling and once lying flat on his face. In one place, he carefully gathered up a little pile of grey dust from the floor and packed it away in an envelope.”

We have seen countless TV police detectives do the same thing but this was the first time that anybody had ever read about the application of science for solving a crime. Doyle’s scene and his creation, Sherlock Holmes, are openly mocking the policemen who can only dumbly watch the birth of forensic science. Then, in another trope of the detective genre, Holmes immediately informs us that he has solved the crime, but he won’t tell us the who, how or why till the end of the story. It is absolutely gripping stuff and it is one of the miracles of literature that it was somehow created by an unsuccessful ophthalmologist.

Kuala London

As a Malaysian, you will have seen Malaysia and, especially Kuala Lumpur, grow at a bewildering speed over the last 20 years. New townships have suddenly appeared where once there were rubber plantations, squatters or tin mines. I have seen so many of them arrive and always thought they would never survive and yet, seemingly overnight, they have grown into settled neighbourhoods with ubiquitous car repair shops, mamak restaurants and ophthalmologists.

By employing your experiences as a Malaysian, you have the eyes and detective skills to be able to see Sherlock Holmes’ London. You can look at a 2,000-year-old city like London and strip away the modern signage, modern cars, fast food chains and even the streetlights to reveal buildings and a city that were all once spanking new. London’s population grew from less than two million to more than six million in the 50 years from 1850 and old places had to be destroyed as new places had to be built to accommodate the growth of what was then the largest and richest city on earth. You will be able to see that Baker Street was not always an expensive central London location but an outlying district where two bachelors could afford to share rooms.

You will be able to understand, even if you do not know the names, that when Sherlock Holmes’ clients, witnesses and murder victims came from such places as Brixton Road, Peckham or Houndsditch, these were essentially new villages and old kampungs being inexorably absorbed into the body of London Baharu. Walk the streets of London with your Malaysian eyes and you will soon see the hansom cabs and the cobblestones that lie beneath almost every road, all murkily lit by gaslight. And then you will definitely see Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr Watson dashing away to solve a murder.


Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes

Holmes without Watson would have been an arrogant and nasty man. Without Watson, Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime”, would have been one and the same. Fans of Doyle’s books know that it was Dr Watson who wrote the stories of their crime solving and it is perhaps his character that comes through more than the brilliant but illusive Sherlock Holmes. Doyle did refer to Watson as being Sherlock Holmes’ “rather stupid friend” but Watson was Doyle and it is through their collective eyes that we see Sherlock Holmes. Watson is solid, dependable, ever ready with a revolver in a difficult situation, very interested in women (Sherlock Holmes is not, except perhaps for Irene Adler) and Watson is constantly amazed by Sherlock Holmes’ powers of deduction. It is Watson who provides him with the humanity and adoration in what would otherwise have been a loveless life and, for one brief moment, Watson even managed to rise above his reserved and terribly British demeanour and admit that, “It is my greatest joy and privilege to help you”. The makers of TV’s exceptionally magnificent Sherlock understood this and their stories became about the difficult friendship as much as the crimes.

Doyle wrote sparingly about actual London locations, so it is hard for me to say that you must go here or go there. Instead, Holmesian London will be all around you when you visit London and you can see it if you use your imagination. But thanks to Sherlock, there is now one place.

I went on a wonderful Sherlock Holmes walking tour (you must too) and our guide took us behind St Bartholomew’s Hospital. This was where Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson first met (when Holmes was whipping a dead body, for scientific purposes) and from its roof, the makers of Sherlock had Sherlock Holmes fall to his death in front of his only friend Watson. Spoiler alert: he did not actually die but this otherwise completely anonymous and nondescript spot has become a shrine to Sherlock Holmes fans as much as Abbey Road has for Beatles fans. Over 100 years after Sherlock Holmes was created, people from around the world have scrawled messages on the wall in many different languages.

In Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the world’s most enduringly famous detective, possibly the most famous fictional character. Not a bad achievement for a failed ophthalmologist.

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