Preview: The Museum of London’s Sherlock Holmes exhibition, opens 17th October

Museum of London Accession Number IN30807 Alvin Langdon CoburnMy preview from the Express this weekend…

Sherlock fans!  The game’s afoot.  From Friday we’ll be able to get closer than ever to the greatest detective who never lived.  Better still, we’ll be able to travel back in time to visit his foggy, gas-lit and crime-ridden city.  The Museum of London’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibition opens this week, and it puts him firmly back into the world in which he lived.

Today the BBC’s Benedict Cumberbatch ‘is’ Sherlock Holmes for many people, and both his iconic overcoat and dressing gown will be included in the show.  But the great city of London is almost a third character in the Holmes stories, alongside the hero himself and his sidekick Dr Watson, and the exhibition will also bring to life the original Sherlock’s London of the 1880s and 1890s.

Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, often shows us the dark side of the city, but in fact late Victorian London was the envy of the world.  True, there were still the opium dens, gangs of homeless boys (‘The Baker Street Irregulars’) and criminals for Holmes to chase at night by steam boat down the river.  But it was a city that prided itself on its efficiency and modernity.  The slums of Dickens’s day had been cleared.  The new railways ran on time.  According to Pat Hardy, one of the exhibition’s curators, late Victorian London ‘was a place of wealth and excitement and vibrancy’.  Londoners were ‘capitalists and consumers, they expected things to work.’  That’s why Holmes appealed, Pat says: ‘He could surprise even the most jaded of readers.’

Conan Doyle had an excellent understanding of his market.  Many of Holmes’s clients are bigwigs; government ministers, foreign royals.  But perhaps the majority are respectable ordinary people: vicars, typists, railway porters, landladies, governesses … the sort of people who had to walk home after work along the shadowy streets, reassuring themselves with the thought Sherlock Homes, a superhero for their times, could deliver them from evil.

These streets were shrouded in fog, partly meteorological, partly carbon spewed out by a million coal fires.  A visiting American found London’s celebrated fog ‘very black indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else.’  It was the cover for many a misdeed: the Old Bailey’s records of crimes committed in London mention ‘the fog’ ten times more often in the nineteenth century than in the hundred years before.  The fog is ‘all part of that gothic atmosphere’ in Conan Doyle’s stories, Pat Hardy explains.  And in real life, the stunning lighting effects produced by the fog attracted artists from round the world.  The exhibition will contain, for example, the American Alvin Langdon Coburn’s magnificent photogravure of the dome of St Paul’s (above) emerging majestically from the miasma.

The city was sharply divided between rich and poor, as the philanthropist Charles Booth’s ‘Descriptive Map of Poverty’ illustrates.  Booth was almost as obsessive about classifying things as Holmes was, and coloured his map with eight grades from wealthy to poor.  Poverty-stricken areas are tinted black and labeled ‘semi-criminal’.   The most notorious slums had by the 1880s been cleared: New Oxford Street, for example, had been cut through the vast ‘rookery’ of St Giles in order to ‘ventilate’ it.  But this displaced many poorer people to the East End, where the ‘worst’ streets of London were to now be found.  The crimes attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’ would take place only months after Holmes’s first appearance in fiction.  As Holmes’s character developed over the following decades, he became almost the ‘Ripper’s’ mirror image, one of them good, the other bad, both of them powerful and mysterious.

Both of them also seemed totally familiar with the city.  Watson describes how Holmes would pass ‘rapidly and with an assured step through a network of mews and stables the very existence of which I had never known’.  More than four hundred identifiable London locations appear in the stories.  In the very first, A Study in Scarlet (1887)Watson wastes time in the Criterion Bar at Piccadilly Circus, has lunch in Holborn, then goes to meet a potential housemate, a strange fellow, ‘a little queer in his ideas’ (this is Holmes), who is working in the chemical laboratory at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield.  You can retrace his exact footsteps today.  It’s a portrait of a city that – despite the bombs, despite the planners – still exists.

Holmes often gets about London by train.  In ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’ the corpse is even dumped onto the roof of a train, then falls off when the carriages bump over the points at Aldersgate (now the Barbican) station.   Holmes frequently crosses London’s bridges, spanning a river that was now tamed, the new Embankment having been completed in the 1860s.  London’s wonderful new system of sewers carried the contents of people’s water closets safely away to the sea.  But bathrooms in the home were far very from universal, and Holmes not unusual in going for a Turkish bath at a specialist establishment.

Holmes also visits specialist establishments for the smoking of opium, and the exhibition includes a recreated chemist’s shop with the kind of equipment that he would have used for his experiments in toxicology, and for ingesting the drugs that he fell back upon during his spells of depression.  Cocaine and morphia, Holmes’s favourites, were not yet illegal, and were readily available over the counter.

It’s sometimes hard to remember that Holmes was only a fictional character, so well do we seem to know him.  Yet he’ll always go on astonishing us.  The exhibition also contains Conan Doyle’s original manuscript for one of the very last Holmes stories, ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client’ (1925).  In it, Watson comes across an evening newspaper placard reading ‘Murderous Attack on Sherlock Holmes’.

Is Holmes dead or alive?  Well, it would spoil the surprise to tell you.  But his spirit is certainly alive and well at the Museum of London.

2 thoughts on “Preview: The Museum of London’s Sherlock Holmes exhibition, opens 17th October

  1. Chris Hough

    In some aspects London in Holmes’s time was a lot like todays With fantastic wealth for some with perhaps the Russian oligarchs taking the place of the Americain tycoons looking for tiitled husbands for their daughters
    The East End to a small degree also mirrors the late Victorian era with immigration of people fleeing the Tsarist pogroms etc; today replaced by eastern Europeans in search of a better life and people from the African continent and the east .
    I think that one of the reasons Holmes keeps his popularity is the fact he is unchanging in a changing world both then and now.Also the stories and novels are superbly written by a master story teller

  2. Dean Rowell

    Splendid preview. I am looking forward to the exhibition. Best wishes !


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