The return of Sherlock Holmes to our screens has been welcomed by many across the country but it interesting to recall the author of the original stories and his links with the local area. Arthur Conan Doyle gained his medical qualifications at Edinburgh University but began life as a GP in Southsea where he also began writing on a small scale. His early professional life was spent as a surgeon on a whaler in the Arctic Ocean and as a medical officer off the coast of West Africa.
In 1882 he set up his practice at No. 1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, Southsea and it was here his best novels were conceived. It was a difficult start as a GP and he spent his time collecting oddments of furniture to furnish his surgery, obtained drugs on credit and sitting back waiting for his first patients to arrive. To supplement his meagre income he began to write but his first effort, a short story, was rejected by many magazines. Eventually publishers Ward Lock published, “A Study in Scarlet” in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual and paid the doctor £25 (about £2,500 in today’s money) for his contribution. After a slow start, Doyle got himself an agent and soon his stories were being accepted and his income increased dramatically. Whilst in Southsea he wrote “Micah Clarke” and the early part of the story was set in Havant and there are many references to local places.
In the story, Micah Clarke told his grandchildren that he was born in Havant in 1664 – “it was a pleasant healthy spot with a hundred or more houses”. Micah’s father, was described as a leather merchant and tanner and Doyle obviously used local knowledge as Havant was an important centre for tanning. Micah had a gloomy childhood in Havant interrupted only by the occasional travelling show in the village or by a visit to the fair on Portsdown Hill. In the novel he recalls seeing a strong man, a dwarf who could fit himself into a pickle jar and a man who turned himself round a tightrope while playing on the virginal! The fair on the Hill was very popular and thousands travelled on special trains to enjoy the event until it was abolished in 1861 when the construction of the Portsdown forts was commissioned.
Doyle’s books were fine examples of story telling and his detective stories were full of imagination and entertainment. His fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, who was originally going to be called Sherringford Holmes, was based on his medical tutor, Dr Joseph Bell who had remarkable powers of observation. Watson was created from his friend, Dr James Watson, who lived in Portsmouth. Although Sherlock Holmes brought him financial success and fame, Doyle never liked the character he had created. He preferred his historical novels and decided to kill off Holmes in his next novel but due to great public demand he was obliged to resurrect him.
Doyle became well known locally as he took an active interest in the life of Portsmouth. He joined the Portsmouth Cricket Club, the Liberal Unionists and the Literary and Scientific Society and lived in Southsea for eight years and left in 1890 after building up a thriving practice. Before he left he was entertained at a banquet by many of his friends in Portsmouth. His fame was spreading and as writing was more financially beneficial than being a GP, he gave up medicine to concentrate on his writing. He was knighted in 1902 and in 1916 became a spiritualist and devoted the rest of his life to travelling, abroad, and writing books before he settled down in the New Forest and died in 1930.
He was a prolific writer which included 22 novels, 16 short stories, books on spiritualism and other factual books. At the time of his departure from Southsea, the Hampshire Telegraph reported that “He is a fine example of the healthy mind in a healthy body, entering with equal zeal into manly sports and into those exercises of the brain which seem destined to bring him fame and fortune”. After a varied life as a doctor, writer, sportsman and spiritualist, Sir Conan Doyle had proved he was as exciting as many of the characters he had created.