Go to the Westminster Libraries & Archives home pageSherlock Holmes Collection - how it all began

The scene is set

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When I look at the massive volumes of press cuttings for the year 1950 I find that it was a wild, tempestuous night towards the close of October when the Council of the London Borough of St Marylebone sat together. Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows.

The issue under debate at the meeting on Thursday, 26 October 1950, was the Council's contribution to the Festival of Britain to be held in the following year. The Labour Group proposed an exhibition on change and progress in the Borough since 1851. This exhibition, they urged, should show how Marylebone had changed over the century from 1851, how slums had been cleared away. Such a display could be both instructive and inspiring. However, the Committee who would be responsible for organising such an event looked carefully at the proposal, and turned it down. No suitable hall was available which could be set aside for a period of several months, the exhibition might prove very expensive and, overseas visitors would not find it attractive. They would come to be entertained, not to be edified.

An alternative idea was put forward by Councillor Robert H. Sharp: Sherlock Holmes. The original intention was to include the early Strand Magazines, where Conan Doyle's short stories and the later two novels first appeared. A large number of visitors to St Marylebone asked to see the house where Holmes shared his rooms with Watson. The Labour Group did not consider this good enough. Councillor Tom Vernon asked the Council to think again. Of course the idea of a Sherlock Holmes exhibition was a good one, and would be "a quite amusing thing to do”. But it could be done at any time; it had no obvious link to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Did the Council of the reputed "premier Borough" really want to tell the world that the most important thing to be said of St Marylebone was that an author called Conan Doyle had chosen to locate the rooms of his entirely fictitious detective in Baker Street - and at an address that did not exist before 1930? Until that year Baker Street ran from Portman Square to Crawford Street. York Place ran north to Marylebone Road, then becoming Upper Baker Street as far as Regent's Park. Baker Street itself had no numbers higher than 85. In 1930, Baker Street was renumbered. York Place and Upper Baker Street disappeared and the numbering became that still in use today, with Abbey National Building Society's head office at numbers 217 - 229.


The public aghast

It soon became clear that the Conservative majority on the Council was in favour of allowing Marylebone to show its achievements and Councillor Vernon withdrew his motion. It was at this point that the fun started. The entire national press misreported the Council's deliberations, representing them as having rejected the idea of a Sherlock Holmes exhibition. Councillor Vernon was held up as the one responsible for speaking against Holmes. Letters of protest were sent to the Council and Councillor Vernon and a number of cartoons were published. One of the best shows the Council reading a letter from a certain Professor Moriarty threatening to blow up the exhibition on Holmes should it take place.

Even The Times was drawn into the conflict. A remarkable series of letters appeared in October and November of that year from Holmes’ friends and associates. Dr Watson, of course, rallied to his old colleague’s support, pointing out that Holmes himself was far too occupied beekeeping in Sussex to come to his own defence. "There is much housing in the Metropolis, but there is but one Sherlock Holmes ... Perhaps this is time’s revenge for the exposure by Mr Sherlock Holmes of the evil machinations of the Norwood Builder..." (Letter to the editor, 28/10/50). Watson signed himself "Your humble but indignant servant ... John H. Watson, late of the Indian Army". Councillor Sharp replied on the 31 October that “the matter was, and still is, as I see it, under consideration”. He admitted to owning Holmes' violin; did anyone have any other memorabilia they would be willing to lend to such an exhibition?

Arthur Wonter and many others wrote offering advice and the loan of Holmes' effects. Mycroft Holmes wrote pointing out that Watson never was in the Indian Army, but the British Army Medical Department, attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers, temporarily seconded to the Berkshires! Mrs Hudson, as a "ratepayer", suggested on 1 November that Madame Tussauds would be a desirable venue for the exhibition. Even The New York Herald Tribune carried a leading article on what Councillor Vernon was supposed to have said. Labour Life, the magazine of the St Marylebone Labour Party, remarked in December, 1950, “Whatever our amusement or our amazement over all this extravagant nonsense, if we do have the 100 years exhibition we want, it will certainly benefit from all this advance publicity on the Sherlock Holmes item in it”. Who actually wrote these letters from Holmes' friends and associates? It is a story for which the world is now perhaps, prepared. Ian Leslie was Dr Watson; Colin Prestige was Mrs Hudson, and Kate Whitney was probably Councillor Whitney of Marylebone Council. (Private correspondence with Richard Lancelyn Green). The names of the other perpetrators seem now, alas, to be lost in the mists of time.


The die is cast

Finally, at the Council meeting on 31 October, the decision was taken. St. Marylebone's contribution to the 1951 Festival Britain would be an exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. Two days later, on 2 November, another letter was published in The Times from Dr Watson. There had been a mysterious fire at Holmes' Sussex house, and many of his artefacts and records had been destroyed. Holmes himself could not help St. Marylebone with the exhibition! Watson also pointed out, a trifle testily, that Mycroft should know that it was customary for members of Her Majesty’s Forces serving in India to describe themselves as "of the Indian Army”. He also gave rather short shrift to Kate Whitney who, in a letter of 31 October, had queried his signed Christian name, when his wife called him James! On 6 November the real culprit admitted starting the whole thing. A letter was published in The Times which contained the words, "As the harmless enthusiast who originally suggested a Sherlock Holmes exhibition to the Marylebone Library authority, I naturally rejoice to find the idea so resoundingly vindicated". It was signed James Edward Holroyd.


The exhibition takes shape

The original idea of displaying early editions of the stories together with the other books and journals on the subject was taken up. The venue was chosen as Marylebone Library. It was even hoped to borrow the first pages of the original notes for A Study in Scarlet. The full details finally emerged on 7th April 1951 - the exhibition would open on 22nd May, Conan Doyle's birthday, and would be open from 10.30 am to 7.30 pm everyday except Sundays, and run until 22nd September 1951. It would be held at Abbey House, 221B Baker Street. However, the organisers were still in need of some items. The centrepiece of the exhibition was to be a full-scale reproduction of Sherlock Holmes' sitting room as it would have appeared in 1898. This was designed by Michael Weight (1906-1973), the theatrical designer, working to specifications culled from the Canon. Also involved were Jack Thorne, librarian at Marylebone; Mrs Freda Howlett, also at Marylebone; Anthony Howlett, a leading authority on Sherlock Holmes, who specialised in the theatrical and cinematic exhibits; Professor W. T. Williams as chief scientific adviser; and Winifred Paget, daughter of Sidney Paget. (Incidentally, on 18th April 1951 a number of enthusiasts met in Marylebone Town Hall and resolved to found the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, which was inaugurated at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 17th July 1951). Conan Doyle's family was also generous in their help, loaning photographs and manuscripts. (Private correspondence with Stanley Mackenzie, Tony and Freda Howlett).


Accuracy is of the essence

Every detail of Holmes' room as described by Dr Watson was included. Indeed, the amount set aside for the project was a staggering 3,500 (The Times 27/1/51). A jack-knife impaled unanswered correspondence to the mantelpiece, a patriotic VR in bullet-marks decorated one wall, gasogene and Persian slipper were to hand. In fact, the whole room seemed as if Holmes and Watson had just left. Afternoon tea still lay on the table, half-eaten. As a matter of fact, this tea had caused some problems. The exhibition was to open in May. Muffins tended to be rather scarce in the summer months then. So buttered toast was substituted. This was severely criticised by visitors to the exhibition! So - a baker had to be found to supply fresh muffins each day. After all, Mrs Hudson would never have considered serving stale muffins. Jack Thorne duly found an accommodating baker - in St Albans! Then, two separate members of staff had to take a bite out of two of the muffins. Holmes and Watson may have shared the same rooms, they did not share the same set of teeth! No doubt, had only one person sampled the muffins, some eagle-eyed student of Holmes, founding his method like the Master on the observation of trifles, would have spotted the error. (They may have been crumpets - the reports in The Times waiver between the two!).

Jack Thorne was looking for "the footprint of a gigantic hound", to be cast in plaster. He approached Scotland Yard for permission to use one of their bloodhounds. They used a dog that guarded Clarence House. When Queen Mary visited the exhibition this information had to be hidden as she had a strong dislike of large dogs and was not aware that they guarded her London home (Private correspondence with Mrs. Marianne Thorne).

There was also trouble over the background effects provided. Somewhere "outside" the "rooms" a barrel organ was playing. The Times reported that visitors had complained the melody was "Yes, we have no bananas". This had not been composed in 1898, so the matter was seen to - "Goodbye Dolly Gray" wafted over Baker Street. However, in a letter to The Times on 21 June 1951 Geoffrey Stephens, the Borough Librarian, maintained that "Yes, we have no bananas" had not been played at all. The soundtrack had been specially commissioned for the exhibition, and had not been changed for that reason. Besides, those responsible would never have made such an elementary mistake.

In April 1951 The Times published another bout of Sherlockian correspondence. This time it was speculation as to where 221B actually was! On the 19 May this was crushed once and for all by Councillor Sharp, who pointed out that Abbey National were providing free of cost and for indefinite period "a magnificent room"; that should be enough. He also put out a plea for a few items still lacking: a Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, a portrait of Henry Ward Beecher, and 1898 newspapers. Both Beecher and the Beeton’s were finally located.

It was this minute attention to detail that made the exhibition such a resounding success. It was questioned, for example, whether Watson would have used a binaural stethoscope, surely the Victorian one was a single tube? Yes he would, the organisers could reply - one had been on view at the Great Exhibition of 1851. On 21 June a season ticket for the duration of the exhibition was announced at 5s (25p), and also the imminent publication of a catalogue at 1s (5p). A second edition was published a little later, detailing some additional items which had been added to the Exhibition. On the 17 September 1951, five days before the exhibition was due to close, the 50,000th visitor viewed the exhibits - the very Reverend C. A. Rutherford, prior of Downside Abbey, Bath. He was presented with an inscribed copy of the Sherlock Holmes stories.


But what of the future?

In a letter to The Times, published 18th August 1951, Dr. Charles Newman wrote of how impressed he was with the room. It was not merely a reconstruction of Sherlock Holmes' room, it was a living representation of a high Victorian room and as such should be preserved for posterity. His suggestion was that after the closure of the Festival of Britain, it should be transferred to the new London Museum in Kensington. Councillor Sharp agreed that the room should be preserved (to the editor of The Times 23/8/51), but Michael Weight (21/8/51) felt that it would not be practicable. What made the room “live”, other than the association with Sherlock Holmes, was the air of having just been left and the "noises off" from "Baker Street". These would be well nigh impossible to recreate in a museum atmosphere.

After closing in London, the exhibition travelled to the United States, complete with Baker Street dust, for a two year tour. The curator for this was C. T. Thorne, on a year's leave from St. Marylebone. Four crates were sufficient! It opened in New York in the Plaza Art Galleries on 59th Street on 2nd July 1952. There were one or two small differences. Holmes' box of memorabilia was a little larger, and a giant rat had appeared from somewhere, presumably Sumatra. Nathan L. Bengis saw the exhibition and felt moved to write to The Times. His verdict? "It is truly the Ultimia Thule of romance". (17/7/52).

On its return to London, after items loaned by various individuals had been returned most of the remaining artefacts, including the reproduction of the sitting-room, were installed in the Sherlock Holmes Public House in Northumberland Street, a mere stone's throw from the Turkish Baths frequented by Holmes and Watson. The pub was formally opened on 12th December 1957. The books, magazines and relating to the exhibition returned to Marylebone Library, where they formed the nucleus of the Sherlock Holmes Collection, housed in the then Local History room.

In 1959 the Sherlock Holmes Society of London purchased a bookcase to house the Collection, on the occasion of the centenary of Conan Doyle’s birth on 22nd May 1859.

Little attention seems to have been paid to the Collection over the next decade or so. In 1965 the boroughs of Paddington and Westminster amalgamated with St. Marylebone to form the new City of Westminster. Modernisation of Marylebone library in 1969 resulted in the Local History Collection moving in to what had been part of the Reference Library, with the Reference Librarian and Deputy moving into the office thus vacated, but still occupied by the Sherlock Holmes Collection.


A new beginning

In 1973, the City Librarian, K. C. Harrison, FLA, decided that the Sherlock Holmes Collection should be up-dated and expanded. Westminster were fortunate at that time that a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, Heather Owen, was working in the Local History Department at Marylebone. Mrs Owen was only too pleased to take on the Collection. It soon outgrew its bookcase, overflowing on to a stack of shelves and into filing cabinet drawers. A second bookcase was purchased by Westminster in 1980. Lists of desiderata were compiled from bibliographies, and important contacts forged with Sherlockian societies, collectors and dealers world-wide.

Mrs Owen resigned in May 1981. Her successor in the Local History Department, Ann James, took over the Collection, though not being herself a student of Sherlockiana. However not far away was yet another member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London working in Marylebone Library, Catherine Cooke, who took over the Collection in March 1982. The rapid growth of the Collection in recent years gave rise to serious problems as it threatened to outgrow its accommodation. The Sherlock Holmes Society of London again came to the rescue, with a generous donation of another bookcase in September 1985.

In August 1993 a further reorganisation within Marylebone Library meant that the Collection was at last able to move into a room of its own, acquiring another bookcase in the process. A map cabinet to house posters was added in March 1995.

A full printed catalogue, 'The Contents of a Lumber-room', was published in 1986. This listed all the English language books, pamphlets and journals held and gave detailed descriptions of other areas of holdings, such as newspaper cuttings and photographic material. During the early 1990s, the older stock was added to the library’s computer catalogue. Information on all books, all audio-visual material and all major pamphlets was now accessible at any library in Westminster. Westminster’s catalogue was made available over the Internet in December 2000, opening the Collection up to a much wider audience. 


Footnote:


Visit the 1951 Sherlock Holmes Exhibition.
Go to the 1951 Sherlock Holmes Exhibition text-index.

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Last updated 04/12/01.