How Sherlock Holmes Got His Name
On the Early Days of Arthur Conan Doyle's Iconic Character
His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method,
have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.
–Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
* * * *
“A tangled skein,” Arthur Conan Doyle scribbled in one of his cheap red marbled notebooks. He was considering possible titles and images for the detective novel that had begun to grow in his imagination. For this note he may have been recalling a prominent image in Émile Gaboriau’s 1867 novel The Mystery of Orcival, featuring Monsieur Lecoq. In one passage Gaboriau describes an investigator’s thoughts: “The difficulty is to seize at the beginning, in the entangled skein, the main thread, which must lead to the truth through all the mazes, the ruses, silence, falsehoods of the guilty.” It had been translated into English in 1871, only two years before Gaboriau’s death; Arthur was 12 at the time.
Later Arthur crossed out A Tangled Skein and replaced it with the title A Study in Scarlet, which he explained in Chapter 4. “I must thank you for it all,” says Holmes to Watson, who persuaded him to look into the mystery. “I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon. There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”
Holmes’s remark still echoed Gaboriau. In setting this new title above his melodrama, however, Arthur seemed to be aiming for a more artistic tone than the usual blood and thunder of the thriller field. A study was an artist’s preliminary sketch, or in literature a thoughtful survey. In using the term in a finished work, united with a particular color, Arthur aligned himself with the Aesthetic movement—with writers and critics such as Walter Pater and the young Oscar Wilde. Pater’s 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance was considered a sacred text of Aestheticism, and the notoriously decadent Algernon Charles Swinburne had published in 1880 a book entitled Studies in Song. L’art pour l’art was the unofficial group’s motto, “art for art’s sake,” implying that art was divorced from the burden of moral education that had bowed its back through centuries. One of the best-known painters among the Aesthetics was James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American-born but long settled in London, who was famous for works such as his 1862 painting “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,” and his 1871 portrait of his mother titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1.” Thus the title A Study in Scarlet lent Arthur’s novel an artsy frisson of vice.
From the very first, Arthur thought in scenes. Under the title he wrote in his notes, The terrified woman rushing up to the cabman. The two going in search of a policeman. John Reeves had been 7 years in the force, John Reeves went back with them. Soon memories of Joe Bell at Edinburgh played like a stage drama across Arthur’s imagination. He remembered his aquiline face, his sharp, perceptive gaze. He imagined that if a keen observer à la Dr. Bell applied himself to crime instead of to medicine, he would represent an almost invincible combination of perception and knowledge—at least in the stage-managed world of popular fiction.
Real-world crime detection was more haphazard and erratic. Forensics encountered resistance from tradition, like the rest of science. One of the most dramatic advances in criminal investigation—the detection of previously overlooked fingerprints and their value as a form of identification— had been initiated in India in the 1850s. But a systematic approach for it had been proposed only as recently as 1880, by a Scottish surgeon named Henry Faulds. In 1886, the year that Arthur wrote A Study in Scarlet, Faulds presented his idea to London’s police department—which dismissed it as far-fetched and impractical.
But as yet Arthur had little interest in actual criminal investigation. Instead he began to envision his detective as a kind of awe-inspiring genius who dazzled a befuddled world with his insight. Such an omniscient character would sound insufferably smug narrating his own triumphs, however, and with access to his thoughts a reader might too soon perceive the puzzle pieces coming together. Thus, like Poe’s Dupin, he would need a Boswell. Arthur was transforming the doctor who inspired him into a detective, and he made this assistant into a physician. The scientific training and humanitarian outlook of medicine shaped Arthur’s outlook on many topics.
On another page he wrote at the top, Study in Scarlet. Below this new title he listed his main characters, beginning with a name for the physician who would narrate: Ormond Sacker [or Secker]—from Sudan. The given name Ormond probably occurred to Arthur because of the Great Ormond Street Hospital, near the British Museum in Bloomsbury. Founded in the early 1850s as the Hospital for Sick Children—the first such institution in England—it had grown from a mere ten beds to a major center well-known to physicians and medical students across the nation. Charles Dickens was an important early promoter.
The surname Sacker or Secker may have come from a small lane called Secker Street behind St. John’s Church near London’s other important center for helping the unprotected: Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women. Perhaps Arthur picked up several names for his novel from a single glance at a London map or a stroll around this neighborhood; at times he visited relatives and friends in the city and always happily explored. On the other side of the Royal Waterloo from Secker Street was Stamford Street, and a young man named Stamford became the second person to show up in the novel.
Arthur was a passionate walker and often tramped the streets of Southsea or farther across Portsmouth, with or without his brother, Innes. Only a block from his home on Elm Grove was the parallel Belmont Street, and therein lived one William Rance. Arthur may well have known Rance or seen his name, because he assigned this uncommon name to the police constable who had originally appeared in his notes as John Reeves. Other names in A Study in Scarlet may have derived from neighborhood strolls. Madame Charpentier, proprietor of a boardinghouse in the novel, may have owed her name to Arthur’s neighbor Ernest G. Charpentier. Farther down Elm Grove from Bush Villas was Sunnyside, the home of one James Cowper, whose surname would adorn a Mormon character.
Arthur gave one of the police inspectors a French surname that was quite uncommon in England—Lestrade. This name appears not once in London directories of the period. Probably Arthur was remembering Joseph Alexandre Lestrade, a fellow alumnus of both Stonyhurst and the University of Edinburgh, who received his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1883; they would have had many reasons to know each other at university.
He assigned a less unusual name, Gregson, to the other inspector, perhaps derived from a crusading missionary and temperance advocate, the Reverend J. Gelsen Gregson, who was a distinguished member of the Baptist church in Elm Grove, close by Arthur’s flat in Bush Villas. In 1882, the year that Arthur moved to Southsea, Gregson published a memoir of his missionary work in the Afghan War, Through the Khyber Pass to Sherpore Camp and Cabul; its preface was dated from Southsea. It was precisely the kind of book to which Arthur was drawn. Gregson, the optimistic founder of the Soldiers’ Total Abstinence Association, retired to Southsea in 1886, the year that Arthur wrote A Study in Scarlet.
In identifying his detective, Arthur did not want to use a Dickensian kind of moniker that implied character—not “Mr. Sharps or Mr. Ferrets,” he said later. Yet he yearned for something unusual. He scrawled lists, considering various combinations of given names and surnames, including Sherrington Hope.
Finally he settled upon Holmes as his detective’s surname, likely because of his and his family’s fondness for the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes. But Holmes was also a name one often saw around England. It was particularly associated with London in the minds of many, because of the popular volume Holmes’s Great Metropolis: or, Views and History of London in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1851, the year of the Crystal Palace exhibition. Sherrington evolved into Sherrinford, and Arthur’s new hero was to be Sherrinford Holmes.
Reserved, wrote Arthur about his protagonist in his red notebook—Sleepy eyed young man—philosopher. He assigned him a trait reminiscent of a Poe character: collector of rare Violins, adding, An Amati, designating the Italian family of violin-makers considered to rank with the Stradivari and Bergonzi families.
Thinking of Dr. Bell, Arthur gave Holmes “sharp and piercing” gray eyes and a thin nose that lent his face an aquiline vigilance. There, however, the physical resemblance ended. Arthur envisioned a hero more physically impressive than short, limping Bell—a square-jawed, dark-browed man, over six feet tall and lean as a whippet. In the novel, he radiates confidence and vigor. When Watson meets him, Holmes’s hands, stained with ink and laboratory chemicals, offer a surprisingly strong handshake. But they can manipulate scientific instruments with a delicate touch.
Arthur thought of another useful detail—he had a store of such mental images from his medical school days in Edinburgh—and wrote “chemical laboratory.” As for “young man,” Arthur thought of both Watson and Holmes as roughly his own age. He was 27 in early 1886.
But the given name Sherrinford did not satisfy Arthur. He considered others. Besides his Stonyhurst classmate Patrick Sherlock, and the William Sherlock who cavorted through Macaulay’s History of England, and fictional characters such as Carmel Sherlock in Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel A Lost Name, Arthur must have also encountered the name Sherlock in the context of crime-solving. During his time in medical school in Edinburgh, London’s metropolitan police force already included one Chief Inspector William Sherlock of Division L in Lambeth, who was often mentioned in British newspapers amid their extensive reports of crime and investigations. The adventures of Sherlock were reported in The Times and The Home Chronicler, as well as in other periodicals. The 1881 census listed Inspector Sherlock as stationed at Kennington Road in Lambeth. In February 1881, The Portsmouth Evening News reported a rowdy inquest into a murder that had occurred at Chatham in northern Kent. Chief Inspector Sherlock had been sent from London to assist the Chatham authorities in their investigation.
Beginning in 1882, as he settled in Southsea, Arthur read The Portsmouth Evening News and other papers religiously, with his usual appetite for news wed to a fresh desire to situate himself within an unknown community. In January 1883, the newspaper reported that a brawl at the Anchor Inn on crime-ridden York Street had resulted in arrests. As a consequence, the paper noted, Inspector Sherlock was in court at Westminster, the area of central London around Parliament on the northern bank of the Thames. In the same week The Times reported another of Sherlock’s exploits.
The 1881 post office directory listed a second Sherlock in the London police department—a Chief Inspector James Sherlock of Division B in Rochester Row. There was even an Inspector Thomas Holmes—and, in coincidence’s nod to Gaboriau, an Inspector John Le Cocq. Arthur may well have consulted this directory. He set his crime scene at “3, Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road,” a neighborhood within Division L, and thus under the jurisdiction of Chief Inspector William Sherlock. Although the Brixton Road was a real London thoroughfare, probably Arthur invented Lauriston Gardens as a tribute to his hometown. He could not have walked around Edinburgh without treading Lauriston Street, Lauriston Place, or Lauriston Park.
For reasons that can never be known for certain, the name Sherlock occurred to Arthur as a replacement for Sherrinford. He kept the beloved surname and named his detective Sherlock Holmes.
Along with memorably christening his genius of a detective, Arthur changed the name of his narrator from the dandified-sounding Ormond Sacker to a more prosaic John Watson. For this name, he may have been recalling Dr. Patrick Heron Watson in Edinburgh, or his friend James Watson who lived in Southsea (though he may have met James Watson after creating Holmes). The Conservative solicitor and senior Scottish legal figure William Watson, Baron Watson, received considerable attention in the press, having served as Lord Advocate throughout Arthur’s time in Edinburgh, and afterward as Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. Or perhaps Arthur was influenced by the fame of Sir Thomas Watson, whose death in late 1882 drew adulatory attention to the 90-year-old doctor. A former president of the Royal College of Physicians, as well as physician-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria, Watson was considered a noble embodiment of Arthur’s profession. Arthur may have heard of Watson as early as his medical school days, because the famed physician had also studied in Edinburgh. And Arthur could not have missed laudatory obituaries for Watson in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, and numerous newspapers, including The Times, which called Watson “eminent.” Clearly Arthur had read Sir Thomas Watson’s writings. In a later Sherlock Holmes story, he borrowed a memorable image from the 1843 tome Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Physic, in which the real-life Watson remembered an old man who was said to be able to chalk a billiard cue with his gouty knuckles. Wherever he got the name, Arthur’s point seems to have been that “John Watson” sounded like an ordinary Englishman. He would provide a mundane, level-headed, John Bull view of the detective’s genius and foibles.
Poe had revealed almost nothing about his nameless narrator, who exists primarily to marvel over Dupin’s abilities and quirks; and in Gaboriau’s novels, Lecoq’s mentor and occasional companion Père Tabaret did not narrate the events. Arthur had bigger plans for his detective’s sidekick. Eventually he even parenthetically subtitled A Study in Scarlet “Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department,” and began it with a brief sketch of Dr. Watson’s life prior to the fateful meeting with Mr. Holmes.
Arthur would have read often in Garrod’s Materia about University College in London. Known earlier as London University and later as the University of London, it was where Garrod taught. It was also where Ringer and Murrell, authors of the gelsemium series in The Lancet that seems to have prompted Arthur’s dangerous self-poisoning in 1879, worked as well. Such associations may have inspired him to associate Dr. Watson with this institution. Arthur wrote that Watson was awarded his Doctor of Medicine degree at University College in 1878, at which time his creator was halfway through medical school. Clearly Arthur envisioned Watson as close to his own age.
Reconsidering Watson’s likely military history, Arthur crossed out “Sudan” and wrote “Afghanistan” in his notebook. Although he himself had never served in the military, he envisioned Watson as a wounded veteran, a man likely to be brave and resourceful. The final English defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 had left the far-reaching British Empire with no powerful international rivals beyond Russia. Some members of the English military elite worried—unrealistically, it soon turned out—that Russian troops in Asia were inching toward India, which the English famously considered the “jewel in the crown” of the ill-gotten British Empire. The first Afghan War, from 1838 to 1842, had been the opening move in a bloody international chess game between England and Russia to control central Asia. A combined force of British and Indian soldiers invaded Afghanistan in 1838, but during a three-year war were unable to maintain a puppet government and were defeated. From 1878 to 1880, during Arthur’s time in medical school, the English again invaded Afghanistan. Despite extensive fighting and attempts at treaties, Afghan troops were ultimately able to repel the aggressors.
Arthur decided to have Watson serve in Candahar, the capital of Afghanistan, with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, a real British infantry regiment. Watson says that he fought in the Battle of Maiwand with the Berkshires, officially called Princess Charlotte of Wales’s (Berkshire) Regiment. A village fifty miles northwest of Candahar, Maiwand had been the site of the bloody and mortifying final British defeat in 1880. Arthur was weaving recent history and revived public interest into his story. In 1886, as he wrote A Study in Scarlet, a gigantic iron statue of a lion was erected in Reading, Berkshire, the regimental home of the 66th Foot, as a tribute to British soldiers who died at Maiwand.
At the time of the battle, the Berkshires had actually still been called the 66th Foot; like the Northumberlands, they underwent a name change the following year. But Arthur didn’t worry about such details. Never one to fret over what he considered irrelevant minutiae, Arthur dashed his pen across the page, summoning idea after idea that he did not bother to confirm as accurate. He assigned Watson the title of assistant surgeon, for example, unaware that it had been eliminated in 1872. In the real British army, in the late 1870s Watson would have been an acting surgeon, within a lieutenant’s pay grade. Later Arthur also had Holmes refer offhandedly to “that little thing of Chopin’s” that he once heard the Moravian violinist Wilma Norman-Neruda play very well, and he adds, “Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.” Never mind that Chopin composed no pieces for solo violin and there was no record of Madame Norman-Neruda having ever played Chopin. This was, after all, fiction.
Watson remarks that he has “neither kith nor kin in England, and was therefore as free as air.” He “naturally gravitated to London,” he says, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irre- sistibly drained.” In this attitude too Arthur was echoing Poe’s narrator, who remarks, “With sickness of heart, the wanderer will flee back to the polluted Paris as to a less odious because less incongruous sink of pollution.” Arthur was still heavily under the influence of his literary ancestor.
From Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Sims.