Monday, May 25, 2015

Return to New Street - Birmingham in the Sherlock Holmes Canon.

Birmingham and Aston.

I hear of Sherlock in unlikely places. There exists an establishment in Birmingham's Corporation Street I have not had reason to visit whose website addresses "Sherlock Holmes trivia buffs". I wonder if its manager is a florid-faced, elderly gentleman , with fiery red hair...

Today, Corporation Street extends from New Street and its station for some two miles all the way to the site of Conan Doyle's home circa 1880. Clifton House, Aston Road is long gone, along with much of the Victorian city. A blue plaque, erected by the civic society, commemorates the author's residence in what was then still a village.

These were formative years for Conan Doyle: as doctor, writer and man. He turned 21 as ship's surgeon aboard the Greenland whaler, Hope, during the first of two maritime adventures that punctuated extended periods in Aston as medical assistant to Dr Reginald Ratcliff Hoare who treated him more like a son than an employee.

My sense is that Hoare persisted for Conan Doyle as one of those fixed points welcome in any life. In its report of his death in 1898, the BMJ notes Dr Conan Doyle was "one of those who sent tokens of their respect". ( see column one ). The family was represented at Conan Doyle's wedding to Jean Leckie in 1907. Hoare lives on as the inspiration for Dr Horton in "The Stark-Munro Letters"...and both doctors perhaps in Sherlock Holmes's identical morning habit of smoking the dottles of a previous night's pipes. 

Birmingham would never be forgotten and just now and again finds its way into the Sherlock Holmes stories. 

The Gloria Scott.

"There had been a daughter, I heard, but she had died of diphtheria while on a visit to Birmingham." 

A poignant creation, Victor Trevor's nameless sister. Her passing mention has no plot significance but along with a deceased mother and the father's fate plays out a retribution for the original sin and leaves Victor alone in the world. 

As to the girl's particular fate, it parallels the irony of her father's - riches are no protection in this life. This is no child of the slums; diphtheria (that great leveller) takes her as readily, far from home.

River Rea shows her 3 children, Cholera, Typhoid & Diphtheria to Birmingham.

The story's internal evidence places Holmes at Donnithorpe "more than twenty years" after The Gloria Scott episode of 1855. 
Thus, in late 1892, Doyle writes essentially of Hoare's Birmingham which had endured an outbreak of diphtheria in 1871-2 and was currently bracing for a steep rise in fatalities that would peak in 1895. For me, and I suspect Dr Doyle, Victor Trevor's unnamed sister stands for thousands like her. 

The Three Gables.

"I was trainin' at the Bull Ring in Birmingham when this boy done get into trouble."

Steve Dixie is, of course, transparently lying. Holmes knows it; Dixie knows he knows it. Given the bruiser's slow wits and lack of education it is amusingly feasible to imagine he here trots out his stock alibi blissfully unaware that city's Bull Ring was (and still is) essentially a market.
Bull Ring Market, Birmingham c 1905.
 It is just as likely, however, that some of the city's boxing gyms were located in the area. Moreover, Conan Doyle appears to have kept in training during his tenure in Aston. We know he had "two pairs of battered and discolored gloves" with him on board The Hope, where he, famously, gave steward, Jack Lamb, a black eye.

Sreve Toussaint as Steve Dixie (Image Granada TV).

What is certain is that both Doyle (in 1880) and Steve Dixie (circa 1903) would need all the pugilistic skills they could muster in a Birmingham rife with gangs such as the notorious Peaky Blinders. 

The Three Garridebs.

"Howard Garrideb Constructor of Agricultural Machinery Binders, reapers, steam and hand plows, drills, harrows, farmers’ carts, buckboards, and all other appliances. Estimates for Artesian Wells Apply Grosvenor Buildings, Aston."

Doyle would be as familiar with Grosvenor Road in Aston as Sherlock Street in the city centre. Eventually, Corporation Street becomes the Lichfield Road beyond Aston Rd North and Grosvenor is by the railway station. 

So, the hapless Nathan Garrideb is packed off to a strange city 100 miles and two hours away having taken no such journey in years. There are, of course, striking similarities with REDH and STOC. In essence all three are cautionary tales ( as is ENGR). In such cases the only sensible action any of these clients take is to consult Sherlock Holmes.

Birmingham is ideal for Doyle's purposes and it is not surprising the city still calls to him in 1925  for another of its worthies has remained a constant reminder of it in the author's life: Joseph Chamberlain.

Though never Prime Minister, the Londoner who migrated to Birmingham to make screws was a towering political figure throughout the three most active decades of Conan Doyle's career (in Churchill's phrase "the one who made the weather"). The two lives converged most closely in the Boer War and during the author's failed excursions into politics. But they had passed like ships in the night long before. 
1906 postcard for Chamberlain's 70th Birthday.

The Stockbroker's Clerk.

"You are ready to come to Birmingham then?" 

Though set more than a decade apart, STOC and GLOR stand together in The Memoirs and draw on the common memory of Doyle's Midlands interlude. The former is the Birmingham story of the Canon, uniquely bringing Holmes and Watson to the streets their creator walked. 

Looking up Corporation St from New St c 1904.

The chronologers date STOC to 1888/89. For years I have mistakenly pictured 126b, the offices of the phantom Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited, as Dickensian in age and character. In fact, Corporation Street was barely ten years old in 1888 and would not be completed until 1903. By the time Doyle arrived, ex-Mayor Chamberlain had been elected to Parliament, but his ambitious plan to cut a swathe through the slums with a great boulevard stretching from New Street had been accepted in '76 and begun in '78. Given its number, the fictional office would be one of the newest built and likely awaiting first occupation.

Hall Pycroft relates how 'Mr Arthur Harry Pinner' suggested "a couple of hours at Day's Music Hall in the evening". 

Day's Crystal Palace 1890 programme (image Arthur Lloyd)

Day's Crystal Palace Concert Hall (later The Empire) was on the corner of Smallbrook St and Hurst St in the city centre. Opened in 1862, the name changed to Day's Crystal Palace of Varieties in 1887. It would close in September, 1893, six months after the publication of STOC. Just the place a young doctor's assistant might seek entertainment in his brief periods of leisure. 

A Tale of Two Cities & Dual Identities.

"He swears by London you know, and I by Birmingham."

The Stockbroker's Clerk may not aspire to comet vintage in the Canon but it possesses an artful symmetry of plot, character and setting, stylistically suited to a whimsical but cautionary parable of the human comedy. There is no iconic scene such as REDH offers in the bank vault; no classic moment of deduction on a par with the dog in the night. Holmes, with almost as little to do as in ENGR, is rather in connoisseur mode, chronicling (with Watson) one of those outre tales that everyday life occasionally presents. It is this kind of story and, aptly, if less comical, Pinner's tasks for Pycroft are pale and unimaginative beside Jabez Wilson's encyclopaedic marathon.
"Nothing could be better," said Holmes.

In keeping with its prosaic nature, the story opens not in Baker St but in the domestic setting of Watson's Paddington practice. Doyle takes pains to endow Hall Pycroft with idiom and vocabulary authentic to his city milieu. 

The railway journey serves two functions: its dramatic duration coincides with the clerk's relation of events and, symbolically, it represents a voyage (taken by the three travellers and the reader) from darkness to illumination.

Birmingham proves a place of ironies. In 3GAR it is merely somewhere distant to park Nathan while Killer Evans retrieves the hidden press. Here the city functions as a siren to the clerk's credulous greed and as the place of (mild) penance. It is mere good fortune (with the support of Sherlock Holmes) that he is not stung more seriously than toiling through trade directories for several nights in a New Street hotel.

For the Beddington brother who deceives Hall Pycroft, Birmingham had, similarly, seemed a cunning, inspirational plan. Ironic and retributive indeed that he should go to all the trouble and expense of renting offices and disguising himself only for events in London to confound him utterly.

One of the subtle beauties of this story lies in the way it plays with identity. It is quite the prose Comedy of Errors. Consider. One Beddington poses as both Arthur Pinner and his brother, Harry. The other (the murderer) assumes Hall Pycroft's identity. As Holmes concludes: "Human nature is a strange mixture, Watson. You see that even a villain and a murderer can inspire such affection that his brother turns to suicide when he learns that his neck is forfeited". Ironically, only then are the Beddingtons inescapably themselves.

Doyle has Shakespearean fun with this meme of dual identities and cannot resist including Holmes and Watson.
The former is presented as an accountant to Arthur Harry Pinner, the latter as a clerk. We should not miss (Watson doesn't) that Hall Pycroft can formulate a lie rather too easily for comfort. It is he who suggests the ruse of introducing "two friends of mine who are in want of a billet". And one senses Watson's disquiet in "One is Mr Harris of Bermondsey, and the other is Mr Price, of this town," said our clerk, glibly." 

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson provide the "Blade Straight, Steel True" image of true brotherhood.


The train awaits. It's goodbye Birmingham. Next stop Euston!

Further Reading.

Day's Crystal Palace: Arthur Lloyd Site Entry    
Doyle in Birmingham: Birmingham City Council Entry 
Joseph Chamberlain
Improvement Scheme: The Iron Room Entry 
Early Municipal Housing
in Birmingham:              Municipal Dreams Entry 

© Ray Wilcockson (2015) All Rights Reserved.


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