Sunday, May 31, 2015

"The Speckled Band" - A Simple Act of Charity. New Year 1911.

Readers of Sherlock Holmes may be interested in a theatre programme I recently acquired that records an unusual occasional performance of Conan Doyle's adaptation of The Speckled Band. This post shares its content and attempts to provide some context.

1) The Pretoria Pit Disaster. 

Postcard of the Disaster (John Sharples later died).
At 7.50 am on December 21, 1910 an explosion occurred in the No 3 Bank Pit, Hulton Colliery, Westhoughton, Lancashire, that shocked a nation preparing for Yuletide festivities. It proved to be one of the worst mining disasters in British history. The Parish of Westhoughton website has an excellent account HERE & may be supplemented by the moving story of survivor Joseph Staveley recorded HERE .

As these accounts detail, a fund was at once set up to support the many bereaved families and, even as more of the dead were being recovered, Sheffield was in the vanguard in arranging a charity matinee of entertainment at its Lyceum. Under the Immediate Patronage of the late Queen's third and fourth daughters (then in their 60's), the local Telegraph Mayor, (new) Master Cutler (Arthur Balfour) and others supported an ad hoc committee of Sheffield theatre managers. It is testament to their commitment and the tragedy's impact that such performers as Lillie Langtry and Seymour Hicks were engaged gratis at such short notice.
Part 1 of the Matinee Programme
2) The Speckled Band.

At the time of the Pretoria disaster Conan Doyle was home at Windlesham with a special Christmas to celebrate. Adrian had just been born (on November 19) and would be christened on the second day of 1911. Notwithstanding this preoccupation, his permission is sought and given to include a version of his latest theatrical success in Sheffield's matinee of the 5th.

After the failure of The House of Temperley Doyle's hurriedly adapted short story had more than averted potentially heavy losses in leasing The Adelphi. Saintsbury's Holmes and Lyn Harding's Rylott had packed the theatre from June until the play's transfer to The Globe in August. That equally well-received show had closed by the end of November. In America, the less successful production starring Charles Millward would fold on December 17, after brief runs in Boston and at New York's Garrick. 

The play was due to commence a new season in 1911 under Arthur Hardy's management at The Strand. The popular Lyn Harding would return along with Christine Silver as Enid Stoner. A new Holmes for London theatregoers, O P Heggie, performed the role from February 6-25, primed with a note from the author (see HERE ). 

It is perhaps less well-known that Arthur Hardy was already touring a company that had, for example, played the Edinburgh Lyceum from 5-10 December, 1910. A playbill survives in Glasgow University's Special Collections. Holmes is Julian Royce (back in the role he played when touring the Gillette/Doyle play) and it is from this cast the Sheffield contingent was drawn (see HERE ).  

Part 2 of the Matinee Programme
Seven members of the touring company travelled to Sheffield for the afternoon to play The Baker Street Scene. In Doyle's play this is Act 2, scene 2. An online version of The Speckled Band may be read HERE . This omits Mrs Soames who is another client in other editions. Two striking omissions will be observed: Milverton is excised and of course where there's no Act 3 there can be no snake!

Julian Royce
I'd say the scene stood up well enough on its own terms offering the iconic detective in reassuringly familiar situations and surroundings. Apart from the practical need to keep things simple, perhaps this was not in any case a time for melodramatic horror. There was enough real horror in the adjoining county.

Andrew Lycett notes in his biography (p 345-60)that ACD kept a lump of coal in his study that he joked he'd gladly drop on his toe if visitors conceded there was coal in Kent ( a favoured, failed investment). I'm sure it took on a more sober meaning after Chrismas 1910.

3) Some Matters of Related Interest.

The Billboard for October 15, 1910 has an article about Charles Frohman's new production for the Boston theater in which Conan Doyle is reported to have promised to attend "the first performance of his play wherever it is presented in America" (see HERE ). I doubt he ever saw this as a feasible prospect. 

My American friend, Sherlockian Howard Ostrom, may be intrigued to learn (or did he know?) that Gilbert M (Bronco Billy) Anderson is not the only early cowboy star with a Sherlock Holmes connection. While researching I came across a reference to the early rehearsals for Frohman's "The Speckled Band": Ronald L Davis notes in his "William S Hart: Projecting the American West" (see HERE ) that Hart was hired to play Holmes in The Speckled Band but quit after one week's rehearsal, "sensing that the show was heading for disaster". In the event, Charles Millward occupied Baker Street in Boston.

Later in 1911: While, in England, A Corney Grain is known to have played the detective in The Speckled Band  on May 8 at the Southampton Grand, William Desmond began a lengthy tour of Australia and New Zealand in August for the Williamson Company.

1914: The Sydney Morning Herald for 25 April reported the imminent appearance of Julian Royce in the role made famous in England by Matheson Lang: Harry Vernon's "Mr Wu". (see HERE ). This article is of further interest in describing Charles Millward's career and current introduction to Australia.

 Royce seemed fated to follow in more famous footsteps but there is an interesting comment on his Holmes in The New Zealand Herald of 16 May 1914 (see HERE ) suggesting "the British press spoke of him as the best Sherlock Holmes ever seen". 

Julian Royce in the Gillette "Sherlock Holmes" at Kennington Theatre.
© Ray Wilcockson (2015) All Rights Reserved.



  1. No, he didn't know about William S. Hart almost being Holmes. Perhaps, future 'Holmes on The Range' article material! Very interesting piece Ray. :-)

    1. Thanks, Howard! You'd know, of course, that Hart was a trained stage actor & made the part of Messala in the 1899 "Ben Hur" on Broadway his own.