Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Portsmouth's Lost Conan Doyle Room (A Song of Action).

 "Now blesse thy selfe: thou met'st with things dying, I with things new borne."

                                                       [The Winter's Tale Act 3, scene 3]

On the morning of July 7th, 1930, the day Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died, four boys woke up in the unfamiliar surroundings of 84, Kingston Crescent, Portsmouth. They were the initial intake of the city's first hostel for boys, set up under the presidency of the Lord Bishop, to be run on diocesan lines by a committee, backed by the council, navy and subscriptions. The story of its ten years in existence may be followed in local newspapers, especially the supportive Portsmouth Evening News. I shall focus on the author's posthumous connection with the hostel.


 From the beginning the scheme was beset by debt and it is testament to the dedication of its fundraisers and staff that, despite the economic hardship that typified the 1930's, all was running on an even keel, in credit, by 1935. Enough had been raised to pay for major internal works required to secure Home Office recognition and grants. An extension was added that meant the hostel could house its projected full complement of 24 boys at any one time. In practice, it was almost always full, with a few beds kept vacant for emergencies. Had the war not intervened it would likely have given many more years of service, but closure came with evacuation measures. The facility became a daytime boys' club about the time Conan Doyle's widow died. It is to her we now turn.

Lady Conan Doyle and the Conan Doyle Room.

Lady Conan Doyle in 1931

   As his second wife, Conan Doyle's widow had not 

  shared her husband's formative years in Southsea,

  but she clearly appreciated the mutual bond of

  the doctor-writer and his beloved city.

  Moreover, the thought she took over the nature of

  contributions to the hostel in his memory shows

  she knew what he represented to young people.

On August 20th, 1930, this report

appeared in Portsmouth Evening News.

Here is the record of Lady Conan Doyle's £20 contribution:

Hampshire Telegraph 17 October, 1930,

On September 16, the Portsmouth Evening News looked forward to the hostel's opening ceremony on October 14, noting that Lady Conan Doyle and family were expected to attend. They do not appear to have done so, having no presence in reports or photographs of the event. I suspect she was already ill with the ailment that prevented her from travelling to Philadelphia, in County Durham, the following Saturday. The Hull Daily Mail reported on 20th October that son, Dennis, had opened the new Christian Spiritual Church, "deputising for his mother, Lady Doyle, who is ill." This would not be the end of the story.

A Song of Action.

It may be wondered whether the proposed room got off the ground. Evidence that it did is provided in a Hampshire Telegraph article of 8th May, 1931.

Here is finance for re-decoration and the gift of a significant artefact, the plaque from the author's bedroom. Lady Conan Doyle has chosen weil.

The verse adorning the plaque quotes the first half of the 17th stanza in Conan Doyle's own work, The Farnshire Cup", published in the collection, "Songs of Action" (1898). The poem may be read HERE

A fictional tale of the turf, the poem is imbued with the author's life-long love of action and captures well the thrilling physicality of a horse race. It's a moral tale: little Joe Chauncy is riding Spider, a rank outsider, and beats the field, including the favourite, because "he'd make a wooden horse go" and exemplifies the moral made explicit in the plaque's verse.

Without long searching, I found multiple examples in newspapers of the early 20th century, in which these very lines are quoted in isolation (often without authorial attribution) as sterling advice to young men. They are the only section of the poem shorn of specific racing detail and are, thus, readily detached as general moral sayings. History has treated Polonius in the same way.

The Irregulars of Kingston Crescent.

This is Richard Gutschmidt's 1902 illustration of
Sherlock Holmes with the Baker Street Irregulars.

He may not have housed these children of the streets 
but he employed them for the ultimate good of society, gave purpose and valued their skills.

The clear objective of the Kingston Crescent Hostel for Boys was to provide a temporary home for any boy aged 14-19 who was, for one reason or another, without shelter. While Toc H would assist in finding employment, the provision of a wholesome, homely atmosphere was paramount, and a female presence on the staff considered essential. Boys typically stayed for months at a time and often repaid the charity with their own donations long after leaving. Orphans, runaways, petty criminals and those estranged from families: these were Portsmouth's own "Irregulars". 

A Song of Action.

  On the left: a vice-admiral's headquarters
  from the Hampshire Telegraph 4 March, 1932.

     On the right: the hostel with its new wing,
     built with the help of a vice-admiral.
     Photo from Portsmouth Evening News
     for 15 November, 1932.

There is a final connection of interest to Sherlockians. On April 1, 1930, Henry Edgar Grace CB was promoted vice-admiral and put on the Retired List the following day. He was the son of famous cricketer, W. G. Grace and, at 53, keen to find new matters to occupy an active, methodical mind that revelled in organization.

At the beginning of 1931, the hostel was in dire financial straits. Taking over as chairman, Grace declared: "The Committee had either to get on or get out."

The retired sailor set out on a truly remarkable fundraising marathon in person.
From March 1st to the middle of August, when his doctor advised rest, Grace made some 18.000 door-to-door visits asking for donations. He was a skilful salesman: using a cricket analogy to market the campaign, he spoke of making a 1000 hits in the manner of his batsman father. Locals became used to seeing his specially modified vehicle about town: he had slots fitted with chutes into which you could slide coins.
from Portsmouth Evening News March 1, 1932.

His illness notwithstanding, Vice-Admiral Grace, through giving his mind to it and knowing how to do it, raised close on £1500 by the end of that year, saving the hostel. Conan Doyle would have acclaimed him.


So much effort for one decade of operation. But well worth it. The legacy lived on, not in the bricks and mortar of 84, Kingston Crescent ( long-demolished, I think) but in the lives of those who benefited and their descendants. 

The Sherlockian is left wondering what happened to the contents of that lost Conan Doyle Room. Especially the plaque from his last bedroom. Perchance Mrs. Watson, the matron (yes!), moved by her canonical namesake, spirited his verse to safety in 1940. Maybe it was returned to the family and lies, uncatalogued, in Portsmouth's Lancelyn Green collection. 

Who knows? But if you're in the Hampshire area, at a car boot, antique centre, auction or charity shop, and spot this verse in an early 20th century frame...snap it up!


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