The village of Hutton le Moors lies on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, a dozen miles from the small town of Pickering. Despite the onslaught of the traffic passing along what is now the A170 to Scarborough, the heart of the village has changed surprisingly little in the past century and a half. Thirty or forty slate-roofed cottages, many of them dating back to the seventeenth century, straggle along both sides of the road. A pub, the Green Man, and the village church of St Chad still provide the central focuses for village life. Half a mile beyond the older cottages, on the edge of the village, stands a small estate of 1950s council houses. They were built on land that the council bought after the Second World War from a Bradford mill-owning family by the name of Binns. Until the mid-1920s, Hutton Hall, a sixteenth-century manor house, stood on the site.
Photographs of the house, which appeared in Country Life in May 1922, show a half-timbered frontage studded with mullioned windows and surmounted by the elaborate chimneys so typical of the period. Shots of the interior reveal impressive oak panelling and a large fireplace, adorned with the initials RH and dating back to the time of Elizabeth I, all of which were still in existence when the Binns family lived there. Here, on 17 June 1854, William Sherlock Holmes was born.
Holmes, as recorded by Watson, makes very few remarks about his family and upbringing but those few are clear and unequivocal enough. “My ancestors,” he tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” “were country squires, who seem to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.” He tells us nothing more. In fact Holmes’s father, William Scott Holmes, inherited the remains of a substantial estate in north Yorkshire.
There had been Holmeses living in that part of Yorkshire for centuries. As far back as 1219 an Urkell de Holmes is mentioned in the records of York Assizes and, by the late Middle Ages, the Holmes family had risen from the ranks of yeomen farmers to the lesser gentry. The Walter Holmes from Kirkbymoorside, eight miles from Pickering, who is recorded as fighting with the Yorkist forces of Edward IV at the Battle of Towton in 1461, is almost certainly a direct antecedent of Sherlock and Mycroft. Walter had chosen the right side in the Wars of the Roses and he prospered as a consequence. Several years after the battle he was knighted by Edward and the family went up another rung on the social ladder. Walter survived the transition from a Yorkist monarchy to the reign of the Tudors with his status intact (he seems to have been one of the few Yorkshire baronets to have supported Henry VII before the Battle of Bosworth).
His grandson, Ralph, was to raise the Holmes profile even higher. In the mid-1530s, Sir Ralph, one of the century’s more opportunist converts to Protestantism, was in a position to benefit substantially from the dissolution of the monasteries. As the great landholdings of monastic establishments such as Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey came under the hammer, Sir Ralph and people like him were poised to pounce. Much of the property owned by Fountains Abbey was sold, at a knockdown price, to entrepreneur Sir Richard Gresham. However, Sir Ralph Holmes, an associate of Gresham, received his share of the spoils in the form of an estate at Hutton le Moors as well as other landholdings dotted around the Vale of York and the fringes of the moors. It was Sir Ralph, made prosperous by his part in the despoliation of monastic property, who built Hutton Hall, the house in which, 300 years later, his most famous descendant was to be born.
Under the later Tudors and Stuarts the family made a point of avoiding the religious and political controversies of the time. Sir Stamford Holmes was a member of successive Elizabethan and Jacobean parliaments but an undistinguished one. There are records of only two contributions by him to their proceedings. In one he intervened in a debate on shipping convicts to Barbados to suggest that the colonies in New England might also be a good destination for lawbreakers. He was reminded by a fellow MP that, since felons were being sent there as indentured labourers, they were already being used for this purpose. In the other he asked the Speaker whether the doors of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster, where Parliament met at the time, could be closed since he and other members were feeling the draught.
By the time of the confrontation between king and Parliament in the 1630s and 1640s, however, even the most lackadaisical of MPs and landowners were forced to choose sides. Although Sherlock Holmes, ascetic and intellectual, would probably be classified as one of life’s Roundheads, his ancestors chose the king’s cause and remained firm Royalists throughout the Civil War. Sir Symonds Holmes, grandson of Sir Stamford and great-great-grandson of Sir Ralph, fought with Prince Rupert’s cavalry at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. The family suffered for its loyalty although the Holmeses were not forced, like so many others, into exile during Cromwell’s rule.
At the Restoration, monarchists such as the Holmes who had kept the faith stood to prosper. Sir Richmond Holmes, son of Sir Symonds, moved south to London in the 1670s after his father’s death and thereafter spent more time on the fringes of Charles II’s court than he did on his Yorkshire properties. In attempting to carve out a career there, he began the slow slide into indebtedness that plagued the family for generations to come. Friendship with the likes of the dissolute Earl of Rochester, poet and philanderer, was an expensive indulgence and, by the time of his death in 1687, Sir Richmond owed large sums to half the moneylenders in the capital.
The eighteenth century saw a continuous decline in the fortunes of the family. As one scapegrace spendthrift succeeded another, the estate was sold bit by bit until only the old manor house at Hutton le Moors, first built in the 1550s, was left. Sir Selwyn Holmes, reputed to be an associate of Sir Francis Dashwood and a member of the infamous Hell-Fire Club, was the most notorious of a succession of Holmes ancestors who more resembled Sir Hugo Baskerville than they did their intellectual descendant, Sherlock. Sir Seymour Holmes, Sherlock’s great-grandfather, the last of these roistering Georgian rou’s who squandered most of the family inheritance, died of an apoplexy in 1810. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his fourteen-year-old son. Sherlock Holmes’s grandfather, Sheridan Holmes, inherited little but debts and the family name. Then at Harrow, the school that the Holmes males had attended for generations, the young Sheridan was in no position to improve the family fortunes but sufficient funds were eventually found to see him through Christ Church, Oxford, and to allow him later to travel abroad. (He seems to have departed Oxford without a degree.) It was on foreign shores, if nothing else, that he was to meet his future wife.
The only exotic influence in his family tree claimed by Holmes is his grandmother, the woman Sir Sheridan Holmes married, who was “the sister of Vernet, the French artist.” “Art in the blood,” he goes on to say, “is liable to take the strangest forms.” The Vernets were a tribe of French painters, who produced distinguished artists in several generations. The patriarch of the family was Antoine Vernet (1689-1753), several of whose more than twenty children became artists. One, Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89), was so committed to his art that he arranged to be lashed to a ship’s mast during a storm at sea so that he could observe the effects of light and turbulent water at close hand. The most famous of the Vernets, whose youngest sister married Holmes’s paternal grandfather, was the grandson of Claude-Joseph, one Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet (1789-1863), known to his familt as Horace. Best known as a painter of scenes of military valour and derring-do, Horace was at the heart of the Parisian art establishment, serving as president of the French Academy from 1828 to 1834. His sister, Marie-Claude, was born in Paris in 1798. She was just nineteen when she met the Englishman who was to take her across the Channel to a life she could not have imagined as she was growing up in Napoleonic France.
We do not know the circumstances in which Sheridan Holmes, Sherlock’s paternal grandfather, first encountered his wife to be. He was certainly in Paris for several months in the spring and summer of 1818—a few surviving letters confirm this. It may well be that Sheridan harboured artistic ambitions and, in order to pursue them, travelled to Paris where he was introduced to one of the extensive Vernet clan. The marriage took place in London at St George’s, Hanover Square, in the early summer of the following year. The entry in the church’s marriage register, with the bride’s name misspelled as Verner, still exists. Holmes owed more to his French ancestry than he ever admitted. It is worth noting that the composer Mendelssohn, who knew the Vernet family well, said of Horace that his mind was so orderly that it was like a well-stocked bureau in which he had but to open a drawer to find what he needed. He added that Horace’s powers of observation were so great that a single glance at a model was sufficient to fix the details of his or her appearance in his memory.
Sherlock’s father, William Scott Holmes, the eldest of three children, was born in Hutton le Moors on 26 November 1819. Comparison of his date of birth and the date of his parents’ marriage immediately reveals that Marie-Claude must have been pregnant with him as she walked down the aisle at St George’s. Two further children followed in rapid succession, Maria in 1821, and Emily in 1822, whereupon Sir Sheridan, who had probably suffered from ill health most of his life, went into a decline and died of consumption in the autumn of 1823 at the age of only twenty-seven. He was succeeded by his four-year-old-son, Sherlock Holmes’s father. Marie-Claude, still only in her mid-twenties and far from her Parisian birthplace, had to cope with her abrupt widowhood, living in an ancient and draughty house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors with three young children to bring up alone. The new young baronet was educated, like so many of his forebears, at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford, but he went one better than his father and graduated with a second-class degree in Classics in the spring of 1841. We do not know how he passed the next four years of his life. Perhaps, like his father, he travelled on the Continent but, if he did, he found no bride waiting for him in Paris. His own choice for a wife was made much nearer home.
On 12 July 1845, William Scott Holmes married Violet Mycroft at Hutton le Moors in the parish church of St Chad. The Mycrofts were another family of impoverished Yorkshire gentry who had lived at Marton Hall near the village of Nun Marton for centuries. There was little to distinguish them from dozens of other families of their class. The branch from which Violet descended had been clergymen for generations. Her father, Robert Mycroft, who married the couple, was rector of St Chad’s and we can assume that William and Violet had known one another since childhood. Robert’s grandfather, George Riley Mycroft, who was rector of Lastingham in the North Riding of Yorkshire for more than fifty years, gained some small renown as the author of The Beauties of Creation: or a New Moral System of Natural History, Displayed in the Most Curious Quadrupeds, Birds, Insects and Flowers of Northern England, published in York in 1727. George Mycroft, despite a desire to corral the natural world into his own moral view of the universe, was a scrupulous observer of the creatures he saw in his moorland parish and as a result his book was still being read at the end of the century. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, makes a brief reference to “Mycroft’s remarkable acuity of observation” in a letter of 1791. Violet herself had been born at Skelton, just outside York, where her father was then curate, on 11 May 1823.
Sherlock Holmes once remarked, “I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family.” It is difficult to believe that, if he looked back at his own pedigree, he could gain much support for his theory. The life of Sir Symonds Holmes, the seventeenth-century ancestor who fought for the king in the Civil War, conducted experiments in microscopy (he was one of the first subscribers to Robert Hooke’s ground-breaking work Micrographia in 1665) and, in the 1660s, became an early member of the Royal Society, provides some evidence for an ancestral interest in the sciences. This link is strengthened by the fact that his mother’s great-grandfather found such fascination in the natural history of the North of England. It would later be reflected in his own scientific bent. Otherwise the centuries-long procession of Holmes’s ancestors differed little from many other families from the lower echelons of the English gentry.
Sherlock Holmes was the second child of his parents, arriving seven years after his brother Mycroft, born in 1847. Where did the name Sherlock originate? Conan Doyle, when in the mood to fuel the fantasy that he had invented Holmes, would claim that he had borrowed the name from a cricketer of the 1870s and 1880s, but the truth is more mundane. Sherlock, like Mycroft, was a family name. One of his great-uncles on his mother’s side had been Joseph Sherlock, an eighteenth-century lawyer in the town of Pickering, and the name had already been used for several children over two generations. The practice of using these family surnames as first names was a common one. There is an exact parallel in the naming of Holmes’s friend and agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, who took his middle name from his great-uncle, Michael Conan, a well-known editor and journalist.
In the seven years that separated the births of the two Holmes brothers, Violet Holmes—if the veiled hints that survive in a handful of letters are to be trusted—had twice been pregnant and twice lost the child through a miscarriage. In such matters, Victorians of her class used euphemisms more often than direct language but the references to her “most delicate state of health” and her “two sad losses” seem fairly clear. If we assume that Sherlock Holmes was born after his mother had lost two previous babies, it would explain much about his early childhood. We have little evidence on which to base speculation about his first years of life but what there is does suggest that he proved an anxiety to his family from the first. That anxiety can only have been increased by Violet’s past history. A fragment of a letter that survives in the Vernet family archives in France, dated 21 November 1854, is almost certainly from Marie-Claude Holmes, in her Yorkshire exile, to her brother Horace, and the “petit enfant” who is described as “faible” is probably the five-month-old Sherlock. If Sherlock was “faible” in his first year of life, he soon became stronger. There is no evidence that, physically, he was anything other than robust but from his early childhood onwards his parents worried about the mental and emotional development of their younger son.
In the 1880s, Watson described his room-mate’s sudden swings of mood. “Nothing could exceed his energy,” Watson says, “when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.” This was surprising enough behaviour in an adult, although Watson seems to have adapted to it with remarkable good humour. In a child, however, the sudden withdrawing into silence and immobility, the days when the young Holmes refused to respond at all to the world around him, were alarming to his parents. Another letter, this one from Sherlock’s father to an old college friend, speaks of the boy’s “strange indifference to the daily round of our bucolic life” and of the impossibility of sending him away to school.
There is no doubt that Sherlock Holmes was a difficult and worrying child but is there any evidence that he was, as some ingenious commentators have suggested, autistic? In the mid-nineteenth century autism still awaited clinical definition and description. (The word was coined in 1911 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and it was not until the 1940s that detailed case descriptions were published.) Yet there are certainly similarities between stories of Holmes, both as a child and as an adult, and modern case histories of autistic individuals. The odd detachment from the everyday world, the peculiar fixations on particular objects and the careful classification of them (his monographs on the 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar and cigarette tobacco ash, for example), the inability to understand or empathize fully with other people’s emotions and the heightened acuity of some senses—these all mirror ways in which the autistic interact with the world. Yet the final judgement must surely be that Holmes was not autistic in today’s definition of the word. No autistic person would have been able to sustain such a wide-ranging and demanding career as he did over nearly fifty years. No autistic person would have reacted with such a sudden outburst of suppressed emotion as does Holmes in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” when he believes that Watson has been shot.
As his father’s letter shows, however, there could be no question of Sherlock attending school. In 1860, the thirteen-year-old Mycroft, previously tutored at home by his father and by local clergyman William Barnes, was sent south to attend Harrow. Perhaps surprisingly, he adapted with remarkable ease to the spartan environment of the school, and favourable reports of his academic prowess, particularly in mathematics, soon began to arrive in north Yorkshire. The six-year-old Sherlock was probably given his first lessons by his mother but they were to be cut short by tragedy. Violet Mycroft Holmes died on 23 August 1861. On her death certificate the cause of death is given as “consumption” and she had no doubt been suffering from what the Victorians often called “the white death” for years. Indeed, the state of her health may well have contributed to her miscarriages in the early 1850s.
Less than three years later, the family suffered another bereavement. Holmes’s grandmother, born Marie-Claude Vernet, died of heart failure on 18 January 1864. She was sixty-five and had lived for more than forty years in the wilds of the Yorkshire Moors, far from the Parisian salons and artists’ studios in which she had spent her youth. The losses of both mother and grandmother severely affected the Holmes brothers, but it was the younger Sherlock who was hit the hardest. Fourteen at the time of his mother’s death, Mycroft had been attending Harrow for barely a year. He came home for the funeral, returning afterwards to school and, in its bracingly unsentimental atmosphere, was forced to come to terms with the bereavement in order to survive from day to day.
The great public schools in the mid-nineteenth century were slightly more civilized than the self-contained worlds of Hobbesian nastiness and brutishness that they had been before Victoria came to the throne. The reforming zeal of headmasters like the legendary Thomas Arnold at Rugby brought improvements. But they still remained places where only the strong flourished and the weak went to the wall. In 1853, only seven years before Mycroft arrived at Harrow, a monitor at the school had beaten a younger boy so badly, striking him thirty-one times with a cane, that the victim had been permanently disfigured and was obliged to leave. Schools such as Harrow, Eton and Winchester (where a young boy called John H. Watson would soon arrive to study) continued to be places where, in the words of one old Etonian, “the lads underwent privations that might have broken down a cabin boy, and would be thought inhuman if inflicted on a galley slave.”
Sherlock, seven years younger and still at home, faced permanent reminders of his loss. It is all too easy to make speculative psychological diagnoses of historical figures but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Holmes’s suspicion of women is rooted in his response to the deaths of his mother and grandmother. To the child he was at the time, it seemed as if the two women to whom he was most attached had somehow chosen to leave him. When he tells Watson in The Sign of Four, “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them,” the memory of those traumatic desertions must surely lurk beneath his words.
Reading became an escape for the young Holmes. His father’s library was as eccentric as its owner and he found many obscure and unusual volumes on its shelves. Early in their friendship, Watson was to note that Holmes’s knowledge of “sensational literature” was “immense” and that he appeared to know “every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.” Holmes himself claimed that the best thing that Inspector MacDonald in The Valley of Fear could do to improve his skills was “to shut [himself] up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime.” In his boyhood, intrigued by his father’s volumes of the Newgate Calendar—that extraordinarily powerful and often lurid record of the murders, robberies and other crimes of the eighteenth century—this is more or less what Holmes himself had done. In doing so, he had added an array of terrifying pictures to his already powerful imagination but he had also laid the foundations for the mental index of crime that was to prove so useful to him in later life.
Holmes’s loneliness and isolation as a boy led him to become an extraordinarily self-contained and fiercely independent man. Watson was to note, in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” the almost neurotic closeness with which Holmes the adult hugged his ideas and thoughts to himself. “There was a curious secretive streak in the man which led to many dramatic effects, but left even his closest friend guessing as to what his exact plans might be. He pushed to an extreme the axiom that the only safe plotter was he who plotted alone.” Holmes never came to appreciate the delights of society. His reference, in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” to “those unwelcome social summonses which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie” reveals the depths of his disdain for ordinary social intercourse. Much of Holmes’s strangeness in later life, the feeling he gave people that he dwelt on a different plane to the rest of the workaday world, derived from the peculiarity of his solitary upbringing.
There was only one person who could break through the barriers that the young Sherlock built around himself at an early age. As a boy, he idolized his older brother and traces of this earlier hero-worship can still be read between the lines when he speaks of Mycroft to Watson. But Mycroft, too, deserted him. While his older brother journeyed triumphantly through Harrow, winning scholarships and prizes and forming the friendships that were to stand him in such good stead in his future career in the corridors of power, Sherlock, considered too troubled and unusual a child for the hurly-burly of public school, remained at home. In 1866, while Sherlock, aged twelve, was battling with a succession of private tutors at Hutton Hall, Mycroft went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Mathematics. Christ Church, of course, had been the college that most male members of the Holmes family had attended for more than three hundred years. A William Holmes, possibly the brother or a cousin of Sir Ralph Holmes, had been among the first students when the college had been founded as Cardinal’s College by Wolsey in 1524. Mycroft’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all studied there. At Harrow the older Holmes brother had already demonstrated his brilliance as a mathematician and he arrived at Christ Church trailing clouds of glory from his school years.
When he took up the scholarship that he had won, the college was going through a period of major change and reform under its relatively new Dean, H. G. Liddell, and in the year after he came up an Act of Parliament was passed to change the college’s constitution. Mycroft’s tutor at Christ Church was perhaps the most famous don of the nineteenth century, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. Shy and reserved, Dodgson nonetheless responded warmly to the talent of his new scholar and the two men became close during Mycroft’s three years as an undergraduate. Both shared a fondness for logic puzzles as well as a gift for imaginative fantasy and speculation. After the otherwise lackadaisical Mycroft left Christ Church with first-class honours in 1869, he made the effort to keep in touch with his former tutor for decades to come.
The most significant friendship that Mycroft forged at Christ Church, however, was with Archibald Philip Primrose, the future Lord Rosebery, who was his exact contemporary as an undergraduate. At first sight, the two men were unlikely candidates to become friends. Primrose, the heir to an earldom, whose stated aims were to marry an heiress, win the Derby and become Prime Minister, would seem to have little in common with the plump, indolent and intellectual scion of minor Yorkshire gentry. Yet opposites often attract and for a period the two spent many hours in one another’s company. Eventually Primrose, offered the choice by the college authorities between abandoning his studies and abandoning a racehorse that he owned (strictly against college regulations), decided that the horse took precedence and left Christ Church. Although the two men cannot have known it at the time, their friendship was to have a dramatic and shaping impact on Mycroft’s entire life.
Holmes himself once commented: “I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children.” If this is the case, what can we deduce about the otherwise opaque characters of Holmes’s father and mother? Sadly, it is almost impossible to rescue any sense of Violet Holmes’s character from the oblivion into which the passage of a century and a half has despatched it. She remains a shadowy and imprecise figure, defined, like so many women in the nineteenth century, solely by her relationships with her husband and her two sons. Holmes’s father is only slightly less enigmatic, although we do know considerably more about the tracings he left behind him.
William Scott Holmes possessed the dual character that was to mark out his second son. At once conventional country squire and eccentric and erudite scholar, he divided his time between desultory efforts to improve the land he had inherited and wide-ranging, if unconventional, reading of history and philosophy. In the late 1840s, soon after the birth of his son and heir Mycroft, he published, at his own expense, a study of the Glorious Revolution. This briefly attracted the attention of Lord Macaulay, who wrote a blistering review of it in which he remarked that “one unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole of this strange effusion of a disorganised mind” and suggested that “very few and very weary will be those who persevere to the final page of Mr [sic] Holmes’s volume.” It would appear that Macaulay’s lofty scorn may well have deterred Holmes’s father from daring to publish any further works, as he rapidly moved away from the study of English history into more speculative territory. Much of the second half of his life was devoted to bizarre research into the whereabouts of the Garden of Eden. Struggling in isolation on the Yorkshire Moors, he roamed the world in his imagination and was said to be compiling a massive work of scholarship that would prove conclusively that the Biblical paradise was in fact located in India. Like his son’s magnum opus on the whole art of detection, William Scott Holmes’s volume was never to see the light of day.
There was much similarity between father and son. It is easy to forget the cranky element in Sherlock Holmes’s own intellectual make-up. His belief that the ancient Cornish language was akin to the Chaldean, and had been derived largely from the Phoenician traders in tin who had sailed to Cornwall, is uncomfortably close in spirit to the ideas of those who believe, for example, that the English are descended from the lost tribe of Israel or that by the use of elaborate codes they can prove that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon. It is certainly not that far in spirit from the obsession that gripped his father for nearly thirty years.
One consequence of his father’s eccentricity was that Sherlock Holmes received an education at home that was very different from the instruction that most members of his class had beaten into them at public school. It was the elder son, Mycroft—destined, in his father’s eyes, to inherit the responsibilities of maintaining Hutton Hall and the family estates, shrunken though they were—who was sent south to attend Harrow. Sherlock had to remain in Yorkshire. This had enormous consequences for the development of the latter’s unusual personality and curious range of intellectual interests. As an adult, Holmes was radically different from most other members of his social class, in large part because he had not shared the formative experience of public school that had shaped them.
Holmes’s sporting interests, for example, did not lie in the team sports, so important in Victorian ideas about education and character development, that he might have played had he attended a major public school. Boxing and fencing, the two sports Watson mentions as Holmes’s particular skills, are activities for the individualist and egotist. Both were encouraged by his father. For at least one brief period William Scott Holmes employed fencing instructor Theodore Dorrington, who had settled in York, to travel out and stay overnight at Hutton le Moors once a week to teach Sherlock the art of swordsmanship. Through this teacher Holmes came into contact with the great tradition of European fencing.
Dorrington, well into his sixties when he was crossing swords with the teenage Holmes, had himself been taught by the famous Henry Angelo who ran an academy of fencing in Regency London and whose pupils included the likes of Byron and the Prince of Wales. In the young Sherlock, Dorrington found a willing pupil who took delight in the standard bouts with epée and sabre as well as in the exercises with singlesticks, the yard-long wooden rods, fitted with a guard for the hand, that were used in training. Fencing, as we know from “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott,” was one of the few pastimes that Holmes continued to enjoy during what he saw as his otherwise desolate exile later on in Cambridge. Dorrington’s training in singlestick combat was still paying off more than thirty years later when, as recorded in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” Holmes drew on his old expertise to best at least one of the thugs sent by Baron Adelbert Gruner to assault him.
Boxing was then an unusual pastime for the gentry to practise. During the Regency period, there was a brief vogue for young aristocrats to climb into the ring with professional pugilists. Byron, for example, hired his own trainer in the shape of the professional fighter, John Jackson. By the 1850s and 1860s, some men of William Scott Holmes’s class were still happy to travel long distances to see two of their social inferiors knock seven bells out of one another in bare-knuckle fisticuffs, and to bet large sums of money on the outcome of the fights. They did not, however, usually practise the noble art themselves, let alone teach it to their sons. Sherlock’s father, in contrast, was an unusual man and he may have believed that his younger son would profit from the self-discipline and self-belief that skill in the ring might instill. We have no knowledge of the precise form that Sherlock’s early boxing career took—there is no evidence to indicate that a trainer, a pugilistic version of Theodore Dorrington, was employed at Hutton Hall in the 1860s—but there is little doubt that Sherlock took to boxing as readily as he did to fencing.
Although Holmes ceased boxing regularly in the mid-1870s, soon after finally leaving Cambridge, he continued to step into the ring on occasion. Watson had clearly witnessed him fighting, referring to him in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” as “undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen.” In 1884, Holmes fought three rounds with McMurdo, an ageing prizefighter, at a benefit evening held at Alison’s rooms in London. McMurdo, later encountered as a bodyguard for Thaddeus Sholto in The Sign of Four, thought well of Holmes’s gifts as a fighter. “You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy” he tells the detective. The only other record we possess of Holmes as a boxer is a passing reference in an obscure 1873 publication titled Boxiana or the Annals of Modern Pugilism in which an unidentified writer, comparing the strengths and virtues of boxers ancient and modern, mentions “young Holmes of Cambridge” who is “possessed of a gloved right hand as sweetly dangerous as the mighty fist of the late and much lamented Sayers.” Where the writer saw Holmes fight, unfortunately he does not say.
Two other abiding passions, music and the theatre, also had their origins in Holmes’s childhood. Holmes’s first violin was given to him for his eighth birthday by his grandmother. In later years Holmes was to become a connoisseur of fine instruments. His own violin, when Watson knew him, was a Stradivarius that was worth “at least five hundred guineas” and, in A Study in Scarlet, he “prattled away about Cremona fiddles, and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati.” This first violin was most likely no more than an old fiddle, bought for a few shillings from a music shop in Pickering, but it was to instil a love of music that would stay with Holmes for the rest of his life. William Scott Holmes was no music lover himself and, we can be fairly certain, refused to employ a music teacher to guide the young Holmes as he scraped his bow across the strings.
Throughout his life Holmes remained an eccentric performer on the violin. Early in their association, Watson describes his habit of “leaning back in his armchair of an evening” when “he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful.” Anyone who regularly plays the violin when it is thrown across his knee seems unlikely to have undergone formal training. It sounds like a childish habit that had never been drummed out of him by a tutor. Yet Holmes could play and play well. At Watson’s request he plays “some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder” and, in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” he performs the barcarolle from Offenbach’s operetta The Tales of Hoffman well enough to fool his audience into believing that they are listening to a professional recording.
Music’s appeal was not primarily to his rational self—although his analysis of the polyphonic music of Lassus, of which Watson tells us, would have been a cerebral exercise as demanding as some of his criminal investigations—but to the powerful emotions that lurked beneath Holmes’s surface of severe intellectualism. He recognized this himself. “Do you remember what Darwin says about music?” he asks Watson in A Study in Scarlet. “He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.” Music provided Holmes with the most reliable release from the pressures of work and from the personal restrictions that he had, quite deliberately, imposed upon himself in pursuit of his ambitions. So much is clear from Watson’s description of him at a concert. “All the afternoon,” he wrote in “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” “he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound Holmes, the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent as it was possible to conceive.” There is a parallel with another great man, born a quarter of a century later than Holmes, who found in music an escape valve from the pressures of work. Albert Einstein also loved music and played the violin throughout his life.
If we are to believe Watson, Holmes did much more than just listen to music and play as an amateur. “My friend was an enthusiastic musician,” we are told, again in “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” “being himself not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit.” Yet the most extensive search of music libraries and the yellowing catalogues of music publishers of the period such as Novello and Schott reveals no works by any composer called Sherlock Holmes. Either Holmes published his compositions under a pseudonym (unlikely but possible) or (the most probable explanation) Watson, carried away by feelings of friendship, was merely referring to Holmes’s extemporaneous experiments on the violin when he called him “a composer of no ordinary merit.”
Holmes’s love of the theatre was stimulated by the toy theatre bought for him by his grandmother when he was still a small boy. Before he left Yorkshire, more or less for ever, at the age of nineteen, he had had little opportunity to see plays performed on stage but he must have witnessed a few instances of the power of theatrical events. One of William Scott Holmes’s few surviving letters refers to a visit to York in early March 1869 to see Dickens give one of the dramatic readings from his own works that made such an impression on contemporary audiences. Dickens, whose life was probably shortened because the emotional and physical intensity of these readings took such a toll on his health, was an extraordinarily theatrical performer. His acting out of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in the novel Oliver Twist, one of his regular showstoppers, was mesmeric in its power, often causing the more susceptible members of his audience to faint or have fits. One who managed to remain conscious gave a vivid description of the novelist as barnstorming actor:
Warming with excitement, he flung aside his book and acted the scene of the murder, shrieked the terrified pleadings of the girl, growled the brutal savagery of the murderer . . . Then the cries for mercy: “Bill! dear Bill! for dear God’s sake!” . . . When the pleading ceases, you open your eyes in relief, in time to see the impersonation of the murderer seizing a heavy club, and striking his victim to the ground.
Although his father makes no mention of his presence, the teenage Holmes was almost certainly in the audience to witness this kind of extraordinarily charged performance by the ailing novelist.
For more than nine years after the death of his grandmother, Holmes led a strange and secluded life in the sixteenth-century manor house on the edge of the moors. His only companion, apart from servants, was his father who spent much of his time mentally travelling the plains of the Carnatic, searching for signs of the Garden of Eden. Holmes retreated further into the realms of his own imagination, reading obsessively and devoting time to his growing array of idiosyncratic interests. As well as engaging Theodore Dorrington to cross swords with his son, William Scott Holmes employed a sequence of private tutors to teach him the classics he himself loved. None lasted very long. Holmes, imperious and intellectually arrogant even as a boy, cannot have been an easy pupil. The only teacher of whom we have any record is one Thomas Davenport, a young man fresh from a Classics degree at Christ’s College, Cambridge, who survived more than six months at Hutton Hall. Davenport, an aspiring poet, published a small volume titled Lyrics of Love and Life while he was in Yorkshire, which he dedicated, either from hopeful flattery or genuine admiration, to William Scott Holmes. In a short acknowledgement at the front of the book he refers briefly to “my pupil, Mr Holmes the younger” whose “bright intelligence provides a beacon for the future.” If Davenport wished to ingratiate himself with the two Holmeses, father and son, he was out of luck. His employment at Hutton Hall ended only weeks after his poems were published and he disappears henceforth from history.