CONAN DOYLE, Sir Arthur (1859–1930)
Plaque erected in 1973 by Greater London Council at 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood, London, SE25 5RT, London Borough of Croydon
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE 1859-1930 Creator of Sherlock Holmes lived here 1891-1894
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer and doctor best known for creating the brilliant fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. A blue plaque marks the spot in South Norwood where Conan Doyle lived in 1891–4.
Early Career and Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was the eldest of nine children born in Edinburgh to a Scottish father and an Irish mother. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University and was greatly influenced by his professor, Joseph Bell, a master of deduction who was able to diagnose patients with remarkable speed and accuracy. After graduating, he established a successful medical practice in Southsea, Hampshire.
In spring 1891 Conan Doyle moved to London with his wife, Louise, and their daughter, Mary. Initially intending to continue his medical practice, he was increasingly devoted to writing, a long-held passion. He had already come to attention with the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) and its sequel The Sign of the Four (1890), which introduced Sherlock Holmes and his somewhat hapless assistant, Dr Watson.
By the summer of 1891, the family had moved to 12 Tennison Road in South Norwood which Conan Doyle described as ‘a prettily-built and modest-looking red-brick residence’. He turned to writing full-time and, working from his study – apparently to the left of the front door – he wrote 18 Holmes adventures, including ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891), ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892) and ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ (1893). The short stories had been transferred to the newly established sixpenny Strand Magazine and were immensely popular.
The house at Tennison Road may have provided the setting for the murder in ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder’ (1903):
This place, Deep Dene House, is a big modern villa of staring brick, standing back in its own grounds, with a laurel-clumped lawn in front of it.
As the fame of Sherlock Holmes grew, Conan Doyle became uneasy. He decided to put an end to the detective in ‘The Final Problem’ (December 1893). He left Tennison Road the following year.
Conan Doyle continued to write other novels and works of non-fiction but these were always eclipsed by Holmes. Pressure from his publisher would compel him to reprise his creation for later works. The last collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, appeared in 1927.
Politics and Reform
Conan Doyle could be conflicted in his political views. He stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Unionist parliamentary candidate for Edinburgh Central in 1900 and for Hawick in 1906. Despite this, after 1916 he supported Irish Home Rule.
On votes for women, he was a vehement critic of militant suffragette action, yet he supported women’s rights in professional life and believed that women who paid taxes should have the vote. He was also president of the Divorce Law Reform Union (1906–16), which eventually resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, making adultery by either a husband or a wife the sole ground for divorce.
Conan Doyle was active in exposing serious miscarriages of justice in Britain, including that of Birmingham solicitor George Edalji, whose wrongful conviction he put down to ‘colour hatred’. His opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and sympathy for interracial marriage were suggested in ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and ‘The Yellow Face’. But, as was common for writings of that time, he often used racial stereotypes to describe his characters from China, India and elsewhere.
Conan Doyle served as a doctor during the controversial South African War and defended British policy in his works The Great Boer War (1900) and The War in South Africa (1902). He was a military correspondent and historian in the First World War, which culminated in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1920).
At heart Conan Doyle was an imperialist, but The Crime of the Congo (1909) was an attack on the brutal exploitation of the native people of the Congo Free State, founded and controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium.
Conan Doyle’s interest in psychic phenomena was strengthened during the war and in 1918 he published The New Revelation, the first of several works on spiritualism which would occupy his latter years. The Vital Message (1919) proposed that in the coming world, etheric bodies – a spiritual form that in some traditions is said to connect the physical body to a higher plane – will be devoid of:
… all birthmarks, deformities, blindness and other imperfections … a perfect body waits for each.
At the time this may have been utopian thinking in the wake of the First World War, but his words now have a more sinister ring.
Conan Doyle died at home in Sussex in 1930.
Douglas Kerr, Conan Coyle: Writing, Profession, and Practice, (Oxford, 2013)
John Lamond, with an epilogue by Lady Conan Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle: A Memoir (London, 1931)
John Sutherland, Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous literary detective, The British Library (15 March 2014) (accessed 9 Nov 2020)
Owen Dudley Edwards, Doyle, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan (1859–1930), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2017) (subscription required: accessed 9 Nov 2020)