Introducing Sherlock Holmes

221B Baker Street is one of the most famous addresses in London, if not in the World. Most people will immediately recognize it as the residence of fiction’s greatest detective duo – Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr. John H. Watson.

But, although the duo resided here, and it was from here that they set out on many of their adventures, it wasn’t here that they met.


Their initial meeting took place at one of Europe’s oldest hospitals, St Bartholomew’s, or Barts as it is more affectionately known to Londoners, which is located in the City of London, a good three miles from Baker Street.

However, their story actually begins on March 8th 1886, in Southsea, a residential suburb of Portsmouth, where a recently married twenty-seven-year-old doctor by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been passing the time between patients writing short stories, sat down to pen a new work which he titled “A Tangled Skein.”


The story featured a character by the name of Sheridan Hope – whose name Conan Doyle later changed to Sherrinford Holmes – and his faithful sidekick, Ormond Sacker.

However, by the time Conan Doyle finished the story at the end of April 1886, he had changed its title to “A Study In Scarlet,” and the two characters had become Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson.


Conan Doyle had studied medicine in Edinburgh, and the observational and deductive abilities with which he imbued Holmes were inspired by the Scottish surgeon and lecturer, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose clerk Conan Doyle had been at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in 1877.

In his lectures to his students, Bell would emphasize the importance of observation in making a diagnosis – a skill that it was essential that a doctor possessed in the days before X-rays, CT Scans, and MRIs.

In a letter to Bell, Doyle would later acknowledge that:-

“It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes, and though in the stories I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic positions, I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some of the effects which I have seen you produce in the out-patient ward.”

The modest Dr. Bell, although appreciating his association with the great detective, was self-effacing when he told a journalist that:-

“Dr. Conan Doyle has, by his imaginative genius, made a great deal out of very little, and his warm remembrance of one of his old teachers has coloured the picture.”

A photograph of Dr Joseph Bell.
Dr Joseph Bell.


Conan Doyle’s genius was to apply Bell’s diagnostic techniques to the world of detective fiction, and to create a character that was, “a scientific detective, who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”

Conan Doyle entertained great hopes for “A Study In Scarlet,” which is more than can be said for three publishers to whom he sent his completed manuscript, each of whom immediately responded with letters of rejection.

“Verily,” Conan Doyle wrote to his mother, “literature is a difficult oyster to open.”


Unperturbed, Doyle sent the story off to Ward, Lock and Company of London.

Although they were impressed by it, they wrote back to say:- “we could not publish it this year, as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction.”

If Conan Doyle would be willing to wait for a year, they informed him that they would be willing to purchase the copyright outright for £25.

In truth, it was a terrible offer, and Conan Doyle wrote back asking them if they would consider paying a small royalty.

They refused his request on the grounds that, it might give rise to some confusion.”

Reluctantly, Conan Doyle accepted their measly offer:- “I never at any time received another penny for it,” he later wrote in his autobiography.


“A Study In Scarlet” finally saw the light of day in November 1887, when it appeared as the main feature in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, and the Victorian reading public made the acquaintance of Dr. John H. Watson – who begins the story with the biographical information that:-

“In the year 1878, I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.”

Having been injured in the second Afghan War, he arrives back in England – landing at Portsmouth, where, with his health irretrievably ruined, he has the permission from a paternal Government to spend the next nine months in attempting to improve it.


“I had neither kith nor kin in England,” he tells his readers, “and was therefore as free as air – or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be.

Under such circumstances, I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.

There I stayed for some time at a private hotel in the Strand, leading a comfortless, meaningless existence, and spending such money as I had, considerably more freely than I ought.

So alarming did the state of my finances become that I soon realized that I must either leave the metropolis and rusticate somewhere in the country, or that I must make a complete alteration in my state of living.

Choosing the latter alternative, I began by making up my mind to leave the hotel, and to take up my quarters in some less pretentious and less expensive domicile.”


As luck, or to be more precise, the plot would have it, on the very day that he came to the aforementioned decision, Watson paid a visit to the Criterion Bar at Piccadilly – which, given the dire state of his finances was a somewhat expensive choice of venue – where, as he stood at the bar, he felt a tap on his shoulder, and, turning round, he recognised young Stamford, who had been a dresser under him at Barts.

“The sight of a friendly face in the great wilderness of London is a pleasant thing indeed to a lonely man,” Watson informs the reader; and in the exuberance of his joy, Watson invites young Stamford to lunch with him at the Holborn, and they duly set off in a hansom. My goodness, for someone who is on his uppers, Watson isn’t half splashing his cash about.


Anyway, over lunch, Stamford asks him what he is up to now, to which Watson replies, “Looking for lodgings. Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.”

“That’s a strange thing,” remarks Stamford, “you are the second man today that has used that expression to me.”

Now, had Watson at this point, agreed that it was indeed a strange thing, and then resumed trying to scoop the peas off his plate, and hadn’t reacted in any way, well let’s just say that detective fiction as we know it might have turned out very differently.

But, Watson is curious and asks who the first was.

“A fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital,” is Stamford’s reply. “He was bemoaning himself this morning because he could not get someone to go halves with him in some nice rooms which he had found, and which were too much for his purse.”


Watson can barely control his excitement.

“By Jove!” he cries, “if he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone.”

Stamford, however, does not appear to share Watson’s glee.

“You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he observes, “perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.”

“Why, what is there against him?” Watson enquires.

“Oh, I didn’t say there was anything against him,” replies Stamford,

“He is a little queer in his ideas – an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough.”

“A medical student, I suppose?”, responds Watson.

“No – I have no idea what he intends to go in for. I believe he is well up in anatomy , and he is a first-class chemist, but, as far as I know, he has never taken out any systematic medical classes.

His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professor.”


Watson informs his companion that he would very much like to meet Sherlock Holmes, and Stamford tells him that he is sure to be at the laboratory.

Thus it is that, lunch over, they set off to walk to St Bartholomew’s Hospital.