Alfred Wood was born in 1868 and was one of the eight children of Emily and Robert, a brass founder and fitter who lived in St Thomas’s Street, Old Portsmouth.
While Alfred’s eldest brother Charles followed in his father’s footsteps, and Gilbert went to work as a draughtsman in the Dockyard, Alfred was lucky – at the end of the road a new grammar school was being built, and it opened its doors just as the boy was old enough to take advantage of it.
On the school’s playing fields, the boy was ‘a very plucky forward – always on the ball’, a good all-rounder at cricket, becoming the opening bat for the First XI, and a good shot in the school’s cadet corps.
He was a founding member of the school’s debating society, and became its first president. One of the motions he proposed – at a time when fiction was perceived by many to be frivolous – was ‘that novel reading in its widest sense should be encouraged’.
In 1885, Alfred passed the Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate in Greek, Latin and maths, the last with distinction, and was awarded a Mathematical Scholarship at Brasenose College, Oxford.
While there, Alfred continued to be involved in his old school, proposing the setting up of a club for former pupils, which exists to this day (The Old Portmuthian Club), taking part in running sports days and establishing a school boat club.
After gaining his degree, it came as no surprise that Alfred returned to the grammar school as a maths teacher.
Wood appears to have met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the first time on the school playing fields at Hilsea. At that time, it was the custom for school cricket teams to have one or two adults in the side, and Alfred proved an inspiration for the pupil players. Doyle also loved the game and turned out for the South Hampshire Rovers at its regular matches against the school.
Alfred was bowled out by Doyle on May 17, 1890, but caught him out on another occasion. Alfred sometimes played on the same side as Doyle as well as, on one occasion, for Hampshire. He also played soccer for the first Portsmouth amateur football team alongside Doyle.
Doyle’s younger brother, Innes, attended the grammar school and the author was interviewed for the school magazine while waiting to go in to bat at Hilsea.
In 1901, Alfred left teaching and became Doyle’s secretary, hand-writing many of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was known as Woody and became a trusted member of the Doyle household at Crowborough in Sussex. For many years he served in the Territorials, and fought in France in the 5th Battalion, Sussex Regiment during the First World War, attaining the rank of major.
Arthur Conan Doyle was a general practitioner in Southsea between 1882 and 1890 and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson first appear in A Study in Scarlet, published in December 1887. It is generally accepted that Doyle named Dr Watson after a Dr James Watson, a fellow doctor and friend he knew through the local Literary and Scientific Society.
However, some sources, including Doyle’s son Adrian, believe Watson’s character was based on Alfred. A burly, solid and lovable man – as described by his former pupils at the grammar school – Alfred was utterly reliable, of military appearance and a good shot, just like Holmes’s trusted partner.
Alfred worked for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle until the author’s death in 1930, and then returned to spend his retirement in Southsea where he died in 1941.