Super-sleuths on the trail of a mystery master

A picture of Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection
A picture of Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Items telling the life story of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have a new home. RACHEL JONES checks out the amazing collection at Portsmouth’s Central Library.

They’ve painstakingly examined and investigated more than 24,000 objects, letters and books.

And now history detectives are showing off the evidence of their hard work at Portsmouth’s Central Library.

Ever since Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes expert Richard Lancelyn Green left books, memorabilia, letters and photographs to the city of Portsmouth, the team has been working on his vast collection.

They’ve been researching, recording and filing away the 40,000 items relating to the writer and his fictional detective and are now more than half of the way there.

The work is ongoing, but the items that have been archived are now available for the public to enjoy and examine at a new study centre at the library.

‘It’s been a massive undertaking because things weren’t catalogued,’ says Michael Gunton, senior archivist for Portsmouth’s Museums and Records Service. ‘With each item we were looking for information. Sometimes he would collect things that didn’t belong to Conan Doyle but related to the things he was interested in. So there was a lot to find out. We’ve been sleuthing to find out the answers, I suppose.’

A small part of the collection, which includes first editions of the Sherlock Holmes books, props from the Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s glasses and waistcoat, has been on display in the City Museum for a few years.

But now a massive part of the collection is at the library and can be viewed by appointment.

Visitors can check for information on each item on a computer database and then ask to see it.

And school and adult education groups can take part in activities based on Arthur Conan Doyle and the detective he created while living in Portsmouth in the 1880s. The first Sherlock Holmes story A Study In Scarlet was written while Conan Doyle lived near Elm Grove in Southsea.

The avid collector Richard Lancelyn Green, who died in 2004, also left the collection to Portsmouth because he was impressed by how the city had cared for its Dickens archive.

The aim now is to make the Conan Doyle archive accessible to everyone.

‘His stories were short and accessible and so the collection should be available for everybody too,’ says Michael.

Enquiries have come from all over the world and part of the collection has formed a travelling exhibition which has been to Germany and Japan.

The team looking after the Conan Doyle Collection might find themselves talking to a student in America one day and a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London the next.

There is also plenty of work with local groups and schools. Fiona-Jane Brown, promotions officer for the collection, has been getting the word out to groups and organisations around the city.

As well as a mystery trail at City Museum, there are also puzzles and other fun and educational detective exercises aimed at youngsters.

Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional crime-fighter to use forensic techniques of observation and deduction so the stories relate to a lot of different subjects.

‘Some of the work involves getting them to look at the stories and make up their own,’ says Fiona-Jane. ‘But it isn’t just about creative writing and literacy. We’ve been working on all kinds of puzzles, observational games and even code-breaking exercises. So we’re bringing in science and maths too. And then some schools or groups might be looking at 19th century Britain or crime and crime detection.’

Conan Doyle’s interests ranged from sport to spiritualism so the team has a lot of enquiries from people interested in those areas too.

It has also asked for help from various experts and groups while cataloguing the collection. These include local spiritualist groups.

As there is no shortage of Conan Doyle fans, plenty of volunteers have been involved in archiving the collection. But as the work is ongoing there is always a need for more help.

It seems all kinds of people are getting into sleuthing thanks to the Conan Doyle collection and Fiona-Jane is delighted.

‘It’s the world’s biggest collection of stuff to do with Conan Doyle, nobody has what we have. And Richard Lancelyn Green left it to the city for free. So everyone has access and nobody should have to pay for it. Although he died in 2004 we’ve never quite been able to let people have full access to it. And now it’s here, it’s absolutely vital that people get a sense that the people of the city own the collection.’

Items in the collection

Photo albums

Conan Doyle’s photo albums provide something of a window into the author’s family life.

The albums of pictures taken between 1914 and 1930 include images of the writer, his second wife Jean Leckie, his five children from his two marriages and friends.

One picture shows Conan Doyle sitting in the garden sipping a cup of tea. Others have been taken in Switzerland, shown right, one of his favourite holiday haunts. The writer first went there with his wife Louise when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and continued to visit even after her death. The climate didn’t cure her disease but helped enormously and Arthur made his mark on another country by popularising skiing as a sport and hobby.

The albums also feature pictures of his sons Adrian and Denis with various motor cars. ‘They were really interested in cars and we have had people interested because of that,’ says archivist Michael Gunton. ‘People who are into early motor racing know what the cars are and what they represent. So that’s another audience for the collection.’

Film star pictures

Arthur Conan Doyle mixed with many other famous people and a selection of pictures taken in 1923 show him posing with the greats of Hollywood. These include Douglas Fairbanks, pictured, and child star Jackie Coogan.

Another picture shows him on a boat with second wide Jean Leckie, heading out for this American tour.

Theatre programme

Despite his own success, Conan Doyle must have found it a great honour to write a play for the great actor Henry Irving.

He had been taken to see Irving in Hamlet when he was a teenager and was a big fan. So it isn’t surprising he wrote for the actor’s farewell performance at Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal.

The 1905 theatre programme, which lists Irving’s final plays, is in the collection at Central Library.

The first show detailed on the programme is the one-man play Waterloo by Arthur Conan Doyle and starring Irving.

Sherlock Holmes series scripts

Since Richard Lancelyn Green’s collection came to Portsmouth there have been some additions.

One of the most recent is a selection of scripts from the Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

‘We approached the BBC for them. It’s a growing collection because the interest in Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes is an ongoing phenomenon,’ says Michael Gunton. ‘There are new films, biographies and television series. It doesn’t lose its appeal.’

The scripts have been signed by episode writers Mark Gatiss, Steve Thompson and Steven Moffatt.

Spiritualist photos

Richard Lancelyn Green collected photographs of Arthur Conan Doyle and other belongings but also things connected to the subjects that interested the author.

It is unclear if the collection’s many images of psychic phenomena and mediums in a trance belonged to Conan Doyle, but he would certainly have known the people involved.

The writer became one of the leading voices of the spiritualist movement after the First World War.

His faith was strong and he cared little whether others agreed with him or not.

Just days after his death, a spiritualist meeting at the Royal Albert Hall was organised so that he could make one final appearance from beyond the grave. Thousands attended and a row of chairs was arranged on the stage for his family, with one left empty for Sir Arthur himself. And even when he did not himself appear, there were many people in the audience who claimed they had felt his presence among them.

Richard Lancelyn Green

The man behind the collection was one of the world’s leading experts on the writer and his work.

Richard Lancelyn Green, pictured, devoted his life to the study of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Over four decades he amassed the most wide-ranging collection of Conan Doyle and Holmes material anywhere in the world, buying up first editions of books, letters, film and television memorabilia, merchandise and paraphernalia. He even recreated the 221b Baker Street study in his attic.

He also produced more than 200 publications, including the Conan Doyle bibliography and Letters To Sherlock Holmes – letters from readers all over the world sent to Holmes c/o 221b Baker Street.

He was chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London between 1996 and 1999.

Richard was always happy to share his knowledge and collection with other enthusiasts and scholars.