The city’s treasure trove of the man who created Sherlock Holmes

Michael Gunton, senior archivist at Portsmouth Central Library, looking at some of Arthur Conan Doyle's work.

Picture: Habibur Rahman.

Michael Gunton, senior archivist at Portsmouth Central Library, looking at some of Arthur Conan Doyle's work. Picture: Habibur Rahman.

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On New Year’s Day millions tuned in to watch the first episode in the fourth series of Sherlock, the BBC’s contemporary version of the world-famous detective stories.

To fans around the world, Sherlock Holmes remains a much-loved supersleuth.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at his home. Picture: Habibur Rahman.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at his home. Picture: Habibur Rahman.

But did you know that he began life right here in Portsmouth?

Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the first two Sherlock stories, A Study In Scarlet and The Sign Of Four, during the eight years he lived in the city from 1882.

Although the detective ‘lives’ in London, many believe that when Doyle wrote he often described the streets of Portsmouth.

Today the city houses the world’s most diverse collection of images, books, objects, memorabilia and documents relating to Doyle and his work – and you can go and explore it for free.

The display at Portsmouth City Museum. 
Picture: Habibur Rahman.

The display at Portsmouth City Museum. Picture: Habibur Rahman.

Of interest to people of all ages, from all walks of life, the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection Lancelyn Green Bequest is housed in the Portsmouth City Museum and in the Portsmouth Central Library.

Much of the collection is also kept in storage, explains Michael Gunton, senior archivist for the Portsmouth Library and Archive Service.

He says: ‘Richard Lancelyn Green was one of the foremost world authorities on Conan Doyle. Before he died in 2004, in his early 50s, he was known to have an encylopaedic knowledge of the author and all things relating to him.

‘He had about 16,000 books, 40,000 archives and 3,000 objects. All of which he left to Portsmouth. He did this because he visited the Central Library once and was very impressed by the helpfulness and knowledge of the staff, and he also wanted Sherlock’s birthplace to be the home of all his work.

‘Some of the items in the collection are on display at the Portsmouth City Museum and the archives are in the Central Library, which can be explored if visitors make an appointment with me – but of course much of it is also in storage because the collection is so huge.

‘Green spent his life collecting, researching, travelling. From his interest came this fantastic collection and that’s something that should be celebrated.’ In his will, Green gave the Central Library first refusal to the collection, which would have gone to Edinburgh had it not been accepted.

An introductory exhibition to the collection was set up at the City Museum in 2008, followed by the present exhibition, which is always being updated.

Michael, who has worked with the archives in Portsmouth since 1989, adds: ‘There’s a whole Sherlockian world to explore and viewing the collection is a great way to be a part of it. For those who find themselves liking the TV series, this will extend their interest greatly and, if not, it’s still fascinating because of its Portsmouth connections.

‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became well-known in Portsmouth after moving to the city and opening a doctor’s surgery in Elm Grove. It was alongside this he started writing.

‘He also joined the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, played lots of sport – including becoming the first goalkeeper for the team that became Portsmouth Football Club – gave public talks, got involved in politics, commented on public affairs and campaigned on miscarriages of justice.

‘In his autobiography released in 1924, Doyle said: ‘‘With its imperial associations it is a glorious place, and even now if I had to live in a town outside London, it is surely to Southsea, the residential quarter of Portsmouth, that I would return’’.’

The breadth of the collection covers a whole range of phenomena spanning over a number of years, from letters written by Doyle to manuscripts, through to popular culture items. Green did anything he could to obtain items relating to the author and his work, meaning he even went as far as having books about how to develop detective-based stories.

Katy Ball, collections registrar for the Portsmouth Museum Service, says: ‘We have a whole gallery devoted to the collection on the ground floor. We look at Richard Lancelyn Green, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and then Sherlock Holmes.

‘We also look at the other books Doyle wrote – he’s well-known for his famous detective creation, but he also wrote historical novels and early science fictions. He’s really interesting as an author outside of Sherlock.

‘Quite a large section of the display is devoted to adaptations of the novels. There are films and lots of plays – we had some things sent over from Germany to do with an amateur production that was made over there.’

Portsmouth has continued to acquire more items. From the estate of Dane Jean Conan Doyle, the author’s second wife, came the manuscript of The Adventure of the Creeping Man – which was in the last collection of Sherlock stories published. This can be viewed electronically in the City Museum. Material relating to Doyle’s interest in the miscarriage of justice case surrounding George Edalji was also obtained.

Plans for a multi-million pound Sherlock Holmes attraction in Portsmouth are in the pipeline, which could see an interactive learning hub established. It is hoped that funding and planning permission for the project will be acquired within the next year.

Katy adds: ‘The collection’s connection to Portsmouth makes it very special. Some people don’t realise Doyle lived here or Sherlock was created here. We should celebrate the collection – I’ve enjoyed working closely with it and I hope people come and see all that it has to offer.’

The Portsmouth City Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. The Portsmouth Central Library is open from Monday-Saturday, at varying times. Visit portsmouth.gov.uk to find out more. To explore the collection online, go to visitportsmouth.co.uk/conandoyle.

Volunteers are required to help out with the collection at Portsmouth Central Library – researching for new projects, cataloguing, helping out at events/exhibitions, and taking part in workshops. E-mail sherlock.holmes@portsmouthcc.gov.uk for more details.

ADAPTATIONS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

Sherlock Holmes is one of the best-known fictional characters in the world. He is currently being played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC series Sherlock, but has also starred in:

Films: Holmes’ on-screen life started in 1900 when a short American silent film named Sherlock Holmes Baffled was created. This goes right through to the 2009 and 2011 modern-day productions where the detective is played by Robert Downey Jr. A third instalment called Sherlock Holmes 3 is in the pipeline.

Stage: Many plays based on the life and times of Holmes have been created. American actor and playwright William Gillette contributed much to the vision of the character in the USA as he wrote, directed and starred in a play named Sherlock Holmes in seven different productions on Broadway until 1930. More recently, Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles was on at the York Theatre Royal in York over last summer.

Radio: There have been a number of Sherlock Holmes dramatisations on the BBC alone. Sherlock appeared in two one-hour episodes of Doyle’s first in the Holmes series, A Study In Scarlet, in 1989.

The detective has also been portrayed in comic books, other TV series, TV movies, songs, video games and board games.

ITEMS ON DISPLAY AT THE PORTSMOUTH CITY MUSEUM

The Spiritualist memorial boards of Sir Arthur and Lady Jean Conan Doyle

The author and his second wife were buried, according to their Spiritualist beliefs, in the garden of Doyle’s home in Crowborough, East Sussex. These boards, made of wood, marked the grave site and moved with the remains over to All Saints Church, Minstead, when the Crowborough estate grounds were sold. Their burial in the churchyard caused some controversy because the pair were Spiritualists.

Matchbox stories

Tiny scenes from different Sherlock Holmes stories have been created to fit inside matchboxes. A number of these are open and on display.

A brick from the demolished Abbey National building

221B Baker Street in London was chosen by Doyle as the address of Sherlock Holmes in his novels. When the stories were written the Baker Street numbers didn’t go as high as 221, but it was later extended and the address occupied by Abbey National PLC until 2002. The company employed someone to answer to letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes, as this would’ve been his address were he not a fictional character. When the building was demolished the bricks were sold.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s boxing gloves

The gloves were a part of the collection left behind by Richard Lancelyn Green. Doyle was a great sportsman and dabbled in many sports from boxing to football and cricket.

A display based on Sherlock Holmes fans

A Phd student from the University of Portsmouth created her own display, which has been in the museum for about nine months, based on the fictional detective’s fans. It includes fan art drawn by different people.

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