I don't know about you, but we're very excited to greet the new year with the return of our favourite detective and the long awaited series 4 of Sherlock Holmes! Thank you BBC and Mr. Cumberbatch, you have saved us from the January blues! So to get ready for the big day we wanted to share with you an extract from our book, Sherlock Holmes’s London by Rose Shepherd, in which she introduces the city Sherlock would have known. Over to Rose...
The London of Sherlock Holmes is a city of the imagination. Arthur Conan Doyle did not extend himself in describing it. With a few deft pen strokes he gave us fog and gas lamps, hansom cabs, gentlemen’s clubs and opera, pawnbrokers and gin palaces, wily street urchins and dull-witted “Scotland Yarders”—which, for us, the avid readers, is enough. We know that London of the 1890s, capital of Great Britain, of Empire and Commonwealth, in the last gasp of the Victorian era. We can see the teeming thoroughfares, the horses drawing carts, landaus, roughams, the diffused glow from shop windows, the swirling “pea-soupers.” We can hear the ring of iron horseshoes, the clatter of wheels on cobbles, the music of an organ-grinder, the cries of hawkers selling nostrums, matches, posies, whelks. It’s a little bit edgy, dirty, smelly, but always exciting.
Nor has it all vanished. On the contrary, it is astonishing how much of today’s London would be recognizable to Holmes and Watson. Here and there are survivors from the Middle Ages—remnants even of Roman times. Tudor black-and-white abuts Jacobean grace and Georgian elegance, alongside 1960s Brutalism.
In the shadow of great towers of glass and steel are important public buildings of bygone ages, ancient churches, impressive monuments, venerable hotels, restaurants, and stores. If we raise our eyes above plate glass and fluorescence, above nail bar and tanning salon, burger joint and mobile phone emporium, we see how handsomely historic London has accommodated the 21st century. The very lack of unity makes for endless fascination.
In this book we set out upon a tour of the London of the world’s first consulting detective. We visit his haunts and walk the streets in his footsteps, admire stupendous edifices, poke into nooks and corners and back alleys. We can shop, as he would have done, for snuff, shooting sticks, game birds for the table, fine wine, top hats, swords, and country tweeds. We can venture into his favorite restaurant and onto his crime scenes, and find out where justice was dispensed and where the villains whom Holmes brought to book would have languished.
But a city is more than just a built environment, it is a milieu, it is its people—or, rather, its people are its lifeblood. London in the late 1800s was home to four and a quarter million souls. It was a city of extremes of rich and poor: carriage folk in their Regency mansions, the poor in workhouses and slums, the destitute in rags, under arches, and an emerging middle class colonizing the Victorian pattern-book redbrick terrace homes (row houses) that are such a large part of current housing stock. Masters, servants, wharfingers and wherrymen, shopkeepers, laundresses, flower girls, pen-pushers, publicans, costermongers, cabbies, stable boys, actors, loafers, beggars, harlots, hucksters… All human life was here, giving voice to what Tennyson called “the central roar,” and Robert Louis Stevenson “the low growl” of London.
Here too, of course, were the criminals whose vile pursuits furnished Doyle with such rich material. Most infamous of all was “Jack the Ripper,” the fiend who stalked the squalid streets of Whitechapel. While he still exercises the minds of investigators who speculate as to his true identity, he remains a faceless figure, almost a figment.
By contrast, Sherlock Holmes, a character of fiction, is entirely real and present. Let us now get on his case.
This is extracted from Sherlock Holmes's London by Rose Shepherd which is available here. AND don't forget to tune into BBC One at 9pm on January 1st to see Sherlock's next adventure!