When Arthur Conan Doyle Came To Southsea

With just a few days to go before Holmes Fest 2018 begins on 27th June in Portsmouth, Matt Wingett reveals Arthur Conan Doyle’s early days in Southsea and the struggles he went through.

When Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Southsea in 1882 stepping on to Clarence Pier from a steamer, he had £10 in his pocket, a medical degree and a strong will to make the best of his new life here.

He very much needed the last on the list. His previous attempt at partnership with George Budd in Plymouth had left him determined to go it alone. Budd was unreliable, prone to swings of wild temper and behaved like a melodramatic performer putting on a show for his patients. Doyle considered him deeply unprofessional – and worse – paranoid.

Soon Conan Doyle had set himself up at his surgery on Elm Grove, where his younger brother Innes later joined him to help out. Conan Doyle always had a hands-on positive approach to life, and he later recalled in “Memories and Adventures” applying has can-do attitude to make the best of the bare surgery. With very little money, he used his creativity to improvise, and his cooking arrangements would have given a modern Health and Safety officer a fit. He wrote:

What with cleaning up, answering the bell, doing my modest shopping, which was measured in pennies rather than shillings, and perfecting my simple household arrangements, the time did not hang heavily upon my hands. It is a wonderful thing to have a house of your own for the first time, however humble it may be. I lavished all my care upon the front room to make it possible for patients. The back room was furnished with my trunk and a stool. Inside the trunk was my larder, and the top of it was my dining-room table. There was gas laid on, and I rigged a projection from the wall by which I could sling a pan over the gas jet. In this way I cooked bacon with great ease, and became expert in getting a wonderful lot of slices from a pound. Bread, bacon and tea, with an occasional saveloy—what could man ask for more? It is (or was) perfectly easy to live well upon a shilling a day.

The matter of money remained a tough one for him, and it isn’t true to say that money flooded in. He remembers:

I had obtained a fair consignment of drugs on tick from a wholesale house and these also were ranged round the sides of the back room. From the very beginning a few stray patients of the poorest class, some of them desirous of novelty, some disgruntled with their own doctors, the greater part owing bills and ashamed to face their creditor, came to consult me and consume a bottle of my medicine. I could pay for my food by the drugs I sold. It was as well, for I had no other way of paying for it, and I had sworn not to touch the ten golden pieces which represented my rent. There have been times when I could not buy a postage stamp and my letters have had to wait, but the ten golden coins still remained intact.

Elm Grove, had once had tall, elegant elms growing in the front gardens of some of the villas along its length. You can see a great example of how shops were built on to the old front walls of the houses at Rosie’s Wine Bar, where the steps up to the front door can still be clearly seen, inside, at the back end of the bar. The picture above is from before 1897, and shows part of the elm-lined street as it once was. Below is a more recognisable image of the road, with the elms still visible at the far end, where commerce hadn’t yet reached.

 

 

In Conan Doyle’s day, the nature of the street was thus changing from the country idyll it had been just a few decades before, as Southsea thrust further and further east along the farm fields of the island. Doyle wrote:

It was a busy thoroughfare, with a church on one side of my house and an hotel on the other. The days passed pleasantly enough, for it was a lovely warm autumn, and I sat in the window of my consulting-room screened by the rather dingy curtain which I had put up, and watched the passing crowd or read my book, for I had spent part of my scanty funds on making myself a member of a circulating library. In spite of my sparse food, or more probably on account of it, I was extraordinarily fit and well, so that at night when all hope of patients was gone for that day I would lock up my house and walk many miles to work off my energy.

So it was, that of an evening in Southsea in 1882, you might have met a tall, strong Scot, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weight 14 stone of lean meat walking the streets and getting to know his surroundings – as the adventure of his life was about to begin, and the adventures of his most famous hero, Sherlock Holmes, were to be begin here, too!

The opening night of Holmes Fest – Three Cheers for Arthur Conan Doyle – will be at The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth, on 27th June. Doors open at 7pm, tickets £10.

For the full Holmes Fest programme, go to: http://bit.ly/holmesfest2018

Why I love surprising people when I tell them about Conan Doyle in Southsea

People sometimes sound surprised when I tell them I want to celebrate Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in Southsea with Holmes Fest. They simply don’t believe that Holmes could have anything to do with our little town – and that’s why I’m so positive about it – to show them that actually Portsmouth and Southsea have a lot to offer those with the right attitude.

The Southsea in the 1880s in which Arthur Conan Doyle lived was a very familiar yet very different place from the one we know now. When he stepped off the steam packet from Plymouth in late June 1882, the Clarence Pier he landed on was a very different building from the one that was wrecked during the war. Here’s an image of it:

Of course, at Number 1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, Conan Doyle famously set up his surgery. But I’ve often wondered what that meant for him when he stepped out on to the street. Sitting in his surgery waiting for patients, he would have been disturbed not by passing cars, though the clip of horses’ hooves on the cobbled road would have penetrated his consulting room.

The place where he lived, in that grey-fronted Victorian villa was lively. To the north of him lay the artisan quarters, where dockyard workers, builders and craftsmen crowded in the St Paul’s Road and Green Road areas. When he stood at his front door looking out, he would have seen a row of shops and houses along which only ten years before the forlorn and stressed Rudyard Kipling had made his way from Lorne Lodge on Campbell Road to the school at Green Road. On his right hand side there stood a Baptist Church, and beyond that, a livery stables where the gentlemen of the area kept their horses.

 

On his left stood The Bush Hotel, and a little further, on the other side of the road, was Hide’s Drapery Emporium, where science fiction writer H G Wells worked sullenly as a teenager in Doyle’s early years in Southsea. I like to imagine that maybe, one day in 1882 or 1883, the pair met across the counter, while the young doctor twirled his moustache and considered which fabric would make a decent pair of trousers both durable and presentable enough to wear in the surgery as he saw patients.

The fact is, Doyle loved Southsea, writing in his autobiography Memories and Adventures:

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 turn. The history of the past carries on into the history of to-day, the new torpedo-boat flies past the old Victory with the same white ensign flying from each, and the old Elizabethan culverins and sakers can still be seen in the same walk which brings you to the huge artillery of the forts. There is a great glamour there to any one with the historic sense—a sense which I drank in with my mother’s milk.

His book also gives a wonderful insight into life in the doctor’s surgery in those early years. Doyle also quotes a letter “written in straggling schoolboy script by my little brother to his mother at home which may throw an independent light upon those curious days.” August 16, 1882, it says:

The patients are crowding in. We have made three bob this week. We have vaxenated a baby and got hold of a man with consumption, and to-day a gipsy’s cart came up to the door selling baskets and chairs so we determined not to let the man ring as long as he liked. After he had rang two or three times Arthur yelled out at the pitch of his voice, Go a way but the man rang again so I went down to the door and pulled open the letter box and cried out go a way. The man began to swear at me and say that he wanted to see Arthur. All this time Arthur thought that the door was open and was yelling Shut that door. Then I came upstairs and told Arthur what the man had said so Arthur went down and opened the door and we found out that the gipsy’s child had measles…After all we got sixpence out of them and that is all ways something.

Doyle adds: “I remember the incident well, and certainly my sudden change of tone from the indignant householder, who is worried by a tramp, to my best bedside manner in the hopes of a fee, must have been very amusing. My recollection is, however, that it was the Gipsy who got sixpence out of us.”

The early years of his move to Southsea were tough. Doyle recalls “picking up a patient here and a patient there until the nucleus of a little practice had been formed.”

Doyle also learned to network: “I mixed with people so far as I could, for I learned that a brass plate alone will never attract, and people must see the human being who lies in wait behind it. Some of my tradespeople gave me their custom in return for mine, and mine was so small that I was likely to have the best of the bargain. There was a grocer who developed epileptic fits, which meant butter and tea to us. Poor fellow, he could never have realized the mixed feelings with which I received the news of a fresh outbreak.”

The characters in Portsmouth he also writes of with brilliance, as of the “very tall, horse-faced old lady with an extraordinary dignity of bearing,” of whom he recalls:

She would sit framed in the window of her little house, like the picture of a grande dame of the old régime. But every now and again she went on a wild burst, in the course of which she would skim plates out of the window at the passers-by. I was the only one who had influence over her at such times, for she was a haughty, autocratic old person. Once she showed an inclination to skim a plate at me also, but I quelled her by assuming a gloomy dignity as portentous as her own. She had some art treasures which she heaped upon me when she was what we will politely call “ill,” but claimed back again the moment she was well. Once when she had been particularly troublesome I retained a fine lava jug, in spite of her protests, and I have got it yet.

It was in this life that Conan Doyle decided that he had best supplement his income through writing. It is the fame he gained from his work that makes the celebration of his life such fun. And that’s why I love it when people are so surprised to hear that this town was where it all began.

Holmes Fest begins on Wednesday 27th June with “Three Cheers for Arthur Conan Doyle” at the Square Tower, Old Portsmouth.

For more information about all the events, go to: http://bit.ly/holmesfest2018

The Gosport Steampunk Society and Holmes Fest

Stuart Markham – The Gosport Steampunk Society at Holmes Fest 2017

Gosport Steampunk Society

Stuart Markham Talks About The Gosport Steampunk Society and Holmes Fest

The Victorians were a strange bunch. Alongside inequality, grinding poverty and imperialism, they also gave us extraordinary visionaries like Wells, Verne, Rider Haggard, and countless others, not the least of whom was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So, when I heard that Holmes Fest would celebrate the life and times of Conan Doyle in Portsmouth, I knew straight away that the Gosport Steampunk Society must be involved! That’s why we’ll be demonstrating feats of marksmanship on stage, among the storytelling and the music, as well as inviting you to a duel…

But fear not! Our deadly weapons are nerf guns (and yes, I do know the Victorians didn’t invent soft polystyrene bullets!).

Tickets for Holmes Fest 2017 available here

Wednesday 28th June, 6.30pm, The Square Tower, Portsmouth

Price: £7.50

One of the things I love about the Victorians is the way they imagined the future. For them, it was a glorious Victorian future full of steam and brass and clanking machines and space travel and lost worlds and handfuls of scarlet-clad soldiers fighting Martian invaders, led by mutton-chopped heroes with pith helmets and clockwork rifles! (Heroes not unlike myself, I may add.)

The Gosport Steampunk Society, along with other Groups, seek to celebrate this retro-futurism at regular meetings (called Convivials) and events and gatherings all round the country – indeed, the world.

We socialise, we espouse politeness and a Victorian bearing, we costume (the Steampunk motto is Be Splendid), and we craft. We hold mock duels and shooting challenges, we attend concerts and saucy burlesque evenings, but above all we have fun, in a Victorian science-fiction setting.

In short we use our skills and imagination to participate in the future the Victorians never got to have.

So, we’re at Holmes Fest to add our own special ingredient to the mix. It’s going to be fun – and don’t forget to challenge one of us to a duel. Our nerf guns are primed!

The GSS meets every first Tuesday of the month at 7:30pm, at the newly refurbished Fighting Cocks pub in Alverstoke, a short walk from the Gosport Ferry, and you will find us a most welcoming bunch of enthusiasts.

The Gosport Steampunk Society and Holmes Fest

Line-up for Portsmouth’s Holmes Fest 2017 Announced

Conan Doyle revisiting the site of his surgery, No 1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, in 1911 – by then a corset shop! (courtesy of the Conan Doyle Encyclopedia https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/)

 

10 brilliantly talented storytellers will be joined by musicians, a projectionist and a duellist on Wednesday 28th June at the Square Tower to celebrate Arthur Conan Doyle’s life in Portsmouth.

The writers who will be regaling us with their stories include internationally published authors of Victorian crime fiction, local authors with a knack for spinning the perfect yarn and song writers, too.

The story tellers are:

  • William George Sutton – creator of the Campbell Lawless series of crime novels
  • Diana Bretherick – doctor of criminology and author of City of Devils and The Devil’s Daughters
  • Tony Noon – experienced storyteller well-known for his appearances at the Square Tower’s Day of the Dead event
  • Justin MacCormack – prolific author across genres, with a wicked sense of humour and a sense of the creepy
  • Christine Lawrence – author of Caught In The Web, with a unique brand of story-telling
  • Alan Morris – joyous performer who loves to dress up in Victorian gear and regale us with something unexpected
  • Zella Compton – playwright, short story writer, News columnist and children’s novelist
  • Charlotte Comley – organiser of Lovedean Writers’ Group and one of the funniest, wryest and most brilliant tale tellers in the south.
  • Amanda Garrie – smooth deliverer of intriguing tales.

Find out more about the musicians and the duellists, soon.

Tickets are selling – snaffle your seats at Holmes Fest now!

 

Arthur Conan Doyle and the vicar of St Jude’s, Southsea

Southsea – St Jude’s Church and Vicarage

In his book A Study In Southsea, Geoffrey Stavert traces Arthur Conan Doyle’s life in the seaside town, partially through Doyle’s fictionalised account of Southsea life in his novel The Stark Munro letters. His real-life surgery at No. 1 Bush Villas, was renamed “Oakley Villas”, while St Jude’s was newly Christened “St. Joseph’s”. Stavert writes:

At “Elmwood”, a pleasantly commodious Thomas Owen house situated just off Elm Grove between Grove Road South and the Woodpath (on part of the site now occupied by Telephone House), with lawns and hedges on three sides, lived the Reverend Charles Russell Tompkins, a curate of St Jude’s Church, Southsea. Not content with a wife and seven daughters to minister to his creature comforts, the Rev. Tompkins also maintained a cook, a housemaid and a nurse. It sounds as if St. Jude’s was a comfortable parish in 1883.

I suspect the Rev. Tompkins was the original of the un-named “High Church Curate of St. Joseph’s” whose encounter with the new tenant of Oakley Villas is described in The Stark Munro Letters. The curate had been one of the first to call after the new doctor had put up his plate, with high hopes of welcoming him to the flock, and had been considerably taken aback when he was firmly told that the doctor had no intention of becoming a regular attender at his church or any other…

Come and celebrate Conan Doyle’s life in Portsmouth at Holmes Fest on 28th June 2017 at The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth. Tickets are selling, so book your seat here before it’s too late. https://www.wegottickets.com/event/401304

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