Watson, there is no doubt that the elements for Conan Doyle’s greatest creation can be found in his account of his life in Southsea. A scientific character study performed on the great man from the moment he set foot in Portsmouth, reveals distinct elements in his personality – elements that combine with the accidents of everyday life in this town to lead Conan Doyle to create something extraordinary. And when I say “something extraordinary”, I mean, of course, me.
Consider the circumstances on that fine day in June 1882 in which he stepped off the Irish steamer from Plymouth on to Clarence Pier, and surveyed the busy scene around him. There is no doubt he was a young, bull-headed gentleman of most definite principle. He had thrown over his previous post as a physician in Plymouth because of differences of opinion with Dr Budd, his partner in the surgery. He considered Dr Budd to be a scoundrel who tricked his patients into paying for massive prescriptions. He would have nothing to do with him – and it was his independence of mind that brought him to our city, and to that bustling beach at the west end of Southsea’s waterfront.
When he arrived, he had only 10 pounds in his pocket but great resources in his mind and in his body.
Now Watson, what can we deduce from his first actions in the island city? Let me elucidate them for you. He left his luggage at the pier, caught a tram into Old Portsmouth and found himself temporary lodgings in the poorer part of the city – driving down the price for the week from 13 shillings to 10 and sixpence. And what do we make of the fact that he then walked back to the pier and paid a porter to walk his luggage back to his new digs?
The answer is simple, Watson! He was not wealthy. Using a porter rather than a taxi saved him fourpence. What we see here is a young man willing to use his initiative, tight for money and keen to make the most out of the opportunities the city would afford.
Once installed, Dr Conan Doyle notes in his “Stark Munro Letters” that he went out to hear a band playing in a park, and happened upon a man beating his wife in the streets. His sense of justice is revealed by the fact that he stepped in, to prevent the man attacking his wife further, and became embroiled in a street brawl with the gentleman. Notice, too, just like me, that Dr Conan Doyle was physically unafraid – and was also an accomplished boxer. Notice, however, that unlike me, he was not a bare knuckle fighter, nor an exponent of the Japanese art of Baritsu.
How well he might have fared against this fellow is a matter of conjecture, since a wild punch thrown by his opponent landed on a passing sailor, who stepped in and took over from the good Doctor. One could almost imagine, Watson, that in this department, my prowess with my fists is an amplification of his own abilities with boxing.
Next, we come to his practical cast of mind. The following day, Conan Doyle purchased a map of the city and began to bisect it with lines that would be the most efficient means of walking the entire length and breadth of the city.
Note, Watson, that there was a very particular reason for this. He was a doctor, just as you are. But because doctors were not allowed to advertise, there was no way he could find out where his rivals were located without acquainting himself with the city personally.
He could also discover which parts of the city would be good for business, which roads to avoid and which properties were empty.
Note, too, how Conan Doyle found a residence at No 1 Bush Villas, on Elm Grove, Southsea. It served the wealthier clients of Castle Road, as well as the artisan properties to the north of Elm Grove. It provided a varied social milieu, and just as I do, it meant that the Doctor mixed with all classes.
Then there are the dramatic and the macabre elements in Conan Doyle’s arrival in Southsea. When he first became the tenant of Bush Villas, Conan Doyle was faced immediately with a bizarre scene in the cellar of his new dwelling. Piles of human jawbones – yes Watson! – human jawbones were stacked in the semi-darkness! It was a scene worthy of one of his own entertainments. But Conan Doyle soon solved the mystery. The previous incumbent was a dentist, and he had left his casts behind on absenting the property.
Dr Conan Doyle’s time in Southsea was similar to my own life in other ways. For example, he used a pseudonym at times, just as I have been known to do. When he played football, as the goalkeeper for Portsmouth Amateur Football Club, he went under the name of “A C Smith”, lest it became known that a gentleman was playing a game more commonly associated with the lower classes.
He was also one for turning fortune in his favour and for quick thinking. An accident in the road outside his struggling practice he quickly attended. He checked over the gentleman who had fallen from his horse and sent him on his way. After which he sent in a report of the accident and his heroic intervention to The Evening News, thus securing him free advertising, which he was otherwise prevented from doing, as an MD.
He mixed with the higher stratas of society at the Cricket Club and Bowling Club, and became friends with The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth. And it might well be that he read an article in the Evening News involving an investigation being run by a Chief Inspector Sherlock. How much, indeed, Portsmouth gave to the young Dr Conan Doyle!
So, Doctor Watson, do you see now how the elements of his life in Portsmouth combined together to make me who I am? And can you see how, if he had come to a different city, I might well have been quite a different fellow?
Or would I?
An interesting conundrum, Dr Watson, and most definitely a three pipe problem!