Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of one of the most famous fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes has strong links to Portsmouth. He pursued his writing career whilst working as a GP in Southsea and the Portsmouth City Museum has a special permanent exhibition on the author and his life. The collection was donated to the museum by one of the world’s leading experts on Doyle, Richard Lancelyn Green. It’s a must visit for all Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes fans.
Conan Doyle in Portsmouth
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle moved to Portsmouth in 1882 after a troubled and brief partnership in a medical practice in Plymouth which left him near bankruptcy. He set up a medical practice in rented lodgings at 1 Bush Villas in Elm Grove in Southsea where he was only able to furnish two rooms in which to receive his patients. While establishing himself he continued writing stories which he’d found he’d inherited a talent for from his mother. It wasn’t until 1888 that his first story became commercially recognised when "A Study in Scarlet" was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and first introduced the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became a regular figure in the town’s events including local sports teams and the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society. Even after he left he continued his association with Portsmouth by donating money to set up the football club and the spiritualist church. He also bought a property in the town and continued to visit periodically.
Much of Conan Doyle’s inspiration came from real life events and people he met. His vivid accounts of lunatic asylums seem likely to have been drawn from his experiences when his father suffered from mental illness and Conan Doyle had to have him committed. Many of Sherlock Holmes’ qualities were inspired by one of Conan Doyle’s teachers while at medical school, Dr Joseph Bell. The series of Sherlock Holmes stories were hugely commercially successful, however, Conan Doyle continued to write serious historical novels, poems and plays which he hoped would bring him recognition as a more serious writer. He first gained serious recognition in America after attending a dinner party where he met Oscar Wilde. He was then commissioned to write a short novel to be published in both America and England. This was "The Sign of Four" which firmly established Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in both nations’ consciousness.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after Portsmouth
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left Portsmouth in 1890 to travel to Vienna to study Ophthalmology. He returned to London in 1891 to set up an ophthalmologist practice in Wimpole Street. In Conan Doyle’s own words, not a single patient crossed his door so he could dedicate himself to writing. He also had an epiphany when he suffered a severe bout of influenza and decided, with great joy, to give up his medical career so he could concentrate solely on his literary one. He started toying with the idea of killing off Holmes so he could concentrate on more serious writing. He tried this in 1893 when Holmes and Moriarty plunged to their deaths down the Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem". However the public outcry was so intense that he was forced to bring Holmes back in the follow up "The Adventure of the Empty House".
At the time twenty thousand subscribers to "The Strand" magazine cancelled their subscriptions in protest! The reappearance of Holmes led to a long series of short stories including "The Hound of the Baskervilles" which was inspired by a holiday in Devon when strolling the moors. Conan Doyle died of heart disease in July 1930 aged 71. His grave is at All Saints Church in Minstead in the New Forest and the grave is marked with a simple white cross under an oak tree. He was reburied with his second wife, Jean, when she died in 1940.
Conan Doyle Exhibition at Portsmouth City Museum
Exhibitions on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes proved so popular that Portsmouth City Museum installed a new permanent exhibition. The exhibition looks at the creation of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle’s life through a huge array of memorabilia collected by one of the world’s leading experts on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Lancelyn Green. His collection including books, documents and objects connected to Holmes and the life of the author brings both their lives to life. An audio message from the exhibition’s patron, Stephen Fry, serves as an introduction, and particular items from the collection are highlighted on a monthly basis.