A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SOCIETY

 
London, 1950. St Marylebone Borough Council was hard at work trying to decide how to celebrate the Festival of Britain the following year. The Public Libraries Committee suggested an exhibition about Sherlock Holmes. Others on the council were not impressed - 'is this character, associated with murky crime, the best we have to offer' someone demanded. Why not do something on slum clearance? 

Letters began appearing in The Times - from Dr Watson, Mycroft Holmes, Inspector Lestrade - seventeen of them in all. Some even said that they had some mementoes of Sherlock Holmes, and offered to lend them for exhibition. Bowed down by public opinion, the Council relented. A small group of enthusiasts got together to plan the exhibition. Eagerly they designed and collected - a Persian slipper for Holmes' tobacco, a gasogene for Watson's soda, a jack-knife for Holmes to skewer his unanswered correspondence to the mantelpiece. On an upper floor of Abbey House, the Baker Street headquarters of Abbey National, a meticulously detailed recreation of the famous sitting room at 221 B took shape. Fresh crumpets - bitten into by two different sets of teeth - were supplied every day by a local bakery. Over 54,000 people came to see it. 

It was a triumph. 

Festival of Britain Logo
 

The Society's formation

 
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle For its creators, though, the job was over. Then they thought - why don't we resurrect the Sherlock Holmes Society? There had been a small Society in the 1930s, whose members had included such distinguished scholars as the leading cleric Mgr Ronald Knox and the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers. The war had brought an untimely end to its activities. On Tuesday 20 January 1951, the new society was formed - called the Sherlock Holmes Society of London to distinguish it from the pre-war ancestor from which it can nevertheless claim direct descent. The first Sherlock Holmes Journal appeared in May. It included articles on Holmes' personality and Watson's gambling habits, and a review of the films of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Its membership list included just over 130 names. There are more than 1,000 today. 

The Society quickly established a pattern of activities which it continues to this day - a twice-yearly journal, regular meetings, an annual dinner in January. Its tone was witty, erudite, but always with a light touch. The writer Mollie Hardwick once described the Sherlockian game as a huge family joke, and a sort of family the Society indeed is, whose skills and responsibilities are passed down the generations. 

 

The Society abroad

 
One of the Society's greatest early triumphs was the celebrated pilgrimage to Switzerland in 1968 - forty members and least twice as many press, all in full Victorian costume. High above the Reichenbach Falls, the Society's President Lord Gore-Booth shed his mantle as head of the Diplomatic Service to become Sherlock Holmes himself, locked in the death struggle with the evil Professor Moriarty, played by leading barrister Charles Scholefield. And when the BBC made the fight at the Falls the first item in its evening news bulletin, the Society knew that it had reached a new pinnacle of success. 

Since then, there have been no fewer than four further pilgrimages to Switzerland. And in 1993, the Society made its first visit to France. Full costume was again de rigeur as members visited Bordeaux and Cognac, concluding in Montpellier, where Holmes had spent part of his exile while all the world believed him to be dead, exactly one hundred years earlier. Britain is not neglected in the Society's peregrinations either. Summer week-end trips have included expeditions to Dartmoor to visit the scene of The Hound of the Baskervilles, to the Peak District in the north to explore the territory of The Priory School, and to both Oxford and Cambridge. Needless to say, controversy rages in the Society as to which of these two was actually Holmes' university. 

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
 

The Society today

 
Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes Today the Sherlock Holmes Society of London faithfully continues the tradition started by that small group of enthusiasts over forty years earlier. Interest in Sherlock Holmes world-wide remains as strong as ever, and the Society's membership embraces people from all walks of life and from every part of the globe. In May 1994, the Society staged one of its most ambitious projects to date - a ten-day London festival, called Back to Baker Street, to celebrate the centenary of Holmes' return from the dead. The events included an international symposium on Holmes and the police, held at Scotland Yard, with speakers from America, Japan, South Africa and France. There was a mock inquest, based on incidents in the case of The Empty House and presided over by the Westminster coroner, Dr Paul Knapman. .