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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Doctor Watson

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Doctor Watson
(Faber & Faber Ltd., 1931)
Doctor Watson facsimile
(The Three Students Plus, 1971)

Doctor Watson : Prolegomena to the study of biographical problem, with a bibliography of Sherlock Holmes is a study written by S. C. Roberts first published in 1931 by Faber & Faber Ltd. (Criterion Miscellany No. 28).


  • Doctor Watson (1931, Faber & Faber Ltd. Criterion Miscellany No. 28 [UK])
  • Doctor Watson (1971, The Three Students Plus [US])

Doctor Watson

To V. C. P.

Part I

'As in every phenomenon the Beginning remains always the most notable moment; so with regard to any great man, we rest not till, for our scientific profit or not, the whole circumstances of his first appearance in this Planet, and what manner of Public Entry he made, are with utmost completeness rendered manifest.'

So wrote Carlyle, an author from whose voluminous works quotations would readily fall from the lips of Dr. Watson himself. But to render manifest the whole circumstances of Watson's first appearance in this planet is a task before which Boswell himself might well have quailed. Certainly Boswell might have run half over London and fifty times up and down Baker Street with very little reward for his trouble. Where were the friends or relatives who could have given him the information about Watson's early life? 'Tadpole' Phelps might have given a few schoolboy anecdotes; young Stamford might have been traced to Harley Street or some provincial surgery, and have talked a little about Watson at Bart.'s; his brother had been a skeleton in the family cupboard; his first wife, as seems probable, died some five or six years after marriage; Holmes himself might have deduced much but, except in the famous instance of the fifty-guinea watch, seldom concerned himself with Watson's private affairs. The young Watson, in short, is an elusive figure. 'Data, data, give us data,' as Holmes might have said.

Since he took his doctor's degree at the University of London in 1878, Watson's birth may with a fair measure of confidence be assigned to the year 1852. [1]

The place of his birth is wrapped in deeper mystery. At first sight the balance of evidence seems to point to his being a Londoner; much of his written work, at any rate, conveys the suggestion that he was most fully at home in the sheltering arms of the great metropolis: Baker Street, the Underground, hansom cabs, Turkish baths, November fogs — these, it would seem, are of the very stuff of Watson's life. On the other hand, when, broken in health and fortune, Watson stepped off the Orontes on to the Portsmouth jetty, he 'naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.' It is difficult to believe that Watson, in whose veins there flowed a current of honest sentiment, could thus have described his native city. On the whole, we incline to the view that he was born either in Hampshire or Berkshire; it was as he travelled to Winchester [2] ('the old English capital', as he nobly calls it) that he was moved by the beauty of the English countryside: 'the little white fleecy clouds... the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeping out from amidst the light green of the new foliage'. 'Are they not fresh and beautiful?' he cried out to Holmes... Again, Watson chafed at an August spent in London. It was not the heat that worried him (for an old Indian campaigner, as he said, a thermometer at 90° had no terrors); it was homesickness: he 'yearned for the glades of the New Forest or the shingle of Southsea...' [3]

Concerning his parents Watson preserves a curious silence. That his father (H. Watson) was or had been, in comfortable circumstances may fairly be inferred from his possession of a fifty-guinea watch, and from his ability to leave his elder son with good prospects and to send his younger son to a school whence young gentlemen proceeded to Cambridge and the Foreign Office. Watson's reticence about his elder brother is hardly surprising: squandering the legacy bequeathed to him by his father he lived in poverty, 'with occasional short intervals of prosperity'. Possibly he was an artist who occasionally sold a picture; more probably he was a gambler. In any event, he died of drink round about the year 1886. [4]

Concerning Watson's boyhood two facts stand out clearly: he spent a portion of it in Australia, and he was sent to school in England. The reference to Australia is categorical. As he stood hand-in-hand with Miss Morstan in the grounds of Pondicherry Lodge, 'like two children', as he significantly says, the scenes of his own childhood came back to him: 'I have seen something of the sort on the side of a hill near Ballarat, where the prospectors had been at work'. In all probability, then, the period of Watson's Australian residence was before he reached the age of 13. [5]

No reader of Watson's narrative can have failed to notice his curious treatment of his mother. [6] The explanation must surely lie in Mrs. Watson's early decease — probably very soon after her second son's birth. It is, perhaps, a little more fanciful — though not, surely, fantastic — to surmise that she was a devout woman with Tractarian leanings, and that before her death she breathed a last wish into her husband's ear that the child should be called John Henry, after the great Newman himself.

Unable to face life in the old home, Watson père set out to make a new life in Australia, taking his two young children with him. Whether he had good luck in the gold-fields round Ballarat or in other spheres of speculative adventure, it is evident that he prospered. Of the influence of this Australian upbringing on the character of Doctor Watson we have abundant evidence: his sturdy common sense, his coolness, his adaptability to rough conditions on Dartmoor or elsewhere are marks of that tightening of moral and physical fibre which comes from the hard schooling of colonial life. Londoner as he afterwards became, Watson was always ready to doff the bowler hat, to slip his revolver into his coat pocket, and to face a mystery or a murder-gang with a courage which was as steady as it was unostentatious. But to return to Watson's boyhood: that he was sent to one of the public schools of England can hardly be doubted, since one of his intimate friends was Percy Phelps, 'a very brilliant boy' who, after a triumphant career at Cambridge, obtained a Foreign Office appointment. He was 'extremely well connected'. 'Even when we were all little boys together,' writes Watson, 'we knew that his mother's brother was Lord Holdhurst, the great Conservative politician.' But Watson's sturdy colonialism was proof against the insidious poison of schoolboy snobbery, and took little account of Phelps's 'gaudy relationship'. The boy was designated by no more dignified name than 'Tadpole', and his fellows found it 'rather a piquant thing' to 'chevy him about the playground and hit him over the shins with a wicket' — a sentence which suggests that Watson's school, like many others, preserved certain peculiarities of vocabulary, keeping the old term 'play-ground' for 'playing-field' and using 'wicket' in the sense of 'stump'. That it was a 'rugger' school there can be little doubt. How else would Watson have played three-quarter for Blackheath in later years? Characteristically, Watson never alludes to his prowess on the football field, until he is reminded of it by 'big Bob Ferguson', who once 'threw him over the ropes into the crowd at the Old Deer Park'. [7] In class-work we may conclude that Watson was able, rather than brilliant; he was two forms below 'Tadpole' Phelps, though of the same age; his school number was thirty-one. [8]

Of Watson's student days we have but scanty record. At St. Bartholomew's Hospital he found himself in an atmosphere that has always been steeped in the tradition of the literary physician, [9] and it is clear that Watson was not of those who are content with the broad highway of the ordinary text-book. The learned and highly specialized monograph of Percy Trevelyan upon certain obscure nervous lesions, though something of a burden to its publishers, had not escaped the eye of the careful Watson; [10] nor was he unfamiliar with the researches of French psychologists. [11] With such interests in the finer points of neurological technique, it may at first sight seem strange that Watson should have chosen the career of an army surgeon, but after what has already been said of Watson's colonial background, it is clear that in the full vigour of early manhood he could not face the humdrum life of the general practitioner. The appeal of a full, pulsing life of action, coupled with the camaraderie of a regimental mess, was irresistible. Accordingly, we find him proceeding to the army surgeon's course at Netley. Whether he played 'rugger' for the United Services is uncertain; his qualification as a 'Club' three-quarter was a high one, but it is probable that at this period his passion for horses was developed. His summer quarters were near Shoscombe in Berkshire, and the turf never lost its attraction for him. Half of his wound pension, as he once, confessed to Holmes, was spent on racing. [12]

But the scene was soon to be changed. At the end of his course Watson was duly posted to the Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. With what zest may we picture him opening his account with Cox & Co. at Charing Cross, [13] and purchasing his tin trunk, pith helmet, and all the equipment necessary for Eastern service; with what quiet satisfaction must he have supervised the painting of the legend JOHN H. WATSON, M.D., upon his tin dispatch-box! But events were moving quickly; before Watson could join his regiment, the Second Afghan War had broken out.

It was in the spring of 1880 that Watson embarked, in company with other officers, for service of our Indian dominion. At Bombay he received intelligence that his corps 'had advanced through the passes and was already deep in the enemy's country.' At Kandahar, which had been occupied by the British in July, [14] Watson joined his regiment, but it was not with his own regiment that he was destined to go into action: 'The Fifth marched back to Peshawar, and from there to Lawrencepore; and... in September they received orders for home... So they turned their backs on the tragedy of Maiwand.' [15] To Watson, however, the battle of Maiwand, fought on 27th July, 1880, was to become only too vivid a memory. He was removed from his own brigade and attached to the Berkshires (the 66th Foot), the story of whose heroic resistance at Maiwand has passed into military history. [16] Early in the course of the engagement, but not before he had, without loss of nerve, seen his comrades hacked to pieces, [17] Watson had been struck on the left shoulder by a Jezail bullet. The bone was shattered and the bullet grazed the subclavian artery; but, thanks to his orderly, Murray, to whose courage and devotion Watson pays a marked tribute, he was saved from falling into the hands of 'the murderous Ghazis', and after a pack-horse journey which must have aggravated the pain of the wounded limb, reached the British lines in safety. Of Watson's comrades-in-arms we know little; but seven years later we find his referring to his 'old friend Colonel Hayter' as having come under his professional care in Afghanistan. [18] Hayter is described as 'a fine old soldier who had seen much of the world', and it would seem fairly safe to identify him with the Major Charles Hayter who was director of Kabul Transport in the Second Afghan War. [19]

The story of Watson's experiences in the base hospital at Peshawar, of his gradual convalescence, of his severe attack of enteric fever ('that curse', in his own graphic phrasing, 'of our Indian possessions'), of his final discharge, and of his return to England either late in 1880 or early in 1881, may be read in the pages of his own narrative. [20]

With no kith or kin in England, with a broken constitution and a pension of 11s. 6d. a day, a man of weaker fibre than John H. Watson might well have sunk into dejection or worse. But Watson quickly realized the dangers of his comfortless and meaningless existence: even the modest hotel in the Strand he found to be beyond his means. Standing one day in the Criterion bar, 'as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut', he was tapped on the shoulder by young Stamford, who had been a dresser under him at Bart.'s. Overjoyed to see a friendly face, Watson immediately carried him off to lunch at the Holborn, where he explained his most pressing need — cheap lodgings. Young Stamford looked 'rather strangely' over his wine-glass. Had he some kind of intuition that he was to be one of the great liaison-officers of literary history, that he was shortly to bring about meeting comparable in its far-reaching influences with hat other meeting arranged by Tom Davies in Russell Street, Covent Garden, more than a hundred years before?

Taking Watson with him to the chemical laboratory at St. Bartholomew's, young Stamford fulfilled his mission:

'Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes...'

'How are you?... You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.'

'How on earth did you know that?...'

Such was the initiatory dialogue. Holmes and Watson quickly agreed to share rooms [21], and the load of depression was lifted from Watson's mind. Life had a new interest for him; the element of mystery about his prospective fellow-lodger struck him as 'very piquant'; as he aptly quoted to young Stamford: 'the proper study of mankind is man...'

The walls of No. 221B Baker Street [22] bear no commemorative tablet. It is doubtful indeed whether the house has survived the latter-day onslaught of steel and concrete. Yet Baker Street remains for ever permeated with the Watsonian aura. The dim figures of the Baker Street irregulars scuttle through the November gloom, the ghostly hansom drives away, bearing Holmes and Watson on an errand of mystery.

For some time Holmes himself remained a mystery to his companion. But on the 4th March, 1881, he revealed him-self as a consulting detective ('probably the only one in the world'), and on the same day there came Inspector Gregson's letter relating to the Lauriston Gardens Mystery. After much hesitation Holmes decided to take up the case. 'Get your hat,' he called to Watson; and though Watson accompanied his friend to the Brixton Road with little enthusiasm, Holmes's brusque summons was in fact a trumpet-call to a new life for Watson. In the course of the adventure which is known to history as A Study in Scarlet, Watson's alertness as a medical man is immediately evident. His deduction of the solubility in water of the famous pill was quick and accurate; nor did he fail to diagnose an aortic aneurism in Jefferson Hope. 'The walls of his chest', he recorded in his graphic way, 'seemed to thrill and quiver as a frail building would do inside when some powerful engine was at work. In the silence of the room I could hear a dull humming and buzzing noise which proceeded from the same source.' At this stage the friendship between Watson and Holmes was only in the making: Holmes still addressed his companion as 'Doctor'. But it was in his first adventure that Watson found his true métier. 'I have all the facts in my journal and the public shall know them.'

Between 1881 and 1883 (the year of The Speckled Band) we have little record of Watson's doings. Possibly he divided his time quietly between Baker Street and his club. More probably he spent a portion of this period abroad. His health and spirits were improving; he had no family ties in England; Holmes was at times a trying companion. Now in later years Watson refers to 'an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents.' [23] The three continents are clearly Europe, India, and Australia. In Australia he had been but a boy; in India he can have seen few women except the staff-nurses at Peshawar. It is conceivable, though not likely, that he revisited Australia at this time. It is much more probable that Watson spent some time on the Continent and that, in particular, he visited such resorts as contained the additional attraction of a casino. Gambling was the ruling passion of the Watson family. Watson père had gambled on his luck as an Australian prospector — and won; his elder son gambled on life — and lost; the younger son (a keen racing man' [24] and a dabbler in stocks and shares [25]) no doubt won, and lost, at rouge et noir.

By the time of The Speckled Band it is noteworthy that the intimacy between Watson and Holmes has very considerably developed. Watson is no longer 'Doctor' but 'My dear Watson'; Holmes's clients are bidden to speak freely in front of his 'intimate friend and associate'; if there is danger afoot, Watson has but one thought: Can he be of help? 'Your presence', Holmes told him in the case of the Speckled Band, 'might be invaluable."Then', comes the quick reply, 'I shall certainly come.' It is the old campaigner who speaks.

The years 1884 and 1885 are again barren of detailed Watsonian record; and here again it is possible that Watson spent part of his time on the Continent. But with the year 1886 we approach one of the major biographical problems of Watson's career — the date of his first marriage.

For a proper consideration of the problem it is necessary, first, to clear one's mind of sentiment. We may remember Holmes's own criticism of Watson's first narrative: 'Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism...

The biographer, when he reaches the story of Watson's courtship, must necessarily endeavour to do justice to its idyllic quality, but, primarily, he is concerned with a problem. Let us review our data:

(1) In The Sign of Four, Miss Morstan, according to Watson's narrative, used the phrase: 'About six years ago — to be exact, upon the 4th May, 1882...' This would appear to date the adventure between April and June, 1888.

(2) A Scandal in Bohemia is specifically dated loth March, 1888, and evidently occurred a considerable time after Watson's marriage. Watson had drifted away from Baker Street, and Holmes had been far afield — in Holland and Odessa.

(3) At the time of The Reigate Squires, April, 1887, Holmes and Watson were still together in Baker Street.

(4) The adventure of The Five Orange Pips is dated September, 1887, and occurred after Watson's marriage (his wife was visiting her aunt and he had taken the opportunity to occupy his old quarters at Baker Street).

A brief summary of this kind does not, of course, pretend to include all the available data, but is at least sufficient to indicate certain contradictions which Holmes himself would have found difficult to reconcile.

Suppose, for instance, that we accept the traditional date for Watson's engagement to Miss Morstan — the year 1888. In that case the marriage cannot have taken place until the late summer or autumn of that year. What, then, becomes of the extremely precise dating of A Scandal in Bohemia and The Five Orange Pips?

One thing is clear: Watson, careful chronicler as he is, cannot have been consistently accurate in his dates. The traditional assignment of The Sign of Four to the year 1888 rests upon Watson's report of Miss Morstan's conversation; the dates of The Reigate Squires and of The Five Orange Pips are first-hand statements of Watson himself.

Now Watson, when he wrote the journal of The Sign of Four, cannot be said to have been writing in his normal, business-like condition. From the moment that Miss Morstan entered the sitting-room of No. 221B Baker Street, he was carried away by what he picturesquely calls 'mere will-o'-the wisps of the imagination'. He tried to read Winwood Reade's Martyrdom of Man, but in vain; his mind ran upon Miss Morstan — 'her smiles, the deep, rich tones of her voice, the strange mystery which overhung her life'. Further, the Beaune he had taken for lunch had, on his own confession, affected him, and he had been brought to a pitch of exasperation by Holmes's extreme deliberation of manner. On the whole, then, was this a state of mind calculated to produce chronological accuracy?

On the other hand, there are no such reasons to make us doubt the accuracy of The Reigate Squires and The Five Orange Pips; and if we accept the dates of these, the marriage must be fixed between April and September, 1887. Now, assuming that Miss Morstan shared the common prejudice against the unlucky month, it is not likely that the ceremony took place in May. June, on the other hand, seems extremely probable, since The Naval Treaty (July, 1887) is described as 'immediately succeeding the marriage'.

Accordingly, we are driven to conclude that The Sign of Four belongs to the year 1886, in the autumn of which Watson became engaged. In the early part of 1887 Watson would be busy buying a practice, furnishing a house and dealing with a hundred other details. This would explain why, of the v ery large number of cases with which Holmes had to deal in this year, Watson has preserved full accounts of only a few. He had made rough notes, but had no time to elaborate them. 'All these', [26] he writes in a significant phrase, 'I may sketch out at some future date.' Again, if June, 1887 be accepted as the date of the marriage, the opening of A Scandal in Bohemia becomes for the first time intelligible. Between June, 1887 and March, 1888 there was plenty of time for Watson to put on seven pounds in weight as the result of married happiness and for Holmes to attend to separate summonses from Odessa and The Hague. To claim definite certainty for such a solution would be extravagant; but as a working hypothesis it has claims which cannot be lightly dismissed.

Part II

Whatever may have been the exact date of Watson's marriage with Miss Morstan [27], it would seem clear that in the early years, at least, of his married life Watson achieved the happiness which he desired and deserved. Such glimpses as he gives us of his hearth and home suggest a picture of domestic Bohemianism which was in complete harmony with Watson's temperament. So long as he had believed that Miss Morstan might be a rich heiress, his delicate sense of honour had prevented him from declaring his passion. But when it was finally known that the Agra treasure was lost and that the 'golden barrier' (to use Watson's own picturesque phrase) was removed, Watson could rejoice in the prospect of sharing the simple home of a middle-aged practitioner with one whom even Holmes described as one of the most charming young ladies he had ever met. Holmes, indeed, went further: he regarded the marriage of Miss Morstan as a loss to the detective profession. 'She had a decided genius that way,' he admitted to Watson — high praise, indeed, from Holmes, exceeded only by his admiration for Irene Adler, who 'eclipsed and predominated' the whole of her sex in the detective's eyes.

But to return to Watson's marriage. Of the ceremony itself we have no specific record. We may, however, assume that it was not marred by any vulgar ostentation. If Miss Morstan on her first visit to Baker Street gave the impression of a small and dainty blonde, 'well gloved and dressed in the most perfect taste', we may safely conjecture that the 'plainness and simplicity' which Watson then noted in her costume were also the predominant characteristics of her bridal appearance. Whether Holmes was induced to be best man is at least doubtful, since Watson would hardly be likely to omit a record of so personal a tribute; with the exception of one aunt, neither Watson nor his bride had relatives living; consequently it seems most probable that the ceremony took place very quietly at St. Mark's or St. Hilda's, Camberwell, [28] with Miss Morstan's aunt and Mrs. Forrester present to give their blessing.

The honeymoon (spent probably in Hampshire, a county for which Watson had a strong sentimental attachment [29]) was no doubt a short one, as Watson had much to do in refashioning his career. Turning instinctively to a neighbourhood not far removed from Baker Street, he found what he wanted in the Paddington district. There a certain Mr. Farquhar had built up an excellent general practice which had, at its best, brought in the substantial income of £1,200 a year. But Mr. Farquhar had been overtaken not only by old age but by a species of St. Vitus's dance. Now the public, as Watson shrewdly observes, 'looks askance at the curative powers of the man whose own case is beyond the reach of his drugs' and, in consequence, the practice had declined to about one quarter of its range and value. Here was Watson's opportunity. Confident in his own energy and ability, he bought the practice, with a determination to restore it to its previously flourishing condition. Three months of hard work followed. Watson was too busy even to visit 221B Baker Sherlock Holmes 'seldom went anywhere except on professional business'. [30] Further, such leisure as he had Watson instinctively devoted to his wife and to his home. Completely happy, and half a stone heavier, he found his attention wholly absorbed by 'the home-centred interests which rise up round the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment'. [31] Of course, the Watsons were not free from the normal troubles of modern domesticity. In their early married days they were obliged, no doubt, to be content with one servant, Mary Jane; she, as Watson records, proved to be incorrigible and was dismissed. Later it was found possible to increase the staff and Watson would write naturally of 'the servants'. [32]

Harmonious as it was, there was nothing irritatingly uxorious about the Watson ménage. In the September following the marriage, Mrs. Watson went for a few days to stay with her aunt and Watson himself up his to his old quarters in Baker Street. Very naturally he slipped into his old place by the fireside, burying himself in one of Clark Russell's 'fine sea stories', while Holmes on the other side of the fireplace cross-indexed his criminal records. [33]

But this visit, though entirely amicable, seems to have left little permanent mark upon Watson's memory. It had not really brought Holmes within the orbit of Watson's matrimonial happiness. Hastening back, no doubt, to the devoted partner of his new life and to his rapidly growing practice, Watson plunged into his work, without any feeling of having truly re-entered into the old atmosphere of Baker Street. With a certain fineness of taste, he hesitated to drag Holmes into a social circle towards which the detective's 'whole Bohemian soul' might be antipathetic, and it was not until 20th March, 1888 that he was moved with a keen desire to revisit his old friend. Returning from a visit to a patient he found himself opposite 'the well-remembered door' in Baker Street and in a few minutes was back in the old room. Watson could hardly have chosen a better moment for his re-entry upon the Baker Street stage, since Holmes had just received the note which was to herald the visit of Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Falstein and hereditary King of Bohemia. On the following afternoon Watson was back at three o'clock, and for the rest of the day he was engaged in playing an important role in the comedy of the King's photograph; he slept at Baker Street in order to be ready for the denouement of the following morning.

This intermittent resumption of partnership with Holmes was characteristic of Watson's early married life, and at first sight might seem to indicate an element of restlessness in Watson's domestic milieu. But a closer study of the records shows that Mrs. Watson maintained a continuous sympathy with that association of Watson with the great detective which had been the means of bringing her to the man she loved. Holmes, for his part, maintained his respect for Mrs. Watson, and Mrs. Watson never failed to encourage her husband to collaborate with his old friend in any investigation in which he could be of use. Thus Holmes would descend upon Watson near midnight, ask for a bed, and carry off his friend by the eleven o'clock train from Waterloo the next morning; [34] if an old friend of Watson was in trouble, his wife would acquiesce at once in his rushing off to Holmes; [35] when Watson received a telegram from Holmes urging him to come to the West of England for two days in connection with the Boscombe Valley case, it was his wife who pressed him to go — the change, she said, would do him good.

Side by side with this ready sympathy of Mrs. Watson with her husband's bachelor associations we must recognize the atmosphere of domestic compatibility which characterized Watson's home life. It has been truly said that there are two tests of a happy marriage: first, a harmonious breakfast, and second, an acceptance of quiet evenings. That Watson and his wife breakfasted together we have categorical evidence; [36] and more than once we obtain a glimpse of evening contentment. Watson, after a busy day, would read a novel or his British Medical Journal; his wife would have her needlework; about ten-thirty the servants would be heard locking the doors and windows; half an hour later Mrs. Watson would retire; and about eleven forty-five Watson would knock out the ashes of his last pipe. [37] It is a picture which may be scoffed at as dull, prosaic, bourgeois; but it is nevertheless significant. After a varied experience of femininity, Watson was contentedly anchored in this haven of domesticity. Holmes, however, never ceased to regard Watson as a 'ladies' man'. 'Now, Watson,' he would say, 'the fair sex is your department'; and when the Baker Street apartment was honoured by a visit from 'the most lovely woman in London', [38] it was Watson who recorded, in graphic phrasing, how 'the dwindling frou-frou of skirts had ended in the slam of the door'.

Of Watson's medical practice it is regrettable that we have no connected account. There can be little doubt that, having taken over a practice which had very much declined, he succeeded by assiduous devotion to his patients, in building up a very satisfactory connection. Thus in April, 1888 he was absorbed in a case of great gravity, spending whole days at the bedside of the sufferer; [39] in the June of the same year he notes that he had been kept 'very close at work' [40] and Holmes deduced on one of his sudden visits that Watson was busy enough to justify the hansom. Again, a year later, Watson notes that late in the evening he was 'newly come back from a weary day'. [41] By this time his practice had steadily increased and his proximity to Paddington had brought him some patients from among the Great Western Railway officials. [42] At the time of the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (probably the Christmas of 1889) Watson was evidently still busy. He did not call upon Holmes to wish him the compliments of the season until the 27th of December, and a case delayed him on that day until nearly half-past six. By the autumn of the year 1890, however, a complete change had come over Watson's professional life: 'I have nothing to do to-day,' he would tell Holmes. 'My practice is never very absorbing', [43] and when Holmes invited him six months later to accompany him to the continent at a day's notice, there was no hesitation: 'The practice is quiet,' said Watson, 'and I have an accommodating neighbour. [44] I should be glad to come.' Watson's readiness to leave home was partly due, no doubt, to the fact that his wife was also away, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that it was about this time that Mrs. Watson's health began to fail. Watson's resumption of professional work was so closely bound up with his devotion to his wife and his home-life, that some major cause must be sought for the relatively sudden decline of his interest in his practice. Now Mrs. Watson died some time between the summer of 1891 and the spring of 1894 the period during which Watson believed his friend to be lying, a mangled corpse, at the foot of the Reichenbach. Watson's own reference to his loss is characteristically slight. Holmes, on his return, referred sympathetically to his old colleague's bereavement and reminded him that work was the best antidote to sorrow. Actually Watson had already acted upon this advice. The falling-off of his professional activity which we have already noted began quite evidently in 1891 and it seems likely that the phrase 'my wife was away at the time' has a sad and sinister significance. In all probability Mrs. Watson had left for a period of treatment at a rest-home or sanatorium which unhappily proved to be of no avail. The long period of hoping against hope no doubt militated against her husband's vigorous prosecution of his professional work, but when the end came (probably in 1893) Watson roused himself from his grief as he had previously roused himself from the apathy of a half-pay officer invalided home from India. By the spring of 1894 his day was filled by his professional round. [45] That he should wish to sever himself from the sadness of his Paddington associations was natural. Accordingly we find him established in Kensington, in a small bachelor suite, with one maid to look after him. Undoubtedly the strain of the three years had told upon him. It is true that the manner of Holmes's return was sufficiently melodramatic to accelerate the most sluggish pulse, but it is hardly enough to account for an old campaigner like Watson falling into a dead faint. Clearly, his constitution had not fully recovered from the ravages of recent grief and worry. In the long run, nothing could have contributed so valuably to the restoration of Watson's health and enthusiasm as the reappearance of Sherlock Holmes. 'It was indeed like old times', he writes, 'when I found myself seated beside him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket and the thrill of adventure in my heart.' The next step was inevitable. At the end of a few months Watson had sold his practice in Kensington to a young doctor named Verner, and received a surprisingly high price for it. It was not until some years afterwards that Watson discovered that Verner was a distant relation of Holmes who had, in fact, found the money. It is rare, indeed, to come upon a reference to Holmes's family, [46] but what is still more interesting about this episode is the evidence which it provides of Holmes's eagerness to have Watson back in Baker Street.

For the next few years Watson, as chronicler, was destined to be extremely busy: the year of Holmes's return (1894) produced 'three massive manuscript volumes' of notes on cases and in 1895 Holmes was 'never in better form'. At the same time Watson retained some of his old professional interests. On a November night, while Holmes tackled a palimpsest, he would bury himself in a recent treatise upon surgery. [47] In many respects Watson shared Holmes's tastes: in particular they both derived great pleasure from the opera and from the Turkish Bath. On the other hand, Watson remained a good clubman, whilst Holmes preferred to remain at home with his microscope and card-indexes. [48] It is evident, however, that Holmes kept the watchful eye of an elder brother upon Watson's gambling propensities. Watson played billiards with one man only and his cheque-book was safely locked in Holmes's drawer. [49] Taken as a whole, the years 1894 to 1901 formed a happy period in Watson's life. Holmes was throughout that time a very busy man; every public case of importance and hundreds of private cases were brought to him for solution and Watson, himself personally engaged in many of them, preserved 'very full notes' of the whole series. The adventures entailed much interesting travel: Watson might find himself at short notice in the National Hotel at Lausanne [50] or in furnished lodgings in an ancient university town; Holmes's researches in Early English charters led them to Oxford and the painful scandal of the Fortescue scholarship; a sudden visit from Cyril Overton, of Trinity ('sixteen stone of solid bone and muscle' and 'skipper of the Rugger team of Cambridge 'Varsity') led them to an inn (next to a bicycle shop) in Cambridge and to the sad end (at Trumpington) of the landlady's daughter who was 'as good as she was beautiful and as intelligent as she was good'. [51] Holmes, for his part, rejoiced to have Watson with him when he was engaged on a case. 'A confederate', he wrote, 'who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed an ideal helpmate.'

More and more, as time went on, Holmes displayed an affection for Watson which was very different from the casual camaraderie of their earlier association. At the crisis of the adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, Holmes acknowledged Watson's loyalty with a warm grip of the hand and Watson saw 'something in his eyes which was nearer to tenderness than I had ever seen'; in the adventure of the Devil's Foot it was Watson's prompt courage that saved Holmes from the 'freezing horror' of his own experiment. It was in an unsteady voice that Holmes expressed his thanks. Watson had never seen so much of Holmes's heart before...

In the autumn of 1902 Holmes reached what Watson describes as, in some ways, the supreme moment of his career. This was in the matter of The Illustrious Client whose anonymity has been preserved to this day. Watson, will it be remembered, played a vital part in the outwitting of the notorious Baron Adelbert Gruner and was personally complimented by Holmes, who, having been enabled to confront Miss de Merville with categorical evidence of the Baron's sinister record, was at length able to secure the breaking-off of the engagement. Now it is significant that the next adventure to be recorded [52] is from the pen, not of Watson, but of Holmes himself. Why? Partly because Watson, with characteristic pertinacity, had worried him to try the job of writing himself and partly because, in Holmes's own words,- 'the good Watson had at that time [i.e. January 1903] deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association'. Here is categorical evidence of prime importance, and the dating is precise. [53]

Who was the second Mrs. Watson? Once more Watson's reticence is baffling. Beyond the indication that after this date he was no longer living at Baker Street, Watson tells us nothing of his second adventure in matrimony, and the biographer is thrown back upon conjecture. Two main alternatives offer themselves for speculation: either Watson had been for some time contemplating a second marriage, or it was a sudden decision hastened by a dramatic crisis in his life. In favour of the first theory it may be claimed that in September, 1902 Watson had already moved to rooms in Queen Anne Street, [54] which might well suggest that he already had changes in view; on the other hand he was still enjoying the 'pleasant lassitude' of the drying-room of a Turkish Bath in Holmes's company. The second theory rests upon a more interesting conjecture: Watson's second marriage took place at the end of 1902 or at the beginning of 1903, a few months after the affair of the Illustrious Client. Now this adventure must have made a more than ordinary impression upon Watson's mind. Instinctively chivalrous, he' was a man to whom a woman in trouble made a specially vivid appeal. [55] Violet de Merville, moreover, was 'beautiful, accomplished, a wonder-woman in every way. After the terrible exposure of the true character of her fiancé, what more natural than that Watson should, after a fitting interval, make inquiries as to her recovery of health and spirits? Furthermore, had not Watson acquired a peculiar technique, so to speak, in his previous courtship of Miss Morstan? It may be objected that Miss de Merville moved in exalted circles, and that a retired practitioner would not have the droit d'entrée to her society. But here a significant fact must be considered. Miss de Merville's father was a soldier, and a soldier who had won distinction in Afghanistan—' de Merville of Khyber fame'. With such a father-in-law Watson would at once be on common ground. In any event, with Watson's second marriage his close and continuous association with Holmes came to an end. Their relations continued to be of the friendliest character and Holmes did not scruple to send for his old colleague 'when it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed' upon whose nerve he could place some reliance. [56]

Of Watson's own way of life after his second marriage we have unfortunately little or no evidence. Whether his removal to Queen Anne Street was the result of a determination to engage in medical practice for a third time is not wholly clear. Much depends upon the canonicity of The Mazarin Stone. If the record of this adventure be accepted as a genuine compilation from Watson's notes, it is clear that the case belongs to a period some time after The Empty House and also after Watson's second removal from Baker Street; it is equally clear that Watson was a busy practitioner at the time. [57] Possibly Watson was now turning his attention to surgery, [58] and certainly his practice in September, 1903 was 'not inconsiderable'. [59]

Of Holmes's later career, on the other hand, one fact is tolerably clear: by 1907 he had definitely retired from professional work. Though Watson seldom came into contact with him, the old friendship persisted and occasionally Watson would spend a week-end at Holmes's Sussex cottage. But here again there is no hint of how or where Watson was living.

It is not until the 2nd August, 1914 that we get another — and final — glimpse of Watson. Here we are dependent upon an editorial hand, though it is difficult not to believe that the opening paragraph of His Last Bow is not taken verbatim from Watson's notes:

'It was nine o'clock at night upon the 2nd August — the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air.'

Holmes, as we should expect, had not been lost sight of by His Majesty's Government in the year's preceding the war. Not only Sir Edward Grey, but the Prime Minister himself, had waited upon him in his humble cottage in Sussex, and for two years Holmes had laboured to outwit the notorious Von Bork. That the great detective should summon his old comrade to play a part in the final act of the drama of espionage is one of the most striking tributes to the strength of the old friendship. It is clear that for some years before 1914 there had been no meeting. 'How have the years used you?' was Holmes's question. Watson on his part was, as ever, prompt and enthusiastic in answering the telegraphic summons to meet Holmes at Harwich, and there can be no doubt that he had prospered in his second matrimonial venture. He was by this time the owner of a motor car and to Holmes he seemed 'the same blithe boy as ever' — a remarkable tribute to an old campaigner of sixty-two. What further part Watson took in the war remains unknown. It is doubtful whether he was permitted, at such an age, to proceed on foreign service, but we may be confident that in come capacity, possibly on the staff of a military hospital, he was at the post of duty...

In August, 1763 Johnson walked down to the beach at Harwich with his friend James Boswell; there the friends 'embraced and parted with tenderness'. In August, 1914 Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson looked out at the moonlit sea at Harwich and talked 'in intimate converse':

'There's an east wind coming, Watson.'

'I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.'

'Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.'

Appendix: Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes

A-Published works

  • Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos
    A monograph enumerating 140 forms of cigar, cigarette and pipe tobacco, with plates, in colour, illustrating the difference in the ash. With the exception of his magnum opus (see below), this was the work in which Holmes probably took most pride. He refers more than once to it. (See The Sign of Four and The Boscombe Valley Mystery.)
  • Upon the Tracing of Footsteps
    Contains remarks upon the use of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses.
  • Upon the Influence of a Trade upon the Form of the Hand
    Illustrated by lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, cork-cutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond-polishers.
  • Upon the Dating of Documents
    The terminus a quo of this monograph is uncertain. It probably dealt in the main with the problem of hand-writings from the sixteenth century onwards. It was completed before the year 1889 and at a later date Holmes was engaged in the study of the medieval aspect of the subject. (See below, under D.)
  • Upon Tattoo Marks
    A short study, including an examination of the pink pigment used by Chinese artists.
  • Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen
    The magnum opus of Holmes's later years; the fruit of 'pensive nights and laborious days' between 1907 and 1914.

B-Printed for private circulation

  • Upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus A work which experts in medieval music declared to be definitive.


  • The Blanched Soldier
    Written from notes. The adventure occurred at the time of Watson's second marriage. (See p. 27.)
  • The Lion's Mane
    An account of adventure which occurred after Holmes's retirement to Sussex, when the 'good Watson' had passed almost beyond his ken.

D-Projected or unfinished works

  • The Typewriter and its Relation to Crime
    Planned, no doubt, as a companion volume to the monograph on the dating of documents.
  • Early English Charters
    It is doubtful whether Holmes got further than making notes on this subject, but his researches led to striking results.
  • Malingering
    Holmes contemplated a monograph on this subject, but there is no evidence that it was actually written.
  • The Uses of Dogs in the Work of the Detective
    Here again there is no record of anything beyond Holmes's 'serious thoughts' of writing a small monograph.
  • The Ancient Cornish Language
    Holmes was convinced that Chaldean roots could be traced in the Cornish branch of thegreat Celtic speech.

  1. A distinguished living surgeon, who proceeded to the London doctorate in the same year as Watson, was born in this year. It is of some interest to note that he was in 1916 Consulting Surgeon at Netley, the scene of Watson's own later training.
  2. The Copper Beeches.
  3. The Cardboard Box.
  4. For a discussion of this date see post, p. 16. At the beginning of The Sign of Four Watson had 'quite recently' come into the possession of the watch.
  5. Watson and Tadpole Phelps were 'little boys' together. On the other hand, it is just possible that Watson gained his knowledge of Australia later (see post, p. 15).
  6. The reader may reply: 'But Watson never mentions his other.' 'That', as Holmes would say, 'is the curious treatment.'
  7. The Sussex Vampire.
  8. The Retired Colourman.
  9. The names of Thomas Browne, William Osler, Norman Moore occur at once amongst many others. The late Poet Laureate could probably have contributed some interesting Watsoniana.
  10. The Resident Patient.
  11. The Six Napoleons.
  12. Shoscombe Old Place.
  13. Thor Bridge.
  14. Walker, History of the Northumberland Fusiliers, p. 414
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Hanna, The Second Afghan War, III, 416.
  17. A Study in Scarlet.
  18. The Reigate Squires.
  19. Hanna, op. cit. pp. 470, 525.
  20. The Study in Scarlet. (I regret that in an earlier paper, A Note on the Watson Problem, I uncritically accepted the date of this story as 1879, the date given by Father Ronald Knox, Studies in Satire, p. 155).
  21. Holmes had rooms in Montague Street when he first came to London (The Musgrave Ritual).
  22. Dr. Gray C. Briggs, of St. Louis, deduced some years ago that the house in which Holmes and Watson lived was No. 111 Baker Street (see F. D. Steele, Sherlock Holmes).
  23. The Sign of Four.
  24. See ante, p. 11
  25. The Dancing Men.
  26. The Paradol Chamber, the Amateur Mendicant Society, etc. (see The Five Orange Pips).
  27. Mr. R. I. Gunn, to whose work upon the various problems of Watsonian chronology I am deeply indebted, places Watson's marriage in the October, not in the June, of 1887. This assignment is based on various statements in The Noble Bachelor, which constitutes a strong argument in Mr. Gunn's favour. On the other hand, the dating (September, 1887) of The Five Orange Pips is precise and Watson's reference to his wife's visit to her aunt is clear and categorical. It is in any case satisfactory to note the growing agreement amongst scholars as to the year of Watson's marriage with Miss Morstan. (See, for instance, Mr. Desmond MacCarthy's paper in The Listener for 11th December, 1929.)
  28. It is possible, of course, that the marriage took place at a registry office. But, on the whole, Watson and his bride are likely to have preferred a religious service. Each of them spontaneously thanked God at the time of their betrothal.
  29. Ante, p. 8.
  30. The Stockbroker's Clerk.
  31. A Scandal in Bohemia.
  32. The Crooked Man.
  33. The Five Orange Pips.
  34. The Crooked Man.
  35. The Naval Treaty.
  36. The Boscombe Valley Mystery.
  37. The Crooked Man.
  38. The Second Stain.
  39. A Case of Identity.
  40. The Stockbroker's Clerk.
  41. The Man with the Twisted Lip.
  42. The Engineer's Thumb.
  43. The Red-Headed League.
  44. More probably Jackson than Anstruther.
  45. 'All day as I drove upon my round' (The Empty House)
  46. Possibly the name Verner is a corruption of Vernet, the French family to which Holmes's grandmother belonged (The Greek Interpreter).
  47. The Golden Pince-Nez.
  48. It is on record, however, that he found the atmosphere of the Diogenes Club a soothing one (The Greek Interpreter).
  49. The Dancing Men.
  50. Lady Frances Carfax.
  51. The Missing Three-Quarter.
  52. The Blanched Soldier.
  53. Holmes's reference to Watson's marriage at this date has misled some commentators (e.g. Mr. A. A. Milne in By Way of Introduction, p. 9). The suggestion that Watson married a second time was first made to me by my friend Mr. Charles Edmonds, and a careful study of the chronology has provided ample confirmation.
  54. The Illustrious Client.
  55. It is noteworthy that, in making a selection from a very large number of Holmes's cases, Watson showed a marked preference for those in which a distressed gentlewoman was involved. Cf., especially, A Case of Identity, The Speckled Band, The Copper Beeches, The Solitary Cyclist, Charles Augustus Milverton, The Second Stain, The Veiled Lodger.
  56. The Creeping Man.
  57. Assuming the record to be genuine, the editor may well have been the second Mrs. Watson, who would naturally take a proud interest in the part played by her husband in this adventure.
  58. Ante, p. 25.
  59. The Creeping Man.