We- Jean Upton and Roger Johnson – met through the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. In February 1992 Jean moved from the USA to England, and we were married in April of that year. A very special guest at our wedding was Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
We have contributed to Holmesian publications on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, most notably The Sherlock Holmes Journal and The District Messenger, journal and newsletter of the SHSL. We are also both members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and other Holmesian societies – but it’s the Sherlock Holmes Society of London that shares its story with the famous sitting-room at the Sherlock Holmes pub.
The Festival of Britain in 1951 was intended as “a tonic to the nation” in the austere years after the Second World War, and every local authority was expected to make its own contribution to the festival. The Borough of St Marylebone, which included Baker Street, chose to mount a Sherlock Holmes Exhibition, with a re-creation of Holmes and Watson’s sitting-room as its centrepiece. After a particularly hard day during the long process of setting up the exhibition, the little group of volunteers and professionals decided to form the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.
The exhibition was a great success, attracting more than 50,000 visitors before it closed. Eventually the various exhibits that had been loaned were returned to their owners, and many of those that remained, including the sitting-room, were bought by Whitbread, the brewers, and installed in a public house called the Northumberland Arms, in Northumberland Street. In December 1957 it was formally opened as the Sherlock Holmes. The sitting room is approximately one third of its original size, but all the important landmarks are present. Diners in the restaurant can view it through the plate glass window that replaces the fourth wall of the room. There are also viewing windows in the door and corridor alongside the room and in the patio area.
In early 1992 Jean was having lunch at the pub and noticed that the sitting-room looked very shabby. She spoke to the managers, who explained that they had only recently taken over the Sherlock Holmes, and were faced with several problems, including water damage from a washing machine that had overflowed in the room above the sitting-room. Jean offered to help with cleaning and restoring the items in the sitting-room, and as she clearly knew far more about Sherlock Holmes than the managers did, they gratefully accepted her offer.
That was the start of our direct involvement. We discovered that some items had been damaged, and some had disappeared, so we have done our best to repair, restore and replace. In some cases that has been reasonably straightforward: Jean, who is a talented needlewoman, cleaned and repaired the decorative runner on the mantelpiece and the cushions on the chairs and settee. We were lucky to find suitable oil lamps at very reasonable prices, and even luckier to find an attractive clock at our local flea market. The original tea service was looking very tired, but we found one at our local auction house that looks very much like the one Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke used in the Granada Television series.
The original brown leather boxing gloves were among the articles that had disappeared, and it took us nearly a year to find a replacement pair that we could afford. However, we have been obliged to substitute a bowler hat for Dr Watson’s badly damaged top hat, and the dressing-gown on the bust of Sherlock Holmes has had to be replaced three or four times, because of moths – though that particular problem seems to be under control now. The deerstalker and cape now hanging behind the door were given by the director of a television programme for which Roger was interviewed at the pub.
Things we have added include the Legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles – the manuscript read aloud by Dr Mortimer to Holmes and Watson; the message “Elsie prepare to meet thy God” in Dancing Men code, deciphered by Sherlock Holmes on a blackboard; the plans of the Bruce-Partington submarine; Watson’s commission as an army surgeon; various letters and other documents. These are items that we have made ourselves. We bought the (plastic) skull that sits on the mantelpiece as a nod of acknowledgement to the BBC TV series Sherlock. Many years ago Roger bought a swordstick as a theatre prop; it now has a place in the sitting-room at the pub, because it is identical to the stick carried by Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Our American friend Denny Dobry, who has created a full-sized Baker Street sitting-room in his own house, generously donated the Arcadia Mixture tobacco tin and the “small black and white ivory box” prepared by Culverton Smith as a deadly trap for Holmes.
Each Christmas we decorate the room to an extent that we think Holmes might tolerate. The central feature, of course, is Mr Henry Baker’s goose, created by Jean, along with a piece of blue glass for the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes’s newspaper advertisement and Mr Baker’s ticket for the goose club at the Alpha Inn, both created by Roger, and an old hat that we happened to have, representing poor Mr Baker’s “battered billycock”. Since we think that Dr Watson, at least, might receive seasonal greetings, we put out a dozen or so Victorian Christmas cards, as well as some other suitable items such as a wine bottle and glasses.
At the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition in 1951, the sitting-room was intended to suggest that Holmes and Watson had just left and would be back at any moment. That is the impression that we try to give. Although we cannot be there every day, we call in irregularly to ensure that the room is reasonably clean and to make a few changes: in October, for example, we lay out some items relating to The Hound of the Baskervilles, and in November we unfold the Bruce-Partington plans.
We do our best to make sure that the room looks as if it really exists in the late 1890s. We cannot disguise the smoke alarm on the ceiling, but we were able to provide a pinboard, with appropriate documents attached, to hide a modern electric socket on the wall beside the chemistry table.
While we have looked after the sitting-room, the Sherlock Holmes has undergone two changes of ownership, several changes of management, and at least two extensive refurbishments. It is an honour for us to maintain the long relationship between the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Sherlock Holmes pub. Just to be able to enter the sitting-room is exciting; to be trusted with ensuring that it always looks authentic is a great privilege. It is also a great pleasure.
When Orson Welles arrived at the RKO studios to direct his first film, Citizen Kane, he said, “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” The sitting-room at the Sherlock Holmes is the best toy we could wish for.