Undershaw – Let’s bust some myths

I am a passionate supporter of the fight to save Undershaw (as most of you will know). However, some inaccurate claims are made for the house by people in an effort to boost the argument for its preservation.

In reality these claims do not help and could weaken the argument. It is important that we stick to the facts when talking about the historical importance of this wonderful house.

So let’s begin by squashing a couple of misconceptions:

  1. The Hound of the Baskervilles was written at Undershaw

Parts of the story were almost certainly written and edited at Undershaw but it is documented fact that ACD wrote installments of his famous story in various locations including Dartmoor and central London.

  1. Sherlock Holmes would not be as famous as he is today without Undershaw

Sherlock Holmes was a stunning international success during ACD’s life in South Norwood and had been “dead” for four years by the time ACD and his family moved into Undershaw. The success of the character was clear in the press and demonstrated by the sheer number of literary detectives that popped up in an attempt to take his place. Famous examples of these include Sexton Blake and Loveday Brooke. When ACD started writing Holmes again it was down to Undershaw but Holmes did not become the success he is today because of Undershaw. He resumed being the success he is today at Undershaw.

Now what can we claim for Undershaw with some confidence (these are but a few examples):

  1. Sherlock Holmes was resurrected at Undershaw

ACD resurrected Holmes in play form as a means of offsetting some of the costs of building Undershaw. The original play was almost certainly penned, in whole or in part, at Undershaw and actor William Gillette visited the house to discuss it with ACD.

Gillette as Holmes
Later, in 1903, ACD formally resurrected Holmes in The Empty House which was almost certainly written at Undershaw. This, in some ways, was more important than the Baskerville story because that story was set before Holmes’s death and there was no guarantee of further stories. The Empty House and the other stories that formed The Return of Sherlock Holmes made it quite clear that Holmes was alive (it should be noted that not all of that series was written at Undershaw).

  1. Famous writers visited Undershaw

E.W. Hornung, Bram Stoker and William Gillette visited Undershaw. Stoker wrote Dracula and Hornung was the creator of gentleman thief Raffles as well as being ACD’s brother-in-law. It is suspected that other visitors to Undershaw included Anthony Hope (author of The Prisoner of Zenda) and Virgina Woolf.

Hornung, Stoker, Hope and Woolf

  1. Sir Nigel was written at Undershaw

This was ACD’s prequel to his famous historical novel The White Company.

  1. ACD was encouraged to enter politics by visitors to Undershaw

ACD was visited by representatives of both the Conservative and Liberal Unionist parties while living at Undershaw. He rejected both requests to stand but later did stand in two general elections – losing on both occasions.

  1. ACD was knighted during the time he lived at Undershaw in 1902
The booklet that earned ACD a knighthood

This was for his services to his country through his writings on the Boer War; in particular, his booklet The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct. This work has been derided by some today as nothing but pro-British propaganda. It certainly had propaganda value but it was written not simply to big up Britain for its own sake but to counter the many inaccuracies being widely stated in Europe about how Britain was conducting itself. ACD was famous for being even-handed and was perfectly ready to speak up about British shortcomings and the good conduct of the Boers. A lot of what he wrote was based on first-hand experience which could not be said for many of the people who were commenting.

  1. Louise Conan Doyle died at Undershaw

  1. The set-up of ACD’s domestic staff at Undershaw clearly influenced the set-up as featured in The Hound of the Baskervilles

I have expanded on this in my book An Entirely New Country.

So let us make sure we beat the drum for Undershaw using things that we know to be true. It should be known for its history - not what we would like to be its history.

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

1 comment:

  1. I am using your book, AN ENTIRELY NEW COUNTRY, as reference for a paper I'm writing to be presented at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore (Maryland USA) next month. My paper is on ACD's time at Undershaw. I'm finding your book to be quite a fine resource. Many thanks!