07 July 2009

Sherlock Holmes: a student sleuth at Sidney Sussex?

Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, with the entrance to the chapel on the left and the entrance to H Staircase on the right ... my rooms are on the second floor, just above the end of the Virginia Creeper; Sherlock Holmes went in search of ghosts on the first floor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Oliver Cromwell must be the most famous student at Sidney Sussex College, even if he never completed his degree. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes must be the most famous student to have been at Sidney Sussex, even if he never existed.

“Holmes a student at Sidney Sussex? Never,” you may say. “But it’s elementary, my dear Watson.” You see, Holmes’s connection with Sidney Sussex was first postulated in 1934 by the late Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of another famous sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.

After a scholarly analysis of the Holmes Canon, she wrote an essay, “Holmes’ College Career,” for the Baker-Street Studies, edited by H.W. Bell, and presented the evidence she found in two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Gloria Scott and The Musgrave Ritual, to advance her claim that Holmes must have been at Cambridge rather than Oxford, because he was living out of college as a freshman – that was still against Oxford regulations in the 1870s, but was normal enough by then in Cambridge.

She went on to argue that “of all the Cambridge colleges, Sidney Sussex perhaps offered the greatest number of advantages to a man in Holmes’s position and, in default pf more exact information, we may tentatively place him there.”

There was a T.S. Holmes of Sidney Sussex College who earned his degree in Cambridge in 1874. But Professor Richard Chorley of Sidney Sussex has pointed out that this Holmes was not a sleuth but a priest – he was the Revd Thomas Scott Holmes, Vicar of Wookey.

Professor Chorley allocates Sherlock Holmes a room on the first floor of Staircase A, overlooking both Hall Court and Sidney Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dr Chorley has written an amusing pamphlet available from the Porter’s Lodge, Sherlock Holmes at Sidney Sussex College 1871-1873. In this work, Holmes is allocated a room on the first floor on Staircase A, with windows overlooking both Hall Court and Sidney Street.

In Dr Chorley’s story, the other Holmes, Tom Holmes, was first allocated a room on the first floor of H Staircase in Chapel Court – just below the room I’m staying in this week. Tom Holmes told the future sleuth that his room was haunted by “an indistinct, emaciated, pale yellow head with no ears and a large mouth” – could this have been Oliver Cromwell’s head making an appearance long before its furtive and secretive burial beneath the floor of the antechapel?

In The Gloria Scott, Holmes tells Watson that his subjects as a student were quite distinct from those of his fellow undergraduates. Dorothy Sayers would like us to believe that he took the natural sciences tripos, probably specialising in Chemistry, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology. These would have been ideal subjects for him as in the 1870s Sidney Sussex had a laboratory, which was unusual for Cambridge colleges in those days. It was built between Cloister Court and Sidney Street around 1870, but ceased to function in 1908.

According to Dr Chorley, Holmes left Sidney Sussex and never completed his degree – just like Cromwell before him. With a straight face and her tongue firmly stuck in her cheek, Dorothy Sayers says that “unhappily, the name of Sherlock Holmes does not appear in the Cambridge History of Triposes for 1874, or any other year.” However, she wonders whether “the lists were compiled with a lack of accuracy.” Or, she asks in a footnote, whether the “malignant influences of Professor Moriarty” had “extended as far as Cambridge,” bring about “an extensive and exhaustive falsification of the published lists.” Eventually, she decides that “it is better to assume carelessness than venality.”

Dr Chorley tells us: “No other character in world literature has even remotely approached Holmes’ ability to transcend the barrier between fact and fiction, and to this extent one can believe that he actually did attend this college.”

But there is one final link between the great detective and this college. The emblem of the Sidney family is a broad arrow or pheon which is part of the coat-of-arms of the college that also takes its name from its founder, Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex.

Dr Chorley says that this broad arrow was also used as a symbol to mark official government stores by Viscount Sidney, Master General of the Ordnance, at the end of the 17th century.

And so the broad arrow eventually appeared on the uniform of convicts.

“It was therefore ironic that the symbol which Sherlock Holmes might have worn so proudly as an undergraduate was later worn by many criminals whose convictions could have been based on that former undergraduate’s deductive powers.”

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