Simanaitis Says

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SHERLOCK HOLMES used his highly perceptive senses as essential tools in his deductions. His chronicler Dr. John H. Watson often praised Holmes’s uncanny ability of identifying a culprit’s features or a region’s sights, sounds or smells.

On the other hand, Victorian London and its people provided Holmes with an abundance of evidence. The place stank.

Documentation of this is in a charming bit of Sherlockiana, the book On the Scent with Sherlock Holmes.


On the Scent with Sherlock Holmes by Walter Shepherd, Gaslight Publications, 1987.

The subtitle of Walter Shepherd’s book is “A unique look at environmental issues in Victorian England.” And there were more than a few.

Shepherd cites “air pollution from fireplaces and coalstoves, the principal means of heating, cooking, laundering, and warming the bath water of four million Londoners.” Holmes and Watson would have also had to tolerate the odor of ammonia, produced by decomposition of a thousand tons a day of horse manure.

Smoke, soot and cinders were contributed by railways and London’s Underground, the latter in operation beginning in 1863 and using coal-fired locomotives. (See “Mind the Gap,”


The London Underground’s Baker Street Station, ca. 1887. Painting by Dennis Brown.

Shepherd writes that “Victorians of every class were accustomed to the smells of woolen garments, rancid meat, mildew, and the sulphur burned in sickrooms.” (It was thought that sulphur fumes would kill germs causing infectious diseases.)

Today, we recognize pleasant aromas, the hot bread in a bakery, maybe the rich leather aroma in a shoe shop. To Holmes, these and other aromas would have identified a person’s occupation. For instance, linseed oil and turpentine? An oil-and-colourman, a merchant of paints and varnishes.

Certainly Holmes and Watson knew well the aromas of different tobaccos, including the “Ship’s” that Watson smoked and the noxious weed Holmes kept in the toe of a Persian slipper. In “The Sign of Four,” Holmes cited his monograph “Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.”

And they both knew the smell of firearms discharged, even at 221 B Baker Street. Holmes used his revolver to pepper the wall with “VR” in honor of the queen.

Could this behavior have been associated with his occasional use of recreational drugs? I’m just wondering.

Sounds of London, all but gone now, were its cries of street-venders. Just as Holmes analyzed tobacco ash, contemporary journalist Henry Mayhew catalogued more than 70 cries in his London Labour and the London Poor, 1861.


Henry Mayhew, 1812 – 1887, English journalist, social researcher, co-founder of Punch magazine.

“Coal—any coal!” “Chairs to mend!” “Latest news—All the winners!” Shepherd notes that newspaper venders crying out this last one undoubtedly included the Baker Street Irregulars.

Street cries have a rich tradition in London. So do church bells, even to defining personal traits, a Cockney being born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in east London’s Cheapside.

Shepherd writes that, depending on the wind direction, no fewer than seven churches had bells within easy sound of 221 B Baker Street. Not St. Mary-le-Bow, however. According to Google Maps, I note the two are more than 3 miles apart. Besides, Holmes’s ancestors were country squires, not east Londoners. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

One comment on “FOLLOWING A SCENT

  1. Pingback: Jestem przewodnikiem po Londynie – część pierwsza. | Dear mornings

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