Simanaitis Says

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THE MATTER of Sherlock Holmes’ education has encouraged a lot of scholarly research generating lively differences of opinion: King’s College, London? Queen’s College, Birmingham? Owen’s College, Manchester? Cambridge? Oxford? Or merely home-study tutoring under a professor of maths named Moriarty? And does Victor Trevor’s bull-terrier help or hinder the query?

Two books in my Sherlockiana pile are definitive about this. William S. Baring-Gould, editor of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories Complete (2 Volume Set), also wrote Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of The World’s First Consulting Detective, which contains a detailed Holmes timeline. By contrast, Nicholas Utechin’s Sherlock Holmes at Oxford gives it away in the title; not that he and Baring-Gould agree, mind.


Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of The World’s First Consulting Detective, by William S. Baring-Gould, Bramhall House, 1962. Sherlock Holmes at Oxford, by Nicholas Utechin, RD Robert Dugdale, Oxford, 1981.

As Nicholas Utechin notes in his introduction, “In one sense, it’s all a game, of course, and yet a game, as Dorothy L. Sayers once said, that should be played ‘as seriously as a county cricket match at Lords.’ ”

Sayers, another eminent Sherlockian, is known for her fictional amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. She also puts an oar in the Isis/River Cam matter. (Isis is the name for the River Thames as it flows through Oxford; the River Cam flows through Cambridge. Both rivers are popular for punting, that gentle boating activity encouraged by a pole and shallow river bed.)


At left, punting in Cambridge. At right, in Oxford. How to discern the difference? Note the punter’s location on/in the craft, respectively. Images from Deborah Burrows.

But what about London, Birmingham or Manchester? On page 2 Utechin observes “… with passing sorrow but never a backward glance, let us consign the proponents of such outrageous theories to some shadowy critics’ graveyard.” Full disclosure: In the same paragraph, Utechin notes that he was born, bred and educated in Oxford.

I’m narrowing it down to the two great English universities, Oxford or Cambridge. And this is where Victor Trevor’s dog gets into the fray. As chronicled by Watson in “The Gloria Scott,” Holmes recalls Victor was “the only friend I made during the two years that I was in college… and that through the accident of his bull-terrier freezing on to my ankle one morning as I went down to chapel.”

Ouch. However, the plot immediately thickens, because neither Oxford nor Cambridge allowed dogs on campus when Holmes was there in the early 1870s. This gets Sherlockians into arguments about students breaking rules, Holmes living on or off campus, Townie real estate abutting Gowned quarters and other possibilities. By the way, it’s cited that Townies and Gownies of the era often got into rowdy disputes.


High Street, Oxford, c. 1885, with University College and Logic Lane on the left. Note the dog in the bottom left corner. Image from Sherlock Holmes at Oxford.

Oxford Mathematical Lecturer C.L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) wrote in 1875, “…if you could have seen the college as I knew it years ago, with 70 dogs on the premises, day and night.”

Chronicler Watson gets in the game definitively only once: In “The Missing Three-Quarter,” he and Holmes visit Cambridge. At one point, Holmes says, “And now, my poor Watson, here we are, stranded and friendless, in this inhospitable town.”

Well, not everyone recalls undergraduate days as all raccoon coats, flappers and hip-flasks. Or am I mixing eras?

In “The Creeping Man,” Watson obscures matters by calling its university setting “Camford.” (Subtlety was never a Watson long suit.) Of the disguised locale, Holmes urges Watson to “enjoy the amenities of this charming town…. There is, if I remember right, an inn called the Chequers, where the port used to be above mediocrity and the linen above reproach.”

Here, Oxonians cheer, as Chequers of High Street still exists.

But Cambridge gamers don’t give up easily. They note that Holmes had a “profound” knowledge of chemistry, and Cambridge always had better science curricula.

What about Holmes attending both universities? Baring-Gould says so in his biographical timeline, even to identifying the college at each university, Christ Church, Oxford, for his “two years that I was in college,” and then Caius College, Cambridge, for his “last years at the university,” cited in “The Musgrave Ritual.”


Partial timeline from Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.

What about “charming” Oxford, but “inhospitable” Cambridge? Easy: He’s not the only student swanning around as an undergrad and then really having to buckle down to get through grad school.

Last, which college at Oxford? Baring-Gould’s choice of Christ Church, established in 1546, has an impressive list of old boys: Lewis Carroll, King Edward VII, William Penn, Maharaja Gaj Singh II and John Wesley among them.

However, I would suggest Oxford’s Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College. Founded in 1458, its old boys include Lawrence of Arabia, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the Duke of Windsor and Oscar Wilde. Also, and tellingly, no less a criminologist than Paul Temple. (When Magdalen is mentioned in “Paul Temple and the Jonathan Mystery,” Temple says, “Oh, that’s my old college.”)

Based on this, I’ll take Magdalen with Paul Temple; I’ll give you Christ Church and six points. Seventeen for King’s College, London. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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