Simanaitis Says

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HOLMES CHRONICLER Dr. John H. Watson once called London “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” On the other hand, this cesspool was particularly well-drained: The London of Holmes’ era had a communications infrastructure second to none, one that Holmes employed regularly as the world’s first consulting detective.

Here are tidbits gleaned from Canonical sources, together with my usual Internet sleuthing. (And imagine how adept Holmes would have been on the ’net!)

Newspapers. London in late Victorian times had a multitude of periodicals. In The Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes, 1993, Philip Weller wrote, “Holmes had a very wide variety of reading available to him, with sixteen different London newspapers being mentioned in the Canon in addition to many provincial news sources.”

Not that all of Holmes’ reading matter was all that high-class.

Weller added, “His belief that the ability to identify different newspapers from the typeface they use and the quality of material was ‘one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime.’ ”

In fact, Watson tells us that Holmes “kept a great book in which, day by day, he filed the agony columns of various London journals.” Holmes saw both sides of this: “What a chorus of groans, cries, and bleatings! What a rag-bag of singular happenings! But surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to the student of the unusual.”

Her Majesty’s Post. Holmes sent and received a great many letters as well. In fact, as described by Chris Higgins in Mental Floss, March 1, 2010, addresses in Victorian London had twelve deliveries each day.

“Holmes stared with great curiosity at the slips of foolscap.” This, from “The Adventure of the Red Circle.”

“In 1889, for example,” Higgins noted, “the first delivery began about 7:30 a.m. and the last one about 7:30 p.m.”

Higgins quoted Catherine J. Golden, a Skidmore College English professor: “In London, people complained if a letter didn’t arrive in a couple of hours.”

Study of a letter often conveyed more than simply its intended message. This, from The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Special Delivery. Independent delivery services were also available, albeit at twice the rate of Her Majesty’s Post Office. Holmes often received a letter with the idea of “Return of Post,” a response expected immediately after reading it.

Hotels and other businesses used commissioinaires as messengers, their name implying their means of renumeration as well as the independent nature of their duties.

A commissionaire got Holmes involved with “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

Tomorrow, in Part 2, we’ll learn of Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, his favorite means of communication, the telegram, and what appears to be his mixed views on the telephone. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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