Sherlock Through The Ages - The British Museum

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Extract from: Close To Holmes -A Look at the Connections Between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The British Museum opened to the public in 1759 having been established six years earlier. At the time the museum was based at Montague House and it remained there until the 1840s when the building was demolished to make room for the present museum.

The museum was initially based on the royal library of King George II and the natural history collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753) who bequeathed his collection to the nation. Sloane was a man of many talents who was not only an expert in natural history but also a physician, admitted as a fellow to the Royal College of Physicians in 1687. He was also a member of the Royal Society. Some years later he achieved the distinction of becoming president of both organisations. In the latter case succeeding Sir Isaac Newton.

Sir Hans Sloane

The Holmes and Conan Doyle connections to the museum and area are considerable. Conan Doyle was a user of the library and was an occasional customer of the Museum Tavern across the street (see later). For a brief time he also lived very close to the museum at 23 Montague Place. This is one of the four streets that border the museum and runs along the northern side. We know of Conan Doyle’s residence from the 1891 census where his profession was listed as ophthalmic surgeon. As we have already seen he travelled daily from this location to his practice at Upper Wimpole Street. An interesting error appears on the census where Conan Doyle’s wife is listed as being of the same profession as her husband. The error was corrected but it is still interesting to see it there.

Turning to the Holmes connections, clearly Conan Doyle retained some fondness for the area as a number of stories refer to both the museum and surrounding streets. Conan Doyle’s old address of Montague Place is given as the address of Violet Hunter when she writes to Holmes seeking his aid in The Copper Beeches. Regrettably Conan Doyle did not give the exact number of the house at which Miss Hunter stayed but it is tempting to think that he had his old address in mind when he wrote the story. His decision to use the street as her address may well have been connected to the fact that he had only moved away from the area to South Norwood about a year prior to its publication.

The museum is mentioned in several of the Holmes adventures. In The Red Circle Mrs Warren’s boarding house is described as being located to the north-east of the museum buildings and, in Wisteria Lodge, Holmes visits the museum to read up on Voodoo practices. He visits it again in The Hound of the Baskervilles when he goes to find more information on the villain Stapleton. Finally in the adventure The Blue Carbuncle Henry Baker works at the museum and is an occasional visitor to the nearby Alpha Inn (see later).

The final and arguably most important connection is that one of the other streets bordering the museum is Montague Street. This road is very important to the Holmes enthusiast as it marks the location of Holmes’s first known lodgings upon his arrival in London. We first learn this in The Musgrave Ritual when Holmes describes the case to Watson.

 Montague House, seen roughly in the centre of this drawing of 1828, as it was when it held the British Museum collection. The new building is being constructed to the right.

The Museum Tavern was known in the early eighteenth century as The Dog and Duck. This was due to the fact that it wanted to be associated with the hunting that took place in the vicinity. John Creed became landlord in 1762[1] and renamed the tavern to its present name in an effort to link it with the British Museum which had been established nine years earlier.

The Museum Tavern (2007)

According to the magazine Time Out Conan Doyle was an occasional customer here. Presumably he visited on his return from his ophthalmic practice to his home in Montague Place or after visiting the museum itself.

In 1855 the tavern was extended by the architect William Finch Hill and a lot of what you see in the tavern today dates from that extension although there were more alterations in 1889 by the architects Wylson & Long.

The Museum Tavern is a good candidate for the Alpha Inn from The Blue Carbuncle[2]. Henry Baker, in whose goose the gem is found, describes to Holmes and Watson how he bought the goose from the landlord of the Alpha and further describes it as being near the museum. Given the large number of public houses in the vicinity of the museum this is not much help in locating the real place that Conan Doyle had in mind. The fact that he allegedly drank there does however lend weight to its candidature.

However there is an alternative candidate. When Holmes and Watson visit the Alpha it is described as ‘a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn’. This certainly fits the description of the Museum Tavern (which still remains the best candidate) but it could also be a reasonable description of another pub called The Plough located on Museum Street.


[1] Source: Campaign for Real Ale (North London Website).

[2] This is according to Charles Viney in his book Sherlock Holmes in London.


Close to Holmes by Alistair Duncan is available from:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK      Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

Other formats -  Kindle   Kobo

The London of the late nineteenth century was home to both Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous detective - Sherlock Holmes. Close To Holmes looks at some of the many locations in both central and outer London that have connections to one or both of these famous names. In addition to examining the history this book also looks at some of the theories that have been woven over the years around Holmes and these locations. Very popular with both fans of Holmes and Victorian London and includes stunning comparison photographs from the late 1880s and modern day for many London landmarks.

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