Conference Report: Conan Doyle and London (15 November 2019)

On Friday 15th November 2019, Senate House was host to ‘Conan Doyle and London,’ a symposium organised by the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in association with the forthcoming Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Conan Doyle. And if you’re looking for a quick summation of the conference, here it is: it’s a great time to be a Doylean.

The conference took as its focus Conan Doyle and his relationship with the metropolis throughout his life and work. It brought together well-respected speakers from the worlds of genre-fiction, spiritualism, and Sherlockian scholarship with an audience that was almost as august, including established and emerging academics, BSI members and representatives of the Doyle estate.

The audience assemble at Senate House, London

The day began with a welcome from conference organiser Douglas Kerr, followed by his paper on ‘Conan Doyle: Man of Letters, Man about Town.’ Kerr tracked Doyle’s shifting relationship with London, from the manly sanctuary of clubbable London to the ‘redemptive and feminine’ suburbs, bringing in works like the little-remembered Beyond the City (1891). Indeed, Kerr’s talk set up the critical importance of 1891 in Conan Doyle’s career, a period we returned to frequently during the conference, and which was addressed in our first podcast on The Doings of Raffles Haw. Kerr set up the theme of Conan Doyle as both ‘a Scotsman on the make’ who saw writing as a profession and a writer who lived out the duties he felt were incumbent on a ‘proper’ Victorian man of letters.

It was then over to Jonathan Cranfield who spoke on Conan Doyle’s relationship with print culture (‘Of Time and the City: Conan Doyle and London Print Culture’). Cranfield argued that Conan Doyle was a product of the ‘Doyleaspora,’ a third-generation immigrant who benefitted from the hard work of earlier generations but carried inherited baggage. This in part influenced Conan Doyle’s view of the relative value of certain periodicals, a hierarchy with the religious tract society’s boys own papers at the bottom. Cranfield discussed Conan Doyle’s relationships with editors (we touch on his relationship with Leslie Stephen of Cornhill in our second podcast which covers The Winning Shot), his controversies with Hall Caine and William Robertson Nicoll, and the ‘alignment of the stars’ that was his association with The Strand Magazine.

Jonathan Cranfield

Andrew Glazzard took us firmly into Sherlockian territory with a paper on the canon’s diplomatic stories (The Naval Treaty, The Second Stain and The Bruce-Partington Plans) and their role in the evolution of espionage and invasion fiction ('"A great traffic was going on, as usual, in Whitehall": Public Places and Secret Spaces in Sherlock Holmes's London'). Glazzard showed how Doyle’s stories used real world places and partially disguised locations (and characters) to comment on foreign policy and other contemporary issues, such as the depiction of bureaucracy in The Naval Treaty reflecting the rising importance of administration in public life and concerns about state security with the passing of the first Official Secrets Act in 1889. Glazzard demonstrated how Conan Doyle laid the foundations for later writers, inspiring many include William Le Queux whose Spies of the Kaiser (1909) is a direct lift of The Bruce-Partington Plans.

The Underground map that informed The Bruce Partington Plans

Catherine Cooke, familiar to many for her work with the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Marylebone Library collection, spoke on the various attempts to identify the true 221B Baker Street ('I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street.'). In addition to reviewing the main candidates, Cooke drew on census data and other sources to talk about neighbours with whom Holmes and Watson would have been familiar: the tobacconist, pharmacist and local publicans. Perhaps most interesting of all was Cooke’s detective work to track the cab journey the 14 year old Conan Doyle took with his aunt to the house of the London Doyle’s, suggesting he had indeed been familiar with Baker Street, both on this journey and his subsequent visit to Mme Tussauds in the Baker Street Bazaar.

Roger Luckhurst took us once more back to Conan Doyle’s early years and the pivotal 1890-91 period to explore those few weeks ACD was an inhabitant in London ('Conan Doyle and Medical London'). Luckhurst argued that, in Memories and Adventures (1924), Conan Doyle deliberately obscured the events of those few months. Just as Caulfield spoke of Doyle’s works in the heirarchy of periodical journals, Luckhurst noted Conan Doyle’s place in the hierarchy of physicians, specialists and medical tradesmen, showing how Conan Doyle took revenge on the establishment he rejected (and was rejected by) in his polemical work, Round the Red Lamp (1894). The medical stories are a strange mix of the hyper-realism - speaking the unspoken to shocking effect – and the Gothic in the form of its surgeon-villains.

Illustration from The Case of Lady Sannox

The final paper was given by Christine Ferguson on ‘Metropolitan Spiritualism and Doyle's The Land of Mist.’ Ferguson discussed the imagined geography of the spiritualists, the attempts to co-locate this geography with the real world and the effect achieved (or not) in The Land of Mist (1926), Conan Doyle’s most significant proselytising work of fiction. On the way, Ferguson addressed Challenger’s easy conversion, Conan Doyle’s lack of interest in Enid’s journey and the problems faced by the wonderful illustrator F. E. Hiley in the story’s serialisation in The Strand Magazine. Noting the post-war real-world settings and problematic ending, Ferguson argued that, far from being an Imperial romance, the novel is an anti-romance.

An illustration by Hiley for The Land of Mist

The day was concluded by Douglas Kerr and Kate Simpson who revealed more about the Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Arthur Conan Doyle, a 22-volume collected works. The series is being produced in two tranches, with Kerr as editor for the eleven pre-1900 volumes. They include Memories and Adventures (1924), edited by Kerr, which will be one of the first two volumes issued (we hope) next year. While not pre-1900, it is fitting that this importance piece of self-mythologising, which has not been tackled in any significant way for some time, is an early fixture of the new collected works. Many of the editors were present and day was peppered with thoughts that will no doubt make their way into their introductions and annotations. Kate Simpson took us through the Edinburgh Works website, launched only hours before, which can be accessed at and you can follow its evolution on Twitter as @doyleedinburgh.

Douglas Kerr introduces the first 11 volumes of the Edinburgh Edition

So that brought to an end what was a very interesting and worthwhile conference. I was delighted with the breadth of topics and the way the speakers placed Conan Doyle within the wider history of literature as one of its great innovators. The quality of papers was universally excellent, with plenty of thought-provoking questions from the audience, and much interested discussion on the fringes of a proposed new Arthur Conan Doyle Society. Thank you to everyone involved – speakers, audience members and organisers (special mention to Eleanor Hardy who administered the event). You may rest assured that the symposium achieved precisely what is needed, and indeed what we hope to do, in our small way, with this podcast: to promote knowledge, appreciation and study of Conan Doyle’s life and works.

And if all that’s not enough to whet your appetite, there’s more to come with ‘Conan Doyle in Edinburgh’ taking place on 25-27th June 2020 in the Scottish capital. I, for one, will be there.



  1. It was great to meet you at the conference Mark. Thanks for coming, and thanks for this excellent report on proceedings. (Please note, though, that the second speaker was Jonathan Cranfield, not Cauldfield. Jonathan is the author of TWENTIETH CENTURY VICTORIAN: ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE AND THE STRAND MAGAZINE, 1891–1930.) The conference was a great success, in large measure thanks to the questions and comments of a lively and knowledgeable audience! We look forward to seeing you all again for CONAN DOYLE IN EDINBURGH in June. All best, Douglas

    1. Thank you, Douglas. And apologies to Jonathan CRANFIELD. I have corrected this error in the updated report. Roll on June 2020!

  2. I've just come across a very good review of the event by attendee Simon Guerrier:


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