A Study in Sherlock | The Detective and EC1

As BBC One’s Sherlock returns for a third series, Katy Salter investigates the many connections between the fictional detective and EC1…

“In Sherlock we trust,” says the note taped inside a Smithfield phone box. It’s not the only one. “America believes in Sherlock,” reads some graffiti, scrawled next to similar sentiments from Spain. Londoners may be more used to averting their gaze from red-light ‘business cards’ in phone booths, but at this one just outside St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts), the glass is papered with Post-it messages for Sherlock Holmes instead. That is, until the council appears every few months to clean-up the DIY shrine.

Why has this phone box become the focus of Sherlock fandom? In the cliff-hanger that ended series two of the BBC’s contemporary adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved stories, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) was seen jumping, seemingly to his death, from the top of a building. That building was Barts. But for Holmes historians, the institution is more than just a filming location. It was at Barts that Conan Doyle set the very first meeting between Holmes and Watson – the first of what would be many connections between his characters and the Clerkenwell area, not just in Doyle’s writing but in the long afterlife of the duo and their various on-screen portrayals.

The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. Watson, an army surgeon, has returned from the second Anglo-Afghan war and is searching for somewhere nice but affordable to live (that eternal London conundrum). He meets an old colleague: “young Stamford, who had been a dresser under me at Barts.” Stamford knows a man looking to go halves on some decent digs in Baker Street and takes Holmes to meet him at the hospital: “We ascended the bleak stone staircase and made our way down the long corridor […] a low arched passage branched away from it and led to the chemical laboratory.”

So why did Conan Doyle choose Barts for Holmes and Watson’s first meeting? “Conan Doyle studied medicine at Edinburgh University. However, his setting for the story that became A Study in Scarlet was London […] so Edinburgh University would have been quite impractical as Watson’s alma mater. It had to be one of the London hospitals, and we can really only guess as to why St Bartholomew’s was chosen instead of Guy’s, St Thomas’, Charing Cross, St Mary’s, or the London,” says Roger Johnson, editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal, and co-author of The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany.

‘it was at barts that conan doyle set the first meeting between holmes and watson’

Doyle, a qualified physician, may well have visited Barts, but this can’t be proven. “It’s said that he wrote some of the stories in my office,” says Carla Valentine of Barts Pathology Museum.

“I can’t find any record of his having visited Barts,” says Johnson. “My guess is that he did, on some minor occasion that wasn’t considered worth recording. It’s reasonable to suppose, I think, that he was aware of Barts Hospital’s distinguished history and reputation.”

A Study in Scarlet isn’t the only Holmes story to feature Clerkenwell locations. Saffron Hill makes an appearance in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1905), where it is described as the Italian Quarter (vestiges of this heritage can still be seen today in the remaining Italian delis in this part of EC1 and, of course, St Peter’s Italian Church and its annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel procession). In the story, Saffron Hill is home to Pietro Venucci: “one of the greatest cut-throats in London”.


Silver Blaze by Sidney Paget (1892 engraving, Strand Magazine)

‘Contemporary film and tv adaptations have returned to the same streets trodden by doyle’s detective’

The EC1 area has a starring role in one of Doyle’s best-known tales, The Adventure of the Red-Headed League (1891). The action centres on a pawnbroker’s shop in the fictitious Saxe-Coburg Square. Its exact location is unknown, but Doyle’s descriptions place it near Farringdon ‘Street’ and Aldersgate Underground station (now Barbican), suggesting it would be somewhere near or loosely modelled on Charterhouse Square. The square is described as “a pokey, little, shabby-genteel place, where four lines of dingy two-storied brick houses looked out into a small railed-in enclosure, where a lawn of weedy grass and a few clumps of faded laurel bushes made a hard fight against a smoke-laden and uncongenial atmosphere.”

On the other side of the square the picture is very different: “The road in which we found ourselves as we turned round the corner from the retired Saxe-Coburg Square presented as great a contrast to it as the front of a picture does to the back. It was one of the main arteries which convey the traffic of the City to the north and west.” The description of the road would suggest it is based on the Aldersgate Street/Goswell Road thoroughfare. The juxtaposition of shabby square and bustling main road are key to the story’s surreal and ingenious plot, which starts with the recruitment of a russet-haired pawnbroker to an exclusive league for redheads. “It is quite a three-pipe problem,” remarks Holmes at one point. Traveling from Baker Street to this part of town would’ve taken even longer by hansom cab as Holmes and Watson do, than a stuttering Metropolitan Line tube can do today: “we rattled through an endless labyrinth of gas-lit streets until we emerged into Farringdon Street,” says Watson.

Clerkenwell’s “endless labyrinth” of cobbled alleys, back streets and atmospheric buildings has long attracted filmmakers, so it’s hardly surprising that contemporary Holmes adaptations have returned to the same streets trodden by the detective in A Study in Scarlet and The Red-Headed League. Guy Ritchie shot scenes for 2009’s Sherlock Holmes at the Farmiloe Building on St John Street, with Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson rescuing Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) from a spot of peril in the Victorian warehouse, which doubled as an abbatoir in the film. Writers love the area too: Anthony Horowitz, author of 2012’s official Holmes novel The House of Silk, is a local. In the book, Horowitz has Watson allude to a previous case of “The Clerkenwell Killings”. “I love that it’s an area dripping in blood,” said Horowitz of the area’s gory history in an interview with The Clerkenwell Post last year. “It certainly inspires me when I’m writing horror, as it did when I was writing The House of Silk.”

However, it is the BBC’s Sherlock which has really put Clerkenwell on the map for hardcore Holmes fans… making it a pilgrimage site to almost rival Baker Street.
The exterior shots for the first episode, A Study in Pink, were shot at Barts, though the lab scenes are filmed in a Cardiff studio. The hospital exteriors appear in almost every episode of series one and two, and in the cliff-hanger series two finale. Since Cumberbatch’s greatcoat-clad Sherlock plunged from the rooftop of Barts, fans have flocked to the hospital (and nearby post box) to leave notes for their hero. How did Sherlock survive his Reichenbach Fall? We won’t know until series three airs. What we do know is that the team has been back at Barts, shooting several scenes for the new episodes. And so Sherlock Holmes’s Clerkenwell connections live on.

Sherlock returns to BBC One soon


Illustration for The Adventure of The Naval Treaty by Sidney Paget (c.1892)


Original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1903 First edition cover, published in New York)


Advance notice for Sherlockians: The Museum of London has announced a major Holmes exhibition for 2014. Simply titled ‘Sherlock Holmes’, the retrospective promises to ‘delve into the brain of one of the most famous Londoners of all time’ and ask ‘who is Sherlock Holmes and why does he endure?’ The exhibition at the London Wall institution will run from 17 October 2014 – 12 April 2015. General tickets go on sale in 2014, but group tickets will be available from November 2013. www.museumoflondon.org.uk

*The phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ was never uttered by Holmes in the original Conan Doyle stories. Its first recorded reference was in Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse (1915), in which he references Sherlock Holmes.