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The Devonians who helped take Sherlock to the masses

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: October 16, 2010

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The lasting appeal of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes is due to the story-writing skills of his talented creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. But there can be little doubt that, if it had not been for three Devon residents, the history of crime fiction – and one of its most celebrated exponents – might have been very different.

The first of the trio is George Turnavine Budd, the Plymouth physician who briefly employed Conan Doyle as a junior partner before a split between the pair compelled him to write in order to supplement his medical income. The second is Sir George Newnes, who delivered the Holmes tales to a global readership via the pages of the British and American editions of The Strand magazine. And the third is journalist and editor Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who acted as assistant plot producer to The Hound of the Baskervilles – Holmes's greatest adventure.

The impact that Budd, Newnes and Fletcher Robinson each brought to bear on Conan Doyle's work is explored in this authoritative and well-written tome by Brian Pugh, who is the curator of The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment; chartered biologist and physicist Paul Spiring, who maintains a tribute website to Fletcher Robinson; and Topsham-based historian Sadru Bhanji, whose brother is actor Sir Ben Kingsley.

The book is split into two parts. The first comprises chapters about the lives of each of the three men, as well as that of Conan Doyle himself, while the second is a fascinating journey, supported by maps, pictures and postcodes, round the 30 different locations in Devon that are associated with all four major players. They include details of the 10 visits that Conan Doyle paid to the county between 1882 and 1923.

He first arrived in the late spring of 1882 after giving up his job as a medical assistant in Birmingham to join his friend Budd at his East Stonehouse practice in Durnford Street, Plymouth. The two men had met while university students at Edinburgh, which was Conan Doyle's home city.

But the partnership only lasted seven weeks. Budd's approach to patient care was not to his friend's liking. Once, Budd reportedly refused to treat an obese patient because he ate and drank too much. Budd advised the man to "knock down a policeman, go to prison and return upon his release in the unlikely event that treatment was still required".

Conan Doyle was also struck by the sign on the surgery door that advised free consultations. He asked Budd how he made any money and was told that while the consultations were free the medicines were not.

Disliked by Conan Doyle's mother, Mary, who described Budd as a bankrupt swindler and a blackguard, the doctor had provided her son with a consultation room and promised him all home visits and surgery. But after three weeks in practice, the junior partner earned just 53 shillings and doubted whether he could make a living. In June 1882, the partnership was dissolved and Conan Doyle, after failing to find "anything to suit" in nearby Tavistock, opened a surgery in Southsea, Hampshire, where he increasingly turned to writing to boost his income.

George Newnes is best-known as a pioneer of "new journalism" – the publishing of mass-circulation newspapers intended to entertain as well as inform. But he is remembered also as the man who elevated Sherlock Holmes to stardom.

Conan Doyle had first introduced his famous detective in A Study in Scarlet, which he wrote while in practice in Southsea. It was published in 1887 in Beeton's Christmas Annual, but four years later the author decided to submit two more Holmes stories – A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League to The Strand Magazine, which Newnes had launched in January 1891. Twenty-four stories featuring the super-sleuth appeared in the monthly magazine between July that year and December 1893, while another 32 were published later.

During the late 1880s and the 1890s, the Matlock-born publisher had a winter home in Torquay's Hesketh Crescent, but it is as an inhabitant of Lynton in North Devon that he is still commemorated. He made his first visit there in September 1887 and during the next three years he and his wife Priscilla spent holidays there in rented houses.

Newnes then decided on a permanent home and, partly from the profits made in publishing his most famous writer, he commissioned a mansion at Hollerday Hill. Completed in 1893, it was used by the Newnes every summer and Christmas as their retreat. The publisher died there in June 1910, but not before more Holmes profits helped pay for local projects, such as the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway and Lynton Town Hall.

Fletcher Robinson, who grew up at Ipplepen near Totnes, is thought to have first met Conan Doyle at the Reform Club in London during the mid-1890s, but their friendship was not actually cemented until July 1900, when they were returning to England by ship from South Africa and hit on the idea of co-writing a Dartmoor- based story. Fletcher Robinson had been covering the Boer War for the Daily Express, while Conan Doyle had served as a volunteer surgeon.

Later, during a planned golfing weekend in Cromer, Norfolk, the pair agreed on the theme of The Hound of the Baskervilles – a "real creeper", predicted Conan Doyle, who decided to use the story to resurrect his detective after he had been "killed off" in 1894 at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in a story called The Final Solution.

In May 1901, Fletcher Robinson and Conan Doyle spent several days on a research trip to Dartmoor. They were driven to Princetown and Hound Tor in a carriage by Robinson's coachman, who was called Henry "Harry" Baskerville.

Baskerville's grave in the churchyard at St Andrew's, Ashburton, and Fletcher Robinson's former home at Park Hill House, Ipplepen, both feature in the tour guide, which explores a 155-mile route taking in Plymouth, Dartmoor, Torbay, Newton Abbot, Topsham, Exeter and Lynton, where the grave of Sir George Newnes can be found at The Old Cemetery.

Sadly, his mansion home was severely damaged by fire three years after his death. The ruined property finally met its end in the early 1950s when it was blown up as part of a commando training exercise, but traces of the house and its landscaped gardens still remain.

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    Paul Spiring, Karlsruhe, Germany  |  October 25 2010, 7:02PM

    Dear Colin - many thanks for reviewing my book and for your supportive comments. I am delighted that you enjoyed it! I also hope that many others will have the opportunity to read it and to discover for themselves just how central Devon is to the global Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. 'The game is afoot'! Best wishes, Paul Spiring.