Conan Doyle’s Further Connections with Plymouth

by Len Stephens
Published December 2012

In the last issue of Old Plymouth Today I set out to correct the impression that the Hound of the Baskervilles story was conceived by Conan Doyle during his short stay in Plymouth to which the plaque and City Tourist Board’s historic trails give evidence. However, I have since deduced that there is some evidence for the connection stemming from an article on Dartmoor published in the British Journal of Photography under the title “Dry Plates on a Wet Moor” and a short story “The Winning Shot” written by Doyle shortly after he left Plymouth. It is reputed that they are companion pieces and as I implied previously the Photographic essay on Dartmoor provided Doyle with much of the descriptive background in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. I came across the story “The Winning Shot” which was first published in Bow Bells magazine in July 1883 in a volume compiled by John M. Gibson and Richard L. Green bringing together for the first time uncollected stories by Conan Doyle written anonymously in his early days. The story is the narrative of a young lady, Miss Lottie Underwood, whose strange tale occurred whilst staying at the home of her fiance at Roborough, referred to as a country house in the county of Devon. Now a suburb of Plymouth, Roborough (formerly Jump) was in the rural parish of Bickleigh and was visited by Doyle on his return from Tavistock. The descriptive background of events with references to the moors with its tors, precipitous glens and meandering streams forming the Plymouth Leat are linked with the photographic essay on Dartmoor.

However, it is the story which is of interest since certain passages give credence to the thoughts of Conan Doyle to later write a supernatural story about Dartmoor. As we know Doyle became established as the author of Sherlock Holmes stories some time after he left Plymouth writing for the Strand magazine from 1887 onwards, and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was published in 1901-1902. The spectral hound plot was inspired by his friend Fletcher Robinson but the story was Doyle’s creation, and not as recently suggested by Roger Garrick-Steele that it was mostly written by Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Those of you who have read the book will recall that Dr. Watson in his second report from Baskerville Hall to Sherlock Holmes described the mysterious man on the tor thus “The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining background I saw the figure of a man upon the tor”. Now compare this with a descriptive passage in “The Winning Shot” when the stranger Dr. Octavius Gaster is first seer as a silhouette on a tor in Dartmoor. “The moon was, first topping the ridge behind, and the gaunt, angular outlines of the stranger stood out hard and clear agains its silvery radiance”.

Doyle often returned to his earlier stories (written anonymously for magazines) for inspirations for his, Sherlock Holmes stories. In the Winning Shot there is Gaster’s account of being adrift in an open boat off the north African coast without food when his lone companion Karl Osgood cut off his own ears to eat. This grotesque act returns in a different form in the Holmes story “The Adventure of a Cardboard Box” where the detective is confronted by two human ears in a box cut off from one of the victims in the plot. Another interesting parallel concerns Victor Trevor, the university friend of Charlie Pillar, Miss Underwood’s fiance, who as a result of Dr. Gaster’s supernatural powers shoots himself through the heart. Trevor and his fierce bulldog appear in “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” when Sherlock Holmes in the opening chapter tells Dr. Watson of his friendship with Victor Trevor during his first two year at college which led to the detective’s first case whey visiting the home of Trevor’s father.

There is also the local interest in the tale of the Winning Shot which is based on a rifle shooting match between the Roborough Company of Devon Volunteers and a picked team of regulars from Plymouth Garrison. The event was one of great local importance although I have not been able to establish the authenticity of the rifle contest. The latter part of the story describes how considerable number of naval and military officers together with many Plymouth citizens with their wives and families travel out to Roborough in a long line of nondescript vehicles treating the attraction as an outing to the moor. The description of the shooting range al Roborough is worthy of note – depicted as a most attractive spot situated in a glen, about a half mile long, which is part of the great moor. For this special event enclosures and marquees with refreshment tents were erected on top of the hill overlooking the glen with picturesque views to the south – “From the Eddystone to the Start the long rugged line of the Devonshire coast lay like a map before us”. Doyle must surely have witnessed such a view as this to write about it. However, knowing the Roborough – Bickleigh district, even allowing for the spread of built-up areas which have taken place I wonder where Doyle could have stood to take in such a panoramic view to include the Start (still there is literary licence!). I would not be surprised if he had visited the spot I often go to – the Dewerstone hill, where sitting on the granite stone, which has the Carrington inscription, the best view of Plymouth and its coastline can be seen. Also, this was probably the site that Doyle had in mind when Lottie Underwood and Charlie took a rambling stroll across the moorland to reach the streams in Bickleigh Vale and a pool at Shaugh beneath the Dewerstone where Octavius Gaster appeared on a craggy rock. As regard to the rifle contest I would like to know if such events took place between the Devon Volunteers and Regulars from Plymouth and where at Roborough.

Conan Doyle rarely visited Plymouth and the Westcountry after 1882 – we know he came to Princetown with his friend Fletcher Robinson in 1901 to write the Hound of the Baskervilles and I believe he came down to the Cornish south west peninsula for a convalescent holiday about 1910 like the fictitious Sherlock Holmes. In the story “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” he travelled down with Dr. Watson to stay in a cottage near Poldhu Bay, and so unfolded one of his most horrific and strangest cases. May I suggest you read this story of the Tregennis family and the mysterious Dr. Leon Sterndale (who travelled down from Plymouth for the plot). If you are not of a nervous disposition play the BBC Radio cassette story when you go to bed – it will give you the creeps!

As you are now no doubt aware I am a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who is probably the greatest of British story tellers. The Poet Laureate, John Masefield once exclaimed “Waiting from month to month for the next adventure of Sherlock Holmes was agony”. Doyle’s stories were praised by many of his contemporary literary writers, including Devon’s own Eden Phillpotts. Perhaps the BBC should televise more of his stories and what better to start with than “The Winning Shot”.

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