Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived at Undershaw between 1897 to 1907 and wrote the famous Sherlock Holmes detective novel The Hound of the Baskervilles there.
The story of Conan Doyle’s time at Undershaw is inextricably linked to his wife’s illness and eventual death. In 1892 Louisa gave birth to a son, Kingsley. Two years later she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only months to live. Although she was in fact to live for a further 14 years, she lived as an invalid.
Louisa's illness changed everything. The diagnosis more or less coincided with his father's death, and Doyle was plunged into a deep depression. Nevertheless, as was typical with him, he resolved this with frenetic activity. It was also at this me that he started to focus on 'life beyond the veil'. He had been interested in spiritualism for many years and now joined The Society for Psychical Research.
Immediately following Louisa's diagnosis, he took her to Switzerland hoping that the air would improve her health. While there he still took me to participate in winter sports, becoming the first British person to cross an Alpine pass in snow shoes. Returning from Switzerland in the summer of 1895 he met the novelist Grant Allen, who told him that he had also suffered from consumption and that he had found the climate around Hindhead beneficial for his health. Doyle rushed to Hindhead, where he immediately bought a plot of land, and commissioned a friend from his Portsmouth days, architect James Henry Ball to build Undershaw before leaving with Louisa for Egypt. He nonetheless found time to influence the design. The family moved into the house in 1897. They were to live there until Louisa’s death in 1906.
The conventional picture of Doyle during these years, no doubt influenced by his own autobiography is of a man dedicated to caring for his wife during her long illness. Nevertheless, he seems to have spent a considerable me away from Undershaw. When the second Boer war broke out on 11 October 1899 he immediately volunteered, but, now aged 40 was deemed a li le flabby and unfit. Undeterred, he volunteered as a doctor and spent a year attending to soldiers more of whom were suffering from typhoid than war wounds.
He penned The Great Boer War, a 500-page book, published in October 1900 and considered by some as a masterpiece of military scholarship. Although the book strikes an impressively impartial tone, he did later become an apologist for the war, publishing The War in South Africa: its causes and conduct in 1902, in which he described the concentration camps as really refugee camps that the government of Great Britain was duty-bound to create.
Returning to England in 1901, he decided to run for parliament in Edinburgh but was unsuccessful. Later that year he was knighted for his services during the war although there is some suggestion that Edward VII, in bestowing the knighthood, was strongly influenced by his love of Sherlock Holmes.
In 1896, at the age of 37, Doyle had met 24-year-old Jean Leckie, an encounter that he later described as love at first sight. She was a strikingly beautiful woman, with dark-blond hair and bright green eyes. She was an intellectual, a good sportswoman as well as a trained mezzo-soprano. He and Jean were to marry 14 months after Louisa's death in 1916. Prior to this they met regularly, although Doyle always insisted that the relationship was platonic until after Louisa’s death.
The Undershaw years were incredibly active in other ways. A number of Sherlock Holmes books were written during this period, and he also wrote many other works. Again, a picture of frenetic activity emerges: he was a keen golfer, keen on fast cars, hot air balloons, and also enjoyed flying in some of the early and presumably precarious aeroplanes of the time.
The guest book for Undershaw, which survives in a private collection reveals that Doyle also entertained many notable house guests at Undershaw. These included Sherlock Holmes illustrator Sidney Paget, the famous Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette, and the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker. Other notable visitors included E.W. Hornung, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Wemyss Reid, Gordon Guggisberg, Churton Collins, Virginia Woolf, and Bertram Fletcher Robinson.
It was after his time in South Africa, and his failed attempt at election to Parliament in 1902, doubtless feeling the need to shore up the family finances, that Doyle returned to Holmes, writing The Hound of the Baskervilles from Undershaw, perhaps his best-known book.
Although it was well received as a book, and to this day remains one of the most famous stories, when readers realised that it was essentially a prequel, there was an outcry. Doyle relented, resurrecting Holmes and Moriarty in The Adventure of the Empty House written in 1905. Doyle would continue to write further short stories about Holmes until 1927, three years before his death.
Click here for the Haslemere Society's Blue Plaque leaflet on Undershaw.