In 1889 and 1892 Arthur and Louis were delighted to welcome two children, but the pleasure soon turned to pain. In 1893, while their children were still toddlers, Louisa Conan Doyle was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that was almost inevitably terminal. Another difficulty, although not necessarily a tragedy, was that Conan Doyle’s medical practice was failing dismally.
Undershaw in its garden setting
Undershaw was built in 1897 to Conan Doyle’s own plan but it was the architect Joseph Henry Ball who created this very large and very handsome home. The red brick, three-storey home had eleven bedrooms, huge dining room, book-lined study, wood-panelled drawing room, billiard room, grand staircase and servants’ quarters. Also on the grounds were a power plant for electricity, stable for six horses, coach house, garage and an outdoor games area. The large south-facing windows were specifically designed to provide a light and cheerful indoor environment.
However he wasn’t in Surrey all the time. The Boer War began in Oct 1899 and by the end of that year, the British military was already suffering major military reverses at the hands of an army of farmers in South Africa. A sudden wave of patriotism impelled Conan Doyle to volunteer for South Africa. When he saw a chance for him to work as a military doctor, he was delighted to pay for his own ticket and for the medical equipment he would need in South Africa.
Conan Doyle’s war in South Africa ended with the capture of the Boer capital of Pretoria, three months later. He then wrote an eye witness report of the war called The Great Boer War, and had the book published when he eventually sailed home to Britain. It became very popular.
This doctor-author-adventurer joined the conservative Unionist party because it was the party that had the policies most sympathetic to Conan Doyle’s views on Empire. He stood for Parliament in the 1900 and the 1906 general elections, choosing an Edinburgh seat because that was really his “home town”. And quite rightly, he focused on the issues that concerned him most - military reforms, national defence and the Empire. Conan Doyle did not get into Parliament, but my question actually concerns Louise and Undershaw. Where did his sick wife and their two small children live while Conan Doyle was in South Africa and in Scotland? If they remained in the Surrey home, did they have medical staff in the house to assist Louise and all the household staff?
Conan Doyle reading in the Undershaw drawing room
Conan Doyle stayed in the Undershaw house until 1907, a year after Louise died. During his 10 year stay, he wrote thirteen Sherlock Holmes stories. This was the home in which the author brought Holmes back from the dead in The Adventure of the Empty House, published in 1903.
But he didn’t sell the four-acre property. From late 1907 until 1921 Conan Doyle rented out the home, hoping his son Kingsley would eventually use it for the next generation of Conan Doyles. Alas Kingsley died so Conan Doyle sold Undershaw, and in 1927 it became an hotel. The hotel finally closed for business in 2004 and the property was sold to a development company, in a dilapidated and tragic condition. Planning permission to demolish Undershaw in order to build a block of flats, and to destroy the gardens, was granted by Waverley Borough Council but was overturned in the High Court in London in May 2012.
Is that the final decision? As the Undershaw Alliance has argued, what more appropriate place could there be for a Conan Doyle Museum and Centre for British and Irish Crime Writing? A renovated Undershaw would affirm its cultural value and Conan Doyle's place in the literary heritage of Great Britain and Ireland. It would be open to the public all year round (incl school visits), with a library, conference facilities, crime writing courses and a writer in residence. If only!
In 2014 the house and grounds were saved! Stepping Stones School is restoring the site to its unique status as the cradle of so much of Conan Doyle’s genius. The features which made Undershaw special, specifically the stained glass windows and the stable block, will be seen by Conan Doyle enthusiasts from around the world. The David Forbes-Nixon Foundation's revised plans for the house's conversion have been supported by the Undershaw Preservation Trust.