23 June 2012

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Undershaw story

In 1885 Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) married Louisa Hawkins, a quiet woman who seemed happy to support her very ambitious doctor-author husband. At that stage, Conan Doyle did not see himself as a full time detective story writer – presumably he wanted to write “respectable” literature like his successful historical novel, Micah Clarke 1889. He returned to short stories and detective novels only because the publishers irresistibly offered him more money and more overseas trips.

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

Conan Doyle had his new house, Undershaw, built in the small Surrey town of Hindhead because of Louise’s TB. It seems very likely that the fresh air, better climate and lack of city filth meant medical practitioners would recommend this beautiful but slightly remote region for the family home. If a TB patient had the energy, brisk country walks were warmly recommended.

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.


Joseph said...

I have seen the rooms in Undershaw since the hotel closed down. "Tragic" doesn't even come close to describing the destruction in there.

Jennifer said...

What an interesting post! I hope they decide to renovate the home and open it to the public.

Hels said...


Many thanks. I saw some of the photos... a horrible mess. As if the developers were determined not to allow Undershaw to be protected in its original shape.

Hels said...


seeing the planning permission overturned in the High Court in London in May 2012 was a huge step. But who knows what will happen in the long run. The idea for a Conan Doyle Museum and Centre for British and Irish Crime Writing sounds long overdue *nod*

Emm said...

What a fantastic story! I had no idea about Conan Doyle's Boer War involvement!! I'm so glad about the high court decision and can't believe more people don't know about this. With the current obsession with all things Sherlock Holmes, why is this not a big issue??

One thing struck me as fascinating - I love how his practice failed and he could still afford to buy an 11 bedroom house. It just gos to show how very much more privileged the upper classes were (are?)

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels. Very interesting. I'm sure if it was turned into a museum it would be successful given the worldwide popularity of Sherlock Holmes to this day. I can envisage bus loads of Japanese and American tourists making a beeline for the place already!


Hels said...


Arthur Conan Doyle was truly passionate about Empire and the British military, so it shouldn't have surprised anyone that he would want to have got involved in the Boer War. But he was over 40 by then, and the military had no use for him. Thus he had to pay for his own adventure to South Africa and make his own arrangements.

Fortunately two serious literary works came out of his time there: "The Great Boer War" which I mentioned and "The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct" which I didn't mention. The latter was edited in 1902 from eyewitness accounts.

And another thing. He had already given up medicine in the mid 1890s, so the Boer War gave him an opportunity to be a real doctor again.

Hels said...


you are so right. Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle ALWAYS rate in Britain's all-time top 10 literary characters and authors respectively.

Tourists would be queuing up! And imagine every university and high school literature student spending a day or two, studying in the writer's own library.

The Undershaw Preservation Trust said...

Papers were submitted to the Royal Courts of Justice to commence Judicial Review proceedings on the planning permission decision of Waverley Borough Council granted on 31st March 2015.

The oral hearing at the High Court for the Judicial Review went ahead on 11th August 2015. The Judge at that hearing ruled that we had an arguable case and we were therefore given permission to go ahead for a full hearing at the High Court at a date to be announced. It was agreed that this case was of considerable interest and had national implications.

Undershaw Preservation Trust

Hels said...


it is taking forever!

What is the problem?