Sherlock Holmes and the railways

by W. O. Gay

Sherlock holmesThe late Mr. Sherlock HOLMES, who won international fame as a private detective and consultant on all matters relating to crime, lived for many years at 221b, Baker Street, and since his lodgings were within easy reach of most of the main line stations he made frequent use of the railways when his investigations took him out of town. He was not a rich man although he often waived his fee and was obviously never sufficiently affluent to own a carriage and pair.

He favoured a cab for short journeys, although he often made use of the underground just round the corner. His friend and chronicler, Doctor John H. WATSON, had an excellent knowledge of the principal train services to the suburbs and provinces. A copy of Bradshaw was always available and Doctor WATSON knew it thoroughly. In the Copper Beeches Case, for example, HOLMES only had to say, “Just look up the trains in Bradshaw” and WATSON could reply after a brief glance. “There is a train at half past nine due at Winchester at 11.30.” This train has, of course, been speeded up and now arrives at Winchester at 11.07 Another example of WATSON’s knowledge of the train services occurs in the Case of the Retired Colourman, when it was necessary to travel to Little Purlington near Frinton, not an easy place to reach from London because it is on a branch line. HOLMES said to WATSON, “Look up the trains, Watson” and WATSON replied immediately, apparently without reference to any timetable, “There is one at 5.20 from Liverpool Street.” This would no doubt have been the present 5.36 p.m. from Liverpool Street to Clacton.

On many of his train journeys HOLMES spent his time studying the latest crimes in the morning papers. In those days there were more daily newspapers than there are today and he regarded them as expendable. Thus, when he and WATSON caught the 11.15 a.m. from Paddington en route to Boscombe Valley to investigate the McCARTHY murder, he had “an immense litter of papers” which he studied until they reached Reading, when he “suddenly rolled them all into a gigantic ball and tossed them up on to the rack.” Incidentally, they arrived at Ross shortly before 4 o’clock which was quite a good run. Today the 10.45 a.m. from Paddington arrives at Ross at 2.47 p.m. and the 11.45 a.m. at 4.28 p.m, so that the service has not improved in 60 years.

HOLMES was not a model passenger and seldom disposed of his newspapers tidily. When travelling down to Devon in connection with the Silver Blaze Racehorse affair, he “dipped rapidly into the bundle of fresh papers which he had procured at Paddington.” As he finished each paper he stuffed it under the seat, the last of them being disposed of soon after they passed Reading. On occasion HOLMES used to stretch out on the seat, and must have soiled the upholstery somewhat because the streets in those days were never very clean.

HOLMES and WATSON frequently travelled from Paddington and soon after WATSON married he went into private practice and lived very near the station. He had quite a few patients from among the staff. One of them, he tells us, he cured of “a painful and lingering disease” and this man thereafter was always apparently sending him patients. The strange case of the Engineer’s Thumb actually opened in WATSON’s consulting room when the maid announced, “Two men have come from Paddington.” WATSON reacted quickly. “I dressed hurriedly,” he wrote afterwards, “for I knew by experience that railway cases were seldom trivial.” In this instance a guard described rather unkindly as a “trusty tout” had brought a patient. He was, it should be noted, a conscientious railwayman, for he left quickly, saying to the doctor, “I must go now. I have my duties just the same as you.” On this occasion HOLMES and WATSON together with the engineer and Inspector BRADSTREET of the Yard, probably travelled on the 12.45 p.m. from Paddington due at Reading at 1.40, because WATSON and his patient had breakfast with HOLMES at Baker Street, went from there to the Yard and “some three or four hours or so afterwards” they were all in the train together bound for Reading.

Doctor WATSON seems to have exploited his railway connections very effectively, for it was seldom there were any other occupants in a compartment in which he and HOLMES travelled. On their way back from Winchester after the successful conclusion of the Silver Blaze case, Holmes and Watson had a corner of a Pullman to themselves. They believed in making themselves comfortable and always travelled first class. In fact, when Mr. Josiah AMBERLEY in the Retired Colourman case, travelled third class, WATSON thought it a good instance of his miserliness.

SH Naval TreatyHOLMES and WASTON patronised the station refreshment rooms and WATSON never records any criticism of the food provided. In the Naval Treaty case it will be recalled HOLMES travelled up from Woking, reached Waterloo at 3.23 p.m. (probably by the 2.36 from Woking running late) and “after a hasty lunch at the buffet pushed on at once to Scotland Yard.” Again, during the enquiry into the murder of Sir Eustace BRACKENSTALL, HOLMES and his friend were up before dawn and rushed off to Charing Cross where they had “hot tea at the station” and caught a train down into Kent. There do not appear to have been canteen facilities at Scotland Yard at this time, because, although HOLMES visited the Yard on innumerable occasions, he never seems to have been offered a cup of tea or entertained in any way.

HOLMES was always keenly interested in railway matters and was quick to appreciate the significance of railway timetables in particular cases. Thus, in the Abbey Grange case in 1897, he concluded that the crime had been committed before 12.00 last night. “How can you possibly tell ?” asks WATSON, and HOLMES replies, “by an inspection of the trains and by reckoning the time.” His interest is shown in other curious ways. In the Black Peter case, for example, Inspector HOPKINS thought the letters C.P.R. were the initials of a stockbroker’s client. “Try Canadian Pacific Railway,” said HOLMES, and he was, of course, quite right. Again, when the agitated Doctor HUXTABLE of the Priory School arrived at 221B, Baker Street only to collapse on the floor, HOLMES went immediately to his watch pocket and took from it a return ticket from Mackleton. HOLMES knew immediately that his visitor was from the North of England, and was soon afterwards en route from Euston to the “cold, bracing atmosphere of the Peak Country.”

Some of HOLMES’ most interesting cases occurred in the West Country, the Hound of the Baskervilles being among the best, but he undertook commitments for foreign governments, and even investigated the murder of Cardinal Tosca at the special request of the Pope. The upper middle classes living in the outer suburbs of London brought in many cases, but at different times he travelled to Cornwall, Birmingham, where he probably stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, and Cambridge, where HOLMES himself had been educated and which he visited from time to time to undertake certain research. During all his journeys it is significant that neither HOLMES nor WATSON complained about the high railway fares. Travelling was still something of an adventure in the 90’s and WATSON gives a hint of its rigours in his account of the Boscombe Valley Mystery, when he observes that his experience of “camp life in Afghanistan” had made him a prompt and ready traveller so that in less than half an hour he could finish his breakfast, be packed, call a cab, and be on his way to Paddington.

HOLMES never appears to have been called in to investigate a railway case. This is something of a tribute to the Railway Police of his day, because Inspectors LESTRADE, GREGSON, HOPKINS, and other men from the Yard were frequently on his doorstep seeking advice and information. In the third week of November, 1895, however, Holmes became involved in a case which concerned the railway inasmuch as the body of Mr. Cadogan WEST was discovered by a platelayer just outside Aldgate Station on the underground. He was called in to the case by his brother, Mr. Mycroft HOLMES who was in the government service. The dead man, Cadogan WEST, was employed as a clerk at Woolwich Arsenal. The body was found at 6.0 on a Tuesday morning lying wide of the metals on the left hand side of the track at a point close to the station and it was considered that the body could only have fallen from a train as it was obvious that if it had been carried down from any neighbouring street it would have had to pass the station barriers where a collector was always on duty. It seems certain that the young man when he met his death, was travelling in this direction at some late hour of the night, but at what point he entered the train it was impossible to state. HOLMES enquired about the ticket and was told that there was no ticket in the pocket. This intrigued HOLMES, who commented, “This is really very singular. According to my experience, it is not possible to reach the platform of a metropolitan train without exhibiting one’s ticket. Presumably, then, the young man had one. Was it taken from him in order to conceal the station from which he came, or did he drop it in the carriage ?

SH LBSCRThere was no sign of robbery, but it was soon apparent to HOLMES that the crime was connected with Cadogan WEST’s employment, and in fact valuable documents concerning the Bruce-Partington submarine were missing. HOLMES, of course, was a great believer in the importance of a search at the scene of crime, and had indeed demonstrated its value to Scotland Yard on many occasions. Very soon after he was called in HOLMES, Inspector LESTRADE from the Yard, and Doctor WATSON, went to Aldgate Station where they met a railway representative described in WATSON’s account of this case as “A courteous red-faced old gentleman.” This was probably the Chief of the Metropolitan Railway Police. The railway officer told them that the train from which the body could have fallen so far as they could trace must have passed about midnight on the Monday. In answer to questions from HOLMES, he said there were no indications of any violence in the carriage, no ticket had been found, and there was no record of a door being found open. LESTRADE had received a report from a passenger who passed Aldgate in an ordinary metropolitan train at 11.40 p.m. on the Monday night that he heard a heavy thud as of a body striking the line just before the train reached the station, but there was a dense fog and he could see nothing.

HOLMES studied the layout of the track for some time and asked the railway officer if there were many points on this section. The railway officer said there were very few. HOLMES asked if it would be possible for him to inspect the train in which the passenger who heard the thud had travelled, but was told that the train had been broken up and the carriages re-distributed. LESTRADE assured HOLMES that every carriage had been carefully examined and HOLMES remarked rather tartly that it was not the carriages he wanted to examine. Suffice it to say that Holmes was soon off the mark and came to the conclusion that WEST had met his death elsewhere and that his body had fallen from the roof of the carriage. So that the question was, how had the body got on to the roof?

The clerk in the ticket office at Woolwich knew Cadogan WEST well by sight and stated that he had gone to London by the 8.15 to London Bridge and that he took a single third class ticket. The clerk was struck at the time by his nervous manner. Thereafter there was a gap until WEST’s body had at some point been placed on the roof of the train. HOLMES was convinced that it had been placed on the roof and not fallen on to it. WATSON wondered whether or not it could have been dropped from a bridge, but Holmes considered it impossible because the roofs of the carriages were slightly rounded and there was no railing round them. HOLMES considered the point further and recalled that the underground ran clear of tunnels at some point in the West End. He had occasionally seen windows just above his head when travelling and felt that if a train halted under such a window there would be no difficulty in lying a body upon the roof. WATSON argued that this seemed most improbable, but HOLMES relied upon the old axiom that “When all other contingencies fail whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Further enquiries disclosed that a leading international agent lived in a row of houses which abutted upon the underground. HOLMES began a search at Gloucester Road Station with the assistance of the railway staff and satisfied himself that the back stair windows of the house occupied by the agent opened on to the line. It also became evident that underground trains were frequently held motionless at that very spot. Later HOLMES and WATSON broke into these premises and HOLMES discovered discolourations along the woodwork of the window overlooking the track. While they were there a train came through the tunnel, slowed down, and pulled up immediately beneath them. The roof of the carriage was not four feet from the window ledge. In due course Colonel Valentine WALTER, a brother of the late Sir James WALTER of the submarine department, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years. He had been associating with the spy OBERSTEIN, who fell into a trap laid for him by HOLMES in the smoking room of the Charing Cross Hotel, and some weeks afterwards HOLMES was invited to Windsor where he was presented with a remarkably fine emerald tie-pin by a certain gracious lady.

Most of Sherlock HOLMES’ important cases were recorded by Doctor WATSON, his loyal and devoted friend. Unfortunately, WATSON was exceedingly hazy in matters of detail and Sir Arthur Conan DOYLE, who edited the notes and subsequently published them in book form found some difficulty not only in presenting the cases in chronological order, but providing sufficient information to show that HOLMES’ deductions were valid in relation to the clues available.

HOLMES himself had for many years been engaged upon a work intended to embody the whole art of detection in one book. It was never completed and detective officers everywhere can only regret that the methods of the great investigator are not fully available to them.

Many officers at Scotland Yard, were, of course, rather jealous of HOLMES’ successes. It is to be regretted that HOLMES was not consulted by them more often in difficult cases, and rather surprising that the railway authorities did not call him in on some of the serious railway crimes that occurred when he was at the height of his fame. If they had done so it might have been possible, for instance, to solve the case of Elizabeth CAMP in 1897 and the Merstham Tunnel mystery in 1905.

Sherlock HOLMES was, of course, well-known to many of the staff at the London stations, and it is still possible to talk to veterans in the railway service who well remember him pacing up and down the platform at Paddington, Waterloo and Charing Cross, waiting impatiently for Doctor WATSON, a tall, gaunt figure, made even gaunter and taller by his long grey travelling cloak and close-fitting cloth cap. He was sadly missed by many railwaymen when a few years before the First World War he retired to a little house in Sussex where he amused himself with his favourite hobby – keeping bees.


Sherlock at Baker Street, 2014.
Sherlock at Baker Street, 2014.


This article was written by William Owen GAY (former Chief Constable of the British Transport Police) and was part of a series “Murder in Transit” published in the BTP Journal.

Sherlock HOLMES home, 221b, Baker Street is now a block of luxury apartments (formerly the headquarters of the Abbey National Building Society), but mail sent to Mr Holmes is now delivered to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

A statue of the great detective now stands nearby at the entrance to Baker Street Underground Station, which was also home to the BTP (LT) Criminal Investigation Department for many years.