ON THE YORKSHIRE TRAIL OF HOLMES’S HOUND
One of the world’s best-loved detective stories and its illustrious author may have had links with Yorkshire according to new evidence. Martin Hickes picks up the magnifying glass.
ON long autumn nights, enthusiasts of Sherlock Holmes love nothing better than to pick up a copy of the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, light a roaring fire and think of Dartmoor.
At a time when September/October’s equinoctial gales blow, often referred to by creator Arthur Conan Doyle in setting the scene for many a Holmes story, the tale of the spectral hound and famous Dartmoor captures readers’ imaginations worldwide.
But in doing such, Holmesians (or Sherlockians as they are sometimes known) may be making a 'singularly elementary error’.
While Dartmoor is the de facto source of the spectral hound in writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, circumstantial evidence suggests a Yorkshire-based demonic beast might have left its footprints in the imaginings of its illustrious creator.
For years, Conan Doyle’s dedicatory frontispiece to the novel to a ‘Robinson’ has looked to be conclusive. The note recounts how friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson’s reminders of a West Country legend fired his imagination for the tale.
First published in ‘The Strand’ magazine in 1901-2’s Edwardian England, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ cemented Edinburgh-born Dr. Conan Doyle’s reputation as a master storyteller, with the ‘science of deduction’ and the supernatural at the heart of his tale.
But could the source of Conan Doyle’s canine antagonist have lain in one of the eeriest sections of the Dales, rather than Dartmoor?
Troller’s Ghyll, a mile or two above Appletreewick, has long been known in legend as a waymark on a popular route walk, and as being a ‘haunted’ ravine.
The narrow limestone chasm, enclosed by twisted roots, which exhibits cave-like undercrofts, has in folklore, been haunted by a ‘Barghest’ for centuries.
The Barghest, a demonic hound-type creature, with saucer-like eyes, is just one example of the range of ‘black-hound’ type sprites which can be found in the curious bestiary of hauntings which occur ‘where the wild things are’, nationwide.
The Ghyll itself is home to countless tales of men being found beheaded in morning mists when lost on the moor, of the appearance of demonic eyes among fog-clad hollows, and the bombardment of unsuspecting travellers by troll-like creatures stood on the ramparts of the Ghyll.
What is tantalising in the case of the Hound of the Baskervilles is the suggestion that Conan Doyle had key relatives in the Dales with whom he most likely communicated before penning his masterwork.
Lovers of Holmes’s empiricism view hearsay with abomination, but certainly in Holmes’s original reference to Dartmoor, ‘if the devil were ever to have an affair in the hands of men’, Troller’s Ghyll would certainly make a resolute second best.
What is known is that Conan Doyle was married at Thornton in Lonsdale near Ingleton and his wife’s family had land next to the home of the Baskerville family in Gloucestershire.
Conan Doyle’s mother lived for years just outside Ingleton on the estate of a Dr Waller.
Doyle himself was married at Thornton in Lonsdale in 1885 at St Oswald’s Church – his marriage certificate still rests there, in the shadow of Ingleborough.
In 1883, ACD’s father Charles Atlamont Doyle battled alcoholism and was confined after bouts of epilepsy; his wife, Mary Foley Doyle, Arthur’s mother, who ran a lodging house in Edinburgh, took residency at Masongill Cottage at Masongill, in the Dales, at the behest of one of her lodgers, Dr Waller, who had helped to make the ‘fatherless’ family secure.
Arthur passed his medical exams after being educated at Jesuit-influenced Stonyhurst, in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley and had established himself as a successful GP at Southsea and a prolific writer.
It was at Southsea, between attending to his first wife Louise, and waiting for medical calls, that he began to pen the Holmes stories.
‘A Study in Scarlet’, the first of such, was published in 1887. Readers would have to wait fourteen more years for ‘Hound’.
His mother’s lodger and benign benefactor, Dr. Bryan Charles Waller, was Squire of Masongill from 1877 but prior to that he was Professor of Pathology at Edinburgh School of Medicine.
He lodged with the Doyle family in Edinburgh and quickly became a key factor in their lives. It was he who persuaded the young Conan Doyle to train as a doctor, and his mother to live in Masongill after the incarceration of Conan Doyle Snr.
Waller later married but, nevertheless, Mary Doyle remained as tenant of Masongill Cottage until 1917, when she moved to the south.
According to the exhaustive website ‘The Chronicles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’, Conan Doyle’s mother, to whom he was especially close, was an enthusiastic teller of chivalrous and old tales.
Given her erstwhile Yorkshire location, the link between them and timings, it seems possible, however circumstantial, that Conan Doyle’s mother or even Waller could both have heard and told the well-known Dales folklore tale of Troller’s Ghyll and its demonic spirit to her son? The trio might even have visited the spot.
And is it more than circumstance that an apparent quasi-geographic link between tranquil Parceval Hall and its formal gardens set against the forbiddingvery nearby Ghyll and uplands might parallel a link between Baskerville Hall, the Yew Alley, and the West Country moor?
The ‘official’ story line is that Conan Doyle and the Bertram Fletcher ‘Robinson’ of the novel’s dedication, became friends when both were covering the Boer War as journalists.
In 1901, Fletcher Robinson entertained his older companion with ghostly folk stories from his home on Dartmoor.
Particularly taken with the tale of the mythical black hound that stalked the desolate moors at night, and the gruesome story of the evil squire Sir Richard Cabell, who sold his soul to the devil and was dragged to the underworld by a pack of hellhounds, Conan Doyle is reputed to have started work.
“Robinson and I are exploring the moors together over our Sherlock Holmes book,” Conan Doyle wrote to his mother. Fletcher Robinson’s coachman, Harry Baskerville, drove the pair around the moors; in return, his name, it seems likely, became entwined in the tale.
Professor Francis O’Gorman, Head of the School of English, at Leeds University, and editor of the superlative 2006 edition of ‘Hound’, is intrigued by the theory.
He says: “It must be noted that tales of phantom dogs in the English countryside, the black shucks of legend, are widely known staples of folk tales: Robinson hardly deserved credit for for passing specialist information to Conan Doyle.
“The canonic view of Holmesians is that Robinson and Dartmoor were the sparks for the tale.
“There has even been a suggestion that Conan Doyle stole the idea from Robinson – who died mysteriously – and might have felt some pang of guilt at not crediting him more fully with the genesis of the tale. An even more fanciful suggestion has been made that Robinson was murdered as a result, which is quite ridiculous.
“However, it is suggestive that Conan Doyle’s relationship with his mother was significant – they wrote a large volume of letters to each other – and the theory of a link with Yorkshire cannot be entirely overlooked.
“Conan Doyle, certainly, had a wide-ranging knowledge of potentially useful material, and was always imaginatively alert to legend and tales of the supernatural, wherever he found them.”
Chris Phipps, writer and producer for Tyne Tees TV noted two years ago in investigating the claims:
“There are three areas of the country that are contenders for the origins of the Hound – Yorkshire, Devon and Herefordshire,” he said.
“The case for Yorkshire is that Conan Doyle frequently visited his mother at Masongill and it is possible she was the first person he talked to about the concept of the Hound of the Baskervilles.
“He would most certainly have heard of and read about the legend of the Barguest at Troller’s Ghyll and may have drawn his inspiration from it.”
In 1893, ten years after his breakdown, Conan Doyle’s mentally unstable father died. In December of the same year, Conan Doyle, perhaps significantly, ‘killed off’ his most illustrious creation at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, only to revive him in the Hound of the Baskervilles, and the later series of stories The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1904.
The passing of the 100th anniversary – and the textual copyright – of ‘Hound’ at the turn of the 21st Century has provoked a myriad of theory and deductions on Doyle and the subject.
As to the Yorkshire connection and a solution to the mystery, perhaps Holmes’s most famous axiom - ‘After you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ - is the most pertinent.
Whatever the solution, the mystery remains quite a ‘three pipe problem’ for lovers of Holmes and the Dales all round.
· Barghest is the name often given in the north of England, especially in Yorkshire, to a legendary monstrous black dog with huge teeth and claws, though in other cases the name can refer to a ghost or Household elf, especially in Northumberland and Durham.
· There is also a story of a Barghest entering the city of York occasionally, where, according to legend, it preys on lone travellers in the city's narrow ‘Snickelways.’ Whitby is also associated with the spectre.
· Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, published in 1897, during Holmes’s hiatus years, features the demonic protagonist in demon dog form when he lands at Whitby.
· More than one production of the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ has been shot at Yorkshire’s Brimham Rocks rather than Dartmoor.
· Prof O’Gorman’s 2006 edition of the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ (with The Speckled Band) is published by Broadview, priced £5.99.