The Undershaw Preservation Trust
It was an old, tumbledown building in a crazy state of disrepair… the grass-grown drive in front of the blotched and weather-stained door…the whole place was depressing.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote these words about Wisteria Lodge, but they have come to be sadly prophetic about a house nearer and dearer to his heart. Not Wisteria Lodge, but Undershaw, the home designed by and lived in by Conan Doyle and his family for over ten years, during which time he wrote some of his most memorable work.
Undershaw came into being after a conversation Conan Doyle had with his friend, novelist Grant Allen, in 1895. Allen suffered from tuberculosis, the illness which left Conan Doyle’s wife, Louise, an invalid for the last 15 years of her life. In this conversation Conan Doyle had with Allen, Allen claimed the healthy air of Hindhead, in Surrey, England, cured him of tuberculosis.
At a time when wealthy tuberculosis sufferers were encouraged to go to the Swiss Alps for a better chance of survival, Conan Doyle himself had taken to moving the family about for Louise’s health from Switzerland to Egypt. Hindhead certainly offered an alternative closer to London.
Immediately after this conversation with Grant Allen, Conan Doyle visited Hindhead, about 40 miles south of London, and decided it was his “English Switzerland.” He purchased a plot of land where he planned to have a house built and drafted the first designs of the house himself before passing them on to architect and friend Joseph Henry Ball to complete.
Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle describes the house as “a considerable mansion…planned upon a large scale.” The house was built on a four-acre site, facing south toward woods and the heath. Conan Doyle wanted a comfortable modern house to entertain family and friends as well as to allow Louise a quiet place to rest. When completed, the substantial gabled red-brick house was approached from a winding drive. There was an impressive two-story entrance hall where there was displayed a collection of swords as well as a series of stained glass windows with what Conan Doyle considered his family coat of arms. The house included eleven bedrooms and dressing rooms, a dining room that could seat 30, Conan Doyle’s study, a wood-paneled drawing room, a billiard room, substantial servants’ quarters, and a power plant to provide electricity to the house. Also on the grounds were a four-room lodge, a stable which held six horses, a coach house, a garage, a magnificent railway on the grounds to delight his children, and a tennis court. With Louise’s ill health in mind, doors that hinged both ways were installed per Conan Doyle’s instructions, and the house’s main staircase was built with shallow steps to allow her to ascend and descend with relative ease.
Sir Arthur named the house “Undershaw,” from the word “shaw,” meaning a small copse or wood. Conan Doyle writes: “…we moved into the new house, which I called Undershaw—a new word, I think, and yet one which described it exactly in good Anglo-Saxon, since it stood under a hanging grove of trees.”
Once the Conan Doyle family took up residence in Undershaw they began receiving visitors. At first it was mostly family, but one of their first non-family visitors was Sidney Paget, illustrator of the majority of Holmes stories and who had been commissioned by Conan Doyle to paint his portrait. J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, was also a guest at Undershaw, as were both Virginia Woolf and Bram Stoker, creator of Dracula, who said about Undershaw:
It is so sheltered from cold winds that the architect felt justified in having lots of windows, so that the whole place is full of light. Nevertheless, it is cosy and snug to a remarkable degree and has everywhere that sense of “home” which is so delightful to occupant and stranger alike…
Stoker describes the view at Undershaw:
…an endless sea of greenery, ranges of hills piling up one behind the other, in undulations of varying blue. An expanse which, whether seen from near or far, in unity or detail, simply ravishes the eye with its myriad beauties.Conan Doyle wrote The Great Boer War there in 1900, after his time as a volunteer physician in South Africa during the war. The Great Boer War became influential in military reforms, when Conan Doyle suggested use of camouflage and advised against continued use of cavalry swords. He felt that all Englishmen should be marksmen, forming the Undershaw Rifle Club where he held bi-weekly training sessions and provided, at his own expense, firearms and ammunition. The rifle club had over 300 members and became an example followed by other communities across England; this served the country well when Englishmen trained in marksmanship joined the British Army at the start of the First World War.
Undershaw was where Conan Doyle lived when he received the knighthood in 1902. It was where he learned to drive a motorcar as one of Hindhead’s first motorists, and it was in the driveway of Undershaw where Conan Doyle had his first car crash in 1905.
Undershaw was where Conan Doyle’s children, Mary and Kingsley, grew up and where his wife, Louise, spent the last years of her life.
It was from Undershaw that Conan Doyle championed the cause of George Edalji, falsely imprisoned for animal mutilation.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was written at Undershaw. Holmes was resurrected in "The Adventure of the Empty House" at Undershaw in 1903, and Conan Doyle went on to write the 13 stories of The Return of Sherlock Holmes while in residence.
It was also at Undershaw where Conan Doyle first considered writing a play about Sherlock Holmes. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, one of the great figures of the English theatre, was interested in the play but wanted the character of Holmes adapted to his own acting style. Conan Doyle refused. About this he said,
Rather than re-write it on lines which would make a different Holmes from my Holmes, I would without the slightest pang put it back in the drawer.Although Conan Doyle would not change Holmes himself (even though he professed disdain for the character), he later allowed actor William Gillette to change Holmes and allow him to be engaged to be married at the end of the play (famously replying to Gillette’s telegram “MAY I MARRY HOLMES?”, Conan Doyle said, “YOU MAY MARRY HIM OR MURDER HIM OR DO ANYTHING YOU LIKE WITH HIM”). Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes became legendary and even iconic, introducing the calabash pipe to our perception of Holmes as Gillette preferred not to block his face with any other style of pipe.
After Louise finally succumbed to illness in 1907, Conan Doyle sold Undershaw and his life went in a different direction with his new wife, Jean Leckie. Undershaw was sold again in 1924, and until 2004 the house was used as a small country hotel and restaurant, when it was once again purchased by a developer. It has languished in neglect in the years since then.
Robert Hardman of the The Daily Mail wrote:
The imposing late Victorian house…is boarded up, dilapidated…How on earth could a nation which has produced the most famous character in modern fiction—inspiring a record 223 films and 400 fan clubs worldwide—simply stand by while his creator’s legacy is erased?
Some of us cannot “simply stand by.” In August 2009 Undershaw Preservation Trust, or UPT, was formed by John Gibson, author of 5 books on Conan Doyle, some with his friend, the late Richard Lancelyn Green. John Gibson is now Director of the Undershaw Preservation Trust and has campaigned for the restoration and preservation of Undershaw, testifying at hearings in defense of Conan Doyle’s legacy. After a visit to the property, Gibson reported:
It was in a terrible state. I came here once and the front door was wide open with rain pouring through. I reported it to the Council and came back two weeks later and it was still open to the world.
The developer/owner has proposed several different plans for the grounds and Undershaw itself, most rejected by the Waverley Borough Council in Hindhead, but all involving destroying the historic value of Conan Doyle’s home in pursuit of financial gain. The developer's plans have included permanently dividing the building into townhomes, building other structures on the property, and converting Conan Doyle’s horse stables with their cast iron stalls into a garage.
A very telling comment by Michael Wilson, the developer's architect, about the proposed changes for Undershaw: "The main house is being put back in the original form but vertically divided. To leave it as a single house doesn't work financially."
In June 2010 Waverley Borough Council, after having rejected numerous redevelopment plans over the years, at last gave in and granted the owners planning permission to carve up the literary, historic house into three flats, with five more homes built on the site.
About this, John Gibson said:
It will destroy the whole spirit of the place. You’ll have Conan Conan Doyle’s drawing room in one house, his dining room in another, and his study in another.
One member of the Waverley Borough Council, Jim Edwards, cast the only vote against the planning officers’ recommendations and took the preservationists' side. Mr. Edwards is quoted as saying "This house has got tremendous historical importance. This is a massive development, and quite unacceptable in my view." Conan Doyle's great-nephew Richard Conan Doyle, said "The family had been trying to come up with ways of buying it, but the price was so high we could not afford it. We just wish there was something we could do."
Actor Stephen Fry is a supporter of UPT and had this to say to the Council:
As Patron of the Conan Conan Doyle library, as a former youngest member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, as an admirer of Conan Doyle and his achievements I urge Waverley Borough Council to reconsider what future ages will adjudge a foolish short-sighted and wanton act of vandalism. There is real value in Undershaw. If it is thought about, it can attract new generations of tourists to the area, it can be an enormous source of local pride.
In spite of last year’s setback, all is not yet lost. Word is spreading about Undershaw through a concerted effort on the part of the Undershaw Preservation Trust via their website, a blog, Facebook page, and UPT volunteer representatives. Writers Julian Barnes and Ian Rankin are backing the campaign, and author Alistair Duncan is currently writing a book, An Entirely New Country - Arthur Conan Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. Even more significantly, actor and writer Mark Gatiss, writer/creator and portrayer of Mycroft in the new “Sherlock” TV series, is now patron and sponsor of the Undershaw Preservation Trust and has been a champion of the cause in recent interviews:
I would like to express my whole-hearted enthusiasm for the campaign to save Undershaw. It seems to me a very sad reflection on our times that the home of one of our greatest and most popular writers should be so neglected and in danger of unsympathetic redevelopment…Sir Arthur Conan Conan Doyle occupied several residences in his prolific and thrilling career, only Undershaw bears the stamp of his massive personality…It’s no exaggeration to say that Undershaw was the centre of Conan Doyle’s life during perhaps the most fruitful and fascinating phase of his career. It must be saved and take its place among the sensitively preserved residences of this country’s other literary giants. This is certainly a three-pipe problem but not, I am convinced, an insoluble one.
John Gibson has been consulting with attorneys to determine whether the planning permission from Waverley was possibly unlawful; they are in the process of preparing Judicial Review papers for submission to the Royal Courts of Justice to have the decision overturned. It is hoped that sometime this spring there will be good news on this front.
Portsmouth Museum’s 50,000-item Conan Doyle collection of John Gibson’s late friend, Richard Lancelyn Green. Ideally, the proposed museum at Undershaw might then become part of a Conan Doyle tour, including visits to London, Portsmouth Museum, and Conan Doyle’s grave in the New Forest’s Minstead Churchyard. This would certainly require a significant amount of money which would need to be raised, but major fundraising is still in the future. The first priority has to be stopping the proposed development. If that is allowed to occur there will be no saving Undershaw for future generations of Sherlockians.
The Undershaw Preservation Trust now has more than 25 representatives in at least 10 different countries. The representative's task is to spread the word about Undershaw and rally the Sherlockian troops for support in upcoming projects and fundraising. Preliminary fundraising plans at this point include a UPT pin which will be for sale in coming months, as well as some items which will be sold on eBay. An Undershaw awareness-raising project for the UK is being considered for the opening of a long-awaited tunnel in Hindhead this May; tentative plans include Undershaw supporters attending in Victorian attire to hand out flyers about saving Conan Doyle’s house.
How can you help?
- If you’re on Facebook, find the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s Facebook page and join as a fan.
- Visit the website, www.saveundershaw.com, for updates and to leave comments.
- Follow @spiritangel04 on Twitter; retweet UPT tweets so that your followers will see them.
- Tweet a #FollowFriday recommendation for UPT.
- On your blog or website mention UPT and link to Save Undershaw's website.
- Mention Undershaw to any Sherlockians of your acquaintance and refer them to the website.
- Spread this blog post by email, Twitter, Facebook or any other sharing method; we've provided the tools directly at the top and bottom of this entry to help you with that.
We cannot do this alone, but we just may be able to do it together. As Holmes says in "The Copper Beeches,"
The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.
If we believe that Holmes and Conan Doyle belong to all of us--even generations long beyond our own time--then we are charged with making it known through the Undershaw Preservation Trust that Undershaw must be preserved and restored. We must bring that “pressure of public opinion” to this campaign. The loss of Undershaw is more than a loss for Hindhead; it is a loss for us all.