Sherlock Holmes: Early adventures set in Norfolk, research suggests

Rollesby Hall pre 1950 Rollesby Hall, demolished in 1950, was the house where Sherlock Holmes aided his first client in the fictional village of Donnithorpe
Peter Cushing (1968), Richard Roxburgh (2002) and Douglas Wilmer (1964) as Sherlock Holmes (L-R) Peter Cushing), Richard Roxburgh and Douglas Wilmer have all played Sherlock Holmes with many of the stories having been recorded by the BBC in Norfolk

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When most people think of Sherlock Holmes, they picture the foggy streets of Victorian London. But in a short story called The Gloria Scott, the young Holmes was inspired to pursue a career as a super sleuth in a fictional Norfolk village named Donnithorpe.

Research undertaken by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London (SHSL) in the 1980s, but never previously published, argues that Donnithorpe was based on the village of Rollesby on the Trinity Broads.

The research was undertaken by the late Bernard Davies, a member of the society.

Sherlock Holmes in Norfolk

Peter Cushing at Sherlock Holmes
  • Holmes visits Norfolk in two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories, The Gloria Scott and The Dancing Men
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles was conceived by Doyle while staying at the Royal Links Hotel in Cromer in 1901
  • While in Cromer, Doyle also visited Cromer Hall, which is believed to have influenced the description of Baskerville Hall in the novel
  • Several television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories have been shot in Norfolk including the BBC series with Peter Cushing

It was during a visit to Norfolk in 1984 that Davies looked into where The Gloria Scott could have taken place.

Society member Roger Johnson said: "Davies was a genius at finding real places that must be the ones that are described in stories under fictional names… what he called 'literary topographical detection'."

Not many residents in the village are aware of the Holmes connections.

John Stanforth is the owner of the house which stands on the site of the old Rollesby Hall.

He said: "I must admit it was news to me.

"But I've read some of the research and it does sound all very plausible. I'm amazed at how much time people will spend developing a thesis like that. We could have a blue plaque no doubt."

'Young Sherlock'

The Gloria Scott, first published in 1893, explores how Holmes became involved in his first case at a university friend's Norfolk home .

Extract from The Gloria Scott

The moment Mr Trevor, of Donnithorpe, Norfolk, makes Holmes realise he should be a detective:

"I don't know how you manage this, Mr Holmes, but it seems to me that all the detectives of fact and of fancy would be children in your hands. That's your line of life, sir, and you may take the word of a man who has seen something of the world."

Holmes continued: "... that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of my ability with which he prefaced it, was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby..."

Mr Johnson, editor of the society's journal, said the the book was "not one of the best stories but an important story in the Sherlock Holmes canon".

He said: "It gives us our only real glimpse of the young Sherlock Holmes.

"It's a memory, a tale that Holmes tells Watson of how he first decided that what up until then 'had been the merest hobby' could become a profession."

Mr Johnson said Davies analysed details in the story to pinpoint the location.

He said: "By relating the Broads to the railway system as it was, to the approximate speed at which a horse and buggy could go, and most importantly the times of sunset… by these and the descriptions of Donnithorpe with its view over the Broads, it narrows down to one place and one place only, and that's Rollesby Hall."

Benedict Cumberpatch (left) and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson The new series of Sherlock returns later in the year

Conan Doyle's literary creation has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years, due in part to the success of the BBC drama series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

When Sherlock returns for its third series on BBC One later this year, few viewers will have any idea that the super-sleuth's career may have begun in a small, quiet, village on the Norfolk Broads.

Far From the Fogs, the story of Sherlock Holmes in Norfolk, is on BBC Radio Norfolk on 26 August at 12:00 BST and available on the BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards.

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