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The View from the East End (4)

By Inspector Hopkins

January 16, 2005

"The Many Facets of Sherlockiana"

Part 4: The Life of a Servant

Yet another facet of the gem we call Sherlockiana is the study of the Victorian Age in which our heroes, Holmes and Watson, lived.

As I read through the Canon over and over, I became more and more charmed with the seemingly quaint and snug life in which they lived. The more I read, the more curious I became about what it was really like to live in Baker Street in the 1890’s.

My favourite reflection was that of a cold, damp, foggy London winter, and imagining that I was Sherlock Holmes himself, perhaps coming home after a long, hard day on the streets, following up on some investigation. In through the door, up the seventeen steps, then through another door, into the most famous sitting room in all of literature.

It would be warm and cozy there. Mrs. Hudson would have had a fire started hours earlier, and perhaps Watson would also be there, smoking his pipe and reading the newspaper. I would take off my damp overcoat, throw it into a corner, pour myself a nice whiskey and soda, then light up my own pipe and join him in front of the cracking fire.

The windows would be misty with the murky fog lurking just outside, and the "clop-clop" of all the horses and carriages would be a steady drumbeat two stories below.

The china and silverware would be sparkling under the gaslight on the white linen in anticipation of Mrs. Hudson bringing our dinner up later . . . m-m-mm . . .


But wait a moment . . .

What was life like for Mrs. Hudson? Or for the maid that worked under her direction downstairs? Throughout the Canon, Watson mentioned Mrs. Hudson (or the "landlady") in some 17 of their 60 adventures together. He also recorded some seven or eight referrals to a maid or servant who waited on them, and Billy the page (or some other page boy), appeared in nine of their adventures.

For the Victorian servant class, the hours were long and the pay was low. Life for them was harsh and often thankless. Their day began in the teeth-chattering cold before daybreak, sweeping out ashes, and starting the fires in the grates and in the cooking stoves. Wood or coal had to be carried in from outside and kept dry. A hot bath in Baker Street would have meant a maid boiling water on the stove, and then lugging buckets of hot water up several flights of stairs. Imagine poor Mrs. Hudson having done or overseen all that, cleaning up all the spilled water on the stairs, and putting all the equipment away. No wonder she raised her voice "in a wail of expostulation" when the rag-tag Baker Street irregulars pattered up those same stairs!

Each meal, and every cup of coffee or tea that Holmes and Watson consumed, would have to be transported in the same manner. Dirty dishes and utensils would then be carried back down several flights, hot water prepared, and the items washed. In between these activities, Mrs. Hudson would be showing visitors up to the sitting room, carrying things around on her salver, and planning the next meal. Cleaning the house and shopping for essential items would also have been part of her routine, but she may have been lucky enough to have had assistance from a "Tweeney". If Billy was idle, he could also be counted upon to run short errands or fetch wood and coal for the fires. Such work could continue on well into the evening.

As much as one sixth of the British population may have been engaged in servitude, and this was reflected in the many, many references that Watson made to butlers, valets, and footmen and maids in the Canon.

Come to think of it, this Sherlockian "facet" may more properly be described as a whole other gem of its own. To fully understand all the history, customs, and nuances of living in Victorian England could occupy another half a lifetime or so, and we haven’t time for that now!

To gain a bit more insight into the life of the servant at least, in Sherlock Holmes’s time, the interested Sherlockian is referred to the following links:

Until next time, and now having a newer appreciation and respect for Mrs. Hudson and the many servants in the Canon, I remain,Yours faithfully,