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The View from the East End (49)

By Inspector Hopkins

October 8, 2006

Watson’s Bull Pup

by Inspector Hopkins 

During the famous introduction and exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson which occurred in A Study in Scarlet, Watson stated to Holmes that “I keep a bull pup”. Exactly what Watson meant by this is a topic for some discussion and debate.

Several popular theories exist. Some say he literally meant a small bulldog. Others say it was a weapon. In the late Jack Tracy’s notable work, The Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana, he reported that it was “Anglo-Indian slang” meaning “to have fits of quick temper”.

Consider the situation that Holmes and Watson were in.  Both were young men, basically starting out in their careers and looking to share the expense of rooms. The fashionable (and expensive) West End of London would be a very desirable location, and it is understandable that they would hope to be able to secure these rooms before another tenant came along.  Quite naturally, they inquired about each other’s positive and negative attributes. One gets the feeling that they were both anxious to move into the Baker Street rooms, and were probably more forgiving of each others perceived faults.

Watson stated quite clearly that he had “neither kith nor kin” in England when he was discharged from the Army. Being in poor health and having only a meager pension, he drifted toward London. At first blush, the idea of him owning a small dog as a companion might seem plausible, but it is unlikely. As anyone who has owned a puppy knows, they require a considerable amount of attention. They must be fed and groomed, and exercised, as well as cleaned up after. It may take some time for a puppy to be completely housebroken, and their teething causes them to chew on almost any item or piece of furniture! It would not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the London hotel where Watson lived would have forbidden pets.  

Besides that, although Watson meticulously described people, places, and things throughout the entirety of the Canon, he never again mentioned this alleged dog. What ever became of it? Surely, if his Bull Pup had indeed been his faithful companion, it would have been mentioned from time to time, for example, as being taken for a walk or left with someone to care for it while Watson was away helping Holmes on a case.  One can immediately see the difficulties involved if his Bull Pup was indeed a dog, and so this possibility can be dismissed.

Although Watson claimed to have been irritated from time to time, most notably when Holmes criticized his literary attempts, I can’t seem to recall any good examples of him displaying “a fiery or quick temper”. He repeatedly recorded Sherlock Holmes’s moods ranging from “dry chuckles” and “languid smiles” to his deep concern for Watson’s life, when he received a gunshot wound in The Three Garridebs.  (Actually, in that particular adventure, Holmes himself came about as close as he ever did to extreme anger, and it has indeed been debated whether or not he actually would have killed James Winter if Watson had died from his wound. That will be the subject of one of my future columns).

Recall that Watson confessed his first fault as “keeping a Bull Pup”. Assuming that was his worst fault (since it was divulged first), this could logically lead us to expect that his ostensible “quick temper” would have been frequently displayed throughout the Canon, yet it was not. Failing that, and admitting that Watson by necessity had to remain objective because he was the narrator, he could then have at least described some of his emotion as “fiery” or “quick tempered”, but again, he did not. If anything, Watson’s steady and objective style was a hallmark of his Canonical recollections, without any hint of being overly emotional or temperamental.

This leaves us with the most plausible explanation for what his Bull Pup actually was: a short-barreled, large caliber revolver, designed to be easily concealed and used for self-defense. Such a weapon would have been ideal for an ex-military man whose “nerves are shaken” and physically at a low point in his life. Crime and assault in Victorian London was commonplace and an unarmed stranger could have been particularly vulnerable. Even today, such revolvers are referred to as “Bulldogs”, and so telling Holmes that “I keep a bull pup” was Watson’s equivalent of saying “I carry a gun”. It was a good thing that he did, too, due to the number of times that Holmes asked him to bring it along on their various cases.

In retrospect then, it seems that “keeping a Bull Pup” did not really belong on Watson’s list of shortcomings after all, did it?

Until next time, and thanking you for your attention, I am as always,

Yours faithfully,