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CHAPTER TWO Oxford or Cambridge




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CHAPTER TWO

Oxford or Cambridge
Probably he was not sorry when the time came for him to go to the University. At all events we are not sorry, for this immediately raises a highly controversial problem. Which university? The minor ones can be ruled out at once. Brief as it is, the reference in The ‘Gloria Scott’ 1 clearly points to either Oxford or Cam­bridge. Nor does the languid aristocratic Musgrave, associated with ‘grey archways and mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep’ sound the sort of undergraduate whom one would expect to find at one of the lesser universities in the seventies.

Oxford or Cambridge it must be then. But which? Monsignor Ronald Knox says Christ Church, Oxford2. Miss Sayers says Sidney Sussex, Cambridge3. Mr. Blakeney also says Cambridge, but does not nominate any particular college4.

So far as the college is concerned there seems to be no real evidence available. We rather think that he was at St. Luke’s, the scene of The Three Students, but this does not help, for we are specifically told that no details are given which might enable us to identify the college.
1 See pages 26-27.

2 ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes’ in Essays in Satire.

3 ‘Holmes’s College Career’, in Baker Street Studies.

4 Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?
In attempting to solve the Oxford v. Cambridge problem it is necessary to consider five separate cases which in some form or other refer to University affairs. On examination these live fall into three distinct categories as follows:

Group 1: The 'Gloria Scott’ and The Musgrave Ritual.

Group 2 : The Missing Three-Quarter.

Group 3 : The Three Students and The Creeping Man.

In the first group we know that we are at Holmes’s university though we do not know whether it be Oxford or Cambridge, in the second group we know that we are at Cambridge, but are ignorant as to whether or not it is Holmes’s university, whilst in the third group we have no information on either point.

All previous research seems to have concentrated almost exclusively on Group 1. It is perhaps not surprising that Group 3 has been overlooked, but there is surely a profitable field to cultivate in Group 2. In other words since we know that in The Missing Three-Quarter we are at Cambridge, what is the evidence that Holmes had ever been there before? Let us start our investigation at this point.

In the first place he does not know that there is a late train from London to Cambridge. When Godfrey Staunton, the Rugby international, who must not of course be confused with either Arthur H. Staunton, ‘the rising young forger’ or Henry Staunton ‘whom I helped to hang’, disappears from the hotel in London in which the Cambridge team are staying on the eve of the Oxford match, Cyril Overton, the captain of the team comes to consult Holmes and is asked by him whether Staunton could have got back to Cambridge. The reply is that he could, as there is a late train at quarter past eleven.

Now Holmes in his own college days was residing in London1. One would have thought, therefore, that if his University was Cambridge he would know approximately the time of the last train. It may be, however, in this particular case, that the difficulty can be removed by assuming that this late train was not in existence in Holmes's time but was first put on at some later date.

After some enquiries in London, Holmes and Watson travel up to Cambridge and though they are clearly in a train which is much earlier than the aforesaid 11.15 p.m., it is nevertheless dark by the time they get there. On arrival they immediately interview Dr. Leslie Armstrong who is suspected of being involved in Staunton’s disappearance. The next problem is to find rooms for the night and in this connection Holmes says:

‘And now, my poor Watson, here we are, stranded and friendless, in this inhospitable town, which we cannot leave without abandoning our case’.

Why ‘this inhospitable town’? Is not this a remark which is far more applicable to the town of the rival University than to one’s own? Does not this read like disparagement of Cambridge by an Oxonian? It may be objected that Holmes was not a typical representative of Cambridge, that he was an aloof reserved sort of fellow who went his own way and that such a one might well take a somewhat jaundiced view of the town. But surely if that were the case he would make some further reference to his own period of residence there. He would say ‘this inhospitable town which even in my own day I always disliked intensely’ or some such phrase. But ‘this inhospitable town’ with no
1 The ‘Gloria Scott’.
further addition reads like the remark of a man who is visiting the town for the first time.

Fortunately there is a small inn situated conveniently opposite to Armstrong’s house and before long the doctor’s carriage is seen emerging and Holmes is off in pursuit on a bicycle leaving Watson behind at the inn. But the pursuit is abortive. Holmes is detected by the doctor who stops and calls his bluff. On his return Watson suggests that the shadowing should be con­tinued next day but is met with the retort:

‘It is not so easy as you seem to think. You are not familiar with Cambridgeshire scenery, are you? It does not lend itself to concealment. All this country that I passed over to-night is as flat and clean as the palm of your hand’.

But in that case why did Holmes ever undertake a pursuit which was foredoomed to failure? The answer would appear to be that having never been in Cambridge before he was in the same state of lamen­table ignorance as to the distinctive peculiarities of Cambridgeshire scenery. We now see the significance of Watson’s remark that it was after dark when they first arrived in Cambridge. Had they arrived in day­light, Holmes would have seen the difficulties from the window of his train, but as it was, they only became apparent after he had actually started out. Armstrong may well have been aided by a moon which had not risen or was obscured by cloud when they first entered Cambridge.

Realizing that shadowing Armstrong is not a practical proposition, Holmes devotes the next day to an enquiry in the pubs to the north of Cambridge, visiting without success ‘Chesterton, Histon, Waterbeach and Oakington’.

Note the order, for it is a rather peculiar one. Presumably he visited them in the order in which he names them, particularly in view of the certainty that in any circumstances Chesterton would obviously come first. But consider the position of the other three. From Cambridge or from Chesterton, Histon lies to the north-west, Oakington is still further north-west, but Waterbeach is to the north-east. So that if he went to Waterbeach after Histon he would probably come back again through Histon in order to get to Oakington. The obvious route which anyone familiar with the neighbourhood would take would be Chesterton, Waterbeach, Histon, Oakington, and the route actually taken reveals the Oxonian in a hurry who has not yet had time to procure a map.

By the next day however it seems that this error has been remedied for he has heard of Trumpington. But what are his actual words as the draghound leads him to the village in which Godfrey Staunton is finally run to earth?

‘This should be the village of Trumpington to the right of us’.

He could hardly have been at Cambridge without visiting a place so near. The Cantab would certainly say ‘This is Trumpington’. The ‘should be’ is the mark of the Oxonian. So too we suggest is the expression ‘the village of Trumpington’ as opposed to mere ‘Trumpington’. The former suggests the stranger, the latter the neighbour.

It seems to us therefore that The Missing Three-Quarter points unmistakably to Oxford. We must next consider how far the two cases in Group 3 support this view.

In dealing with The Three Students the first thing is to prove that it is slightly earlier than The Missing Three-Quarter. The Three Students we know is dated 1895. The Missing Three-Quarter was first published in August 1904 and it took place some seven or eight years earlier. At a later stage1 we give our reasons for selecting 1897 as the year in question. Here it is only necessary to establish that it is later than 1895. It must be later than 1893 for Holmes speaks of Armstrong as a man ‘calculated to fill the gap left by the illustrious Moriarty’. It took place therefore after his return from ‘Tibet’. This leaves only the years 1894 and 1895. Oxford won the match owing to Staunton’s absence. But in 1894 the match was drawn and in 1895 victory went to Cambridge. So both these years must be excluded.

Having established that The Three Students is the earlier of the two we can now prove that this case relates to Oxford. We refer to the sentence quoted above ‘You are not familiar with Cambridgeshire scenery, are you?' Now at the start of The Three Students Holmes and Watson had been staying ‘for some weeks in one of our great University towns’ whilst the former was studying Early English charters. How did Watson occupy his time during these few weeks? It is inconceivable that he would remain in the town throughout the whole period. If he were in Cambridge he would be bound to know about the surrounding countryside ‘as flat and clean as the palm of your hand’. Clearly therefore the scene of The Three Students must be Oxford.

Hilton Soames, tutor and lecturer at the College of St. Luke’s, is described as ‘an acquaintance’. Where did they make his acquaintance? Was he by any chance


1 See pages 153-154.
a survivor from Holmes’s own undergraduate days whom Holmes had taken the opportunity to contact on his return to Oxford? At all events Soames knows that he is in Oxford and when it is discovered that the Fortescue Scholarship examination paper has been read by an unauthorized person, Soames knows what to do about it.

‘You are aware, Mr. Holmes, that our college doors are double — a green baize one within and a heavy oak one without’.

Why should Holmes be aware of this? Is the answer that he himself was a St. Luke’s man?

By the time Holmes has finished his enquiries it is evening and darkness had fallen, but he knows that there are only four stationers of any consequence in Oxford, and he also knows where each one is located and has time to visit all four before they close for the night.

An even more remarkable demonstration of local knowledge follows. Holmes and Watson are together until bedtime that day and Watson is up at eight o’clock next morning. But Holmes has forestalled him by two hours during which he has been out to the athletic grounds to collect some black clay and sawdust from the jumping-pit.

How did he know his way there? Watson is a witness to the fact that he could not have got this information on the previous day and at six in the morning hardly anybody would be astir. Yet he does know where to go. It may be objected that on his own showing, he was not interested in athletics during his University career and that his sports were boxing and fencing. Neverthe­less, we think that he knew far more about what was going on around him than he pretended, and that the attitude of aloofness was to some extent a pose. We frequently find that he, in fact, knows more than he admits, and if he were to state that he did not know where the athletic grounds were we should treat this with the same reserve as his famous statement that he did not know or care whether the sun went round the earth or vice versa.

We now come to the case of The Creeping Man which adds very little to our information. As Holmes proposes to ‘enjoy the amenities of this charming town’ it is evidently not ‘the inhospitable town’ of The Missing Three-Quarter. There is also a reference to driving past a low of ancient colleges, and whilst at a pinch this might be King’s Parade of Trinity Street in Cambridge, colleges in rows, on the whole, suggest Oxford.

So far wherever a university has been specifically mentioned it is Cambridge, wherever it has been left anonymous, on investigation it turns out to be Oxford. As Holmes's own university comes in this latter category one would anticipate that it too would prove to be Oxford.

There now only remain to be considered the two cases in Group I which refer to Holmes’s own college days, namely The 'Gloria Scott’ and The Musgrave Ritual.

Mr. Blakeney suggests that Trevor of The 'Gloria Scott’, being a Norfolk man, would find it more con­venient to send his son to Cambridge than to Oxford. Against this may be set Monsignor Knox’s firm belief that the exclusive aristocracy of Musgrave and the doggy tendencies of Trevor indicate that all three were at Christ Church. These two arguments may be left to cancel each other out.

We now come to the incident of Miss Dorothy Sayers’s bull-terrier, or to be more accurate Victor Trevor’s bull-terrier. The relevant passage from The 'Gloria Scott' is as follows:

‘He (Victor Trevor) was the only friend I made during the two years that I was at college. I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year. Bar fencing and boxing I had few athletic tastes, and then my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all. Trevor was the only man I knew, and that only through the accident of his bull-terrier freezing on to my ankle one morning as I went down to chapel’.

It is open to argument whether or not Holmes’s college career was limited to two years. This will be discussed at a later stage. What however is clear is that this incident of the dog must have occurred within two years of his arrival. On the strength of this Miss Sayers produces an ingenious theory in support of Cambridge. Dogs are not allowed inside the college gates at either university, therefore the incident must have happened out in the street. At Cambridge under­graduates usually spend their first two years in rooms, moving into college thereafter. At Oxford the reverse is the case. This incident happened in the first two years, therefore it must have happened at Cambridge.

But this assumes that the rules are always obeyed. Is this quite the picture that one has of either Oxford or Cambridge? Could not the dog have been smuggled into the college for the purpose of some practical joke? Alternatively, from the standpoint of the dog, could not the event happen both outside and inside the college? Why should it not have been frightened hurt out in the street with the result that before it could be stopped it ran through the gate and fastened on to the unfortunate Holmes? What could be simpler?

Finally there remains an argument which has been put forward on behalf of Cambridge which is of a general character and is not dependent on any one case. It is said that with his bent for science, Cambridge would be the obvious choice.

There might be some force in this argument if his interests were confined to science. But in point of fact he happens to have had an extensive knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, art and music, spoke at least three foreign languages and was in fact a complete walking encyclopaedia. Moreover it seems probable that his scientific knowledge was not acquired at his university since we find him at a later stage studying at Barts.

To sum up therefore we think that whilst the bull-terrier makes a valiant effort on behalf of Cambridge, the verdict must be given to Oxford.


CHAPTER THREE

Before Baker Street
The bull-terrier, though he did not know it, was making history. His interest in Holmes’s ankle, unfortunate on a short term view, ultimately had entirely beneficial results, as it started the chain of events that led up to his choice of a career. He was laid up for ten days during which a contrite Trevor came to visit him. Soon they had become close friends and Trevor invited him to his home at Donnithorpe in Norfolk early in the long vacation.

It was there that the case of The 'Gloria Scott’ occurred which years later Holmes was to narrate to Watson round the fire on a winter’s night in Baker Street. The young undergraduate succeeded in decoding the mysterious message relating to fly-papers and hen pheasants and it was this success which first suggested to him that he might devote his life to the detection and prevention of crime; to act as a final court of appeal when all the resources of Scotland Yard had failed.

To ascertain the year of The 'Gloria Scott’ case we must look forward. For the moment all that we need bear in mind is that it took place in the middle seventies since we have already shown1 that Holmes’s period of active practice began in 1878. If instead of looking forward we look backward we encounter that grizzly
1 See page 2
nightmare, the original voyage of the Gloria Scott. Of all the many mysteries with which we are confronted, this is beyond all doubt the most insoluble. From the standpoint of fixing a date it is really a waste of time to embark once more on this voyage with the elder Trevor. But let us nevertheless do so.

He tells us that the voyage took place thirty years earlier in 1855 when the Crimean War was at its height and the Government had been compelled to use their larger convict ships to transport troops to the Black Sea, thus being left with only the smaller and less suitable ships such as the Gloria Scott for the convicts. If this were correct the date of The 'Gloria Scott’ would be 1885. This however is manifestly im­possible in any circumstances whatsoever.

The obvious solution at first sight appears to be the substitution of twenty years for thirty. This however merely lands us in new difficulties, for the exasperating Trevor senior, not content with saying that the voyage took place thirty years ago must needs also tell us that he returned to England as a rich colonial more than twenty years ago. The wretch therefore forces us to make a corresponding reduction of ten years in this twenty year period.

A further difficulty is his age. As if he had not done enough harm already, he tells us that he was twenty-three years of age at the time of the voyage. Yet Holmes refers to him on more than one occasion as an old man. It is bad enough if this description is applied to a man aged fifty-three, but it is the last straw when it is applied to one of forty-three.

And Trevor junior’s age? If he were old enough to be at Oxford, his father must have married before the ill-fated voyage. Perhaps he did. Research into his family history discloses only that at the end of his life he was a widower, and the tragic but completely irrelevant fact that there had been a daughter who died of diphtheria while on a visit to Birmingham.

As this line of approach seems fairly hopeless another possibility is to assume that 1855 is an error for 1845. This certainly gives us a relatively coherent story so far as Trevor is concerned. But what then becomes of the Crimea and of the troopships? Nor are our difficulties made any easier by Holmes’s insistence that the docu­ment which he read to Watson was no copy but the actual original which he received from Victor Trevor.

Mr. Bell suggests1 that the whole story is a tissue of lies invented by Trevor to forestall Hudson and to whitewash himself in his son’s eyes. He was probably a murderer and a pirate who was being blackmailed by his confederate Hudson.

But whilst we can well believe that he would be capable of any infamy, we do not see how this explains the chaotic muddle of dates. There seems to be no alternative therefore but to write off the whole incident and to endeavour to date the case of The 'Gloria Scott’ as distinct from the voyage by some other means.

It seems clear that Holmes was destined to return to Oxford after his visit to Donnithorpe, for at that time he was still talking about the long vacation. Moreover, the Holmes of The 'Gloria Scott’ was ‘fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year’. But the Holmes of The Musgrave Ritual was a different sort of person, for ‘during my last years at the university there was a good deal of talk there about myself and my methods’, and Musgrave asks him if he
1 Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson
is ‘turning to practical ends the powers with which you used to amaze us’.

Clearly then his experiences at Donnithorpe had made all the difference. He had acquired new confidence in his methods. Hitherto his audience had con­sisted solely of his one intimate friend, Victor Trevor. Now there burst forth on an astonished Oxford those experiments in observation and deduction which in later years were to astonish Watson, Scotland Yard and his clients.

Further it is evident that he had still at least two years to do, as these experiments took place ‘during my last years’. Now this at first seems to conflict with the passage previously quoted from The 'Gloria Scott’ that Trevor ‘was the only friend I had made during the two years I was at college’ which of course implies a total college career of two years. The explanation must be that Holmes actually said ‘up to the time of the case of which I am now about to tell you he was the only friend I had made during my two years at college’, and that Watson made an inadequate note of this conversation which resulted in the omission of the first part of the sentence when he ultimately wrote his account of the case.

The requirement therefore is a four-year period of which the first two are before and the last two after the vacation at Donnithorpe. To obtain these years we must consider the college career of Richard Musgrave of ‘the thin high nose, the large eyes and the languid yet courtly manners’.

As we have already shown, Holmes started his active professional career in 1878, this being the year of The Musgrave Ritual in which he tells us that four years had passed since he last saw Musgrave. This means that Musgrave could not have left Oxford before 1874. He could have left after that year on the assumption that Holmes left in 1874 but this is unlikely as apparently he had become M.P. for his district some time before 1878. Progress in a political career at this speed is very exceptional and we are therefore entitled to assume that he left at the earliest possible date, i.e. 1874.

As Miss Sayers shrewdly observes, we can conclude that Holmes and Musgrave were in the same year, for if the latter were the senior, his reserved and somewhat exclusive manner which was in fact due to diffidence, would have precluded him from associating with a mere freshman. We know too that he was at Oxford after the Donnithorpe vacation as he refers to the experiments ‘with which you used to amaze us’. But whereas Holmes was up for two years after Donni­thorpe, Musgrave may have been up for only one. In other words if Musgrave went down, as he did in 1874, Holmes may have gone down in either 1874 or 1875.

In deciding between these two years we have to consider Holmes’s temperament and the events (or rather lack of events) of the next years. We know that The Musgrave Ritual was his third case. Before that came a long weary period in which there were only two cases when ‘I waited, filling in my too abundant leisure time by studying all those branches of science which might make me more efficient’. This period must in any case have been about two-and-a-half years, and if he started in 1874 an extra year must be added. It is unlikely that a man of Holmes’s energy could have endured three-and-a-half years of idleness. He would have concluded that he had made a mistake, and would have abandoned his original choice for a more lucrative profession. We suggest that two-and-a-half years might be taken as the extreme limit of his patience and that the other year must in fact have been passed at college, in other words, that his fourth and last year at college was 1875.

It would seem therefore that the relevant dates are as follows: —

1871 Holmes goes to Oxford.

1873 Vacation at Donnithorpe. The case of The 'Gloria Scott’.

1874 Musgrave leaves Oxford.

1875 Holmes leaves Oxford.

There was now no doubt as to his future career. He took rooms in Montague Street ‘just round the corner from the British Museum’ and was presumably still there at the time when he first met Watson. Of the only two cases that came his way between 1875 and 1878 we know nothing, except that they were both introduced by old fellow-students who had been impressed by his demonstrations at Oxford. But certain inferences of a negative character can be made about these cases. We can be reasonably certain that they were not of a very sensational or dramatic nature, and that they did not supply Holmes with the raw material that he needed to exhibit those powers of deduction which figured in so many of his later cases. It is possible, though less cer­tain, that they did not involve intervention by the police. (Of the sixty cases reported by Watson about one-fifth appear to have been solved by Holmes with­out the police becoming aware of their existence).

Early in the year 1878 there came at last the case for which Holmes had waited so long. The Musgrave Ritual supplied all the elements which the previous cases had lacked. It is true that the murderer of butler Brunton was never brought to book. But Holmes did at least succeed in unearthing the body from its strange hiding place, thus establishing that a murder had been committed, and at the same time he decoded the famous Ritual message, a message which at first seemed even more inexplicable than the hen pheasants of The 'Gloria Scott’.

From that time onwards neither Scotland Yard nor the world at large could afford to ignore him. Clients began to arrive though they were not always as plen­tiful nor as lucrative as they might have been.

The distinction of being the first client other than a former member of Oxford University to consult Sher­lock Holmes is, we believe, held by a certain Mrs. Farintosh. What this good lady’s trouble was we shall never know. All that we know is that it was ‘the hour of her sore need’ and that ‘it was concerned with an opal tiara’. Holmes himself had to refer to a small case-book before he could remember it1.

To this period too belonged the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, the adven­ture of the old Russian woman, the singular affair of the aluminium crutch and the case of Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife2. They were not all successes.

What was needed now was someone to keep a record of the cases for the benefit of posterity. As Holmes himself was to say on a later occasion ‘I am lost without my Boswell’3. But this defect was soon to be remedied. Boswell was already knocking at the door.



1 The Speckled Band. 2 The Musgrave Ritual. 3 A Scandal in Bohemia.


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  • CHAPTER THREE Before Baker Street