I admire Conan Doyle’s depiction of those two great characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; and I enjoy the interplay between them.
Yes, I know the plots creak. I know Sherlock Holmes’ reasoning is sometimes flawed. But I love the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Reading them provides wonderful, literate escapism.
I also like these stories because they take us back to the 1890s, when the railways had started to make rapid cross-country travel possible, but horse-drawn vehicles still dominated the roads. Cars would appear in the next decade, but for the moment they had not started to congest and pollute the streets of London.
It was a great time for the bicycle. The diamond-frame machine, with two equal-sized wheels and pedals driving the rear wheel had recently become established as the standard design. Serious bicycling was suddenly possible for all – including even ladies of fashion.
Bicycles appealed to Conan Doyle. Most obviously there was The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, written in 1904 but firmly set in April 1895. Let us take a look at the cycling in this story and do a bit of sleuthing ourselves.
For a start, note that in these stories a bicycle was always a bicycle – never a bike. I’m pleased about that.
Violet Smith works at the fictitious Chiltern Grange, which is in Surrey, six miles from Farnham Station. We are told she regularly cycles the six miles to the station. This must have been quite an achievement for a young lady in voluminous Victorian dress, on a heavy bicycle with a single gear, travelling over undulating (possibly hilly) terrain. She goes past Crooksbury Hill. There is a real Crooksbury Road to the east of Farnham, so that is probably the territory Conan Doyle had in mind. There is a ridge of the North Downs in that region.
So she is an athletic cyclist, our Violet. Watson also describes her agility in bicycle control: knowing she is being followed by a man on a bicycle, ‘she suddenly whisked her wheels round and dashed straight at him’. That must have taken some doing with her heavy machine. Victoria Pembleton in Victorian clothing, it seems.
But what bicycle did she ride? It was probably made in London in about 1894. The tiny original illustration by Frederick Dorr Steele seems to confirm it was a fine safety bicycle with a lady's loop frame and a dress guard over the rear wheel. My guess is that the manufacturers were Ellis and Co. of 47 Farringdon Road.
Sherlock Holmes can tell Violet is a keen cyclist as soon as he sees her. How? There are two clues. First, she looks so healthy (I like that) and second, she has a ‘slight roughening of the side of the sole caused by the friction of the edge of the pedal’. Really? I don’t think any pedal I have seen from the 1890s would do that.
In this story, there is also the mystery cyclist who follows Violet. While she is a ‘graceful girl sitting very straight on her machine’ (yes, obviously an upright safety bicycle) the pursuer is seen ‘bending low over his handle-bar, with a curiously furtive suggestion in every movement’. But don’t get the idea that he is a racer or even that he has deep-drop handlebars: such bars had not yet been introduced. Sherlock is certain the man is merely stooping to avoid being recognised.
‘It is part of the settled order of Nature that such a girl should have followers,’ said Holmes, as he pulled at his meditative pipe, ‘but for choice not on bicycles in lonely country roads.’
Well said, Mr. Holmes.
Another Sherlock Holmes story that highlights bicycles is The Adventure of the Priory School. Let us take a look at it, for it has what Sherlock himself would describe as ‘some unusual features’.
The tale was written in about 1904. Events are recalled by Dr. Watson from quite a while previously, so the action probably took place in the 1890s.
The most important feature of this tale is that it is - as far as I can tell - the first work of English Literature to deal seriously with off-road cycling – and nocturnal off-road cycling at that. Two cyclists take part and they cover between them about twelve miles entirely over moorland.
Would you have risked riding over moorland during the night in the 1890s on a Victorian bicycle? I would not. However, Sherlock Holmes believed it was no great challenge: ‘A good cyclist does not need a high road. The moor is intersected with paths, and the moon was at the full.’
Ten-year-old Lord Saltyre, son of the 6th Duke of Holdernesse (one of the richest men in England), appears to have been abducted during the night after spending only two weeks at an exclusive boarding school. The Principal, Dr. Huxtable (famous as the author of Huxtable’s Sidelights on Horace!) comes to Holmes distraught with worry.
The school is situated in the Peak District and we know the Chesterfield Road is nearby; so we can imagine that it is somewhere not far from Bakewell (famous throughout the world for its tarts). There is rough moorland all around – difficult to negotiate even on a modern mountain bike.
Herr Heidegger the German master saw the poor lad being abducted and - still in his night-shirt - went in pursuit on his bicycle.
Sherlock Holmes finds two sets of bicycle tracks, major clues to the crime. He certainly knows his bicycle tyres: ‘I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres. This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop, with a patch upon the outer cover. Heidegger’s tyres were Palmer’s leaving longitudinal stripes.’
What wonderful Sherlockian arrogance!
There was such a rush into the manufacture of pneumatic tyres in the 1890s that you may well have had a choice of 42 or more. But whether it would have been so easy positively to identify a tyre from such tracks is something I doubt very much.
Mr. Holmes also uses the tracks to demonstrate that one of the bicycles was going in the direction away from the school: the impression made by the rear wheel (more heavy) has obliterated in places the lighter impression made by the front wheel. This was long ago spotted as a flaw in the great detective’s reasoning: if you think about it carefully, it is not possible to tell the direction by this method. I believe Conan Doyle accepted later that he had made a mistake here.
Holmes can also tell from the tracks where the cyclist was obviously ‘forcing the pace’. The proof? The tyres are making an equally deep impression. ‘That can only mean that the rider is throwing his weight on to the handle-bar as a man does when he is sprinting.’ Well, maybe.
The tracks from the Palmer tyres lead to the gored body of poor old Heidegger, murdered in trying to save the young lad. His bicycle has ‘one pedal bent’ and is ‘horribly smeared and slobbered with blood’. I wonder what exactly happened to that pedal. How could it be ‘bent’? I think Conan Doyle would have done better to say a wheel or the handle-bars were bent.
Holmes now has only to find that Dunlop-tyred bicycle if he is to catch the abductor and the killer. He soon succeeds.
We learn that Heidegger had kept his bicycle in a ‘small shed’. So the need for suitable bicycle storage space was recognised from the earliest days of cycling!
Have you noticed that I did not comment on that ‘patch’ on the Dunlop tyre? Why was it necessary to have a patch on the outside of a tyre? Can anybody explain? I will give it some thought, but I must tell you I am baffled.
What exactly were those earliest pneumatic bicycle tyres like? I would be most grateful to hear from anyone with information.
For the moment, all I know is this. On the earliest bicycles, tyres were made of metal (following the tradition of stagecoach wheels). Then there was a phase during which tyres were of solid rubber. The Scot John Dunlop started to get pneumatic tyres accepted, but not before 1888. His idea obviously was to provide cushioning by filling tyres with air. His early tyres – I understand – had to be firmly glued to the rims, so they must have been very difficult to remove for repair. I think they may have had inner tubes, though I am not certain about this.
It was the Michelin brothers in France who invented detachable tyres about three years later. Their tyres certainly had inner tubes.
So, in the 1890s, manufacturers were eagerly competing to produce ever-better tyres, and a large range must have become available to the cyclists. After all, Sherlock Holmes says he can recognise the impressions left by 42 different tyres!
As well as Dunlop and Michelin, there were companies such as Palmer. In the 1890s, Palmer seems to have had premises in Martineau Street, Birmingham, England and also in Cannon Street, London.
Within the next 25 years, it was to open branches in Paris, Glasgow, Coventry and Nottingham. I think it must have been the same Palmer Tyre Company that was to develop the ‘cord’ tyre in Detroit, USA, in 1915. The Palmer company later moved into the manufacture of aero products.
But I am concerned about that Dunlop tyre in the Sherlock Holmes story, back in the 1890s.
Looking at tracks left by bicycles, Mr. Holmes says: This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop, with a patch upon the outer cover. Heidegger’s tyres were Palmer’s leaving longitudinal stripes.
My problem is this: why was there a patch on the outer cover of the Dunlop? The tyre was manufactured around 1895. As Sherlock mentions the ‘outer’ cover, does he imply there was also an inner tube on which repairs would normally be carried out?
Nobody today would apply a patch to the outside of a tyre. In any case, I wonder whether such a patch would remain glued on for long over rough moorland, as in this story.
I can offer only four possible explanations:
(1) Conan Doyle got it wrong. A puncture patch would have been applied to the innertube and would not have had any effect on the track left by the tyre.
(2) Tyres of the 1890s were of such poor quality that they developed splits and sometimes needed an outer patch.
(3) If this was a ‘glued on’ tyre, maybe the patch went round both tyre and rim and was helping to hold the tyre on the wheel.
(4) There was in fact no inner tube as we know them. So all the air was held in by the tyre. A patch on the outside might have been used to fix a puncture.
My preferred explanation is the fourth. What do you think?
|Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is seen here with Lady Conan Doyle, on their tricycle.|
Nobody knows for sure.
Dictionaries suggest the word could date back to medieval times. Well, I have read most of Chaucer, much of Shakespeare and even The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) by Thomas Nashe. (Am I the only person alive who has read this book?) But I can’t recall any of them using the word ‘tyre’.
Another explanation (not very plausible) is that 'tyre' somehow derives from ‘attire’, which in Norman French might have been à tire and had the sense of equipping or dressing. Stretching a point, I suppose you could say a tyre equips or dresses a wheel.
A better explanation is that the wheelwrights of past times used to regard the metal outer ring that they fixed on wheels as the bit that tied the whole wheel together. So it was the tie-er. The English used to spell the word ‘tire’ (probably from tie-er) and the Americans still do. Why we English ridiculously changed to ‘tyre’ I don’t know.
But where does the word ‘tie’ come from anyway? Well, there was an Anglo-Saxon word (I’m talking 9th Century now) tigan which was the verb meaning ‘to tie’. That in its turn came from Old Germanic.
I just wonder whether it all goes back to the Latin trahere (= to drag or to draw). The tyre kind of draws the wheel together.
And I believe the modern railway train derives ultimately from that Latin word trahere. The train is dragged or drawn along.