The curious case of Conan Doyle and the Maiden Over in Southwold
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When Arthur Conan Doyle came to Norfolk to play a cricket match in 1901, was there more than sport on his mind? Trevor Heaton looks at the Curious Case of the Maiden, Over in Southwold…
He was one of the most famous authors in the world, feted for his immortal creation Sherlock Holmes. But right now, the task in hand for Arthur Conan Doyle was not some devilishly tricky case for his Baker Street detective but to deliver some devilishly tricky slow bowling instead.
The date was Friday August 9 1901, and Conan Doyle was at Norfolk's home of cricket, the much-missed Lakenham ground just to the south of the city centre.
As a captain of a touring team supplied by the famous Marylebone Cricket Club, he was determined that both he and his side should acquit themselves well.
This was the start of a two-day game to round off the 21st Norfolk Cricket Week, an August institution at the compact but handsome ground, its thatched pavilion offering a counterpoint to the backdrop of Victorian streets which ringed the venue.
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These days, the cricket week has become the Norfolk Festival, spread over three games in July and early August at the county club's present home at Horsford. Back then it was an intense three-matches-in-a-week feast of sport, beginning with an always-popular fixture on August bank holiday Monday.
Conan Doyle's match was the third and final of the week, following on from games against Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The Norfolk team, it is fair to say, had not acquitted itself too well up to then, so the spectators were hoping for something a bit special from this last game.
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The MCC - world-famous then as now as the custodian of the laws and 'spirit' of the game, as well as being owner of Lord's cricket ground – had a large-scale programme of touring teams. So what had attracted the cricket-mad Conan Doyle to come to Norfolk with one of them?
He loved cricket and liked the county – but unbeknownst to the spectators, many of whom would have been avid Sherlock Holmes fans, Conan Doyle had an ulterior motive in making the long journey from 'Town' to the north of East Anglia.
That reason was sitting at that moment in a hotel at Southwold, a mere 32 miles away. Her name? Miss Jean Leckie…
In the summer of 1901 Arthur Conan Doyle was 42, his instantly-recognisable walrus moustache above a portly frame which the EDP was to politely describe as 'burly' in its match reports.
He was also married. He had wed Louise (always known as 'Touie') in 1885 when he was a working doctor and would-be full-time writer. They had two children, Mary and Kingsley, and Conan Doyle's life had changed forever when the first Sherlock Holmes story (A Study in Scarlet) was published in 1887. Sadly, Touie contracted tuberculosis in 1894 and lingered for years, becoming an invalid and unable to share in the life of her increasingly-famous husband.
And Conan Doyle was a hard man to keep up with at the best of times. Not only was he a prodigiously productive writer – Holmes was but a small part of his output – he was active in public life. And he loved sport of all kinds, from boxing to surfing, skiing (which he helped to popularise) to billiards.
He wanted to see everything and try everything. Only the month before his Lakenham visit he had gone up in a hot air balloon, reaching a height of 1.5 miles and travelling 25 miles. His verdict: 'Great fun!'.
But his greatest passion of all was cricket, so much so that in 1891 he spent his honeymoon on a cricketing tour of Holland.
The author developed into a useful batsman and bowler, reaching his peak around 1899 to 1900. In 1899 (aged 40) he played in 40 games, hitting 67 in an hour in one, and taking 106 wickets.
That was topped in 1900 by his first-class appearance (his first-ever) for the MCC against W G Grace's London County team, when – joy of joys - he took the wicket of the world's most famous cricketer. It was his only bowling success in ten first-class appearances, but even so…
Conan Doyle was so overjoyed he even wrote a poem about it, which began 'I captured that glorious wicket/ The greatest, the grandest of all.'
The author had reason to think well of Norfolk. Back in the spring he had been on a golfing break with his friend, journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson. When their sport was interrupted by a storm, they retired to the Royal Links Hotel, Cromer, and began to swap folk stories.
One of the stories they shared was that of Black Shuck, the legendary East Anglian hell-hound. By the time Conan Doyle headed back to Norfolk, the readers of The Strand magazine were about to experience the first part of what would soon become the most famous Sherlock Holmes story of them all – The Hound of the Baskervilles. The many fans of the world's most famous consulting detective had been starved of new adventures ever since a bored and frustrated Conan Doyle had killed off his creation in the 1893 tale The Final Problem.
Eight years on, he had finally relented, and the anticipation was enormous. An excited Conan Doyle was soon reporting that 'several eager buyers' from the United States were queuing up to buy the serialisation rights. The August edition of The Strand magazine carried the first part of this eagerly-awaited tale of lonely moorland, family curses, escaped prisoners and dreadful death.
Sensational stuff, but even more sensational – had the public only known it - would have been the real-life drama in Conan Doyle's private life.
By March 1897 he had become besotted by 23-year-old Jean Leckie, the daughter of a prosperous London silk and tea merchant, and 15 years his junior. She was certainly a striking figure, with cascades of golden hair and green eyes. Jean was studying to be a singer – such a vivacious contrast (in Conan Doyle's eyes) to his homely wife, who could not fully share in his life.
To those few people who were in the know about the relationship, Conan Doyle insisted it was strictly platonic.
There is other evidence that Conan Doyle used his cricketing passions as cover for meetings with his mistress. In the same month he had his triumph against W G Grace, he took Jean to see a match at Lord's, where he was shocked to bump into his brother-in-law Willie Hornung (E W Hornung, author of the Raffles books). Conan Doyle protested that his squiring of his blonde companion was innocent. Hornung remained unconvinced.
His brother-in-law may have been distinctly cool about the liaison, but Conan Doyle did have one, uncritical, sympathiser – his adored mother Mary. He confided in her in person but also through a series of candid letters. In one from March 1904, for example, as quoted in the 2007 book Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters*, he talks about how he and Jean's love had grown over the seven years since they had met and that 'no man' could have a 'more tender & loving helpmate'.
All this, and poor, sick, loyal Touie still with two years of her ailing life to battle through. It is not hard to guess what the reaction of the public – and the popular press – would have been had details of the relationship become known. They would, surely, have been less forgiving than some of his associates.
For later biographers, trying to reconstruct the details of the affair is inevitably tricky. It is largely a will-o'-the-wisp trail of lost hotel registers from now-vanished hotels, of tracking back in time from cryptic references in later letters, of piecing together the same-time, same-place instances of the two.
Biographer Andrew Lycett identified Jean's Southwold visit as one of those 'coincidences' in his 2007 book Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes.
By this time Southwold had well and truly 'arrived'. From being - as a 1902 guide had it, 'a mere village of picturesque cottage jumbled together in delightful and artistic seclusion' – it had now become popular 'almost beyond belief'.
That popularity was reflected in the building of some fine hotels, including the Grand (completed the year after Conan Doyle's visit) and the Marlborough, where Jean stayed.
The paths to the resort were already familiar for its genteel visitors. As Southwold historian Bob Jellicoe explained: 'She could have come by Belle Steamer from London and disembarked at the pier, or she could have come from Liverpool Street and changed at Halesworth.
'The north end of the town was being developed by the (East) Coast Development Company who built the pier in 1900, and offered plots for sale on what had been the Town Farm. The north end of the town would have felt a bit raw in 1902.'
The Marlborough Hotel had a fine seafront location, on the corner of Dunwich Road and what was then known as Corporation Road. It had only opened the year before, built in that handsome, confident late Victorian/Edwardian style, all red brick and turrets. Most of the well-appointed 50 bedrooms had balconies and bay windows ensuring generous sea views.
Managed by the 'popular and courteous' Carl Bennewitz and his family, the hotel was pitched squarely at the genteel visitor, with its fine cuisine, furnishing by Maple, Chippendale and Sheraton, lounge, coffee, smoking and billiard rooms, and bathrooms on every floor.
While the guests relaxed in Southwold, Conan Doyle and his team-mates were battling over in Norwich. The game fizzled out into a hard-fought draw on the Saturday evening, with the author taking four wickets and scoring 16 runs. The EDP report had the matchless line 'At this stage 'Sherlock Holmes' gave the ball to Tate…' which must have pleased the reporter no end, if not the author who was famously ambivalent to his iconic creation.
It's tempting to think that Conan Doyle would have then taken the opportunity to spend a day or two close to Southwold, and Jean. Did they go for quiet walks, or explore the countryside together? Perhaps the golf links nearby proved irresistible too.
All of the Marlborough's finery was destined to vanish one night in May 1943, thanks to a Nazi bomb. The hotel's 'uninterrupted views of the German Ocean' had proven to be a double-edged sword. Its name, at least, lives on through the renaming of its location as 'Marlborough Road'
Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902, not for creating Holmes or for his historical novels, but for services to the nation in the South African War.
Norfolk was to feature again in his life, another visit – this time to the Hill House Hotel at Happisburgh – inspiring another much-loved Holmes tale, The Adventure of the Dancing Men. And in late March or early 1904, Sir Arthur was at Sheringham with his brother Innes – and Jean – for a golfing holiday.
As for Touie, her suffering finally came to an end in 1906.
A year later, in September 1907, Jean Leckie finally became Lady Jean. It had been a long wait. As Lycett puts it: 'There had been something both coldly resolute and deeply romantic in the way she waited for the death of Louise.'
Even though their love had been kindled with more than a whiff of scandal about it, the unarguable fact was that Jean Leckie was the love of Conan Doyle's life. They had three children together, and she became his unstinting supporter in his public and private life, through triumph, setback, and sometimes tragedy.
She was also a fellow enthusiast for his often controversial views on Spiritualism which threatened to overshadow his many achievements.
And when the life of this grand old man of letters finally to a full stop in the hallway of his East Sussex home on July 7 1930, it was to his beloved Jean that his final words were whispered. As he lay dying, stricken by a heart attack, he told her: 'You are wonderful.'
My thanks also to Philip Yaxley
*Edited by Charles Foley, Daniel Stashower, and Jon Lellenberg (Harper Perennial)