Where Holmes and Watson were in 1895 – hiding from the Oscar Wilde trials


is a truth universally acknowledged that [I should really stop
quoting Pride and Prejudice immediately…] Holmes’s and Watson’s
leaving London in The Three Students is connected with the Oscar
Wilde trials. Yet 3STU is not the only story set in 1895. To
conclusively say that they were in reality doing their best to avoid
the public eye the other three stories have to be considered too. 31
of the 60 stories are set in Baker Street
, which makes the
setting of the 1895 stories interesting…

Solitary Cyclist: late April

referring to my note-book for the year 1895 I find that it was upon
Saturday, the 23rd of April, that we first heard of Miss Violet
Smith. Her visit was, I remember, extremely unwelcome to Holmes […]

should be none the worse for a quiet, peaceful day in the country,
and I am inclined to run down this afternoon and test one or two
theories which I have formed.” […]

rainy night had been followed by a glorious morning, and the
heath-covered country-side with the glowing clumps of flowering gorse
seemed all the more beautiful to eyes which were weary of the duns
and drabs and slate-greys of London. Holmes and I walked along the
broad, sandy road inhaling the fresh morning air, and rejoicing in
the music of the birds and the fresh breath of the spring.

is 1) ridiculously romantic and 2) proof that they were indeed quite
keen on not seeing anyone (Holmes initially wanted to reject the
client and changed his mind when it became clear that the case was
going to be in the country, which then prompted several excursions

Three Students: late April/early May

was in the
year ‘95 that a
combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr.
Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great
University towns

[…] It will be obvious that any details which would help the reader
to exactly identify the college or the criminal would be injudicious
and offensive.
painful a scandal may well be allowed to die out. With due discretion
the incident itself may, however, be described
since it serves to illustrate some of those qualities for which my
friend was remarkable. I will endeavour in my statement to
such terms as would serve to limit the events to any particular
place, or give a clue as to the people concerned

Or to
give a clue as to what really happened. In the year 1895 there were
the Oscar Wilde trials, which caused a great many men who were more
or less openly gay to “go on holiday” for a few months.
Universities were supposed to be more progressive than cities: for
example, Oscar Wilde met Robbie Ross at uni. The “painful
scandal” Watson is talking about here is about three students
who are meant to sit a Greek exam, but one of them cheats. That’s not
a scandal: it is basically impossible to do perfectly in a Greek
exam. This means this: they had to flee from London because of the
public awareness the spectacular trials had caused and went to a
friend of Holmes’s. But of course Watson could not say it like that,
so he had to invent a virtually new case.

fact that even though Holmes is clearly everything but thrilled at
being anywhere but Baker Street, he is not in London anyway, is
fairly obvious: My
friend’s temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the
congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrap-books, his
chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man.

is important because 3STU is not the only case where Holmes and
Watson leave London for a prolonged period of time. What are they
doing in that “university town”? The given reason (research into
old charters) is more than suspicious. Yet if you consider the
circumstances of the Oscar Wilde trials in April and May it becomes
clear that the best thing to do if the slightest rumour about you
existed, was to flee. And given Watson’s writing, such rumours must
have circulated.

suggestive quotation: The
exercise consists of half a chapter of
exam papers that are left on the professor’s desk are taken from
Thucydides, probably by his most famous work on the Peloponnesian
War. Thucydides was a Athenian historian who lived in the 5th
century BC and is known for being an analyst and “scientific”
writer – he credits humans with their actions, not the gods.
Furthermore, Athens (the most “glorious” city in Greece) was his
home, but he was exiled for something that was not his fault. Does
this sound like someone? Holmes, maybe? Here, Watson had to choose an
author, so he chose one who mirrors Holmes.

Watson will not identify the town even ten years later: a clear sign
that they had to protect somebody – and their hiding place.

Peter: early July

starts with a few clues of exactly how Watson sees Holmes: “I
have never known my friend to be in better
both mental and
than in the year ‘95
and “Holmes,
however, like all
lived for his art’s

(come on, sound even more like Oscar Wilde – oh, not possible, I
understand…). He also calls the year “memorable”,
which it must have been – Holmes and Watson spent a nice part of it
most purposefully not in London, i.e. hiding somewhere.

story is set in early July. Just as a reminder, Wilde lost his third
trial against the Crown on May 25, and everybody involved who had not
made his way to the country or continent yet or had returned like
Holmes and Watson, did so then. Initially, Watson is at home in Baker
Street, but Holmes is not: my
friend had been
so often and so long from our lodgings
which implies that even though Holmes has to be in London for some
reason, he does his best in order not to be available or even
findable. Watson even tells us explicitly that and exactly how Holmes
is hiding:
was working somewhere under one of the numerous disguises and names
with which he concealed his own formidable identity. He had at least
five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able
to change his personality.

what other 1895 cases does Watson refer to?

this memorable year ’95, a curious and incongruous succession of
cases had engaged his attention, ranging from his famous
investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca
inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of His
Holiness the Pope–down to his arrest of Wilson, the notorious
canary-trainer, which removed a plague-spot from the East End of
LONDON, and according to Google Maps SIX MILES from 221b Baker
Street). Close on the heels of these two famous cases came
the tragedy of Woodman’s Lee, and the very obscure circumstances
which surrounded the death of Captain Peter Carey
THE COUNTRY). No record of the doings of Mr. Sherlock
Holmes would be complete which did not include some account of this
very unusual affair.

is never at home or somewhere reachable…

whole thing ends with this line from Holmes: “If
you want me for the trial,
address and that of Watson will be somewhere in Norway

– I’ll send particulars later.

Apart from the pun on the trial, this mostly shows that Holmes is
taking the chance of leaving the country, apparently “for a case”,
for a very long time – he had virtually no case-connected reason to
go to Norway (he could have sent wires to clear up the loose strands,
as he always does, and anyway Norway is not important for the case),
but Norway is far enough from London to be safe, is it not? To put it
in a nutshell, the case begins with Holmes hiding and ends with
Holmes and Watson leaving the country on a trip that will mean that
they will not be traceable for a while – Holmes’s detective friend
(and he does like Hopkins) only gets a “promise for later”.

Bruce-Partington Plans: November 

begins the narrative with a statement of the date: “in
the third week of November, in the year 1895
and goes on to clarify that he and Holmes have not left the flat for
four days, asserting that this happened because of the “dense
yellow fog
Translation: it has been six months since Oscar Wilde’s trials, the
waters have mostly calmed down, but it would still be unwise to be
too noticeable to the outside world, and Holmes and Watson are
hiding. Indeed, so much so that only Jupiter leaving his orbit (i.e.
Brother Mycroft) can drag them out of Baker Street. This impression
is reinforced by the association of the colour yellow with caution
– they simply cannot risk being overly visible, but are in Baker
Street because everything else (given Holmes’s famous habits) would
attract even more attention.

conclusion, Holmes and Watson do their best not to be where people
could find them throughout the year 1895, starting comparatively
“small” in The Solitary Cyclist, where the situation is not too
dangerous yet and they thus still officially live in Baker Street, to
the full-out flight in The Three Students, which is set exactly
during the most important trial, over the slightly less conspicuous
“I’m out working” of Black Peter, which ends with a long holiday
in Norway for Holmes and Watson, to lying low in 221b in order not to avoid suspicion and trying not
to appear in public at all. Watson, you are terrible at hiding
evidence in your stories…