by Lee Barwood
With other significant literary homes preserved, why is Undershaw falling into ruin?
In the fall of 2006, John Gibson was shocked to see something he had never expected: the front door of the old house standing wide open, exposing the rooms within to the late September weather. That wasn’t all: a thunderstorm the night before had left water streaming through three stories of rooms that had once rung to children’s laughter and housed a veritable literary giant. Broken windows, including a heraldic one of stained glass that depicted the family crest, and other vandalism defaced the house so shamefully that Gibson was appalled. He left at once to notify the authorities but, when he returned two weeks later, it was to find the front door still standing open to the elements and nothing changed.
It sounds like a crime scene, and to John Gibson, Lynn Gale, and the others who make up the Undershaw Preservation Trust, it is a crime – that the last extant home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the greatest fictional detective known to literature, should be standing derelict and neglected while a developer who, they say, should never have been granted development rights awaits the outcome of a Judicial Review.
The Facts in the Case
The facts are these: Undershaw, preserved as a “good quality hotel,” according to Gale, until May of 2005, was purchased by a developer with the intent of turning the property into a development of nine separate houses, with the main structure to be razed. The existing tenants of the hotel were forced to vacate the premises, which were then allowed to fall into ruin with no security or protection of any kind. The Waverley Borough Council, which oversees such things, granted the developer planning permission, despite the fact that this is a historic property. The planning permission, with its potential for nine homes, prices the property out of the market for use as a single dwelling, and also would result in future public access being denied despite Undershaw’s historic significance.
The Waverley Borough Council also approved the application of a single purchaser who seeks to buy the property for himself and his family. This purchaser is prepared to spend up to £1.5M pounds on sympathetic renovation work to make this possible, says Gale, and also to allow limited public access to the premises, as befits the former home of a literary giant. He has also spent several thousand pounds already to procure permission to do that but thanks to the development plans, may not be able to carry out his plans if the Judicial Review goes against him. The developer, meanwhile, cannot develop the property because if the decision goes against him, he will have to “reinstate any work commenced.”
John Gibson, the man who was so shocked at the state of the home, is funding the Judicial Review costs out of his own pocket. His connection to the Conan Doyle property runs deep; he has known Undershaw for more than 40 years and was good friends with the late Richard Lancelyn Green, the great Conan Doyle/Holmes scholar. The Undershaw Preservation Trust spends whatever money it is able to raise on spreading awareness of the plight of the famous dwelling. It is not involved in the Judicial Review, nor has it the means to raise enough money to pay for either acquisition or renovation of the property. Gibson is arguing through his solicitor Irwin Mitchell that the handling of the property by the Waverley Borough Council is “totally unlawful.”
And therein lies the stalemate. Since the developer purchased the property, it has lain as if abandoned, besieged by vandals and stormed by the elements. The would-be purchaser who seeks to renovate and live in the Conan Doyle home is only able to stand by in horror and watch the gradual decay of a once-grand edifice that obviously means a great deal to him.
About the House
While the best-known address in the Sherlock Holmes canon is of course 221B Baker Street in London, fans of Conan Doyle may know that the author himself engaged architect Joseph Henry Ball to design a home to his specifications. Conan Doyle’s wife, Louise, known as Touie, was afflicted with tuberculosis. She was the reason he chose Hindhead in Surrey as the place for the home of his dreams – Undershaw.
As an irrelevant literary aside, Surrey is known to another group of fans – those of Harry Potter – as the site of the Dursley home in the fictitious Little Whinging. But in Conan Doyle’s time, the very real Hindhead was known as the Little Switzerland of Surrey for its bracing, healthful climate – just the thing he sought to help Touie recover her health. The Conan Doyle family had, in fact, spent time in Switzerland in hopes that Touie would do better. So in 1895, Sir Arthur purchased four acres that would become the future site of Undershaw.
Taking two years to build and costing approximately ?10,000, the spacious (7,500 square feet) red-brick home was ready for the Conan Doyles near the end of 1897. Conan Doyle chose the name, derived from Anglo-Saxon and meaning a place under a hanging grove of trees, according to The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Russell Miller.
Undershaw was grand; fitted with electricity from its own power plant, and its double-height entrance hall was adorned with a massive heraldic window that bore the coats of arms of Conan Doyle’s ancestry. It also bore such conveniences as a billiard room, stables, and a tennis court – built not just for Touie’s health and the family’s convenience, but for Sir Arthur’s entertaining of literary figures who included Bram Stoker, author of Dracula; Virginia Woolfe; and James M. Barrie, whose play Peter Pan still pays royalties to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London.
Barrie described the home thus in Miller’s biography: “It is so sheltered from cold winds that the architect felt justified in having lots of windows, so that the whole place is full of light. Nevertheless, it is cosy and snug to a remarkable degree and has everywhere that sense of ‘home’ which is so delightful to occupant and stranger alike.”
In Undershaw’s drawing room, Conan Doyle not only entertained Stoker and Barrie, but numerous other literary and artistic lions of his day, including William Gillette, who brought Holmes to the stage in New York. At his desk in the Undershaw study Conan Doyle set Holmes to solve the mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Later he would bring the sleuth back from his apparent demise at Reichenbach Falls to engage in further detecting adventures with the faithful Dr. Watson.
Neglect and Dismissal
Gale points out that Undershaw is “almost unique amongst writers’ [homes], in being designed to the author’s own requirements. Thomas Hardy is the only other case that bears comparison.” However, she stresses that other literary homes in the area, despite their lack of such a personal connection to their famous residents, have been better cared for: “Undershaw has, within a few miles of it, houses preserved with their association with writers that lived in them in the past. These were ‘secondhand’ dwellings, in that the writers had no input in their design. Houses that come to mind are Jane Austen at Chawton, Gilbert White at Selborne, Winston Churchill at Chartwell, Kipling at Bateman’s East Sussex, Henry James at Rye and Virginia Woolf at Charleston. Why should Undershaw be excluded when in particular this house was designed by the writer, whereas all the others are preserved for tourism?” she asks. “It is an outrage that needs an answer.”
Another factor that should be considered, she points out, is the need of Hindhead for tourism. Gale says that the advent of a mile-and-a-quarter-long road tunnel – “the longest inland tunnel in the UK,” she explains – “will remove over 80% of the traffic from the vicinity, and this house could play a valuable part in the [town’s] regeneration. It seems that they can spend £371M on bypassing Hindhead, but [are] totally uninterested in preserving the history of Hindhead for tourism. In other words, build the tunnel but leave Hindhead as a cultural desert.” In tough economic times, that’s a hard argument to counter: why on earth would the borough turn up its nose at a ready source of tourist dollars? Holmes fans are devoted in their interest.
“The local people,” she says, “feel strongly that their heritage should be preserved . . . once lost, it’s gone forever, and people interested in the life of the creator of Sherlock Holmes will have lost this property as homage to the author.”
The current state of the property is sad. Damaged plaster, lead stripped from the roof, water damage to the ceiling rose in the dining room – and the great heraldic window broken – all attest to a complete disregard for the importance of a property held dear by one of England’s, and mystery’s, greatest writers.
Perhaps the saddest thing is the recent history of decay. Conan Doyle had intended to keep the house for his son, Kingsley, after Touie died. But when Kingsley too succumbed – to the influenza pandemic of 1918, after surviving World War I – he saw no reason to keep it, and sold it in 1921. It became a hotel in 1924 and up until its purchase by developers Des Moore and Neil Caffrey of Fossway Ltd. in 2005 was in good repair. Since that time the structure has been effectively abandoned to the elements. The “cosy and snug” home that J. M. Barrie so enjoyed visiting is gone.
But not yet beyond salvage.
Echoes from the Past
The loss of a property of historic significance would not be lost on Conan Doyle. In fact, if one discounted modesty, the great man himself might be very much in sympathy with the work of the Undershaw Preservation Trust. Conan Doyle was nothing if not an idealist, and he believed very strongly in the intangibles that could not be reduced to dollar signs.
In his own time, Conan Doyle became outraged when the British government felt it unnecessary to preserve the flagship of its greatest naval hero. The ship, the H.M.S. Foudroyant, was the flagship of Nelson from 1799-1800, and was used in the campaign to retake Naples, according to the Oldcopper.org website. But in 1892, Britain sold her to Germany for scrap, for £1,000, and Conan Doyle responded with a furious and moving poem that cut right to the heart of the matter.
The full poem is well worth reading, but this verse sums up nicely both how he felt about the dereliction of the Foudroyant and the ire of the Undershaw Preservation Trust at the disrespect shown to Conan Doyle’s own home. In Sir Arthur’s own words:
You hucksters, have you still to learn,
The things which money will not buy?
Can you not read that, cold and stern
As we may be, there still does lie
Deep in our hearts a hungry love
For what concerns our island story?
We sell our work perchance our lives,
But not our glory.
The Foudroyant was later repurchased from Germany by George Wheatley Cobb for £20,000 of his own money. Conan Doyle no doubt approved, since according to biographer John Dickson Carr in The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “that was a part of his philosophy.”