Literary London – The enigmatic 221b
Jen Pedler asks where exactly is one of London’s most famous addresses
The enigmatic 221b
221b Baker Street must be one of the most famous addresses in the world. It is, of course, fictional but that hasn’t prevented generations of Sherlock Holmes fans from trying to track it down.
The blue plaque on the wall of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street (pictured above) claims that it is 221b but a closer examination of the door numbers reveals that this is in fact 239.
This puts 221 further down toward Marylebone Road; somewhere in the middle of Abbey House, the art deco office block built as the HQ of the Abbey National Building Society in the 1930s. (The clocktower is the only remnant of the original building, the rest has been rebuilt.)
Almost as soon as Abbey House was built, the Building Society started receiving letters addressed to the detective; so much so that they employed a full-time secretary to deal with them. The general reply was apparently that he had retired and was keeping bees in Sussex. There was a great deal of controversy when the museum opened in the 1990s, installed the plaque proclaiming that it was 221b Baker Street and asked that letters to Holmes should be delivered there instead. The dispute wasn’t finally resolved until the Building Society moved out in 2002.
Things are further complicated when we learn that, in Sherlock Holmes’s day, this was not Baker Street at all but Upper Baker Street. In those days, Baker Street only ran up as far as the junction with Paddington Street; the highest numbered house was 85 and the section between Paddington Street and Marylebone Road was called York Place.
In The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes and Watson traverse “a network of mews and stables” to arrive at ‘Camden House’ in Baker Street, opposite Holmes’s rooms. Following the clues in this story, although Doyle’s geography of London cannot always be relied upon, we find ourselves opposite the modern day 31. This location has the advantage of being in the Baker Street of Holmes’s day but disappointingly all the old houses have been swept away in this section of the street.
So perhaps we should look further up, in the section of the street that would previously have been York Place? There used to be a Camden House school, situated further up Baker Street, in the section that would previously have been York Place. Some have proposed that, despite not being in Baker Street at the time, this was the location of the empty house making 221 the present day 111. This is now a post office but at least is a house of the right era.
Or maybe Doyle foresaw that the three sections of street would be amalgamated and modelled Holmes’s lodgings on the house that would become 221 Baker Street in the future? That brings us back to the vicinity of the museum which is a house of the right era and does have 17 steps up to the first floor…
Jen’s walk Sherlock Holmes – the Return, part of the Literary Footprints, follows Holmes and Watson in The Adventure of the Empty House. On the walk we’ll try to solve two mysteries; who murdered the Honourable Ronald Adair and where was 221b Baker Street?