Back some time ago I was fortunate enough to visit Oxford University. During my stay there I was given access to their library and spent countless hours in the stacks digging through their tens of thousands of books. I came across one with the fairly generic title of Popular Authors of the 1900's. It was basically a list of authors and a short biography. The one that piqued my interest was Arthur Conan Doyle's. His bio mentioned that he worked for a brief time as a night clerk at a hotel. I had never heard that before, thought it an interesting footnote and filed it away somewhere in the back of my mind. I dived into some more books on Doyle, skimming through them, but not one of them mentioned that he ever worked in a hotel. I couldn't tell you why, but this intrigued me a great deal. I was never a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle or any of his books. I liked them well enough, just never really spent much time with them. That changed during my stay in Britain as I poured through his works of fiction as well as biographies on Doyle himself. Central to my inquiries and my brief love affair with Doyle was that question about his working as a night clerk in a hotel. I never found anything concrete that said he held such a job, but I did find enough to suggest that there was a great likelihood that not only did he work at a hotel, or inn, but that he even based his most popular character, Sherlock Holmes, after an innkeeper.
There was a lot of reading and a lot of note taking involved and it was all pretty confusing to sort out at first. Most of the confusion can be attributed to my own failings in research, the rest due to a rather simple, but amazingly problematic bit of "how the way things were done back then." While Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as Arthur Conan Doyle, he was baptized as Arthur Ignatious Doyle and it wasn't until later in the 20th Century, long after Doyle had past, that interchanging one's given name and baptismal name ceased being common practice. Not knowing any of this until partway through my research set me back further than I'd care to admit, but once I got that bit straightened out the life of Arthur Conan Doyle/Arthur Ignatious Doyle made a lot more sense, the confusion surrounding his employ as a night clerk became clear and the theory that Sherlock Holmes was based on a night clerk at a hotel was born.
One of the nice things about researching Doyle is that he was famous in his own lifetime, really famous. That being the case, much of his life is well-documented, well-preserved and archived by academic, national and public libraries, not to mention private collections as well. Much of the documentation surrounding the basically unknown Arthur Ignatious Doyle is rather difficult to come across as it either wasn't documented or it simply fell by the wayside.
Before Doyle was a famous author he was a failed doctor, specifically a failed ophthalmologist, a field he continued to pursue and fail in as he also attempted to succeed as a writer. Thankfully, for himself and for the reading public, the man could write. And with Sherlock Holmes he created one of the most beloved characters of the 20th century, so much so that people would, and still do, send fan mail to Holmes and not Doyle. The most common belief of the inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes is that he is based off of Doyle's university professor, Joseph Bell. Another theory, while not as popular, but nearly as credible and every bit as valid in my estimation, is that Holmes was based off C. August Dupin, a name that should sound familiar to fans of Edgar Allen Poe, as Dupin was Poe's creation, appearing in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (considered by many as the first work of detective fiction – 1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1844).
Like I mentioned, both theories make sense, both are valid, but the theory I find most interesting, likely because I came up with it and also because it's the most unexplored, is that Sherlock Holmes is based off a gentleman by the name of John W. Huth. Should you want to do your digging on Huth, by all means please do, but you'll have to traipse over to the United Kingdom to find the little that does exist on him as far as I know.
John W. Huth owned and operated a travelers inn for nearly 50 years in Southsea, Portsmouth; a small town in the south of England most notable for being the one-time home to Henry VIII. Back in the late 1800's, Southsea was mainly a resort town, with plenty of small inns and bed and breakfasts. Huth ran his inn with the help of his wife, with Huth taking on the duties of the night clerk until one evening he hired a wayward doctor who spent a few nights there upon first arriving to town. The doctor came to town with the hopes of finding permanent lodging as he set up a medical practice in Southsea. The man was, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle, or as he wrote in the registry at Huth's inn, "A. Ignatius Doyle."
While there is very little known about John W. Huth, there is plenty known about Doyle's time in Southsea, plenty known about a night clerk at an inn and plenty known about the town of Southsea. There are also two journals of interest at the British Museum that once belonged to Holmes and chronicle some of his time in Southsea. Should you want to see these, sign up for the now 2-3 year waiting list and once you get the opportunity to view them, go to the archives at the British Museum. There you will be asked to check the following items upon entering: hat, jacket, backpack, briefcase, purses, notebooks, pens, pencils, mobile phone, laptop computer, camera, any scanning devices, all food and beverages, and large amounts of loose-leaf paper. You will be provided with a pencil, a pair of non-latex powder free gloves, a breathing mask (in some cases) and loose leaf paper. Even with all that, certain items you will not be able to handle. This includes Doyle's diaries. But you will be provided with an assistant at no charge. If you do decide that all this is worth it, I highly recommend getting your hands on copies of anything handwritten by Doyle and schooling yourself on deciphering his penmanship, as the journal is difficult enough to read due to its weathered state; factor in trying to read the old fella's handwriting and it's considerably more difficult.
A little bit on the little known John W. Huth. As the owner of both property and a business, in the record-keeping department you don't have to go any further than the tax records office to prove that he was an actual living, breathing person at one point, specifically during Doyle's lifetime and specifically in the town of Southsea. Also, as a business owner there are records of Huth's business transaction; nothing like what exists today, but they do exist. The record that concerns Doyle is the aforementioned registry at Huth's inn, which can be found at the National Archives at Kew, London. In Huth's registry, Doyle is listed as a guest for three evenings. After which it appears he rented a different room in town while he set up his medical practice.
The last bit about Huth that's intriguing is his name. If you've read enough Sherlock Holmes stories, or even seen a movie or two, you're familiar with the character of Dr. John H. Watson. By all accounts, Doyle named Watson after a medical colleague of his and it makes sense enough. He did attend medical school with a man named Watson and there's no reason to believe they weren't friends in some capacity. Other than that similarity, the two Watsons have nothing in common. Which brings us to John W. Huth and his association with Dr. John H. Watson. Strangely, in all the writings of Doyle you will never find what that H in Watson stands for. Stranger still, in no accounts anywhere in the whole of Britain will you find what the W in John W. Huth stands for. Might the W stand for Watson and the H for Huth? Nobody could tell you for sure that it didn't. Then again, nobody could tell you for sure that it did.
(Worth mentioning: There is a theory, mostly dismissed, that the H in John H. Watson stood for "Hamish," as in Seamus. How this theory came about and why it has been in large dismissed, I really have no idea as I didn't read much about Watson.)
Since I brought up Watson and since he is a relatively important player we might as well explore why Watson isn't based on Huth, or even Doyle's colleague named Watson. The short answer is that Doyle said as much. He said Watson was just a device for Holmes to bounce "his enigmatic thoughts off of." Watson was a concrete thinker, analyzing facts to come to a logical conclusion. He basically existed to make Holmes seem all the more mysterious. Additionally, Watson was originally named "Ormond Sacker," before becoming John H. Watson. And Doyle even called him "James" in one of his early stories. It's hard to say if this was tongue in cheek or an honest mistake. The takeaway is that Watson's name was more an afterthought than anything else.
Doyle's time in Southsea is well-documented. He moved there in 1882 after his first medical practice failed with the hopes of starting up another practice. Southsea was a small town and still is. The chances that Doyle would cross paths with Huth even if he had not spent a few nights at Huth's inn are favorable based on the population and the size of the town alone. That Huth crossed the door as a patient of Doyle's is far less likely. Doyle's medical practice in Southsea was yet another failure. The benefit of this failure was that it gave Doyle time to write. As the story goes, it is while Doyle sat waiting for business that would never arrive that he created Sherlock Holmes and wrote the first of his several stories there.
Sitting and writing, regardless of how great it may be, doesn't make you any money. And when your business is losing money each day you've got to come up with a stop-gap measure. This is where our friend Huth comes back into play. As mentioned earlier, Huth typically worked the night shift at his inn. We know this much from the business records mentioned earlier. That all stopped late in 1882. The clerk working the night shift no longer signed the paperwork "J.W. Huth," but now signed it "A.I. Doyle;" Arthur Ignatious Doyle. I don't imagine that there was any formal training program, but surely Huth had to teach a thing or two about being a clerk at his inn.
What Doyle likely observed was a master of the cold-read at work. It's the secret to being a good night clerk, as well as a successful con man, fortune teller and detective. The cold-read as concept is simple to understand, but it's in practice that you see how difficult and nuanced a skill it truly is. Huth, being a hotel clerk most of his life might not have even realized he was a master of the cold-read. Doyle likely wasn't, but training under Huth for a few days he would have seen a master of the cold-read at work and no doubt would have been fascinated by it. After all, that's really what Sherlock Holmes does and Doyle most likely integrated that aspect of the Holmes character he had been working on while sitting in his empty doctor's office all day.
The basic principal behind the cold-read is to warm up your mark/target before you scam him into giving you his money. Or in the case of the man who has been an innkeeper his whole life, it's what he does out of reflex more than anything else when a traveler enters his place of business. For Huth he likely told Doyle in those initial days of training that when a traveler came in asking for a room to take a look at the man's shoes, his luggage and the way he's dressed. Doing so would give you an idea of a price-range this man could afford. Sure the single-room occupancy down the hall is half the price of the one with the ocean view, which is something this man won't be needing as he's checking out first thing in the morning, but you still only inform him that the more expensive room is available while neglecting to mention the other room at all. If you read this man correctly he's not going to haggle about the price, or ask if there is another, less-expensive room available. He's just going to take it no questions asked. Like I said, it's an easy enough concept. You extrapolate learning that skill on a longer timeline and the less and less time it's going to take to for your mind to process and conclude which room to offer. You do it for as long as Huth and his mind processes that information without even looking up from his desk and without him even being aware that he's doing it. In the trade of the con artist, this is known as shut-eye; your mind has basically reached the level where it performs this on auto-pilot.
What sets Huth apart from Bell and Dupin is that unlike the latter two fellows, Huth has long been forgotten to history. The little inn he and his wife ran for all the years isn't even likely a memory to anyone. Partially because it was an inn of little consequence and the fact that few records of its existence survive today, but mostly because a whole lot of Southsea was destroyed during the Second World War along with several of the towns historical documents.
The little that did survive the war left us with just enough information to posit that one John W. Huth was the inspiration, or at least an inspiration, behind Sherlock Holmes. There is the registry proving that Arthur Ignatious Doyle stayed at Huth's inn before settling down in Southsea. There are also documents proving that John W. Huth was a property and business owner in Southsea. The documents of Doyle working for Huth are not validated, but there are records of payment to a night clerk named "A.I. Doyle" from employer "John W. Huth" at the time Doyle was penniless and his second medical practice was on the brink of going under. Yes, it's largely conjecture that Huth was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, but it is a very plausible theory, and like every plausible theory there is always a rather large obstacles standing in the way of ever validating the theory.
The large obstacle in this case comes from Doyle himself. In a letter to his university professor, Joseph Bell, Doyle thanks Bell for giving him the inspiration for the character Sherlock Holmes.
There is no reason not to believe that Joseph Bell was an inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes. There is also no reason that Huth is not an inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes. They are not mutually exclusive truths.
The problem with discounting the theory behind Huth as inspiration is rather simple. Doyle led a high-class life, as did Professor Joseph Bell and the real-life Dr. Watson. John W. Huth did not lead such a charmed life. He was of better standing than most, but he didn't rate as highly in British society as Joseph Bell or Doyle eventually did in his life.
Also, both Doyle and Bell shared the brotherhood of the Freemasons, so surely he'd show any loyalties with Bell before he would anyone else on that basis alone (All goofball conspiracies on Freemasons aside, one simple truth is that they take care of their own first).
Lastly, the time Doyle spent with Huth he conducted all business under the name Ignatious and not Conan. It makes sense that Doyle would do that. He was at a low-point in his life when he moved to Southsea and continued to pursue a career that was a failure during his time there. It's quite possible that he just wanted to distance himself from all things Southsea in his life (though he did write about his time there in his autobiography, but mentioning it more as a footnote than anything else). I'm not saying Doyle was ashamed that he was working in a hotel rather than practicing medicine, but it's hard to think of him as proud of that. Also, he submitted early Sherlock Holmes stories at the time under the name Arthur Conan Doyle, not Arthur Ignatious Doyle.
We learn things from all sorts of people in life. Often times from the unexpected ones and ones we know only for fleeting moments. But the simple fact that they played relatively small roles from a time perspective doesn't mean their significance should be overlooked. Hell, some of the people I've know the longest in my life are people I like the least and have contributed the least to who I am and what I've done with my life, while some of the people I've known for only a brief period of time have impacted my life a great deal. This is no grand revelation. It's just what happens. It's sound advice to pay more attention to the things you can learn from the unlikely people in life. They all matter to a certain degree, or at least the potential is there, and why take the chance that they don't matter. Just take a look at John W. Huth, one of the more important footnotes in the life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Would Sherlock Holmes be the same character had Holmes never met Huth, or just dismissed him as a simple night clerk? It's difficult to say either way, but I'd like to think there's enough Huth in the Holmes character to make a difference. Even if it isn't the case.