Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Gladstone Bag, Sherlock Holmes, and Doctors Littlejohn and Bell

It’s pretty much certain that a London leather worker called Beard created a bag named after the 19th century British Prime Minister of the day, William Ewart Gladstone, despite some historians insisting Beard’s Gladstone bag was based on a similar design created in France a few years before.   

But few literary experts dispute the most popular reason why the Gladstone bag became indelibly linked with novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes

The theory goes that Conan Doyle’s frequent reference to the Gladstone bag is due to his professional association with a well-known Scottish doctor, Henry Duncan Littlejohn.

Littlejohn was a familiar face in Edinburgh in Victorian times and a regular witness in Scottish criminal trials.  His powers of research were legendary, even during his own lifetime, and Littlejohn’s incredible success in bringing criminals to justice was based more on his detective and forensic skills than on mere medicine alone.  Contemporary news reports about Littlejohn made reference to him carrying reports and forensic evidence in a Gladstone bag.

And that is why modern day medical and forensic academics claim Littlejohn was not only the man behind the character of Sherlock Holmes himself, but may also have inspired Sherlock’s constant companion, Doctor Watson, who like Littlejohn also worked closely with the police. 

Additionally, having worked closely with Littlejohn and his famous Gladstone bag, they say, is the reason Conan Doyle writes about Holmes and Watson using Gladstone bags as tools of their trade.

Littlejohn was meticulous in his research methods and summing up skills for some of the most notorious criminal trials of the Victorian era.  

One of the most famous trials attended by Littlejohn became known as the Ardlamont case, and featured another medical witness, Doctor Joseph Bell, himself known for helping the police solve difficult criminal cases.  And that is why Bell is also widely believed to have inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes, and possibly Doctor Watson too.

Like Doctor Watson, Henry Littlejohn was appointed police surgeon, and also like his fictional character, he carried out post mortems and was a regular expert witness in criminal trials, and usually carried a Gladstone bag.  In common with Sherlock Holmes, Littlejohn was a skilled detective, often locating clues the police had overlooked.

Claims by academics that both Littlejohn and Bell gave birth to the fictional sleuth and his doctor friend, are supported by the fact that Conan Doyle had been clerk to Doctor Joseph Bell, and would be in regular contact with Bell’s close friend, Henry Littlejohn.  

Regular proximity to both men, and their famous detective and forensic skills, gave Conan Doyle a unique insight into creating main characters and the tools of their trade, including the Gladstone bag. 

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