The Gladstone bag was probably invented by a baggage maker called Beard, working in the city of London, and a great devotee of Prime Minster of the Day, William Ewart Gladstone after whom he named his new design. ‘Probably’ is the operative word in that last sentence, because a minority of researchers say Beard’s design was similar to a bag made in France a few years earlier, and it’s the French designer who deserves credit for designing the Gladstone bag.
Gladstone was well known as a regular traveller, keen on visiting faraway places, and usually seen with a large bulky suitcase for travelling as well as visiting Parliament each day. But although the Gladstone bag was named after Gladstone, based on his love of travel and affinity for baggy luggage, it’s uncertain whether Gladstone actually used the new design.
One thing that is quite certain, however, is the theory that Sherlock Holmes, also Doctor Watson, and the fact both men used Gladstone bags, probably stem from author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s relationship with a police doctor in Edinburgh. That man was Henry Duncan Littlejohn and he was a regular police surgeon in major Scottish murder cases in the Victorian era. Littlejohn was well-known for his superior detective and forensic skills and would regularly find clues the police had overlooked. More than this, he carried a Gladstone bag to court and to his medical practice each day.
So Henry Littlejohn became known as the man who inspired both Sherlock Holmes and his companion, Doctor Watson, even though a close friend of Littlejohn has been similarly credited with inspiring Conan Doyle’s great detective stories.
That other man was Doctor Joseph Bell, a close friend of Littlejohn, and one time employer of Arthur Conan Doyle. Also being well-known for collecting evidence and solving cases causing difficulty for the police, Bell has similarly been likened to Conan Doyle’s characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
In reality, it’s more likely both doctors were the real life ancestors of Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional characters.
But it’s probably Littlejohn who prompted Conan Doyle to create characters whose tools of the trade were carried in Gladstone Bags; Sherlock Holmes for his spy glass and detective paraphernalia, and Doctor Watson for his medical instruments.
From those early days, in 19th century London, the Gladstone bag has developed into one of the most iconic pieces of luggage of all time.