Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
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The Education of Sherlock Holmes

by Fred Lerner

In giving us his initial impressions of “Sherlock Holmes—his limits” in Chapter 2 of A Study in Scarlet, Doctor Watson tells us that Holmes’s knowledge of Literature, Philosophy, and Astronomy were “Nil” and his knowledge of Politics was “Feeble”. He knew something of Botany, mainly about poisons, and had a practical knowledge of Geology, especially different types of soil. He had a “profound” knowledge of Chemistry and an “accurate, but unsystematic” knowledge of Anatomy. Describing Holmes’s “immense” knowledge of “Sensational Literature” Watson says that “he appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century”. And Holmes “plays the violin well, is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman, and has a good practical knowledge of British law”.

This eclectic range of strengths and weaknesses has prompted considerable speculation as to how and where Holmes acquired the education he needed to equip himself for a career as a consulting detective. As its first practitioner, he would not have found any training program on offer from a guild or professional society; and the educational institutions of mid-19th-century England did not offer any course of study suited for the purpose.

According to William S. Baring-Gould’s biography, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street (Clarkson Potter, 1962; Popular Library paperback, 1963), Holmes was born in 1854 to an upper-middle-class Yorkshire family. Baring-Gould suggests that young Sherlock received an atypical education, spending his first ten years travelling across Europe with his family and learning more from observation and immersion than from any formal tutorial process. Returning to England in 1864, the Holmes family settled in London and Sherlock spent two years at a board school – “a dim, ill-defined place, where the gas was always burning in the basement passage which led to the classroom”. After a spell of illness he returned with his family to Yorkshire, where he went to a local grammar school for a year. At the age of fourteen, Sherlock returned to France with his family, where his father enrolled him in a celebrated fencing school but apparently made no other provision for his education. Three years later, back in Yorkshire, Sherlock was left to his own devices, until in 1872 his father hired a tutor for him: a young academic called James Moriarty. But the relationship was unsuccessful. “Between Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty there flared up instant hatred,” Baring-Gould tells us. And that was all the formal education that Homes received until he went up to Oxford in October 1872 to enter Christ Church College.

I find it hard to accept this account of Sherlock’s early education. There is little evidence in the Canon for the extraordinary upbringing outlined by Baring-Gould. As the son of a country squire Sherlock would under normal circumstances have received the education typical of that social class. He would have learned much from his parents and from the servants, and it is likely that by following around grooms and gardeners he enjoyed many opportunities for sharpening his powers of observation. And at Sunday School he would have been introduced to the rudiments of the Christian faith – though whether that would have been the Anglican or Roman version seems to be a matter for debate.

It might be argued that the sympathy and consideration shown by the adult Sherlock to the governesses whom he encountered in the course of his profession might be traced to favorable childhood experiences. But in a family with three sons the household schoolroom would more likely have been under the management of a male tutor than of a governess. Such a tutor would be less likely to be a university professor than a newly-minted Oxford or Cambridge graduate in divinity who was biding his time hoping for an appointment to a lucrative living in an affluent parish. Or he might have been an ill-paid country curate trying to supplement his family income. In any event the governess or tutor would have taught the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and might have given elementary instruction in drawing, French, or any other special area of attainment.

At the age of eight Sherlock might have attended a preparatory school, in preparation for entering a “public” school three or four years later. Some prep schools accepted day students, but unless there was one very near to the Holmes family residence in Yorkshire young Sherlock would have been sent away from home. There he would have had some hard lessons in adjusting to boys who did not share his already well-developed eccentricities – and it is perhaps there that he acquired the skill in boxing that Watson recorded in his list.

Much has been written about the British public schools of the 19th century, by both historians and novelists. The portraits of schoolboy life given by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s School-Days (1857) and Frederic W. Farrar in Eric (1858) and St Winifred’s (1862) emphasise schoolroom encounters with Latin and Greek, triumphs and tragedies on the playing-fields, and conflicts with schoolmasters and other enemies. The intricate hierarchical social structure that governs relationships among the boys is always in the background of these novels. Being subjected to bullying, fagging, and deference to custom were viewed as normal experiences that contributed to the development of character.

The curriculum at a public school would include English, Latin, and Greek, and perhaps French or German. (Modern languages were sometimes offered only as an adjunct at extra cost.) The emphasis was on reading and composition rather than on acquiring conversational ability. Mathematics and some natural science (usually chemistry) would be taught, and perhaps some history and geography. Religious instruction would take the form of classroom teaching and sermons in chapel. Little attention was paid to the arts, though lessons in mechanical drawing might be provided for the benefit of future engineers. And of course physical education and games played a major part in school life.

It seems unlikely that the young Sherlock Holmes would have done well at such an establishment. He might have got high marks in mathematics and chemistry, and perhaps his logical mind would have found Latin grammar an interesting study. But it is hard to imagine Holmes caring much for organised sports, either as an active participant or as a spectator cheering on his house or school team. Nor would he have had much time for the daily pleasures of tuck-shops and bounds-breaking that so amused his contemporaries.

I suspect that a more congenial scholastic environment would have been a school like the United Services College at Westward Ho! on the north coast of Devon. Rudyard Kipling spent his adolescent years there, and immortalised it in Stalky & Co. (1899). This is a collection of linked stories about the three boys of Number Five study, Stalky, M’Turk, and Beetle, who are exaggerated versions of Kipling (Beetle) and his schoolboy friends. Their attitude toward authority, combined with their own eccentric but rigid moral code, and their eclectic ęsthetic interests suggest to me that Sherlock Holmes might have found their company congenial – or at least tolerable.

USC was founded in 1874, by which time Holmes was at Oxford or Cambridge. As pleasant as it might be to imagine him in the environment so embellished by Kipling’s imagination, it’s simply chronologically impossible. But there were other public schools that were closer in orientation to USC than to Eton or Harrow.

At the end of Stalky & Co., a group of old USC boys are swapping stories about their old friend. “There’s nobody like Stalky”, one of them says. “There’s just where you make the mistake,” Beetle replies. “India’s full of Stalkies – Cheltenham and Haileybury and Marlborough chaps – that we don’t know anything about…” One of these establishments might have better suited the young Sherlock Holmes than a better-known public school. Perhaps some research into their history will enable us to nominate one of them as Sherlock’s alma mater.

There is much to be said about Holmes’s university career, and as usual with matters Sherlockian, much of it has been said. But by the time that Sherlock Holmes reached his university years he had endured two decades of preparation, two decades that helped to shape that remarkable personality whose life and times so fascinate us.


This essay originally appeared in Lofgeornost #129, November 2017.