In the short story “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson that his ancestors were “country squires.” And other than that bit of information, along with the note that his grandmother was the sister of the French portraitist Vernet, Doyle provided little with respect to his most famous character’s origins.
Knowing his parents were country squires, however, provides insights into Holmes’ social level and certain expectations common to those of his rank. A country squire would have owned enough land to rent to tenants and have lived in a manor house. While the squire’s position was below a nobleman or large landowner, but still ranked high in the local social structure.
In addition to running his estate and ensuring the welfare of those under his tenancy, the country squire also held the position of Justice of the Peace. In this capacity, the squire had both civil and legal duties. Within the local government, the justices supervised parish (or county) officials, in particular those in charge of the maintenance of roads and bridges and the enforcement of the Poor Laws. As a legal position, the Justice of the Peace served as a magistrate during the Quarter Sessions, where they and a jury heard and decided on serious crimes such as theft, highway robbery, assault, burglary, rioting, drunkenness, profane swearing, and a variety of crimes against property (poaching, cutting estate timber and the like. Between these sessions, the justices would hold petty sessions where the least serious crimes were reviewed and decisions made without a jury.
Because the English system did not (and still does not) include a prosecutor, the preparation of a case rested with the constable, from collecting evidence to presenting it at trial. The justice of the peace supervised and worked closely with the village constable, issued warrants, and determined whether to move a case to trial and to which court.
As a member of the gentry, Sherlock Holmes would have been in a position of privilege. With a father as a Justice of the Peace, he would have developed a familiarity with the criminal justice system and the law. For the consulting detective, the foundation for investigating and solving crimes would have come naturally to this son of a country squire.
The Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes: Essays on Victorian England
Step back to 1895 England.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are full of references to everyday Victorian activities and events that send the twenty-first century reader running to the reference shelf. Few, for example, are intimately acquainted with the responsibilities of a country squire, the importance of gentlemen’s clubs, or the intricacies of the Victorian monetary system. These short essays explore various aspects of life mentioned in the original stories, providing modern-day insight into the nineteenth century world. Untangle the complexities of inheritance, the significance of “Dr.” in front of “Watson,” the importance of segregating the queen bee, and the dispute over the delivery of letters addressed to 221B Baker Street. Such examinations bring deeper meaning and color to the adventures of the world’s most famous consulting detective.