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People Who Knew Ashdown Forest

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

PETER FREELAND

 

Arthur Conan Doyle, who was educated by Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, was an exceptionally inventive and imaginative boy, a rare example of someone who excelled at just about everything. If he hadn’t made his name for himself as a writer, he might have done so as a sportsman, doctor or politician. Although his experiences at Stonyhurst caused him to reject Catholic Christianity, the Jesuits nevertheless taught him to love cricket, a game at which he became sufficiently proficient to play ten first-class matches for the MCC as a batsman and occasional bowler. His highest score was 43 and he claimed only one first-class wicket, but a very important one – that of W.G. Grace. As a young man he boxed, then concentrated on golf in middle age, playing occasionally with Rudyard Kipling and becoming Captain of the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club in 1910.

Sir Arthur’s first wife, Louisa Hawkins, died from TB in 1906. From around 1897, during his wife’s last illness, he shared a platonic relationship with Jean Elizabeth Leckie, whom he married in 1907. Before they married, Jean is believed to have accompanied him throughout the time he stayed at the Brambletye Hotel in Forest Row – which features in the Sherlock Holmes novel “The Adventures of Black Peter”- where he ate, frank, slept and did some writing. Although their stay at the Brambletye was probably related to house hunting in the area, as a result of local gossip it is believed his application to join the Royal Ashdown Golf Club was refused. During the last 23 years of his life, Sir Arthur lived with Jean at “Windlesham” in Crowborough, now a care home for the elderly. On becoming increasingly interested in politics, he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Unionist in two general elections. Knighted in 1902, he attributed that honour to the government’s admiration of a pamphlet he had written with the title “The War in South Africa: its Cause and Conduct”. At the same time Conan Doyle became obsessed by Spiritualism, maintaining a firm belief in the survival of personality beyond death and communication, through mediums, between this world and the next. He also believed that images in the mind occasionally manifested themselves in the real world as visions and apparitions seen by mediums but not the general public. His wife Jean became a medium, as did a sister of Rudyard Kipling.

For someone with a first-class brain, Sir Arthur was surprisingly gullible and uncritical when dealing with charlatans and fraudsters. An interest in fossils led him to become friendly with Charles Dawson, an Uckfield solicitor and amateur archaeologist, who had unearthed the upper part of an old* human skull at Piltdown, quite close to a course where Sir Arthur sometimes played golf. This skull, Dawson hoped, could be a possible ‘missing link’ between ape and man. When he claimed to have also dug up a jawbone of similar age at a different site, Sir Arthur congratulated him, completely overlooking the extremely unlikely event of two random digs, about a mile apart, unearthing an ancient cranium and a contemporary jawbone. In 1917 a photograph, known today as the ‘Cottingley Fairies’, received wide circulation. It showed a young girl apparently surrounded by fairies, some dancing, others in flight.


Today the couple lie side by side, beneath a large oak tree in Minstead churchyard, their grave marked by a stone cross.
 
Some readers may find it incongruous that their earthly remains should now lie within consecrated ground, beneath a large symbol of Christianity.
 
Note: * Scientific tests showed that the skull found at Piltdown was not more than 600 years old. The lower jaw was a forgery, built from the jaw and some teeth of an orangutan, with one tooth from a chimpanzee.

When Conan Doyle died in 1930, he was buried in the grounds of Windlesham but in a vertical position, as if ready to walk out of his coffin. Following the death of his second wife in 1940, she was initially buried beside him, but before the property could be sold in 1955, both bodies had to be exhumed and re-buried. The village of Minstead in Hampshire was chosen partly because it was mentioned in one of his historical novels “The White Company” but also on account of the couple owning a New Forest retreat called Bignell Wood not far from the village, where Jean held seances.

 

After entering Edinburgh University at the age of 17, he studied medicine, serving as a GP in various parts of the country, before specialising in ophthalmology. During the Boer War he volunteered as a doctor but saw more soldiers and medical staff die from typhoid fever than war wounds. At the end of the war, he wrote a well-informed 500-page commentary “The Great War”, which not only described its main events but also pointed out shortcomings in British organisation and planning.

Throughout the time Conan Doyle was practising medicine, he was also doing some writing, mainly short stories that were published in magazines. Encouraged by the success of his written work, he began to increase his output, finding writing a pleasant, rewarding and addictive occupation. Although remembered mainly for sixty Sherlock Holmes stories, he was also a prolific writer on many other subjects. By the end of career as an author, he had written more than fifty books on a range of subjects from military history to science fiction, historical novels, comedy and poetry.

Initially the photographer insisted the photo was authentic, but many years later admitted it had been staged, using cardboard models. But that was long after Conan Doyle declared it genuine, an example of an apparition caught by the camera, but otherwise visible only to those with second sight, such as mediums. Elsewhere, impressed by escapologist Harry Houdini’s mastery of mind over matter, Sir Arthur went out of his way to become friends with him. Both men shared little in common, except recent bereavement. Houdini had lost his mother at roughly the same time as Conan Doyle’s first wife had died. A medium who specialised in automatic writing was asked to deliver a message from Houdini’s mother. What she handed over was a beautifully written script, with perfect spelling and punctuation. Sir Arthur was chuffed, but Houdini was horrified. “That couldn’t possibly have come from my mother”, he said. “Her English was terrible.” 

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