When Abbey National opened their grand Art Deco headquarters at Nos 219-229 Baker Street in 1932, they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. Because it sat in the spot where 221b should be, the new building almost immediately began receiving letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. When Arthur Conan Doyle chose an address for Holmes, he deliberately picked 221b because the Baker Street numbering did not go that high. But after renumbering, and with the arrival of Abbey House, Holmes’s address suddenly came into solid existence.
While many banks might have ignored this accident of geography, Abbey embraced it. Over the years, they really threw themselves into the business of celebrating the fictive biography of the world’s greatest detective. They installed a plaque (now lost), they published books and, after a while, they employed a letter writer, somebody whose job was to respond to all the letters addressed to Sherlock, acting more or less as his personal secretary.
In 1989, the New York Times interviewed Nikki Caparn, who then had that responsibility, and she described how she had received letters asking Sherlock to solve Watergate, or locate some missing homework. ‘Many people don’t ask for anything in particular,’ she said. ‘They just want to know what Mr Holmes is doing now or where he is and they hope he is well. And many people know he’s not real and write tongue in cheek. But some people haven’t worked it out. Mr Holmes would be 136 years old now, so it’s unlikely that he’d still be living here.’
Here is one such response from around exactly that time, sent to Kieran (@hail_tothechimp on Twitter), who had written to Sherlock to ask him about his most difficult case. Ms Caparn clearly does not feel equipped to respond to such a difficult and controversial query, so plays a straight bat with her standard response.
Abbey have since moved from Baker Street and are owned by Spanish giants Santander, and I don’t know what has happened to their vast archive of letters. However, Abbey also created something for Sherlock Holmes fans that is definitely still standing. In 1951, the bank put together a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain at Abbey House. The Spectator said the Festival ‘was unlikely to show anything nearer perfection in its way than the reconstruction by the Marylebone Public Libraries Committee of Sherlock Holmes’s room in Baker Street.’
The review continues that ‘everything is here for the student of Holmes—violin, hypodermic syringe, revolvers, handcuffs’ and provides not just ‘a shrine for the connoisseurs of Holmes but a deep pleasure for the student of the late Victorian period’. The Spectator concluded that ‘when the Festival has subsided, this charming reconstruction is preserved for the enjoyment of posterity.’
Which it was. In 1957, the brewer Whitbread purchased the entire exhibition and put it on display in a pub, the Northumberland Arms, which it renamed the Sherlock Holmes and opened as what was surely one of London’s first theme pubs. The pub is located in Charing Cross, a key location in many Holmes stories, and the exhibition is still standing exactly as it was installed, preserving to this day behind glass in an upstairs room a slice of 1950s Britain in the shape of a fictional Victorian living room.