In a quarter of an hour we were in Bloomsbury at the Alpha Inn, which is a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn. Holmes pushed open the door of the private bar and ordered two glasses of beer from the ruddy-faced, white-aproned landlord.
Few festive tipples can be as Sherlockian as a pint of best ale from the Alpha Inn. It features in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, my regular Christmas Eve read, and is home to the goose club which proves so fateful to all involved. We know well that both Watson and his literary agent, Arthur Conan-Doyle, sought to hide real people and places behind pseudonyms and thin veneers. If we wished to find the Alpha, then, where would we start?
In Finding Sherlock’s London, Thomas Wheeler suggests the most likely candidate is the Museum Tavern, at 49 Great Russell Street. This has the twin benefit of being both of the right period and immediately adjacent to Alpha patron Henry Baker’s place of work, the British Museum.
In the story, however, Baker says the Alpha is “near” the Museum, not directly outside it. And Watson gives us a clear route to the locality of the Alpha from Holmes’s Baker Street rooms: through the doctor’s quarter, down Wimpole and Harley Streets, onto Wigmore Street and from there down Oxford Street. Watson does not mention bearing onto Great Russell Street – we might assume because he and Holmes did not, but rather continued down onto New Oxford Street and turned right towads Holborn.
There’s broad agreement on the year in which The Blue Carbuncle was set, with both Brad Keefauver and Chris Miller agreeing on 1889. In this, these modern Sherlockians differ slightly from past master Baring-Gould, who placed the story in 1887. Key to our investigation, however, is that each of these dates falls after the 1886 completion of Vulliamy and Bazalgette’s Shaftesbury Avenue. Part of the point of this grand project had been to clear some of the St Giles slums, replacing them with a broad Parisian-style boulevard. In this, the architects were ultimately successful, and we are thus left with the suggestion of an eastern limitation for the area in which our down-at-heel public house might be found.
One of the best sources for discovering in this way who lived where in late Victorian London is Charles Booth’s poverty map of the city, completed in 1898-99. Alas, this is ten years following the events surrounding the theft of the blue carbuncle, but we might expect to see some vestigial traces of the income distribution patterns Holmes would have known. We know that, upon leaving the Alpha Inn, he and Watson proceeded across Holborn, onto Endell Street and thus towards the fowl stall at Covent Garden market. We can thus assume that the Alpha is not just west of Shaftesbury Avenue, but south of New Oxford Street and north of Holborn. Peeking at Booth’s map for this area reveals a square, bound on the west by what is now Earnshaw Street, which consists of the pink and purple hues designating the liminal middle classes of which Henry Baker was a part – and which might benefit from a goose club orchestrated by a kindly publican such as the Alpha’s Windigate.
This area of London now includes Bucknall Street and Dyott Street, both of which are unrecognisable from what looks to be their tight-packed Victorian forebears (Booth’s Arthur Street, meanwhile, appears to be no more). This is an area which until the slum clearance programme was home to an infamous rookery. But by the late nineteenth century it had become marginally more genteel, and Baker’s route home from the Alpha to the “the labyrinth of small streets which lie at the back of Tottenham Court Road” is both direct enough from the Museum to suggest a post-work drink requiring only a small diversion well worth the cosiness, and in addition is on Booth’s map lined with the same pink and purple squares denoting families for whom “shillings have not been so plentiful […] as they once were.” Bloomsbury is a rather grand drinking hole for a man such as Henry Baker; the border streets of St Giles hit the spot much better.
We have, perhaps, found the streets on which the Alpha was truly located. Fortunately for us, the London Post Office Directory of 1899 listed pubs for the benefit of the thirsty, and there is only one quite clearly within the remit we have set ourselves. Raise a glass, then, to Edward Woodley (and is Woodley not rather close to Watson’s Windigate?) and his Two Brewers public house. Gone perhaps – but, I think, not quite forgotten.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a very happy one.