Entries S-U

SARASATE, Pablo de

“…Sarasate plays at St. James’s Hall this evening…” – Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson, “The Red-Headed League”.

Holmes is talking about Pablo de Sarasate, a famous Spanish violinist, who lived from 1844-1908. He was born in Pamplona, Spain, and died in Biarritz, France, of bronchitis, at the age of 64. He bequeathed his violin, a Stradivarius, to the Cite de la Musique (French: City of Music) in his will. His violin is now known as the Sarasate Stradivarius.

The Serpentine

“…I have been dragging the Serpentine…” Inspector Lestrade, to Sherlock Holmes, “The Noble Bachelor”.

The Serpentine is a lake in Hyde Park in London’s West End. To “drag the Serpentine” means to drag ropes with grappling hooks on the bottom of them, to find something along the lakebed, in this case, the body of Lady St. Simon…which was not to be found.

Service revolver

“Have you any arms?”
“I have my old service revolver and a few cartridges.”
“You had better clean it and load it…it is as well to be ready for anything.”
– Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson – “A Study in Scarlet”.

A service-revolver is a regulation sidearm issued to officers in the armed forces, said sidearm is usually used as a secondary weapon, a last-ditch weapon or as a weapon for self-defence (for officers or personnel who are non-combatants). The kind of revolver that Dr. Watson carries with him when he and Holmes go out on their cases has been a matter of debate for decades. As a medical-officer (MO) in the British Army, he certainly would have been issued with a sidearm (a service revolver) for the purposes of self-defence. However, Doyle never once mentions anything about what kind of revolver Watson carried.

Siam

“…In the present state of Siam it is most awkward that I should be away from the office…” – Mycroft Holmes, “The Bruce-Partington Plans”.

Siam was the name (until 1939), of the country known today as Thailand.

Signet ring

“…Yes, his signet-ring…” – Mrs. St. Clair, “The Man with the Twisted Lip”.

In the 21st century, almost nobody wears a signet ring anymore, and even fewer people understand their purpose. A signet-ring is a type of ring typically worn by nobility, royalty or the aristocracy and which marked the wearer as a member of the ruling-class.

A typical signet-ring would be made of gold or silver and would have the owner’s coat of arms, initials or monogram engraved on it, sometimes in reverse. The reason for this is that apart from identifying the wearer as a man of position, wealth and influence, the signet-ring was meant to be used as a portable sealing-stamp (see “Writing paraphernalia”, below).

After finishing a document, such as an important letter, will, deed or other important (possibly legal) document, the custom of the day was to melt sealing-wax over the fold in the paper, to hold the document closed and to prevent unwanted hands and eyes from opening the paper and reading it. After wax had been melted onto the document, the user would take off his signet-ring and press it into the wax, leaving an impression of his coat of arms or monogram. It’s for this reason that some rings have their coats of arms engraved in mirror-form so that it turns out the proper way when impressed into wax. This use of the signet-ring, of course gives it its name; signet. From which we also get the word ‘signature’.

Singlestick Fighting

“…Is an expert singlestick player…” – Dr. Watson, “Sherlock Holmes: His Limits” – “A Study in Scarlet”.

Singlestick fighting was a form of fighting or self-defence which was centered around using every Victorian gentleman’s chief accessory – the walking-stick, as a defensive or offensive weapon. The following link (being a transcript of a magazine article from 1901), gives detailed instructions and illustrations on how to carry out various singlestick manuvres, and so disarm or disable your opponent:

http://www.elite-fighters.com/library/rarebooks/fighting_cane/cane_fighting2.htm

Singlestick fighting originated in the 17th century. The first singlesticks were mock swords made of wood. Their purpose was to act as training-weapons for soldiers and sailors, so that they could learn swordsmanship without getting injured. Singlestick fighting as a pastime and competitive sport reached its peak in the Georgian-era of the 1700s, gradually tapering off throughout the 19th century, both in military training, and as a popular sport. By the early 20th century, it was considered obsolete and out of style.

St. Vitus’ Dance

“…but [Dr. Farquhar’s] age and an affliction of the nature of St. Vitus’ dance…” – Dr. Watson – “The Stockbroker’s Clerk”.

St. Vitus’ dance is an archaic term for the disease known in modern medicine as Sydenham’s chorea (named for Dr. Thomas Sydenham; 1624-1689). It is characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements affecting primarily the face, feet and hands.

Strike-anywhere matches

“…He struck a match on his boot and held it up against the wall…” – Dr. Watson – “A Study in Scarlet”

Though they are less common today than they were in the Victorian-period, strike-anywhere matches are still manufactured today, alongside modern safety-matches. However, in the time of Holmes and Watson, the former were the only kind of matches that were around. Strike-anywhere matches will burst into flame the moment they’re struck against any suitably rough surface: A brick wall, a road-surface, the striking-surface of a pocket match-safe and yes, even the heel of a man’s boot.

Telegrams

“…Then it is you who sent me a telegram!…” – Lord Mount-James, to Cyril Overton, “The Missing Three-Quarter”.

A telegram is a message sent from one point to another by either wireless radio, or over a telegraph-wire. The first telegram was sent in the 1840s and they have been sent ever since then. The dominance of the telegram came around in the 1920s and 30s when it was cheaper to send a telegram long-distance than it was to make a telephone-call. Telegrams eventually died out as a form of long-distance telecommunications in the second half of the 20th century, when telephones and the internet overtook them. The Western Union Telegraph Company ceased sending telegrams in 2006.

Common terms for a telegram include ‘wire’ and ‘cable’, (as in: “I sent him a wire” or “I recieved a cable from him today”) and they come from the fact that to send a telegram, it had to be transmitted along a telegraph-wire. Wireless telegraphy was in its infancy during the Victorian era and would not become a practical form of telecommunications until the 1900s.

Telegraph Offices

“…There was a telegraph-office a short distance from the hotel…” – Dr. Watson, “The Missing Three-Quarter”.

A telegraph office, a bit like a post-office, is where you would go to dispatch (send) a telegram. You filled out a form with the message that you desired to send and where it was to go to, and then gave it a clerk at the office who sent it onto a telegraphist who would send it off for you. Telegrams were charged by number of words in the telegram, so people always tried to convey as much as they could with as little words as possible, to cut down on cost.

Titles

“…Holdernesse, 6th Duke, K.G, P.C.’, – half the alphabet!…” – Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Priory School”.

Distinguished European (mostly British) persons, when their names are written in full, are often seen with strings of letters after their names. What are they, and what do they stand for? An example is Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, FRS, PC (Can).

These letters stand for titles and honours which have been bestowed upon the person by various institutions or persons. For example, Dr. Watson is first introduced to us as Dr. John H. Watson, M.D., which stands for Medical Doctor. ‘KG’ stands for “Order of the Garter” or “Knight of the Garter”. ‘PC’ stands for “Privy Council”. Other common titles include ‘PhD’ for “Doctor of Philosophy” and ‘OM’ for “Order of Merit” and ‘OBE’ for “Order of the British Empire”.

Toilet

“…Your telegram was dispatched about one. But no one can glance at your toilet and attire without seeing that your disturbance dates from the moment of your waking…” – Sherlock Holmes to John Scott Eccles, “Wisteria Lodge”.

These days, we think of a ‘toilet’ as a commode. A receptacle for human waste, with a bowl, seat, U-bend and a cistern and flush-button on top. In Holmes’s day, when the flush-toilet was very new, the word ‘toilet’ meant something entirely different.

One’s ‘toilet’ generally meant one’s personal grooming and hygeine. To attend to your ‘toilet’ meant to freshen up for the morning. To shave, brush your teeth, clean your hair, your face, wax your moustache and make yourself look fresh and presentable for the day’s activities. It is for this reason that any bag or container holding such things as shaving-cream, toothpaste, combs, brushes and razors are known as ‘toiletry bags’.

Turkish Bath

“…’But why Turkish?’ asked Mr. Sherlock Holmes, gazing fixedly at my boots…” – Dr. Watson, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”.

Turkish Baths were very popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras and they could be found in several major cities, such as London, New York and Paris. There was even a Turkish Bath on the RMS Titanic. So, what are they?

To find a contemporary comparison, a Turkish bath is similar to the modern spa or sauna. In such an establishment, you could relax in a hot bath, a cold bath, or in a steam-filled sauna and clean yourself up. They were large, public buildings where people could go to socialise as well as get themselves cleaned and freshened up. After a bath or a relaxing chat in the sauna, you could have a massage on a massage-table. Afterwards, you dried yourself down and headed back to your change-room where you’d put on your clothes and head out into the world, fresh and clean.

The Underground

“…I should like to see him clapped down in a third-class carriage on the Underground and asked to give the trades of all his fellow travellers!…” – Dr. Watson, “A Study in Scarlet”.

The ‘Underground’, which is mentioned fairly regularly in the Sherlock Holmes canon, refers to the London Underground, that is, the London subway system, more commonly known these days as ‘the tube’. The Underground came into existence in the 1860s and grew steadily from that point, with several different lines digging tunnels all over the underside of London. They were all eventually brought together into one large network which is still changing and growing to this day. Travelling by the Underground in Holmes’s time would have been rather uncomfortable at best. It would not be until 1890 that the trains were electrified. Before then, all locomotives travelling through the tunnels were steam-powered, which created a great deal of smoke, soot, dust and steam. The Underground is perhaps featured best in “The Bruce Partington Plans”, where the body of Arthur Cadogan West was found.

 

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