Reading Sherlock Holmes:
The Story of John Gilchrist Coltart

AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 19 MARCH 2024

Cross section through the Victorian Embankment revealing the Metropolitan District Railway. The Illustrated London News 22 June 1867.

When I was a boy growing up in London, which was longer ago than I care to think about, I was a frequent traveller on the Underground. I still have a number of memories of those many journeys. Most have been dimmed by the passage of time, but not all, and I still distinctly remember a strange and rather haunting stretch of the District Line somewhere between Gloucester Road and High Street Kensington.

Here the train, having emerged from a tunnel, ran in broad daylight only feet below street level. Occasionally it was held at a red signal, and it was then possible to look out at the building backing on to and rising high above the tracks. There were windows, but no signs of life ever appeared through them.

The sense of alienation this curious place engendered turned into something closer to menace when I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. I will withhold details in case you have not read this Sherlock Holmes story. However, I think it is safe to say that the writer’s use of the Underground, both as setting and as narrative device, is an imaginative tour de force.

Examining the railway tracks in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. Frederic Dorr Steele / Arthur Conan Doyle Collier’s 12 December 1908.

Where is my Bradshaw?

When we move from the specific to the general we notice that railways and railway journeys are a recurrent feature of the Sherlock Holmes stories. This is in part a consequence of Conan Doyle’s decision to locate the detective’s residence in Baker Street, which was no great distance from the main line stations. And by making Holmes and Watson familiar with the railway system, and always quick to reach for a copy of Bradshaw if necessary, he is able to extend the geographical scope of the stories to the London suburbs and even further afield.

Conan Doyle uses railway journeys not just to get the reader to the scene of the crime but also to provide essential background details. In a number of stories the preliminary discussion of the case, with Holmes apprising Watson of such facts as he already has at his disposal, takes place in a railway carriage. In this way Conan Doyle not only imparts a sense of the urgency of the case, but he ensures that both Watson and the reader have caught up with Holmes by the time the investigation really gets under way.

Holmes getting Watson up to speed in The Adventure of Silver Blaze. Sidney Paget / Arthur Conan Doyle The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes 1892.

A haggard face

But the railway journey out of London has a further purpose in that it removes Holmes and Watson from the familiar setting of the city. This removal can create a sense of unease. In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange Holmes and Watson travel from Charing Cross to Chislehurst in Kent, where

a drive of a couple of miles through narrow country lanes brought us to a park gate, which was opened for us by an old lodge-keeper, whose haggard face bore the reflection of some great disaster.

The jarring note is repeated in the description of the Abbey Grange itself as a house ‘of a great age’ and ‘shrouded in ivy’ but in which ‘modern changes had been carried out’. We are not very far from London but already we know that something is amiss.

A school prize

The story of Abbey Grange appeared in 1904 in the Strand Magazine and a year later in the collection that was published as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Although I will return to railway journeys in due course, I want to go off in a different direction at this point to discuss the Return, or at least a copy of the Return that has been in my family for many years. It has a bookplate, which, for all its conventional brevity, tells an interesting story of its own.

As the bookplate reveals, the first owner was a schoolboy, John Gilchrist Coltart, who was awarded the book as a prize for drawing. John was a pupil at Queen’s Park School in Cathcart in Glasgow. He had been born on 19 March 1898 in Lanark, and so, assuming that the prize was awarded at the end of the school year, he would have been twelve at the time.

A certain amount can be discovered about his parents, John and Lizzie Coltart. We know that they married in the 1870s when John was working as a bookkeeper for a firm of iron merchants. We also know that they had three children, of whom John was the youngest.

John Gilchrist Coltart’s prize copy of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. © Thomas Ellis-Rees

On the same path

Queen’s Park School had been built in 1873, and an old photograph, which can be accessed at this link, has captured its imposing exterior. Not much is known about John’s time at the school, but he was clearly good at drawing, and he would have been delighted with his copy of the Return as it was a relatively new publication. His principal interest must have been the sciences, though, because on leaving school he went to Glasgow University to study medicine.

By a curious coincidence Conan Doyle had pursued much the same educational path some forty years previously. He too had studied medicine at university in Scotland, not in Glasgow, though, but in Edinburgh. He too had a creative side to him, though in his case it expressed itself not in drawing but in writing. One only hopes that John Gilchrist Coltart’s childhood was not overshadowed by the sort of difficulties imposed on the young Conan Doyle by the destructive alcoholism of his father. Happily, nothing in the scant records suggests that it was.

John graduated in 1919 as a Bachelor of Medicine. He was twenty-one, and a recipient of the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Records show that he was enrolled in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Surgeon Probationer. The nomenclature is a bit misleading as ‘surgeon’ was the title held by all navy doctors. As a medical student John would not have been performing surgical procedures, and the best description of his duties is probably general doctoring.

The Scottish National Red Cross Hospital at Bellahouston in Glasgow. Walter Ernest Spradbery. Wellcome Collection.

From Glasgow to Kent

After the war John returned to his native Glasgow, where he worked as resident assistant surgeon at the Scottish National Red Cross Hospital, which had been opened in 1915 in the Bellahouston area of the city to treat military pensioners. He was also employed as a house physician at the Glasgow Royal Lunatic Asylum, which is now the Gartnavel Royal. However, at some point in the early 1920s he came down to England, working first at the Brentwood Mental Hospital in Essex and then at the Beckenham Hospital in Kent.

In February 1926, at a church on  the outskirts of Beckenham, John married Dora Phyllis Hawke. Dora was twenty-four. She was the daughter of a local doctor, and on her mother’s side a descendent of a London colourman, Charles Roberson, whose shop in Long Acre in Covent Garden counted among its customers such luminaries as Turner, Whistler and William Morris. But Dora’s family history was not without tragedy, for her brother Edward, having survived the battlefields of the First World War, was killed in December 1918 when his motor cycle collided with a military ambulance near his barracks in Woolwich. On a happier note, John and Dora had a family of their own. Nina Coltart was born in 1927 and her sister Gillian in 1932.

Wedding of John Gilchrist Coltart and Dora Phyllis Hawke. The Bromley Mercury 19 February 1926.

Distressing work

John’s work as a doctor certainly exposed him to other people’s troubles. One evening in 1930 he was called out to the house of a woman in her late fifties who had committed suicide over her husband’s financial difficulties. She had attached a piece of tubing to the gas bracket in the spare bedroom.

Then in 1940 he was summoned to the scene of a fatal accident involving one of his patients, a retired accountant, who had fallen while working on the roof of his conservatory. Distressing as these incidents must have been, though, John had graver matters to deal with. For war was raging again, and now it was his own life and the lives of Dora and their two daughters that were on the line.

London children being evacuated to the West Country. 1939-45. Wikimedia.

Down to Cornwall

Just how dangerous life had become is dramatically illustrated by an incident in September 1940. The Blitz had just begun, and in the first week of the German bombing campaign the house in which the Coltarts were living at the time received a direct hit. The house was partly destroyed, but the doctor and his wife escaped without a scratch.

Then on the weekend of the first week in November they received news that Gillian had a high temperature. She and Nina had been evacuated to stay with their maternal grandmother, Dora Annie Hawke, in the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, and at that distance her illness must have been a great anxiety to her parents. They packed immediately and headed up to Paddington Station, where they caught the Sunday night service to Penzance.

As it happens, Paddington was the point of departure for that other doctor, John Watson, when he set off for Devon, and the great Grimpen Mire, in Chapter Five of The Hound of the Baskervilles. If John Gilchrist Coltart, who we know was keen on Sherlock Holmes, had read what must surely rank as one of Conan Doyle’s masterpieces, then he might have been aware of the coincidence. But only momentarily: his thoughts were on more urgent matters.

Just beyond Taunton

In the early hours of Monday morning, about two miles beyond Taunton, the train passed two signals at danger, the significance of which the driver had somehow failed to understand. Running into a set of catch points, the engine was thrown clear of the line and came to rest on its side. The first five coaches were wrecked.

Ambulances soon arrived and doctors and nurses set to work. Emergency equipment was found on board the train and tools were brought from an old signal box and a work-gang’s hut. Local residents came to help, carrying whatever tools they had been able to lay hands on at home. The police joined forces with army personnel in organising rescue efforts, which proceeded by the light of hand lamps and torches.

There were around nine hundred passengers on the train. Twenty-seven died and many were seriously injured. Among the dead were John Gilchrist and Dora Phyllis Coltart.

Wreckage of the Paddington to Penzance train in the aftermath of the Taunton railway disaster. Western Daily Press 5 November 1840.

Remembering John and Dora

The two sisters were traumatised by the death of their parents. Nina, who later became a distinguished psychoanalyst, understood the terrible impact of the tragedy. She remembered waiting at the local train station for hours, not knowing what had happened. Only later did news of the crash outside Taunton come through.

John and Dora were buried in Cornwall, in Holy Trinity Churchyard in the village of St Day. Dora’s father, a Cornishman by birth, lay in the same churchyard. He had died in 1928. But Dora Annie Hawke, who had now lost both her children as well as her husband, lived well into her eighties.

But, when all is said and done, John had lived a meaningful life, in which he had contributed much to the welfare of others. Though his name is inevitably linked with the Taunton railway disaster of 1940, I prefer to remember him as the twelve-year-old boy reading The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and picturing to himself yet another London station, and yet another comfortable carriage in a train taking Holmes or Watson or both to the scene of yet another great adventure.

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