Baker Street: more than Sherlock Holmes

Bulwer-Lytton
Edward Bulwer-Lytton in later life

This day in London history: on 18 January 1873 Edward Bulmer-Lytton died; a writer and politican, Edward Bulmer-Lytton wrote an historical verse drama, Richelieu, which contains what are among his most famous lines:

Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword.

He also wrote the now-cliched opening line, “it was a dark and stormy night”, and coined the phrase “the great unwashed”.

Bulmer-Lytton was born in Baker Street, a street – like Half Moon Street – associated with many famous fictional characters and real-life residents. Baker Street, in the Marylebone district of the City of Westminster, stands on the Portman Estate – in 1553 Sir William Portman bought nearly 300 acres of land in the area; 200 years later development of the Portman estate began.

Unlike so many of London’s street names – such as those, off Cheapside, which indicate a predominance of occupations – this name does not come from any prevalence of bakers in the area. It commemorates a person called Baker, though opinion is divided as to which particular Baker. Most likely is William Baker, a Gentleman of Marylebone, who leased land from the Portman Estate, and laid out the street in 1755.

However, some sources point to the Portman agent, Peter William Baker, as a candidate; Sir Edward Baker of Ranston, who was a friend of the Portmans; John Baker, also said to be a friend of the Portmans; and Sir Robert Baker, a Bow Street magistrate.

Pitt PlaqueOne of the reason’s for Baker Street’s fame is that it was the home of William Pitt the Younger for one year. Pitt, who became Prime Minister at the age of 24, lived in Baker Street (then called York Place) towards the end of his life, when he had just about been ground down by matters of state and was described as “worn out by the toils, anxieties and vexations that he encountered”.

Other famous residents of the street include Arnold Bennett, Sir Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor), HG Wells, actress Sarah Siddons, and singer Dusty Springfield. Madame Tussaud’s opened her famous waxwork exhibition in Baker Street; it was later moved to its current location on Marylebone Road.

Sarah Siddons by Gainsborough
Sarah Siddons painted by Gainsborough

Gerry Rafferty wrote a song about it, and there are various musical references to it, but today the street is possibly most famous as the literary location of 221b – the residence of that brilliant detective, violinist, cocaine user, and misogynist Sherlock Holmes. After countless TV and movie adaptations where the detective was given a distinctive face by Basil Rathbone and then Jeremy Brett, the modern face of Sherlock is now Benedict Cumberbatch, after the BBC brought the detective up to date in a TV series set in the 21st century.

Number 221b was never a genuine address in Baker Street, and was carefully chosen by Conan Doyle for that very reason. That has not stopped people over the years from writing to Holmes: the first letter was in 1890 when an American tobacconist wrote asking for a copy of Holmes’s monograph ‘Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos’, which was referred to in various cases.

Whether or not he was serious, he started a craze and other people were soon also writing to Sherlock Holmes. These letters were, for many years, fended by the Abbey National Building Society whose Abbey House stood on the spot where 221b would have been. At one time, up to 400 hopeful correspondents would receive a polite reply explaining that Mr Holmes had vacated his room and his current whereabouts were unknown.

Another fictional character resides at Flat B, 221 Baker Street, but that street is in Princeton, New Jersey, and the character is Gregory House from the US TV series House M.D. He is played by Hugh Laurie, who also played Bertie Wooster, a fictional resident of Half Moon Street.

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