Friday, May 04, 2012

The Dr Watson in my family tree

(or, A rambling blog entry even by my standards)

I've been having a lot of fun reading the Sherlock Peoria website lately, and I'm particularly impressed by the attempt to put together a definitive timeline for the 60 Sherlock Holmes adventures. Many people have tried their hands at this task in the past, and since all sane people would give up on the idea once they've read "The Red-Headed League" and noticed that April 27 is followed exactly eight weeks later by October 9 (Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't quite as precise with details as his famous creation), there's always scope for a lot of creativity. This website has my favourite view of all the ones I've seen, asserting that Watson was married a total of six times (the last being to Mrs Hudson) and that he hallucinated the presence of Sherlock Holmes in two stories that actually took place during the period when Holmes was thought to be dead. Recommended reading for everyone!

The whole of the wider website is full of fun articles and snippets, in fact, marred only by one occurrence of that universal American belief that the British measure distances in kilometres. Honestly, I've never met an American who didn't believe that, whether it's Americans who've visited Britain repeatedly in the past or ones who resolutely know nothing about the world outside the USA, they can all confidently tell you that they use kilometres in Britain. It's probably taught at schools. There's probably an exam on foreign countries that you have to pass to graduate from university, in which the only question is "What do they use to measure distance in Britain? a) Miles; b) Kilometers; c) Cubits; d) All of the above." All American exams are multiple-choice, and the pass-mark is 25%.

Anyway, I've drifted a tiny bit away from my original point and lurched into a stereotypical characterisation of Americans that's even more offensive than the murderous Mormons and sinister Scowrers you'll find in Sherlock Holmes, so let me go back to what I was meaning to write about, and something that isn't really gone into on Sherlock Peoria - the question of Dr Watson's first name.

For the uninitiated, it goes like this: The first Sherlock Holmes book, "A Study in Scarlet" (1887) is introduced as "Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.", and after the lengthy digression into Utah written by an unidentified omniscient narrator, the penultimate chapter is titled "A continuation of the reminiscences of John Watson, M.D." But then in "The Man With The Twisted Lip" (1891), Watson's wife refers to him as James. This is the only time in all the Sherlock Holmes stories that anyone uses poor Watson's first name in dialogue. It goes unmentioned for a quarter of a century after that, when the preface to the book "His Last Bow" (1917), written in character by Watson, is signed "John H. Watson, M.D.", and finally the name is used again in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (1922), when narrator Watson mentions that he keeps his papers in a dispatch-box labelled "John H. Watson, M.D."

Most people dismiss the "James" as a mistake, or else write it off as a pet name used by Watson's wife. And after all, Professor Moriarty and his brother are both called James in different stories, while a character with what should be the memorable name of Athelney Jones becomes Peter Jones when he reappears later, so you have to suspend your disbelief a tiny bit. But if you want to take the Sherlock Holmes stories seriously, I think you have to assume that although Watson's first name was in fact John, he was universally known as James to everyone who knew him.

All of which sounds entirely plausible when you consider my great-uncle James/John Palmer, who puzzled me a lot when I was researching my family tree. I really need to try to look into his life some more and establish why he apparently couldn't settle on a name for himself. I'm at least 99% convinced that there aren't two very similarly-named people who lived very similar lives, but judge for yourself - here are all the certificates and censuses I've got with his name on them:

April 5th, 1891, census:
John Palmer, 3, lives at 50 Powell Street with his father, John W. Palmer, 40, brewery labourer, mother Jane Palmer, 27, and brothers George, 2, and Joseph, 2 months.

March 31st, 1901, census:
John Palmer, 13, errand boy, lives at 50 Powell Street with his widowed mother Jane, 38, brother Joseph, 10, and sister Hannah, 6.

August 2nd, 1908, marriage certificate:
Groom John William Palmer, 23, bachelor, carter, 50 Powell St, father William Palmer (deceased), labourer. Bride Florence Pridmore, 23, spinster, 143 Daisy Walk, father William Thomas Pridmore, bricklayer.

May 17th, 1909, birth certificate:
Baby James William, born to mother Florence Palmer, formerly Pridmore, and father James William Palmer, mineral water carter, 34 Hunt Street.

April 2nd, 1911, census:
James William Palmer, 26, mineral water carter, wife Florence Palmer, 25, and son James William Palmer, 1, live at 143 Daisy Walk.

October 17th, 1911, birth certificate:
Baby Norman, born to mother Florence Palmer, formerly Pridmore, and father John William Palmer, mineral water carter, 143 Daisy Walk.

October 5th, 1913, marriage certificate:
Florence's brother Wilfred gets married, and the witnesses are John William Palmer and Florence Palmer.

June 17th, 1914, birth certificate:
Baby Jennie, born to mother Florence Palmer, formerly Pridmore, and father John William Palmer, moulder's labourer, 1 in court 2 Bond Street.

May 13th, 1920, death certificate:
Death of Florence Palmer, wife of James William Palmer, brewery stableman (ex army), 10 Brough Street.

March 20th, 1926, marriage certificate:
Groom James William Palmer, 40, widower, stableman, 10 Brough Street, son of William Palmer (deceased), brewery worker. Bride Fanny Thornton, 40, spinster, 10 Brough Street.

This is a man who advances his age by three years when he gets married, so there's something shifty about him. The family seem to have gone down in the world over the years, too - first they live at Daisy Walk (4 rooms, according to the census form), which was the Pridmores' old house before they moved to Hunt Street, but then after the war they're reduced to moving in with Florence's sister Lilian and her family, and all living together at the Brough Street house (5 rooms for the Palmers and their three children, the Mays and their four). But I'd like to know why he starts calling himself James in 1908/9, switches back to John in 1911, then becomes James again by 1920. I mean, really, what did great-aunt Florence marry into?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think they should change it so that there are only 3 options, and with the pass mark being 25%