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18 April, 2018

Percy’s obscure nervous lessons: It beggar’s belief

Sherlock Holmes lived in late Victorian London. The image we have of that society is of a large urban population, many of whom were extremely poor and that there were very few safety nets to alleviate the poverty. So, it seems surprising that there are not more references to beggars in the Sherlock Homes Canon and three of those references are to parties described as “mendicants”, a somewhat under-used term in modern parlance.

There are of course references in passing. Mr Holmes refers to the Baker Street Irregulars rather affectionately as “little beggars” “There’s more work to be got out of one of those little beggars than out of a dozen of the force,…”.   In The Sign of Four the unhappy merchant Achmet told Jonathan Small “Yet I am not a beggar; and I shall reward you, young Sahib, and your governor also, if he will give me the shelter.”  Alas, Small assisted in his murder.

Then there are the adjectives. Charles Augustus Milverton, the extortionist and worst man in London refers to his demands as “beggarly”, which gives some idea as to how profitable his particular business enterprise was. You will recall he also suggested his £7,000 fee could be raised by way of a wedding present! Hall Pycroft was offered a beggarly five hundred a year “…to start with…” by the bogus business manager of the bogus Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited.

The most famous beggar in the Canon is, of course, Hugh Boone, The Man with the Twisted Lip who makes a very profitable living, although his pied-a-terre in London, the Bar of Gold opium den, leaves much to be desired.  His reported earnings suggest, that in the long run, he could have purchased a bar of gold rather than live in it. That story does include the wonderful exchange, But I think I have the key of the affair now.” “And where is it?” I asked, smiling. “In the bathroom,” When one reads the story, as a small child, it leaves an indelible image of a murderous monster living down the plug hole.

As to the mendicants, the first reference is to Hugh Boone, whose physical appearance marked him out from amid the common crowd of mendicants.  A further reference occurs in the case of The Illustrious Client. Holmes has called on Violet de Merville to urge her not to marry her murderous Count.  He is accompanied by Kitty Winter, a lady of exceptionally dubious character and indeed, as subsequent events prove, she could be truly described as having a vitriolic temperament. The distaste which Violet felt for these visitors is beautifully described by Mr Holmes, “…she waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess receiving two rather leprous mendicants.” The final mention is the unreported case, referred to in passing in The Five Orange Pips.” …the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse.” If only we knew more.