8

While re-reading this Q&A, I was wondering how we know that, for example, the story "The Final Problem" is set in 1891. Presumably it's mentioned somewhere in the story. I recall the occasional mention of years in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but now I'm wondering how many such mentions there are - thus, how many of the stories can be located precisely in time, and how many are drifting in vaguer periods such as "the 1890s" or "after Watson's marriage".

How many times is the exact year mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes canon?

(By 'canon' I mean the original stories by Conan Doyle. I would also reluctantly accept extratextual statements by Doyle, but not anything from Sherlock Holmes stories by other authors.)

  • 2
    Would you also accept details mentioned in the story that narrows down the setting to one or more specific years? (I'm fairly sure that "The Red-Headed League" has been dated using combinations of dates and days of the month). – andejons Aug 10 '18 at 13:12
  • @andejons I'd be interested in that too, but an ideal answer would classify those separately from stories where an exact year is mentioned. (Who knows whether Doyle actually intended to specify years by such information, or just mentioned dates and days without thinking about which years they implied.) – Rand al'Thor Aug 10 '18 at 20:02
8
+50

This is the final list I've made, after sifting through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes, and the four novels in some detail. This comprises the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon. It's possible I've missed something - there's quite a lot to go through - but I've certainly found most of the dated stories.

I should note that I have determined Watson's marriage to be in 1888, from "The Sign of the Four" and "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor". Therefore, I consider that to be a fixed point, and many stories can be dated based on that alone.

Exact date mentioned (23)

  • "A Scandal in Bohemia": 1888

    One night—it was on the twentieth of March, 1888—I was returning from a journey to a patient.

  • "The Five Orange Pips": 1887

    The year ’87 furnished us with a long series of cases of greater or less interest, of which I retain the records.

  • "The Man with the Twisted Lip": 1889

    One night—it was in June, ’89—there came a ring to my bell, about the hour when a man gives his first yawn and glances at the clock

  • "The Adventure of the Speckled Band": 1883

    It was early in April in the year ’83 that I woke one morning to find Sherlock Holmes standing, fully dressed, by the side of my bed.

  • "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb: 1889

    It was in the summer of ’89, not long after my marriage, that the events occurred which I am now about to summarise.

  • "The Reigate Squires": 1887

    It was some time before the health of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of ’87.

    This story takes place starting around April 14th.

  • "The Final Problem": 1891

    During the winter of that year and the early spring of 1891, I saw in the papers that he had been engaged by the French government upon a matter of supreme importance, and I received two notes from Holmes, dated from Narbonne and from Nimes, from which I gathered that his stay in France was likely to be a long one. It was with some surprise, therefore, that I saw him walk into my consulting-room upon the evening of April 24th.

    This is quite clearly documented by Watson, as I would expect, given how important this case was.

  • "The Adventure of the Empty House": 1894

    It was in the spring of the year 1894 that all London was interested, and the fashionable world dismayed, by the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair under most unusual and inexplicable circumstances.

  • "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist": 1895

    On referring to my note-book for the year 1895 I find that it was upon Saturday, the 23rd of April, that we first heard of Miss Violet Smith.

    This adventure runs on for a while, chronologically, but I believe it ends in 1895, too.

  • "The Adventure of Black Peter": 1895

    I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95.

    Later, we also read

    In this memorable year ’95 a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention.

    This includes the one at hand.

  • "The Adventure of the Three Students": 1895

    It was in the year ’95 that a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great University towns, and it was during this time that the small but instructive adventure which I am about to relate befell us.

  • "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez": 1894

    When I look at the three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for the year 1894 I confess that it is very difficult for me, out of such a wealth of material, to select the cases which are most interesting in themselves and at the same time most conducive to a display of those peculiar powers for which my friend was famous.

  • "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange": 1897

    It was on a bitterly cold and frosty morning during the winter of ’97 that I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder. It was Holmes.

  • "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge": 1892?!

    I find it recorded in my notebook that it was a bleak and windy day towards the end of March in the year 1892.

    Wait, what? Holmes was gone from 1891 to 1894? This doesn't make sense. I suspect that Watson has mixed up his notes - or Doyle's made a mistake. He must be off by a couple years.

  • "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans": 1895

    In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London.

  • "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot": 1897

    It was, then, in the spring of the year 1897 that Holmes’s iron constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant hard work of a most exacting kind, aggravated, perhaps, by occasional indiscretions of his own.

  • "The Adventure of the Creeping Man": 1903

    It was one Sunday evening early in September of the year 1903 that I received one of Holmes's laconic messages.

  • "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs": 1902

    I repeat, however, that this enables me to fix the date, which was the latter end of June, 1902, shortly after the conclusion of the South African War.

  • "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client": 1902

    On the upper floor of the Northumberland Avenue establishment there is an isolated corner where two couches lie side by side, and it was on these that we lay upon September 3, 1902, the day when my narrative begins.

  • "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" (notably, this is one of the first stories "written" by Holmes): 1903

    I find from my notebook that it was in January, 1903, just after the conclusion of the Boer War, that I had my visit from Mr. James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton.

  • "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane": 1907

    Towards the end of July, 1907, there was a severe gale, the wind blowing up-channel, heaping the seas to the base of the cliffs and leaving a lagoon at the turn of the tide.

  • "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger": 1896

    One forenoon—it was late in 1896—I received a hurried note from Holmes asking for my attendance.

  • "His Last Bow": 1914

    "Well, I chose August for the word, and 1914 for the figures, and here we are."

    This is said by one of the characters, explaining how the date of the meeting played into their plans.

Exact date can be calculated to within a year (9)

  • "The Red-Headed League": 1890

    I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year.

    The full anthology was published in 1892, but this story appeared in 1891, so the reference is to 1890. This is further confirmed by a sign described by the client:

    The Red-headed League
    is
    Dissolved
    October 9, 1890

  • "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor": 1887 or 1888

    Fresh scandals have eclipsed it, and their more piquant details have drawn the gossips away from this four-year-old drama.

    Again, we can do the math and subtract four years from 1891/1892. Watson also mentions that it was "a few weeks" before his marriage, putting his wedding in 1887 or 1888. Other stories imply it's 1888.

    We have another bit later on that confirms this - Holmes doing some reading:

    “ ‘Lord Robert Walsingham de Vere St. Simon, second son of the Duke of Balmoral.’ Hum! ‘Arms: Azure, three caltrops in chief over a fess sable. Born in 1846.’ He’s forty-one years of age, which is mature for marriage.’

    This implies 1887 or 1888, depending on the exact birthday of St. Simon.

  • "The Stock-Broker's Clerk": 1888

    Shortly after my marriage I had bought a connection in the Paddington district. Old Mr. Farquhar, from whom I purchased it.

    Above, I determined Watson's marriage to be in 1888, according to the stories. Therefore, we can assume this time. However, Holmes also remarks

    “Ah, my dear Watson,” said he, striding into the room, “I am very delighted to see you! I trust that Mrs. Watson has entirely recovered from all the little excitements connected with our adventure of the Sign of Four.”

    "The Sign of the Four" is set in 1888; I therefore suspect "The Stock-Broker's Clerk" to be in 1888, too.

  • "The Crooked Man": 1888

    One summer night, a few months after my marriage, I was seated by my own hearth smoking a last pipe and nodding over a novel, for my day’s work had been an exhausting one.

    Again, we have good evidence that Watson married in 1888, so I'd put this story in 1888, too.

  • "The Naval Treaty": 1888

    The July which immediately succeeded my marriage was made memorable by three cases of interest, in which I had the privilege of being associated with Sherlock Holmes and of studying his methods. I find them recorded in my notes under the headings of “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” and “The Adventure of the Tired Captain.”

    I again say 1888 here.

  • "The Resident Patient": 1881

    I cannot be sure of the exact date, for some of my memoranda upon the matter have been mislaid, but it must have been towards the end of the first year during which Holmes and I shared chambers in Baker Street.

    Holmes and Watson first roomed together in 1881, as per "A Study in Scarlet", setting this in 1881 or 1882.

  • "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder": 1894

    At the time of which I speak Holmes had been back for some months, and I, at his request, had sold my practice and returned to share the old quarters in Baker Street.

    I believe Holmes returns early in 1894, and although "some months" is vague, it still likely sets this one in 1894.

  • "The Adventure of the Second Stain": 1888

    Watson notably refrains from dating this one ("It was, then, in a year, and even in a decade, that shall be nameless"), but we saw this referenced in the opening to "The Naval Treaty" as happening in the July after Watson's marriage, which I determined to be in 1888. Watson, therefore, appears to have outwitten himself, and given away the date after all!

  • "The Adventure of the Dying Detective": 1890

    I listened earnestly to her [Mrs. Hudson's] story when she came to my rooms in the second year of my married life and told me of the sad condition to which my poor friend was reduced.

    Again, we know Watson married in 1888, so this should be 1890-ish.

Vaguer dates (7)

  • "A Case of Identity": Around 1888 or 1890

    “Ah,” said he, “I forgot that I had not seen you for some weeks. It is a little souvenir from the King of Bohemia in return for my assistance in the case of the Irene Adler papers.”

    This could be either in 1888 or 1889, shortly after Holmes solved the case, or "some weeks" could mean this is after "The Red-Headed League" was solved, in 1890-ish.

  • "The 'Gloria Scott'" After 1875?

    “You never heard me talk of Victor Trevor?” he asked. “He was the only friend I made during the two years I was at college.

    . . .

    "Finally, he invited me down to his father’s place at Donnithorpe, in Norfolk, and I accepted his hospitality for a month of the long vacation."

    This was Holmes' first ever case, and occurred in his college years. We experience it through Holmes narrating it to Watson, later on. If we could determine those dates, we could determine when this case occurred, although not when Holmes related it to Watson.

    I believe it takes place at least after 1875. The 'Gloria Scott' sank in 1855, and Trevor's father said that "For more than twenty years we have led peaceful and useful lives" after the sinking. However, Hudson claims it's much later, when talking to the father:

    “ ‘Hudson it is, sir,’ said the seaman. ‘Why, it’s thirty year and more since I saw you last.’"

    This sets the story at 1885 at least, if we can trust Hudson. But this seems rather late, and, as we find out, Hudson isn't really a man to be trusted.

  • "The Musgrave Ritual": Around 1880

    Now and again cases came in my way, principally through the introduction of old fellowstudents, for during my last years at the University there was a good deal of talk there about myself and my methods. The third of these cases was that of the Musgrave Ritual, and it is to the interest which was aroused by that singular chain of events, and the large issues which proved to be at stake, that I trace my first stride towards the position which I now hold.

    “For four years I had seen nothing of him [Reginald Musgrave] until one morning he walked into my room in Montague Street."

    This is Holmes waxing about his college days (and shortly thereafter) to Watson, so this occurred about four years after "The 'Gloria Scott'". However, Holmes' description of this as "his first stride" suggests it was more than merely five years before much of his adventures with Watson - making me even more distrustful of Hudson's claim. I therefore think that 1875-ish is a reasonable date for "The 'Gloria Scott'", and 1880 or so is a reasonable rough date for "The Musgrave Ritual".

  • "The Adventure of the Dancing Men": 1898?

    "Last year I came up to London for the Jubilee"

    Hilton Cubitt, the client, is narrating here. If this is a Jubilee of Queen Victoria, then this is strange. She took the throne in 1837, so I would expect Cubitt to be referring then to the year 1892 or 1897. I'd bet that it's the latter, and that this is set in 1898, but I don't have solid proof for this.

  • "The Adventure of the Priory School": After 1900

    “ ‘Holdernesse, 6th Duke, K.G., P.C.’—half the alphabet! ‘Baron Beverley, Earl of Carston’—dear me, what a list! ‘Lord Lieutenant of Hallamshire since 1900. Married Edith, daughter of Sir Charles Appledore, 1888.’"

    This is Holmes reading from a dictionary, so it must be after 1900. I'm going to say 1900 or 1901, given that The Return of Sherlock Holmes ends around 1901, but I really have no more ideas than that.

  • "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter": Between 1895 and 1897

    We were fairly accustomed to receive weird telegrams at Baker Street, but I have a particular recollection of one which reached us on a gloomy February morning some seven or eight years ago and gave Mr. Sherlock Holmes a puzzled quarter of an hour.

    The Return of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1903 and 1904, putting this sometime between 1895 and 1897.

  • "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" - published in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes - is hard to date. A few lines from Holmes describing Josiah Amberly place it after 1897, and seemingly around 1899:

    Holmes glanced over some notes which he had scribbled upon the back of an envelope.

    "Retired in 1896, Watson. Early in 1897 he married a woman twenty years younger than himself—a good-looking woman, too. if the photograph does not flatter. A competence, a wife, leisure—it seemed a straight road which lay before him. And yet within two years he is, as you have seen, as broken and miserable a creature as crawls beneath the sun."

The four novels

  • "A Study in Scarlet" begins with narration from Dr. Watson, describing his military career:

    In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. [. . .] I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

    The Second Anglo-Afghan War was from 1878 to 1880; the Battle of Maiwand, in which Watson was wounded, took place in July of 1880. He then spent several months on a hospital before returning to England, meaning that he arrived home in 1880 or 1881.

  • In "The Sign of the Four", Mary Morstan alludes to the date in her first meeting with Holmes, saying

    "I have not yet described to you the most singular part. About six years ago—to be exact, upon the 4th of May, 1882—an advertisement appeared in the Times asking for the address of Miss Mary Morstan and stating that it would be to her advantage to come forward."

    This then places us in 1888, give or take. We see that Watson has proposed to Miss Morstan at the end of the story, and she accepts:

    "Well, and there is the end of our little drama," I remarked, after we had set some time smoking in silence. "I fear that it may be the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods. Miss Morstan has done me the honor to accept me as a husband in prospective."

    By the time of "A Scandal in Bohemia" - in 1888 (see above) - Watson is married, implying that the wedding took place that year:

    I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.

  • "The Valley of Fear" takes place around 1889; I haven't been able to find as much evidence as I found for the previous two stories - see my linked answer for the details. We do, though, know that it takes place towards the end of the decade:

    Those were the early days at the end of the ’80’s, when Alec MacDonald was far from having attained the national fame which he has now achieved.

  • "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is set in 1889, which we know from a humble stick. James Mortimer was given his walking stick in 1884 (upon leaving Charing Cross Hospital, to marry), it clearly must be later than that. It is presumably quite some time later, because, as Watson observes, Mortimer "has done a great amount of walking with it." Finally, Holmes gives us even more detail when he says

    And he left five years ago

    This indicates that the current year is 1889.

Other chronologies

I've been reading some other chronologies put together by Sherlockian scholars. A notable one was done by William S. Baring-Gould a half century ago, on. I'm pleased to see that it matches up with what I have for many of the cases, but there are some discrepancies I'd like to address when I have the time - so this answer will be updated when I've had a chance to sort it all out.

  • Impressive answer. I'm just curious what edition you use. The Oxford World's Classics? – user800 Aug 14 '18 at 13:16
  • @ChristopheStrobbe I normally use my old 1976 edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Treasury for The Adventures and The Memoirs, but that seems to have gone AWOL, so I picked up several compendiums from the library that together cover the entire canon, beyond what my edition holds. – HDE 226868 Aug 14 '18 at 21:45

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