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During early 1900, Bertram Fletcher Robinson (hereafter BFR) was employed by Cyril Arthur Pearson to work as a journalist for The Daily Express newspaper (launched on 24 April 1900).  Shortly thereafter he was assigned to South Africa and arrived there, in Capetown, during the first week of April 1900.  Whilst abroad, BFR filed 13 dispatches that were subsequently published by The Daily Express between 4 May and 30 June of that same year.

On 11 July 1900, BFR departed Cape Town for Southampton aboard the steamship Briton.  During the voyage he became acquainted with Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle (hereafter ACD) although it is possible that these two men had met previously at the Reform Club in London.  BFR shared a dining-table with ACD and he acted as peacemaker when the latter man reacted angrily to a suggestion made by a French Army officer called Major Roger Duval, that the British Army had used Dum-Dum bullets during the Second Boer War campaign.  ACD later commented upon this incident and BFR’s role, within his autobiography.  BFR’s long-time friend and family solicitor, Harold Gaye Michelmore, later wrote the following letter to the editor of The Western Morning News newspaper (Noel Vinson) about this voyage:

Sir – Referring to your review in today’s issue of your paper of “The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” the statement that a visit to Princetown in 1901 gave him the background for one of the great crime novels, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” is not quite accurate.


The person responsible for the plot of this novel was the old Cambridge Blue Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who was at one time Editor of the “Daily Express” and also of “Vanity Fair”.


He travelled home from South Africa in the same boat with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and discussed many literary matters with him during the voyage.


Fletcher Robinson told Doyle the plot of a story which he intended writing about Dartmoor, and Conan Doyle was so intrigued by it that he asked Fletcher Robinson if he would object to their writing it together.


Fletcher Robinson was, of course, delighted, and in the result Conan Doyle came down and stayed at Park Hill, Ipplepen, which was then the residence of Fletcher Robinson’s father, and they spent several days on the moor together implementing the plot.


The Hound is indebted for the name of his owner to one Baskerville who was at that time the coachman to Fletcher Robinson’s father at Park Hill.


It may be interesting to recall that during the same voyage Fletcher Robinson asked Conan Doyle if it had occurred to him how easy it would be to implicate a man in a murder crime if you could obtain a finger-print of his in wax for reproduction in blood on a wall or some other obvious place near the seat of the crime.


Conan Doyle was taken by the idea and asked Fletcher Robinson whether he intended to use it in his own literary work.  Fletcher Robinson replied: “not immediately,” and Conan Doyle offered him 50 pounds for the idea which Fletcher Robinson accepted, and Conan Doyle incorporated the idea in one of the Sherlock Holmes tales which he published shortly afterwards.

                                                                      H. G. MICHELMORE,
                                                                         Chudleigh, Newton Abbot, Feb. 2 [1949].

[Note that ACD used the fingerprint idea in a story that is entitled The Norwood Builder that was published by Collier’s Weekly Magazine on 31 October 1903].

BFR and ACD were photographed with other passengers (including Henry Nevinson a reporter for The Daily Chronicle), aboard the S.S. Briton, shortly before it docked at Southampton on 28 July 1900.  Shortly thereafter, Pearson promoted BFR to debut-editor of The Daily ExpressBFR now wrote regular articles about various topics in columns 4-7 on page 4 of the paper’s London News section.  Between 28 September 1900 and 24 April 1901, BFR had 14 articles published by The Daily Express and 1 poem published in Pearson’s Magazine.  However, BFR was primarily engaged with editing his eighth and final volume for the Isthmian Library that was entitled Ice Sports (London: Ward, Lock & Company Limited, 1901).
On 25 April 1901, BFR dined at the London home of his friend and former editor, Max Pemberton.  At this time, 37 year-old Pemberton was working as an author and was residing with his wife (Agnus), their six children and five servants at 56 Fitzjohn’s Avenue, Hampstead (NW3).   Pemberton later recounted the following details about this dinner in an article published by the London Evening News newspaper:
The late Fletcher Robinson who collaborated, with Doyle in the story, was dining at my house in Hampstead one night when the talk turned upon phantom dogs.  I told my friend of a certain Jimmy Farman, a Norfolk marshman, who swore that there was a phantom dog on the marshes near St. Olives (near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk)  and that his bitch had met the brute more than once and had been terrified by it.  ‘A Great black dog it were,’ Jimmy said, ‘and the eyes of ‘un was like railway lamps.  He crossed my path down there by the far dyke and the old bitch a’most went mad wi’ fear…Now surely that bitch saw a’ summat I didn’t see…’
Fletcher Robinson assured me that dozens of people on the outskirts of Dartmoor had seen a phantom hound and that to doubt its existence would be a local heresy.  In both instances, the brute was a huge retriever, coal black and with eyes which shone like fire.
Fletcher Robinson was always a little psychic and he had a warm regard for this apparition; indeed, he expressed some surprise that no romancer had yet written about it.  Three nights afterwards, Fletcher Robinson was dining with Sir [sic] Arthur.  The talk at my house was still fresh in his mind and he told Doyle what I had said, emphasising that this particular marshman was as sure of the existence of the phantom hound as he was of his own being.  Finally, Fletcher Robinson said ‘Let us write the story together.’  And to his great content Sir [sic] Arthur cordially assented.
Between 26 and 29 April 1901, BFR accompanied ACD on a golfing weekend at the Royal Links Hotel in Cromer, Norfolk. ACD was at this time, recovering from a recurrence of enteric fever (typhoid) that he had caught whilst working as a volunteer physician in South Africa during the previous year.  This weekend can be dated from an entry in ACD’s accounts book that shows he made a payment of £6.0.0. to the ‘Royal Links Hotel, Cromer’ on 30 April 1901.  Furthermore, a local weekly newspaper entitled the Cromer & North Walsham Post published an article on 4 May 1901, in which it is reported that ACD had been “making a short stay at the Golf Links Hotel.”  It was later reported in an article written by one J. G. Hodder Williams for a periodical entitled The Bookman that during this trip:

Robinson...mentioned in conversation [Sunday 28th] some old-country legend which set Doyle’s imagination on fire.  The two men began building up a chain of events, and in a very few hours the plot for a sensational story was conceived and it was agreed that Doyle should write it.


ACD wrote a letter to his mother whilst at Cromer in which he stated in a footnote:

Fletcher Robinson came here with me and we are going to do a small book together ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ – a real creeper.

ACD also wrote another letter to Herbert Greenhough Smith, the then editor of The Strand Magazine, in which he again described the story as a "real creeper”.  ACD offered the story to Greenhough Smith but insisted that, “I must do it with my friend Robinson and his name must appear with mine”.  He added that “I shall want my usual 50 pounds per thousand words for all rights if you do business.”

Thereafter, ACD decided that the book needed some masterful central figure and reflected, “Why should I invent such a character when I have him already in the form of Sherlock Holmes?”  He again contacted Greenhough Smith and offered him a second version of the same novel, a version which would incorporate Holmes. Greenhough Smith agreed to pay ACD £100 per thousand words for the Holmes version.

Shortly after the trip to Cromer, BFR visited Dartmoor with a friend called Reverend Robert Duins Cooke.  Together these two men mapped-out prospective settings for a Dartmoor-based story.  Later, The Rev. Robert Cooke recorded the following details about this trip to Dartmoor in a letter that was published by The Western Morning News:

Sir [Noel Vinson] – May I add to Mr. H. G. Michelmore’s interesting letter on “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”  My father – Prebendary R. D. Cooke – was Vicar of Ipplepen at the date you mention, 1901.  He was a great authority on Dartmoor.  Mr. B. F. Robinson asked his advice and help in planning the background of his story.


My father and Mr. Robinson went up to the Moor together, and under my father’s guidance the details of the background were filled in on the spot!  My father was very proud of this and often told his children how he had helped to write a very well known book.


My sister, Mrs. Graeme, of Shaldon, has a copy of the book presented to my father by Mr. B. F. Robinson, and inscribed: “To Rev. R. D. Cooke from the assistant plot producer, Bertram Fletcher Robinson.” 

                                                                                     H. R. COOKE,

                                                                                      Seaton Vicarage, Feb. 7 [1949].


After his trip to Cromer with BFR, ACD began writing the narrative for the first instalment of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Chapters I-II of XV).  This manuscript arrived at the offices of The Strand Magazine by about mid-May 1901.  Records belonging to Sidney Paget, the artist employed by The Strand Magazine to illustrate The Hound of the Baskervilles, reveal that he was paid £34 13s. by the end of May for completing seven illustrations to accompany the first instalment.  

Between 31 May and 2 June 1901, ACD and BFR visited Princetown together and they stayed at the Rowe's Duchy Hotel.  During this period, they were driven about the Dartmoor by one Henry Baskerville, a coachman who was employed by BFR’s father, Joseph Fletcher Robinson.  It is notable that a character with both the same Christian name and surname is central to the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  A reporter called H. J. W. Dam had an account of BFR’s trip to Dartmoor with ACD published by The Sunday Magazine of The New York Tribune, which reads as follows:

One of the most interesting weeks that I have ever spent was with Doyle on Dartmoor. He made the journey in my company shortly after I told him, and he had accepted from me, a plot which eventuated in the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. Dartmoor, the great wilderness of bog and rock that cuts Devonshire at this point, appealed to his imagination. He listened eagerly to my stories of ghost hounds, of the headless riders and of the devils that lurk in the hollows – legends upon which I have been reared, for my home lay on the boarders of the moor. How well he turned to account his impressions will be remembered by all readers of ‘The Hound’.
Two incidents come especially to my recollection. In the centre of the moor lies the famous convict prison of Princetown. In the great granite buildings, swept by the rains and clouded in the mists, are lodged over a thousand criminals, convicted on the more serious offences. A tiny village clusters at the foot of the slope on which they stand, and a comfortable old-fashioned inn affords accommodation to travellers.
The morning after our arrival Doyle and I were sitting in the smoking-room when a cherry-cheeked maid opened the door and announced ‘Visitors to see you, gentlemen’. In marched four men, who solemnly sat down and began to talk about the weather, the fishing in the moor streams and other general subjects. Who they might be I had not the slightest idea. As they left I followed them into the hall of the inn. On the table were their four cards. The governor of the prison, the deputy governor, the chaplain and the doctor had come, as a pencil note explained, ‘to call on Mr. Sherlock Holmes.’
One morning I took Doyle to see the mighty bog, a thousand acres of quaking slime, at any part of which a horse and rider might disappear, which figured so prominently in The Hound. He was amused at the story I told him of the moor man who on one occasion saw a hat near the edge of the morass and poked at it with a long pole he carried. ‘You leave my hat alone!’ came a voice from beneath it. ‘Whoi’! Be there a man under ‘at?’ cried the startled rustic. ‘Yes, you fool, and a horse under the man.’
From the bog we tramped eastward to the stone fort of Grimspound, which the savages of the Stone Age in Britain, the aborigines who were earlier settlers than Saxons or Danes or Norsemen, raised with enormous labour to act as a haven of refuge from marauding tribes to the South. The good preservation in which the Grimspound fort still remains is marvellous. The twenty-feet slabs of granite – how they were ever hauled to their places is a mystery to historian and engineer – still encircle the stone huts where the tribe lived. Into one of these Doyle and I walked, and sitting down on the stone which probably served the three thousand year-old chief as a bed we talked of the races of the past. It was one of the loneliest spots in Great Britain. No road came within a long distance of the place. Strange legends of lights and figures are told concerning it. Add thereto that it was a gloomy day overcast with heavy cloud.
Suddenly we heard a boot strike against a stone without and rose together. It was only a lonely tourist on a walking excursion, but at sight of our heads suddenly emerging from the hut he let out a yell and bolted. Our subsequent disappearance was due to the fact that we both sat down and rocked with laughter, and as he did not return I have small doubt Mr. Doyle and I added yet another proof of the supernatural to tellers of ghost stories concerning Dartmoor.
On 1 June 1901, ACD wrote a letter to his mother from Rowe’s Duchy Hotel in Princetown on Dartmoor  in which he reported: 

         Dearest of Mams

Here I am in the highest town in England.  Robinson and I are exploring the moor together over our Sherlock Holmes book.  I think it will work splendidly – indeed I have already done nearly half of it.  Holmes is at his very best, and it is a highly dramatic idea which I owe to Robinson.


We did 14 miles over the Moor today and we are now pleasantly weary.  It is a great place, very sad & wild, dotted with the dwellings of prehistoric man, strange monoliths and huts and graves.  In those old days there was evidently a population of very many thousands here & now you may walk all day and never see one human being.  Everywhere there are gutted tin mines. 


Tomorrow [Sunday 2 June] we drive 16 miles to Ipplepen where R’s parents live.  Then on Monday Sherbourne for the cricket, 2 days at Bath, 2 days at Cheltenham.  Home on Monday 10th. That is my programme.

It is know from other sources that ACD did, indeed, play cricket for the Incogniti School Touring Team at Sherborne in Somerset between 3 and 4 of June, at Coombe Park in Bath between 5 and 6 of June and at Cheltenham College between 7 and 8 of June.  ACD must therefore have left Devon on either the 2 June or very early on 3 June.

On 17 June 1901, the proof for the second instalment of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Chapters III-IV of XV) was returned to ACD and he informed the editor of The Strand Magazine that the third instalment (Chapters V-VI of XV) was nearly finished.  At the end of June, ACD forwarded the fourth and fifth instalments (Chapters VII-IX of XV) to The Strand Magazine.  This squares with the claim that ACD made within the letter to his mother (see 1 June 1901), that he had completed the writing of nearly half of the story.
During mid-July 1901, ACD went on holiday to the Esplanade Hotel in Southsea, in Hampshire.  He had recently completed writing the narrative for the sixth and seventh instalments of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Chapters X-XII of XV).  ACD sent corrections to The Strand Magazine from Southsea. The first of nine monthly instalments of The Hound of the Baskervilles appeared in the British edition of The Strand Magazine during the following month [see BFR Blog entitled ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles (Part II)’].  


By Paul Spiring © 2007.

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