Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife


Doyle’s adventures in the Antipodes

Arthur Conan Doyle had trained and practised as a doctor until the success of his Sherlock Holmes stories allowed him to give up medicine and become a full-time writer.

His autobiography, Memories and Adventures, reveals a more than passing interest in the supernatural as early as the 1880s. In his account of his voyage to Australia in 1920, Wanderings of a Spiritualist, Doyle repeatedly refers to the many prominent scientists who held similar beliefs.

With the outbreak of war between Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899 he volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry but was turned down – possibly because of his age, possibly because of his size – most likely a combination of the two.

He was a big man, six feet tall and tipping the scales at 16 stone, with fair hair and a long upper lip on which he cultivated a luxuriant moustache that he combed to either side in what was known as the ‘English’ style.

If the British army refused to accept him as a soldier, however, they could hardly refuse him as a medical man. 

By December 1899 it was clear that the recently formed Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) was struggling to cope with the huge number of casualties. Hearing that a friend of his, John Langman, was staffing and equipping a private field hospital to be rushed out to South Africa, Doyle volunteered his services. Thus, eight years after he had given up medicine for writing, Arthur Conan Doyle, internationally famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, became once more Dr Doyle, physician to Langman’s Field Hospital.

From September 1920  to March 1921, Conan Doyle visited Australia and New Zealand for a lecturing tour about spiritualism.  He was accompanied by his wife and three small children.

His first step on Australian soil was in Perth, which he explored briefly before travelling to Adelaide.

Adelaide was Conan Doyle’s first official stop on his public speaking tour. (Conan Doyle was distantly familiar with the city long before he visited he had briefly mentioned it in two of his Sherlock Holmes stories.) 

In his first lecture in Adelaide’s Town Hall in September 1920, the prolific creator of Sherlock Holmes and confirmed spiritualist, delivered a rousing lecture, ‘How To Talk With The Dead’.  It was the first presentation of an epic five-month speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand for the 61-year-old author.

After the First World War, his Spiritualist sympathies had strengthened into deep conviction following a series of personal tragedies. In October 1918, his eldest son Kingsley – who had been wounded by shrapnel while fighting in France – died from Spanish flu. The following February, his brother Innes succumbed to the same illness. Within months, two of his nephews and two brothers-in-law were also dead

Doyle told an audience of 2,000 that he had “made contact” with his son and brother with the help of a medium.

“It is hard to talk of such intimate matters, but they were not given to me for my private comfort alone, but for that of humanity,” he later wrote in Wanderings.

“If all are as courteous and kind as you are, I look forward with less trepidation to what lies ahead,” he told the audience

A report in The Daily Herald stated: “Of the lecturer’s sincerity there can be no doubt, and his enthusiasm likewise is beyond question, but at the conclusion of the lecture there seemed to be a feeling of disappointment.  It impinged on the one side on religion and on the other side on science, and since he was neither a theologian nor an expert in science one might reasonably ask what his credentials were for talking on spiritualism.”

Before moving on to Melbourne for more lectures, he spent eight days exploring Adelaide and its surroundings

 “I have seen few such cities, so pretty, so orderly and so self-sufficing,” he wrote of the city of churches. He visited several places of interest, including the local museum, botanical gardens and art gallery, where he was particularly impressed by H.J. Johnstone’s Evening Shadows. The highlight, however, was an outing to Humbug Scrub, a nature reserve north-east of Adelaide, in the company of local conservationist Thomas Paine Bellchambers (“a sort of humble Jeffries or Thoreau, more lonely than the former, less learned than the latter.”) Conan Doyle loved the place, writing lyrically in a newspaper of the flora and fauna:

“There are vivid colour impressions – deep green of the Australian spring; late grey of eucalyptus trunks with untidy moulting bark; light yellow of budding wattle; purple-pink of the carpet of knotgrass; and everywhere the familiar home flowers, but all a little altered in their new home – the dandelion, the buttercup, the mustard plant, each imprinting its tiny yellow dot upon the variegated groundwork of Nature.”

Conan Doyle was amused by “a dear little possum which got under the back of my coat, and would not come out.” He saw a blue-headed wren, kangaroos, wallabies, lizards, an eagle and “noisy myna birds which fly ahead and warn the game against the hunter. Good noisy little myna!” He urged the local authorities to ensure the place remained protected. “Do this, and your grandchildren will extol your wisdom. Don’t do it, and in ten years it will be too late.” Happily, they followed his advice. Humbug Scrub remains a wildlife sanctuary to this day.

Wanderings of a Spiritualist

Doyle’s report of his tour is a curious work. Part travel journal, part mission statement, the book is rich in descriptions of time and place and provides a fascinating portrait of Australian society after the First World War. Wanderings, it must be said, is occasionally tainted by the racism typical of its time and contains accounts of seances and Spiritualist meetings that are of little interest today. Yet it remains a work of deep historical value.

Most interesting are the small vignettes, the various detours and digressions that are interspersed throughout the narrative. Conan Doyle describes going down a mine at Bendigo, seeing shearers work at Nerrin-Nerrin, being stung by a jellyfish on Manly beach, cruising across Sydney Harbour on a steamship and spending a relaxing week at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains. Other episodes include a day trip to the Dandenongs, a meeting with a young South Australian war poet and a hot and humid train trip to Brisbane. Conan Doyle comments insightfully upon the recent severe drought and the nation’s political landscape. On a more personal note, he records the strong opposition he faced from some sections for promoting his beliefs.

A keen sportsman in his youth, Conan Doyle attended the VFL Grand Final and was greatly impressed by Australian Rules football, which he compared favourably to soccer and rugby. “It was suggestive,” he observed with a hint of mischief, “that the instant the last whistle blew a troop of mounted police cantered over the ground and escorted the referees to the safety of the pavilion.” He also saw the touring English cricket team play against Victoria in Melbourne (where the great Australian off-spinner Hugh Trumble gifted a cricket ball to Conan Doyle’s son Denis) and against New South Wales in Sydney. With great prescience, he pondered the threat to England’s Ashes hopes posed by Australian all-rounder Jack Gregory. “We have no one of the same class; and that will win Australia the rubber unless I am – as I hope I am – a false prophet.” On this point at least, Conan Doyle was no such thing. Gregory was the second-highest wicket-taker and fourth-highest run scorer, helping Australia to accomplish a 5-0 clean sweep, the first time such a result had been achieved in Test cricket.

As much as he enjoyed the Australian landscape, Conan Doyle also had genuine affection for the local people. Even when expressing dislike for particular aspects of the culture, the whiff of snobbery one might expect from a British upper-middle-class man of letters is entirely absent. Conan Doyle saw Australians as essentially friendly and good-humoured, albeit with a quietist streak:

“In some ways the Australians are more English than the English … The Australian is less ready to show emotion, cooler in his bearing, more restrained in applause, more devoted to personal liberty, keener on sport … than our people are. Indeed, they remind me more of the Scotch than the English.”

High praise indeed from a native of Edinburgh! But he was also critical of what he perceived as local vices. He argued that the overwhelming emptiness of the Australian interior had fostered an unhealthy, insular mentality. In words that anticipated Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country by more than 40 years, Conan Doyle wrote:

“Australians do not take a big enough view of their own destiny. They … are inclined to buy the ease of the moment at the cost of the greatness of their continental future … That little fringe of people on the edge of that huge island can never adequately handle it. It is like an enormous machine with a six-horsepower engine to drive it.”

More than once, he remarks upon Australians’ tendency to drink to excess. “We have been shocked and astonished by the number of young men of decent exterior whom we have seen staggering down the street, often quite early in the day,” he wrote. It was a curse that went hand-in-hand with Australia’s addiction to horse racing, which Conan Doyle decried as a “real drag upon [the nation’s] progress”:

“It goes on all the year round, though it has its more virulent bouts, as for example during our visit to this town when the Derby, the Melbourne Cup, and Oaks succeeded each other. They call it sport, but I fear that in that case I am no sportsman. I would as soon call the roulette table a sport. The whole population is unsettled and bent upon winning easy money, which dissatisfies them with the money that has to be worked for.”

Conan Doyle was not among the crowd of thousands that flocked to Flemington for the running of the Cup that year. Instead, he took his family down to St. Kilda beach where he spent a quiet day recuperating and “preparing for more strenuous times ahead.”

Doyle had a longstanding interest in mystical subjects and continued with his spiritualist mission until his death in 1930.


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