Baker Street (Part Two) Sleuths, Spies & Scoundrels
In this second instalment on the history of Baker Street, we’ll be taking a look at the famous road’s many connections with detectives, spies and criminals… some fictitious, others very much real…
Of course, no piece on Baker Street would be complete without considering literature’s most famous sleuth… Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes, the ‘consulting detective’ who resided at 221b Baker Street between the years 1881 to 1904, has been a cultural icon for well over a century.
Holmes was the brainchild of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scotsman who, having originally trained as a physician, was blessed with scalpel-sharp intelligence.
Sir Conan Doyle’s time spent working in medicine also resulted in the discovery of the inspiration for Holmes himself.
According to the author, he based his famous detective upon Dr Joseph Bell; a highly respected lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school who was famous for his acute attention to detail. So revered was Dr Bell, that Queen Victoria entrusted him as her personal physician whenever she was in Scotland.
Running his detective agency from Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes was a haphazard, eccentric character whose brilliant mind often resulted in his personality wavering towards arrogance.
Tall, slender and with distinctive features, he was a habitual user of drugs, including cocaine and morphine- both of which were perfectly legal in Victorian Britain.
In his more civilised moments of course, Holmes turned to the violin as an aid to his mind, the sound of which no doubt would have trickled out of the window and down across Baker Street…
Another unorthodox method Holmes sometimes used to facilitate his work was the casual hiring of the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’; a gang of local streetwise urchins who were more than happy to track down elusive clues for the odd shilling or two.
Holmes’ very first published case was 1887’s A Study in Scarlet; a short tale which involved a suspicious death in leafy Brixton and the introduction of Holmes’ faithful colleague, Dr Watson- the long suffering former army doctor through whom the vast majority of Holmes’ stories were narrated.
Although A Study in Scarlet passed by pretty much unnoticed, it wasn’t long before Sherlock Holmes become a national phenomenon.
So popular was he that when Sir Conan Doyle decided to kill Holmes off in 1893’s The Final Problem, there was public outrage!
Eventually, after an eight year hiatus, the Scotsman was persuaded to resurrect the detective, a task which he accomplished with The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Altogether, over the course of forty years (1887 to 1927), Sir Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and 4 novels for his distinctive character, all of which continue to attract new fans to this day.
Throughout the decades, Sherlock Holmes has appeared in countless television, radio and film adaptations and a list of actors who’ve played him- including Peter Cushing, John Cleese, Charlton Heston, Sir Christopher Lee… even Peter cook- would probably stretch the length of Baker Street itself!
The very first actor to play Sherlock Holmes was William Gillette; an American from Connecticut who portrayed the great detective in a 1900 stage adaptation.
William Gillette had a profound impact upon Sherlock’s image, for it was he who introduced the famous deerstalker cap and curved pipe; two iconic symbols which are now forever associated with the character. Even the platforms and corridors of Baker Street tube station are adorned with William Gillette’s influential vision:
The most famous actor to portray Holmes on film is undoubtedly the South-African born, Basil Rathbone, who appeared in 14 film adaptations during the 1930s and 1940s.
More recently, Sir Conan Doyle’s intriguing adventures have been adapted and modernised in the highly popular BBC series, Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as the frequently exasperated Dr. Watson.
Despite being set in the modern day with mobile phones and internet access thrown into the mix, the BBC’s modern adaptation certainly maintains the original spirit and atmosphere of the original stories.
Trivia buffs may be interested to know that the flat used in the BBC’s Sherlock isn’t actually on Baker Street- the road nowadays being far too busy to carry out filming!
The substitute apartment used can be found above Speedy’s sandwich shop (which I heartily recommend!) on North Gower Street; just under a mile from 221b Baker Street and a stone’s throw from Euston station.
Back on the real Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes Museum can be found at 221b.
The popular tourist attraction is housed within an 1815 townhouse and has been decked out to resemble the apartment as described in Sherlock’s adventures. Even the staff are in period costume!
Sherlock Holmes was not the only detective to claim Baker Street as his base… another sleuth; the lesser known, Sexton Blake, also resided on the famous London thoroughfare…
Sexton Blake first appeared in 1893, just six years after Holmes’ debut.
Sexton went on for a lot longer though- his adventures, written by some 200 authors throughout the years, were far more prolific and kept going right up until the late 1970s
Over 4,000 Sexton Blake stories were composed, appearing in various pulp magazines, annuals and comic strips. Television and radio adaptations were also conceived.
Although Sexton shared many deliberate similarities with Sherlock, there were one or two notable differences.
His assistant, ‘Tinker’ was a lot younger than Holmes’ accomplice, Dr Watson, and was also a lot more rough and ready, referring to his partner as the “guv’nor.”
Sexton also had a second faithful pal- a grand bloodhound called Pedro who proved most useful when it came to sniffing out clues.
Personally speaking, I do have childhood memories of Sexton Blake- although not particularly of his stories. My recollections are related to the fact that my father used the character’s name as a rhyming slang term for ‘cake’!
The Walkie Talkie Robbery
One case I’m sure Sherlock and Sexton would’ve loved to have gotten involved in was an audacious bank robbery which took place at the Baker Street branch of Lloyds bank during September 1971.
To this day, the crime- which became known as the ‘Walkie Talkie Robbery’ is steeped in intrigue…
No guns were brandished in the heist, nor were any alarms triggered… instead, the crime was conducted on a quiet weekend via a craftily burrowed tunnel…
The tunnel in question was 40ft long and 5ft deep, and was dug via the basement of a leather goods shop called Le Sac (an estate agent’s shop today) which the crooks had leased for the purpose.
Work on the cheeky subterranean passage was carried out during the dead of night, the excavations having to pass beneath the Chicken Inn restaurant (a branch of Pizza Hut today) which was sandwiched between the bank and handbag shop.
The final section of the break-inn was conducted with the help of a powerful thermic lance, which blasted through the bank vault’s thick, concrete floor…
Late one evening , at around 11pm when the gang were busy chiselling away beneath Baker Street, Robert Rowlands- a radio ham who lived approximately half a mile away on Wimpole Street, was spinning his radio dial in an attempt to contact a friend in Australia.
As Robert sifted through the many frequencies, he came across a crackling, local interruption- a conversation being conducted on walkie-talkies.
Going by the words used, it didn’t take Robert long to work out that the voices belonged to a bunch who were clearly up to no good; the conversation apparently taking place between those tunnelling and a lookout stationed up on the target’s roof.
Although the mysterious voices were clearly nearby, the conversation gave absolutely no clue as to the precise location.
Knowing he was onto something of great interest, Robert managed to capture much of what he heard…. The actual recording of the robbers can be heard in the clip below:
Robert Rowlands contacted the police who, at first, found the radio-ham’s story rather risible.
It was 2am by the time a senior police officer decided to take the matter seriously and ordered detector-vans to the area… however, it turned out that this urgent request was out of hours- no such operators were available and, by the time they were, the communications had long since ceased.
Without any further clues to go on, the Met were now forced to conduct an intensive search of 750 banks across London- a very tall task indeed.
When they checked out the Baker Street branch of Lloyds on the 12th September 1971, it was a Sunday afternoon- the vault was secured with a time-lock and everything appeared to be in order with no signs of interference…. Little did the cops know that, by this point, the thieves were already at work on the other side of the thickset door…
The following Monday morning, the bank staff arrived at work… and discovered that their supposedly impenetrable vault had been ransacked.
The contents of 268 safe deposit boxes had been swiped; the missing cash and valuables amounting to some £3million- £31.7 million in today’s money.
A bold bit of graffiti had also been scrawled upon the vault’s wall- “Let Sherlock Holmes try and solve this”!
The hole which had been blasted from the tunnel into the vault’s floor was just inches wide, suggesting that either a slender woman or a child had been part of the team. Back at Le Sac, rubble from the tunnel’s excavation was discovered- 8 tons in all.
From this point on, the Walkie Talkie robbery starts to become even more mysterious…
For a day or so, the robbery was understandably big news… but then, without any explanation, it suddenly vanished from papers and bulletins.
The following year, an extremely brief article was tucked away in The Times reporting that four men had been found guilty at the Old Bailey in connection with the crime. But, apart from that, there is scarcely any more information about the audacious robbery- and almost none of the stolen property was ever recovered.
It is believed the media silence following the heist was supposedly due to the issuing of a ‘D-Notice’- a government order which prohibited any further coverage of the event.
Issuing such an order in relation to a bank robbery was most unusual, and rumours abound that the silence was encouraged by M15… the theory being that one of the pinched safe-deposit boxes contained scandalous photographs relating to a member of the Royal Family…
Many conspiracy theorists believe that these images (if they ever did indeed exist), were most likely of the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret who, at the time, was closely linked to John ‘Biffo’ Bindon; an infamous actor and bodyguard who held many murky links with London’s underworld….
In 2008, a film based upon the puzzling events at Baker Street was released in cinemas.
Entitled The Bank Job, the adaptation was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais; the creative team behind such classics as The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Widersehen Pet.
WWII… Baker Street & The Special Operations Executive
Baker Street played a vital role during WWII when a collection of buildings on and around the famous road provided a base for the Special Operations Executive– otherwise known as the ‘SOE’; the organisation charged with the task of setting Nazi occupied Europe “ablaze”.
The SOE was informally known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’- and the great-war leader himself referred to the organisation as the ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’.
Those in the SOE had their own personal nickname – they called themselves the ‘Baker Street irregulars’; a humorous reference to the gang of rascals who’d tracked down clues for Sherlock Holmes.
Responsible for recruiting, training and supporting secret agents who were sent deep into Nazi territory, the SOE was ultra-clandestine.
Totally immersing themselves amongst the enemy, SOE agents would carry out acts of sabotage; disabling fleets of military vehicles, de-railing trains, destroying bridges and even assassinating high-profile Nazis.
During the war, over 13,000 people were recruited by the organisation.
Because of their top-secret nature, the SOE couldn’t simply advertise for recruits. Potential agents had to be tracked down and interviewed using the most unorthodox means.
Firstly, SOE bosses had to find people who had the desired level of intelligence for undercover work.
Much of this was achieved by studying lists of all of those who had sent in the correct solution for the Daily Telegraph crossword during the past few years!
Once filtered, potential agents would be asked to attend an interview at the Metropole hotel on Northumberland Avenue, just off of Trafalgar Square (today, the hotel is known as The Corinthia).
During the interview, which took place in a barren room with two chairs and a single light bulb, the candidate would be given very few details about the meeting’s true purpose.
At one point during the session, as an acid test to check out the candidate’s nerve and language skills, the questioner would suddenly switch to speaking in French or German. Those who flustered were dismissed instantly.
The SOE’s main HQ was at 64 Baker Street; an unassuming building which gave no outward clues as to what was going on inside.
It was here that authentic costumes and disguises were created for those going into the field.
Documents- such as passports and foreign ration books- were also forged… with a little help from specially recruited criminals who were known to possess a knack for fakery.
An interesting example of this trickery can be seen below- a moody passport from 1941 bearing Hitler’s name!
Not released until 2002, no details exist as to the true nature of this decidedly dodgy paperwork.
It’s most likely that the hoax was created partially as a welcome, wartime joke and partly as a means of practicing forgery. However, it may also have been intended as a means of spreading disinformation.
In true British humour, the passport describes Hitler as having “a little moustache” and his occupation as “painter”!
A few doors up, at 82 Baker Street, the SOE’s code-cracking team set up shop above St Michael House– the former head office for Marks and Spencer.
Here, enemy signals were deciphered and systems were devised for communicating with agents over in Europe who’d been equipped with their own special radios.
Some of the covert messages were snuck into BBC news broadcasts- seemingly innocent stories which actually contained vital information for those in the know.
Other broadcasts were sent out on obscure short-wave frequencies. Random lists of numbers would be recited; the meaning of which would be meaningless to all but those intended to receive them.
The undercover agent had the necessary chart to decipher the mysterious codes printed on a silk cloth which could easily be concealed if searched.
Known as ‘numbers stations’, these baffling broadcasts have been used by spies for decades.
To this day, if you slowly browse through short-wave radio frequencies , it is possible to pick up the odd numbers station here and there; mysterious, mechanised voices, reciting digits which only a very select few know the true meaning of.
So that spies know they have the correct station, the peculiar channels usually play a distinct jingle before sending out their information.
An example of such a recording can be heard below…
Known as The Lincolnshire Poacher, this numbers station was broadcast on a regular basis for many years and is generally believed to have been run by M16; the organisation responsible for setting up the SOE during WWII:
Other Baker Street buildings related to the SOE included Chiltern Court (where the Scandinavian section was based) and Number 1 Dorset Square, which is parallel to the northern end of Baker Street and was home to the SOE’s French branch.
On Taunton Place (also just to the north of Baker Street) is Ivor Court; an apartment block which acted as an assembly point where the specially elected agents would gather before starting their journey across to enemy territory.
The sheer courage of the SOE was enshrined in one of their most famous agents- Violette Szabo.
Daughter to a French mother and English father (who happened to be a cabbie), Violette was living on Burnley Road, Stockwell in South London at the time of her enlistment.
After a series of daringly intense missions, Violette was captured, tortured and later executed by the enemy.
At the time of her death, she was just 23 years old.
Violette’s story was famously recounted in the 1958 film, Carve Her Name with Pride.
On a far lighter note and returning to the realms of pure fiction, another Baker Street resident who was the bane of evil was none other than cartoon hero, Danger Mouse.
In the show, Danger Mouse- whose theme tune famously described him as being the “greatest secret agent in the world”, resided with his trusty assistant, Penfold in a red pillar box on Baker Street… which the narrator describes as being in Mayfair, even though Baker Street actually falls under Marylebone.
Must’ve been a deliberate ruse to throw his enemies off the scent!
With its wonderfully British sense of humour, Danger Mouse was a cartoon created by Manchester-based Cosgrove Hall; the animation studio who were also responsible for many other classic children’s shows, including Jamie and the Magic Torch, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Count Duckula and a beautiful rendition of The Wind in the Willows.
The cracking intro to Danger Mouse can be viewed in the clip below:
Danger Mouse himself was voiced by David Jason… famous for playing that other great Londoner; Del Boy, the wheeler-dealer from Only Fools and Horses!
The dashing rodent’s arch nemesis was Baron Von Greenback; a particularly wicked toad, whose evil HQ was said to be 99 km to the east of Willesden Green tube station.
The cartoon debuted in 1981 and ran until 1992.
161 episodes were made and, during its heyday, Danger Mouse averaged an audience of 3.5 million viewers per episode, proving that it was just as popular with grown-ups as it was with children. As the show’s creator, Mark Hall (who sadly died of cancer in 2011) said, “the adults watched because of the anarchy.”
Over the years, Danger Mouse has been broadcast in 80 countries, a feat which has no doubt helped to introduce many youngsters to Baker Street… one of London’s most exceptional roads.