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‘The crowds were thick’.... Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Irving at the SBT

Playwright Jefny Ashcroft’s Bram and the Guv’nor is a free, professional play written using archive materials from the RSC collections held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In this blog, Annette Ormanczyk explores what visitors will be able to see in an accompanying exhibition of archive materials.

Annette Ormanczyk
Bram Stoker collection Conan Doyle letter
RL2/6/390 Letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Henry Irving

The keenly anticipated Bram and the Guv’nor opens at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on 15 May. Written by playwright Jefny Ashcroft, it is based on the RSC’s Bram Stoker Collection. This event also offers a unique opportunity to see an exhibition of archival material from the collection, which is looked after by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A rich selection of items will be on display pertaining to the work of Henry Irving, his business manager Bram Stoker and his leading lady, Ellen Terry, during their time at the Lyceum Theatre between 1878 and the first years of the twentieth century.

Among the exhibition’s ‘star’ items is a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed author of Sherlock Holmes, to Henry Irving. What was Conan Doyle suggesting, and why was he directing his request to Henry Irving, the star of the Lyceum and most famous actor of the day? What was the relationship between the two men- how did Irving react to Doyle’s ideas?

Arthur Conan Doyle began work on his famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the 1880s. At the same time, he published The Mystery of Cloomer- a tale in which the author’s fascination with spiritualism was revealed. Sherlock Holmes became established in earnest with the publication of The Sign of Four in 1890, and it is in this very novel that Conan Doyle’s association with the Lyceum is revealed. It is here that Miss Morstan brings Watson and Holmes after receiving a note instructing her to arrive at seven o’clock. ‘At the Lyceum Theatre’ wrote Conan Doyle, ‘the crowds were already thick at the side entrances’. The play Sherlock Holmes subsequently opened at the Lyceum in 1901, with a cast that included a young Charlie Chaplin, although, interestingly, not Henry Irving.

 The association between Conan Doyle, Stoker and Irving was long-standing, and it testifies to the wider impact of Bram and the Guv’nor on the contemporary literary and artistic scene.

Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859- 1930), unknown artist. Photo credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

It was also one significant association of many. As the Lyceum’s reputation grew, it attracted the elites of the day. Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Alfred Lord Tennyson and George Bernard Shaw were all part of Irving, Stoker and Terry’s circle. Politicians and royalty also followed the stars of the stage, and both the Prince of Wales and William Gladstone took a keen interest in Irving’s fortunes.

The play and exhibition therefore address so much more than Bram and the Guv’nor’s relationship, important though this was in transforming the Lyceum into a major artistic and social force. They hone in on the lives of these individuals and their social networks, illuminating their profound effect on the late Victorian literary and artistic landscape. They also help us to understand the influences upon and context of works which remain hugely significant today.

If your curiosity is piqued, this letter, as well as many others,  is available to read online at, thanks to the work of the Henry Irving Foundation Centenary Project.

For more information about the Bram and the Guv’nor event, and to book your tickets, please visit


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