Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, Louise, whom he called “Touie,” suffered from tuberculosis. Conan Doyle had taken to moving the family about from Egypt to Switzerland in search of a healthier climate.
Expatriate Canadian crime writer Grant Allen, a friend of Conan Doyle, praised the healthy air of Hindhead, in Surrey, England, of having cured him of tuberculosis. Conan Doyle visited Hindhead, about 40 miles south of London, and decided it was his “English Switzerland.”
Conan Doyle wrote to his mother in May 1895: It is not merely Grant Allen’s case which gives us hopes that the place will suit Touie, but it is because its height, its dryness, its sandy soil, its fir trees, and its shelter from all bitter winds present the conditions which all agree to be best in the treatment of phthisis[tuberculosis]. If we could have ordered Nature to construct a spot for us we could not have hit upon anything more perfect.
Conan Doyle purchased land in Hindhead and drafted the first designs of the house, passing them on to architect and friend Joseph Henry Ball to complete. In the impressive double-height entrance hall was a display of swords and a stained glass window of Doyle's heraldic family crests. The house included eleven bedrooms, a dining room that could seat 30, Conan Doyle’s study, a wood-paneled drawing room, a billiard room, and servants’ quarters. Also on the grounds were a power plant for electricity, a stable which held six horses, a coach house, a garage, and a tennis court. With Louise’s ill health in mind, doors hinged both ways were installed per Conan Doyle’s instructions, and the house’s main staircase was built with shallow steps to allow her to ascend and descend easily. Apart from the house of Thomas Hardy, Undershaw is the only historic, literary house in England designed by the resident writer.
Sir Arthur named the house “Undershaw,” from the word “shaw,” meaning a small copse or wood. Conan Doyle writes: “…we moved into the new house, which I called Undershaw—a new word, I think, and yet one which described it exactly in good Anglo-Saxon, since it stood under a hanging grove of trees.”
Undershaw was where Conan Doyle lived when he received the knighthood in 1902. It was from Undershaw that Conan Doyle championed the cause of George Edalji, falsely imprisoned for animal mutilation. While living at Undershaw Conan Doyle wrote The Great Boer War. Here was where he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, resurrecting Sherlock Holmes in The Empty House as well as in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. While at Undershaw Conan Doyle wrote a play about Sherlock Holmes which he and William Gillette later revised for Gillette to portray Holmes on stage.
In 1906 Louise succumbed to tuberculosis. In 1907 Conan Doyle married Jean Leckie and they moved from Undershaw. From late 1907 until 1921 Doyle rented out the home, hoping his son Kingsley might someday take up residence. Sadly, Kingsley fell ill and died, and in 1921 Doyle sold Undershaw for £4,000.00.
In 1935 Undershaw was sold to a local family and for nearly 70 years was used as a small hotel and restaurant visited by enthusiasts of Doyle and Holmes. An addition was added, but the original window frames, doors, fireplaces, stairs, stables and a well remained unchanged.
In 2004 Undershaw was sold for around £1 million to a developer called Fossway Limited. From this moment on, the story of Undershaw takes a most dramatic and devastating turn. From 2004 through the present day Undershaw has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Windows are broken, water has poured in and damaged ceilings, walls and floors, and vandals have left their mark on the the building through damage and theft.
In 2010 the Waverley Borough Council in Haslemere, UK, granted planning permission to Fossway to carve up this literary, historic house into three terraced houses divided by solid block walls, with five more homes to be built on the site. This will forever destroy the integrity of Undershaw. If this plan goes through Undershaw will be lost to us and future Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes fans forever.
The Undershaw Preservation Trust protested the plan and development has been put on hold pending a Judicial Review on 23rd May 2012. Nothing whatsoever has been done to Undershaw during this time and it continues to deteriorate.