The Irregular Special Railway Company

The Irregular Special Railway Company, is to my knowledge the only Sherlock Holmes society devoted to the Master and railways, and hence our sub-title ‘THE Sherlock Holmes Railway Society’. We were founded as a branch office (please forgive the pun) of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company in 1992, but remain an independent organisation running our own meetings, including a joint outing with our parent company each year. Hence while extending an open hand to all members of the Franco-Midland at our meetings you do not need to be a member of that company to join the Irregular Specials. Indeed many of our members are derived from those with a purely railway interest, and to this end we have forged good links with The Pullman Society.

In February this year we will have celebrated our third Birthday by visiting two of London’s railway museums, tracing the journey made by Holmes and Watson to Woolwich and in the evening held our annual dinner at the Brick Lane Music Hall. Apart from our annual dinner each year, we organise three other meetings. There is a full weekend of Holmesian/railway events and during the summer a London walk around some of the canonical locations. The final meeting is usually railway orientated and if possible done in conjunction with one of the other Holmesian/railway societies in the country.

When I look back I am immediately reminded of some of the highlights and funnier moments that I have encountered over the past three years as the Station Master. Our first solo meeting was a great success though there were a few problems. In fact, this meeting has now been dubbed by the 18 founding members who participated as the ‘I almost perceive that you have been in Afghanistan’ meeting. It took the form of a walk around some of the canonical locations in the City of London, and included a special visit to the Sherlock Holmes room in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where Holmes and Watson first met. I had made arrangements to collect the key to the room the day before from the doctor who presently occupies this office. As the rooms on the staircase were not numbered I made a special note of the fact that the room was opposite a workman’s ladder fastened to the wall. When our group arrived at this point the following day the key to my surprise would not fit the lock. I tried in vain for half an hour to find a porter who could help before abandoning the idea. When I returned, what I thought must have been the wrong key, on the Monday the helpful doctor (who had lent me the key) asked if the visit had been a success, and cheerfully informed me that he had moved the ladders to the floor above so as not to cause an obstruction to our group on the stairway. We did make a more successful return visit the following year!

That first meeting also turned into something of a marathon, since I had planned the walk by cycling round the various locations, not realising that the five miles or so would take people a little longer to complete on foot! Those who survived that, and the observation quiz, were treated to some well earned refreshments by the Tower of London where our first outing finally drew to a close.

Those walks have now become one of our annual highlights. This year we are having a slight variation on the theme by extending this event to be an all day Holmesian Monopoly trail of London. Members will try to visit as many places on the Monopoly board as possible and solve clues varying in difficulty at each location. The Holmesian Monopoly Trail, the four Sherlock Holmes London walks and the Sherlock Holmes Guide to the Thames have now been published by the company as booklets, and are on sale to the general public at Westminster Libraries, and through other outlets such as the Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company.

The society have had two all weekend events centered around the Peak District and Kent/Sussex respectively. The former was quiet memorable in two respects. First I had hired a minibus thinking that members might like to travel by this luxury mode of transport rather than have to drive themselves. How wrong I was as only one person took advantage of this offer. All was not lost, for to recoup the society some money we literally hired ourselves out in Chesterfield on the Friday night as a minibus service for the local disco! The second feature of the weekend, which brought a feeling of déjà vu was the fact that once again I had trouble in finding our destination (the Peak District Railway), due on this occasion to there being no signs for it in Darley Dale. It is always embarrassing having to halt your convoy of cars in order to go and ask directions from a paper shop.

Another activity in which the society has become involved is the hosting of Murder Mystery evenings usually by kind invitation of Gillian Howie at the Kent & East Sussex Railway. The guests certainly seem to enjoy the evenings nearly as much as the actor members. Each evening certainly brings back memories in its own right. There was the time the lights on the train failed. Although this added to the atmosphere it was unfortunate that nobody could read the clues. Then there was the time Holmes was arrested at the conclusion of the evening – for the murder of the script. Finally there was the time the victim died before delivering his lines containing a vital clue, and consequently had to make a reappearance as a ghost.

The society has itself branched out recently, when it became involved in the joint marketing and design of an Inspector Morse tie in conjunction with the Thames Valley Police. As the reader is probably aware by now there are many facets to this society!

The society now has between 50 and 100 members and is growing in strength. We were certainly fortunate to have the late John Bennett-Shaw as our first Honorary Member, along with several executive members who help on a consultancy basis. These include Bernard Davies, Catherine Cooke and Philip Weller whose names are familiar to most in the world of Holmes.

With talent such as this and other contributions from the likes of Roger Johnson, our annual journal of scholarly articles along railway lines has also gone from strength to strength. In addition to the annual journal (which now runs to 60 pages) members receive four newsletters, the Company Directory of members interests, and the chance to particiapte in any of the society meetings.

Antony Richards works as an applications scientist for Molecular Simulations in Cambridge when not lecturing for the University of London or the Open University. He is a Freeman of the City of London, and Basketmaker, and amongst other interests is the Group Visits Organiser for the Royal Institution of Great Britain.