Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Adelaide

In 1920 Conan Doyle had been invited to come to Australia to give a series of lectures on spiritualism. On Saturday, 25 September 1920, at the Adelaide Town Hall, Doyle gave his first Australian lecture to a full house of 2000 listeners.

Spiritualism was a subject that intrigued people from all walks of life especially after the horrors of the first World War when so many grieving relatives longed to communicate with their departed loved ones. At a luncheon Conan Doyle attended in Sydney 90% of those present admitted to communicating with the dead.

In 1917 Conan Doyle had publicly declared himself a spiritualist while giving a lecture to the London Spiritualist Alliance. From that moment, he took up the spiritualist cause with the passion and the enthusiasm that he put into most areas of his life.

His campaigning for the cause meant Conan Doyle became known as the St Paul of the Spiritualist movement. This led to his being invited to give a series of lectures in Australia by the Australian Spiritualists. He was accompanied by his wife, his three children – Denis, Adrian and Jean – and his secretary Major Wood.

The Doyle’s sailed from England arriving in Adelaide in September 1920.  Although it was recovering from a two year drought Conan Doyle described Adelaide as a charming city and had kind words for its amenities, parks and museums as well as its press… back then it was the Register and the Advertiser.

However, he was not a complete stranger to Adelaide. Two stories from the Holmes canon mention Adelaide. In the 1911 story, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, Holmes speaks of “…an exceptionally astute and dangerous man. The Rev. Dr. Shlessinger, missionary from South America, is none other than Holy Peters, one of the most unscrupulous rascals that Australia has ever evolved….he was badly bitten in a saloon-fight at Adelaide in ’89….”

The other story that mentioned Adelaide was The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (1904) in which Miss Mary Fraser (Lady Brackenstall, the victim’s wife) was from Adelaide.  Miss Fraser travelled to England in 1895 aboard the Rock of Gibraltar the largest and best boat of the Adelaide-Southampton shipping company. Australia gets a mention in several other stories.

Whilst in Adelaide Conan Doyle, like many tourists, visited the vineyards and plants of a local wine maker. Recently this vineyard was identified as Penfolds Winery at Magill. He was most impressed by our wine and predicted that one day the world would know the quality of our wines.

Conan Doyle also spent some time in the company of Mr Thomas P Bellchambers who lived amongst the “wild creatures in the back country” at a place about 50 kilometres out of Adelaide. This area is today known as Humbug Scrub Wildlife Sanctuary and is still run by the Bellchambers family.

Being a devout spiritualist, he had meetings with mediums at the hotel where he was staying, the Grand Central Hotel. This stood on the corner of Pulteney and Rundle Street. The hotel is no longer there, but a plaque commemorating Conan Doyle’s visit can be seen.  

He also dined with some of Adelaide’s prominent doctors and was a popular interview subject for journalists. Inevitably they would ask him about Sherlock Holmes, but Conan Doyle didn’t have time to talk of Holmes. He was here for a higher purpose and that was to convert Australians to Spiritualism.  

Conan Doyle found a lot of support for Spiritualism in Australia, but also, as one would expect, a lot of abuse as well. ‘Pure evil’ one newspaper called him and he was sent many abusive messages. “May you be struck dead before you leave the Commonwealth” read one.  Even before he landed on our shores the Presbyterians of Australia had been praying that his ship be wrecked on the voyage here. Not very Christian. And it must be pointed out that Conan Doyle saw Spiritualism as an extension of Christianity not a replacement.

After Adelaide he travelled to other Australian cities and to New Zealand. At this time he learnt his mother had died at the age of 83. Though saddened, Conan Doyle felt that they would continue their relationship through his psychic contacts.

He left Australia on February 11, 1921 after almost 5 months. He had mixed thoughts on Australia (too much empty space, threatened strikes wherever he went, ignorance and bias of press, drunkenness everywhere). He did however like the Australian people whom he found to be “more English than the English”.

Conan Doyle devoted the rest of his life to the spiritualist cause. Although he wrote Sherlock Holmes stories until 1927 he kept them free of any spiritualist ideology perhaps knowing that Holmes kept the money coming in and he didn’t want to get off-side with the paying public.

Conan Doyle was a tireless worker. In Nov 1928 he left for a 5 month lecture tour of South Africa. Here he began to have dizzy spells and chest pains. He rested at home but the next year he was off on another tour of Holland, Denmark, Stockholm and Oslo. Here his health took a turn for the worst. He still lectured but was in constant pain. He returned to England where he found himself having no choice but to have complete bed rest. However, he was never out of the public eye. He still replied to correspondence and even appeared in a movie-tone newsreel shot in his rose garden.

Early in 1930 he showed signs of improving health. One last mission was to lobby against an ancient piece of legislation concerning the prosecution of mediums. He gave his prepared statement at the Home Office on July 1st 1930. But the experience left him exhausted. A week later on July 7, 1930 he died at his home in Crowsborough, looking out at the Sussex countryside surrounded by his family. He was 71 years old.

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