A Scion Society of The Baker Street Irregulars
“Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, MD, Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.”
– The Problem of Thor Bridge (THOR)
One of the great pleasures reading and rereading the Canon is the realization that there is always an unanswered question lurking somewhere in the text. No matter how often one returns to these tales, some new uncertainty or challenge is always to be found a recurring theme is the fact that while we know much about what happened in the sixty stories, we often have little information as to why it happened however, recent research into the life of another fascinating historical figure may yet shed some light on one of those yet-to-be answered questions.
In THOR, Watson tells us:
Somewhere in the vaults of the bank Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered in dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are pieces that illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes at various times to examine.
We now know that Watson kept his notes, memoirs, and records in that box. How much would any Sherlockian give for a few hours of time reading through the contents of that container! But while we are told that Watson banked at Cox and Co., we’re not told why he chose that particular establishment. Surely there were other good banks in London at that time. Perhaps there were some that were more convenient to Watson’s place of residence. Yet, of all the financial institutions, Watson chose Cox and Co.,
The basis for Watson’s choice may be discerned from a reading of a new and illuminating book on the financial aspects of the life of that always fascinating and larger-than-life figure, Winston Churchill. In No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money (Picador, New York, 2015), author, and financial expert David Lough examines the minute details of Churchill’s income and expenses throughout his entire life.
As is well known, Churchill attended Sandhurst and began his career in the military. Lough tells us that, while still a student at Sandhurst, Winston asked his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, for money “to be sent each month to a new account that he had opened with the army’s bankers, Cox and Co.” (34).
So Cox and Co. served as financial agents and bankers for the military and both Churchill and Watson were in the Army. How did Cox and Co. attain this role? Lough points out that:
Cox and Co. had served British army officers since 1758, when Richard Cox became secretary to Lord Ligonier, Colonel of the Grenadier Guards. Among the tasks Ligonier delegated to Cox was the disbursement of pay to his officers and men. Cox was so efficient that by 1815 he had been asked to perform the same task for the Household Brigade, Royal Artillery and almost all cavalry and infantry regiments. (34)
By the late 1870’s, when Watson was sent to serve with an infantry regiment, Cox and Co. had long been the banker to the Army. Watson simply went with tradition and used the bank for his financial business, continuing with them after he left military service. If his accounts, including his wound pension, were with Cox and Co., then it would be reasonable to store his valuable records, his dispatch-box, in the vaults of his regular bank.
This is a simple enough explanation of Watson’s choices. But is there more to the story, perhaps something quite unexpected? Again, Lough’s research provides us some direction.
In 1896, Churchill writes to his mother seeking her help in arranging a transfer with the army. He tells her that:
A few months in South Africa would earn me that S.A. Medal and in all probability the [British South Africa] company’s star… Thence hot foot it to Egypt – to return with two more decorations in a year or two – and beat my sword into an iron dispatch box. (39)
Perhaps Churchill’s was a box of iron, rather that tin. But it was a dispatch-box nonetheless. After gaining fame in both Egypt and South Africa, perhaps Churchill did obtain a dispatch-box after all. He likely purchased it rather than fashioning it himself out of his sword. Yet it would have served the same purpose as Watson’s box: A storage place for papers and records.
Might these be the most personal records and papers of a man whose life was at least as remarkable and important as that of Sherlock Holmes? It’s astounding that both Watson and Churchill, each having served in India, each banking with Cox and Co., would make use of a dispatch-box.
In perhaps the most extraordinary of all ironies, these two boxes, replete with astonishing stories, might have been stored in the vault of the bank used by both Churchill and Watson. Cox and Co. had its offices on Craig’s Court so they could only have gone to one venue. Might they have in adjoining spaces? Might both Watson and Churchill have gone to the vault to add papers to their boxes at the same time? While we now know why Watson banked at Cox and Co. and stored his tin box in their vault, we will never know if he and Churchill did their bank chores at the same moment. Yet the thought of these two great men, sitting in their cubicles at Cox’s vault, each perusing their records and memoirs, thinking of the great events and deeds each had witnessed, is a lovely thought indeed.
Dr. Robert S. Katz, the 29th Garrideb, is the current head-mastiff of the Sons of the Copper Beeches of Philadelphia and is the founder of the Epilogues of Sherlock Holmes of New Jersey. Katz holds the investiture of Dr. Ainstree in the Baker Street Irregulars and is a Two Shilling award winner in that group. He has served as co-editor of several volumes of the BSI Manuscript Series, with the next volume due out in early 2018.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Watsonian, Volume 4, Number 1, the official journal of the John H. Watson Society.