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Saving Undershaw:

The Quest to Preserve Doyle’s Abandoned Estate

© 2016 - Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved

Doyle's Children at Undershaw Doyle's children playing on the grounds of Undershaw.

Undershaw, Arthur Conan Doyle’s former family estate, impatiently waited for preservation. Its progressive dilapidation accelerated after the last occupants moved out a decade ago. The sad remains were a far cry from the grandeur exhibited during Doyle’s tenancy - an irony, since it is the place where the writer resurrected Sherlock Holmes after his death at Reichenbach Falls. Thousands of fans around the world wondered if Undershaw will get the same second chance.

Doyle’s first wife, Mary Louise Hawkins, suffered from tuberculosis. After a long period of travel (in actuality, a search for a climate she could tolerate) Doyle received interesting news. Supposedly, Hindhead in Surrey, England, proved an excellent environment for rehabilitation from the disease. Doyle immediately purchased land there and construction on Undershaw quickly began.

It appears the home was designed for the singular purpose of suiting the Doyle clan. Situated atop a rise, it offered sweeping views of its own grounds and the nearby village. The window in the baronial-style entry hall contained the Doyle family coat of arms. A billiard room served as gallery for many of the original illustrations reproduced in the Sherlock Holmes books and stories. Doyle’s den housed a bust of Sherlock, the model for which was the stage actor whose performance Doyle most admired. It was a home the family intended to enjoy for decades to come. Sadly, though, Mrs. Doyle’s illness took its final toll in 1906. Less than ten years after the home was built, the family vacated it.

Undershaw was re-fitted as a hotel shortly after Arthur Conan Doyle sold it. Several decidedly non-period additions were added over the years. When the hotel finally failed in 2004, the estate simply sat untouched. As happens, the gardens reverted to a wild state and the structure crumbled under its own weight. The natural decay was greatly assisted by vandals who stole what they could, and wantonly destroyed what they couldn’t. The estate may have reached demolition stage were it not for several concerned individuals who, in 2009, founded the Undershaw Preservation Trust and kicked off the “Save Undershaw” movement. The resulting publicity generated the much needed attention Undershaw’s preservation deserved.

While the goal of the UPT was to protect Undershaw as a single dwelling containing a museum, the estate will now serve another purposes. The David Forbes-Nixon Charitable Foundation purchased the estate in 2014 and retrofitted the grounds to serve as a school for special needs children. While perhaps not what UPT envisioned, DFN will complete an estimated £2 million in restoration work, and - during the 14-week school holiday period - the home will be open to visits by Doyle and Sherlock Holmes fans.

There was a third-party in this love-hate-love triangle: the English Heritage office, which expressed the view that DFN’s plans might be harmful to its status as a listed, historically significant building. Specifically, the concern was that the additions and alterations might effectively obliterate Doyle’s connection to Undershaw.

Opinion and debate aside, as of this writing DFN has nearly completed the rehabilitation of Undershaw having exercised sensitivity to Doyle’s original intent. The school has community support and can accommodate 40 pupils from Hampshire and Surrey.

Considering Doyle’s search for the best treatment facilities for his wife, one can only imagine that the ability to help others with special needs would please him immensely. PnC

UPDATE - August 2015:

A news release posted on the DFN Charitable Foundation web site addresses the most recent attempts to block the foundation’s renovation plans. It reads:

The recent decision by the court to allow a judicial review into Waverley Council’s handling of the Undershaw planning application is very disappointing and a continued distraction from our efforts to conserve and restore Undershaw and create a new school base for Stepping Stones School.

It is unclear what [Undershaw Preservation Trust Co-founder John Gibson] now hopes to achieve with this latest attempt to block our development.

The site is owned by the DFN Charitable Foundation and will not be sold. We have undertaken to allow some public access in the future for Conan Doyle enthusiasts. Our scheme has effectively saved Undershaw, something Mr. Gibson singularly failed to do over the past ten years. His latest effort will cost council tax payers a very significant amount of money as the council is forced to defend its legitimate right to decide planning matters. Unfortunately, he is only required to pay a small amount towards the councils costs so he has demonstrated he has no care for the democratic decision of the community or for the children with special needs and their families our scheme will help.

For our part this decision changes nothing. We will continue to repair Undershaw and build our school.

We trust that the court will confirm the earlier judgement and throw out this case.


Legal wrangling concluded, plans to make Undershaw part of the Stepping Stones School affirmed.


Building is now complete and the Steppings Stones special school opened in September 2016. The Farnham Herald reports in detail.

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