Saturday, August 15, 2015
by Dave and Janet Bensley
Presented to the Occupants of the Empty House on 7 August 2015
In “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” Watson visits his friend Holmes and finds Holmes deep in conversation with Jabez Wilson, a man who would be entirely unremarkable except for his blazing red hair. Holmes asks Watson to stay and lend his assistance, claiming that he has never heard a case a bizarre as Jabez Wilson’s.
What do we know? Let’s see what we can dig up...
The Red Headed League paid Wilson to copy pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica, forbidding him from leaving the office for any reason during his four-hour shifts. In addition, Wilson worked for the League for eight weeks and was paid handsomely for his efforts.
The tunnel was dug four hours a day for the Victorian six-day work week for eight weeks by two men, Duncan Ross and John Clay . However, Ross did not put in the full four hours per day in the beginning, as he was supervising and dropping in on Wilson. Based on the time Wilson was out of his establishment, that would provide 192 hours for tunneling. Average volume excavated per hour with removal and shoring done by hand would be around 2 cubic yards per hour. Allowing for minimal operational tunnel space of 2 square yards, a reasonable estimate of the length of the tunnel would be around 190 yards from Wilson’s business. Since Holmes and Watson could see the Bank after they rounded the corner from Wilson’s pawnshop, the target was clearly nearby, thus the tunnel distance would be short.
The men most likely began the tunnel in the floor of Wilson’s cellar; digging down and under the pawnshop’s foundation. It must be kept in mind that the tunnel would have to continue to gently slope downward to some degree towards the bank, as the entry used by the men came up through the floor of the bank basement.
In England, a cellar is an underground level or any large underground room used for utilities or storage, but generally not considered habitable. Cellars do not have a separate entrance, unlike English basements which do have a separate entryway and are usually finished enough to be habitable. Since access to Wilson’s cellar would be through the pawnshop (the first floor of the building), this creates another problem for the diggers – where to put the dirt from the tunnel. The location of our adventure, Saxe-Coburg Square, is described as “a poky, little, shabby-genteel place, where four lines of dingy two-storied brick houses looked out into a small railed-in enclosure, where a lawn of weedy grass and a few clumps of faded laurel-bushes made a hard fight against a smoke-laden and uncongenial atmosphere.” Based on this description the pawnshop is a two-story building, which most likely provides a flat (apartment) on the second floor. Wilson himself says that once he found the League dissolved and he searched for Mr. Ross, afterwards he “went home to Saxe-Coburg Square.” During Holmes’s questioning of Wilson, Jabez mentions that “He (Spaulding/Clay) and a girl of fourteen, who does a bit of simple cooking and keeps the place clean–that’s all I have in the house, for I am a widower and never had any family. We live very quietly, sir, the three of us; and we keep a roof over our heads and pay our debts, if we do nothing more.” So Clay had access to the cellar essentially 24/7. That would explain how Clay could have access on a Saturday night for the heist. In addition, it also provides time for Clay – and probably Ross, let in by Clay – to spend their evenings/nights removing the soil from the cellar and depositing it in the railed-in enclosure across the road from the shop.
But what of the other potential witness, the girl? If the girl remained on the upper floor, she most likely would not have heard the digging being done during the day. Housekeeping, even the “simple cooking” and keeping the place clean variety, would be hard work over long hours. By evening the lass would be exhausted and retire to bed as soon as she could since she would be required to be the first up to start the fires and breakfast. But during the day there was no guarantee that she would not descend to the pawnshop in order to go out on errands (remember, Wilson admits that he often went weeks without setting foot outside his door), or even the to cellar for some item.
In digging this tunnel, what obstacles did the men have to overcome? What type of soil were they digging through?
Holmes tells Wilson that he saw on the knees of Spaulding’s trousers exactly what he wanted to see. This could only be clay residue or staining; if the soil were wet the trousers would surely be changed. In addition, the soil weight would impede tunneling and sediment removal. We therefore conclude dry soil. To put the digging into perspective:
One cubic yard of clay soil weighs roughly 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. When the same soil is wet, the weight balloons to 2,300 to 3,000 pounds.
One cubic yard of sandy “acidic soil” weighs 1,100 to 1,400 pounds. When this soil becomes saturated the weight can top 3,000 pounds.
A standard size pickup truck of today can hold approximately 2 cubic yards in its bed. Therefore visualize 190 pickup trucks hauling off and dumping soil to comprehend how much soil was removed and relocated.
So where were Saxe-Coburg Square and the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank located within London? It could not be in the saturated zone of London since we have dry trousers and no mention of pumping. It is doubtful Wilson’s establishment would be on a main thoroughfare given the removal of considerable sediment and the fact that Wilson, and his neighbors, appear unaware of such activity. The fact that the trousers were clearly soiled but not sufficiently damp enough to warrant a change of clothes clearly favors London’s clay rich soil zones.
Did this tunnel need to be large enough for a rail for a car to hold all that gold? Or would a sledge pulled up by a rope, perhaps attached to a wench in the cellar, do the trick? Thirty thousand gold napoleons packed in crates holding 2,000 coins packed between layers of lead foil would be heavy and awkward to move through a tunnel. If each crate held 2,000 coins, then there would be 15 crates to move. [A 20 franc gold napoleon, the most common, weighs 6.45 grams so 2,000 would weigh 12,900 grams or 28.44 pounds – not including the weight of the crate or the lead foil. If each crate weighed between 30 to 35 pound, then the men would need to move 450 to 525 pounds, making seven trips for one man and eight for the other.]
Or, more likely, would the two men simply take the gold out through the gates and doors of the bank to the back road through the side door which Mr. Merryweather brought Holmes, Watson and Jones into the bank? Remember, Harry Houdini, a close friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, proved over and over that it was much simpler to escape from inside a locked room or vault than to get in through the locks. Ross and Clay planned to simply walk out with the gold. It seems that even Holmes did not observe the horse and cart that the two had waiting in that back road; or perhaps he simply did not comment upon it to Watson.
Below, you can click on the link to see twt one of a kind maps. 1895 London will be a large file map you can enlarge to see the streets and mews of 1895 London. The other map is an overlay developed in 1895 to assist in digging the tunnels for the London Underground that exists today. Ironically, there is clay exactly where the story siad there would be clay. -- Sherlock
Just click to find maps: 1895 London Master Map / London Soil Map