Pondicherry Lodge is the most memorable of the many London locations in The Sign of Four – a suitable name for the retirement home of an old India hand such as Major Sholto. Conan Doyle locates the house in Upper Norwood – a building which ‘stood in its own grounds, and was girt round with a very high stone wall topped with broken glass. A single narrow iron-clamped door formed the only means of entrance’. Once through that door, ‘a gravel path wound through desolate grounds to a huge clump of a house, square and prosaic, all plunged in shadow save where a moonbeam struck one corner and glimmered in a garret window. The vast size of the building, with its gloom and its deathly silence, struck a chill to the heart.’
Conan Doyle knew Norwood well. He lived there for three years and was keenly involved in the local cricket club and in the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society (as I discover from Alistair Duncan’s The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood years). But he moved there in the year after The Sign of Four was published, and there’s nothing to indicate that he was familiar with the locality at the time he devised the Sholtos’ forbidding family home.
That hasn’t prevented two very different schools of research prising into the meaning of Pondicherry Lodge. Students of colonial and post-colonial literature have explored the novel’s engagement with India and Indians – indeed one writer has commented on the Lodge’s ‘orientalist character both inside and out’ and mused about the meaning of its transnational name (Pondicherry was a French enclave in southern India) so choosing to overlook the possibility that Conan Doyle was attracted simply by the resonance and rhythm of the word.
The remarkably assiduous body of Sherlockians have taken on the more daunting task of locating an (please forgive the heresy) imagined Lodge. Not so much the building that Conan Doyle had in mind as the model for Pondicherry Lodge, but the one that he should have had in mind – the house that most approximates to the fictional version.
Holmes enthusiasts are now generally agreed that Kilravock House on Ross Road in Upper Norwood, built as the retirement home of one Major Thomas Ross, is the best fit. It stands close to the brow of quite a steep hill – a huge, squat (‘clump’ was Conan Doyle’s word) mid-nineteenth century mansion, now divided into thirteen flats, with a commanding southerly outlook over the Crystal Palace football stadium and far beyond.
The spot has a slightly out-of-the-way feel. Across the road is the cosy but somewhat neglected Grangewood Park – its bandstand, museum and café all long since swept away.
On a spring afternoon, squawking ring-necked parakeets flit around the park, flashing their bright green plumage – not as menacing as an Andaman islander with a blow dart but an enduring touch of the sub-continent none-the-less. AW