Other Items of Note
January 20, 2022


Victorian people dining in a fancy restaurant

“I was standing at the Criterion Bar, when some one tapped me on the shoulder, and turning round I recognized young Stamford, who had been a dresser under me at Barts. The sight of a friendly face in the great wilderness of London is a pleasant thing indeed to a lonely man. In old days Stamford had never been a particular crony of mine, but now I hailed him with enthusiasm, and he, in his turn, appeared to be delighted to see me. In the exuberance of my joy, I asked him to lunch with me at the Holborn, and we started off together in a hansom.”

A Study In Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Throughout this series, I’ve been looking at how ACD canon Holmes and Watson could be women in the late Victorian era. Last time, we explored the New Woman movement, which opened up the chance for women to have education, careers, and an independent life in spite of the “angel of the home” Victorian ideal.

What I love most about writing historical fiction, and what drew me to creating a female Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson set in the Victorian era, is how you can find whole stories in the smallest historical details. For example, the struggle women went through to gain the right to earn a medical degree, and the way the male medical students fought against that. That right there is deserving of a whole novel, movie, or TV show! (Please, somebody, do this!)

On a more mundane level, something as simple as going to a restaurant can have an entire subversive history we don’t even know about—because for many of us, we are privileged enough that we just haven’t needed to consider it. But throughout the world and throughout history, women have had to fight for even these small freedoms, and this fight is ongoing today.

Dining In the Victorian Era

For British women, the ability to dine in a public place evolved over the course of the 1800’s. In the Regency Era, it wouldn’t have been considered very respectable for women to dine in public, even if they were being escorted by men. But by the time of Sherlock Holmes (1880’s), it was pretty common for women to dine out with men or even on their own.  

Because of the increase in female workers and shoppers, there was more of a need for places for these women to eat. Tea shops catered to working women, and department stores opened their own dining rooms so that women shoppers would stay longer and spend more money (food courts, anyone?). 

Hotels and other kinds of venues also welcomed women diners. Some had women-only dining rooms for women eating out without male company, but there are also reports of groups of women dining in the main dining rooms as well. In the late 1880’s there was even a restaurant that only served women!

Tipping was a common and expected practice, since waiters might not make any wages at all and might even be paying the restaurant to work there! There was not a standard tipping rate—you tipped what you felt like tipping, or…not at all—and the tips were often rounded up and divided among the waitstaff on a weekly basis. Sometimes, unscrupulous waiters or restaurant managers would steal the week’s tips or divide them unfairly.

Women became waitresses, and it was considered a step up from domestic service. Many waiters were from countries outside of Britain. Some waiters would stick it out and end up becoming managers or even opening their own restaurants. In a city like London, you could find lots of international cuisines, including curry, French, Italian, Kosher, and German. 

The Holborn Restaurant

The Holborn started out in the 1840’s as a public swimming pool. By some accounts, it was dirty and smelly—not a very pleasant place for recreation. But the water was drained off and the pool covered, and the place was turned into a “casino”—which apparently meant at that time a dance hall, not a gambling hall. 

The restaurant was opened there in 1874, and by the late 1870’s it had a reputation for being a very elegant, tasteful place to dance, dine, and listen to music. Various writers describe the white and gold-gilded entry, marble floors and tables, and the “rich and tasteful” decorations. 

The dancing saloon had balconies and alcoves with marble tables, and there was an orchestra at one end, far enough removed so that the music didn’t interfere with the conversations at the tables. To dance, one would go downstairs to the dance floor.

Entry cost 1 shilling per person. 

Common menu items included turtle soup, mulligatawny, “Ribs of Beef and Horseradish. Brussels Sprouts,” “Bouchées a l’Impératrice,” and Caroline Pudding, St. Honoré Cake, or Kirsch Jelly for dessert, along with various ices. (Please note, I have absolutely no idea what several of these are, but they sound very interesting!)

Dinner at the Holborn in 1879 cost on average 3 shilling, 6 pence per person. I don’t know if that included the 1 shilling entry fee or not, but it did include listening to the band.

Women At the Holborn

There was apparently a separate women’s dining room, but women commonly ate in the main dining spaces as well. Many actresses and the mistresses of wealthy men frequented the Holborn, but so did women of the middle and upper classes of society. They were considered to be respectable, fashionable, and well-behaved. 

However, according to some reports, if some of the women got a little tipsy and started raising their skirts too high or otherwise being “unruly,” they would get kicked out. No word on if the same standard was applied to male customers. 

Speaking of double standards, though, one intriguing tidbit I found was this description of same-sex couples dancing. Note the different reaction to the female couples versus the male couples:

“Occasionally you will see two girls waltzing, and men who have sat too long at the dinner-table will, once in an evening, get up together and dance a “stag dance.” But this is not encouraged by the master of ceremonies, as the dancing of a pair of male bipeds is not calculated to help the business of the place, and it is instantly suppressed, amid cheers and laughter.”

Daniel Joseph Kirwan, Palace and Hovel : Phases of London Life, 1878

Given all this, it seems totally plausible that a female Dr. Watson and Miss Stamford could easily have lunch at the Holborn. They could have chosen to dine in the main balcony dining space overlooking the dance floor (which may have been somewhat empty during the day), or they could have chosen to eat in the Ladies Grill-Room if they felt more comfortable there. 

The biggest problem for Dr. Watson would have been affording such a meal for herself, and possibly for Stamford, given her dwindling funds at the time. They would have been better off, perhaps, finding a cozy tea shop for less. But maybe Dr. Watson wanted to impress her fellow medical student, or maybe she was simply tired of scrimping and being alone and recovering from illness and injury and just wanted to pretend for a little while that she could be like the other carefree, independent women enjoying a meal out that day.

Whatever the reason, the Holborn it was. And from there, she and Stamford would go on to meet her destiny. 

Next Time: Victorian Women Who Cross-dressed? It’s more likely than you think! 

(This is an ongoing series about the historical case for how canon Sherlock Holmes and John Watson could have been women. It is leading up to the launch of my new web novel series on Patreon, Ladies of Baker Street—a sapphic/wlw, Victorian women adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.)