“Ah London!” I said, affecting a worldly air, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained. Where else would I go?”
“You’re not a lounger or idler.” She frowned at me, but her eyes twinkled. Then she grew more somber. “What did happen? You’re as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut. Except your face—you’ve been ill.”
“After I finished training at Netley, I was attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. They made me an Assistant Surgeon.”A Study In Garnet, chapter 2, by Meredith Rose
As I mentioned last week, I’m going to continue with some peeks into cool historical stuff I’ve found relating to each chapter of A Study In Garnet. If you have something in particular you’d like me to talk about, I’d love to hear from you!
These posts are supporting the launch of a new Victorian femlock series The Ladies of Baker Street. (a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes series, where Holmes and Watson are both queer Victorian women) I’m publishing the first book in serial form on Patreon, and I’m posting the first 10 chapters for free.
I’ve been posting about how the lives of some late-Victorian women are a lot different than our stereotypes. I’ve covered topics such as how a female Watson could have gained her MD from the University of London in 1878, and what Holmes’ education at Girton College (women’s college, part of Cambridge) would have been like, as well as the New Woman movement and women who cross-dressed.
I am putting up new chapters of A Study In Garnet every Saturday. In chapter 2, Dr. Siân Watson goes to the Criterion and has a chance meeting with an old friend, medical student Maude Stamford.
At first, I thought about writing about the Criterion, but a lot has already been written about it, including the role it played as a meeting place for gay men in the late Victorian era. It’s fascinating stuff, but others have already said it as well as I could, so I will point you in their direction.
Instead, I thought you might find it interesting to learn a bit more about Watson’s experience at Netley and in the Army.
Our Dr. Siân Watson served as an Assistant Surgeon during the Second Afghan War. This was an absolutely pointless act of imperial aggression in which essentially Britain threw a temper tantrum because Afghanistan allowed a Russian envoy into the country and didn’t allow an equivalent British envoy. “You let Russia in and you didn’t let ME??? Don’t you know I’m the British Empire? What if Russia tries to take away MY INDIA? How very dare! I’ll show you!”
And so they sent 50,000 troops, mostly from the British Indian Army to Afghanistan to express their displeasure. After 2 years, casualties and related deaths on both sides topped 14,000. Britain was able to declare overall victory and installed their own choice of ruler who became known as the “Iron Amir” for his violent rule, harsh taxes, and imprisonment of anyone who criticized him. Some scholars say that some of the problems that face Afghanistan today can be traced back to the decisions the Iron Amir made, decisions carried out with the support and encouragement of the British Empire.
Interestingly, the war wasn’t very popular at the time with British citizens back home who also felt it was unnecessary and overly aggressive, not to mention incredibly expensive.
There’s a lot of inconsistency in the ACD Sherlock Holmes canon about Watson’s time in the army. The Northumberland 5th Fusiliers didn’t go to the parts of Afghanistan that Watson describes, and they weren’t involved with the Battle of Maiwand, which is where Watson was shot. But as anyone who has researched ACD canon knows, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t one to sweat historical accuracy or continuity. So the rest of us who are writing fanfic or pastiches or adaptations must do the best we can. I decided to stick mostly to the canon details for my story because it’s become rather iconic for Watson’s character.
Here’s a few interesting things to note:
“Netley” refers to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, which is near Southampton. This hospital offered training for doctors entering the Army Medical Department twice a year—in April and October—lasting 5 months each. Doctors had to already be qualified to practice medicine in Britain, and during their training, they studied things like how to bury dead people, the military’s approach to surgery, hygiene, pathology, and how to choose the best sites for latrines, kitchens, and dressing stations. They also did a full dissection of the human body and had to go to at least 12 classes on midwifery.
I would imagine our disguised Siân Watson would have excelled at the midwifery since medical training for women at the time prioritized midwifery and the care of women and children.
As an army surgeon, Watson would not have had a military rank. Doctors in the army at the time had privileges nearly equivalent to officers, but didn’t receive the same amount of pay or prestige.
Watson would have been an Assistant Surgeon, and she would have made somewhere around 10s a day. (Assuming that there wasn’t a huge pay increase between 1870, when the reference document I’m using was published, and 1879) She wouldn’t have been eligible for a pay raise for 5 years, at which point she would be bumped up to 12s per day. At 15 years of service, she would be making 17s per day and would be eligible to become a Surgeon, making 1 pound per day.
(As a side note, if you read my post about James Barry, if he had been alive and still in the Army as Inspector-General in 1870, he would have been making about 2 pounds per day after 25 years service.)
Her main duties in Afghanistan would have included collecting injured soldiers off the battlefield (which is how she would have most likely gotten shot), treating them, assisting with major surgeries, and leading minor ones. She would have had an orderly assigned to her as a kind of medical assistant, and we know from canon that her orderly’s last name was Murray and that he saved her life when she was shot.
On her return to England after the Medical Board discharged her, she would have gone back to Netley to recover with the other injured soldiers. I don’t have any idea if Murray would have been able to accompany her during this time, but I decided that since I already had given her an uncle who was able to pull strings for her, that he would have been able to arrange this as well.
As a wounded officer (or the Medical Department equivalent of), she would have been eligible for a temporary pension equivalent to her full pay of between 3 and 12 months. I chose 9 months for my story.
According to one article I read, she would have had an account set up for her at Cox & Co. bank which handled the accounts for the Northumberland 5th Fusiliers. Once she was fully discharged, it would have been converted to a civilian account.
However, a discussion about military pensions on a British ancestry discussion forum stated that direct deposits into accounts didn’t happen until the 1890’s, and that before then, pension payments were made on a monthly or quarterly basis in cash. The former soldiers would have to go to one of the local “Staff Office of Pensioners” on pay day and line up to receive their money. Since my Watson doesn’t want to cross-dress anymore, she might have authorized a courier to pick up her money and deliver it to her.
So, in my story, Watson is due to receive 9 months full pay, which would be about 137 pounds. This is a little less than 18,000 GBP (about $24,000 USD) in 2022 money. You can understand why she is worried about money at the start of the story!