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"Let us consider the claims of Whitaker's Almanac" [VALL]

We all remember that when Holmes and Watson solved Porlock's cipher in the early paragraphs of The Valley of Fear, their tool was a slightly out of date edition of Whitaker's Almanack. There is no other mention of Whitaker's (or any other almanac) anywhere in the Canon, but there can be little doubt that it was a frequently used reference at 221B Baker Street, standing on the shelf right next to such other workhorses as Bradshaw's (railway timetables), Crockford's (Church of England clergy), Debrett's (genealogy and careers of the aristocracy), perhaps even Wisden's (cricket).

Whitaker's is still in business, now in its 148th annual edition, and complemented by a website, whitakersalmanack.com.

It is distinctly British, with its emphasis on names and details of British government and business. The North American equivalent probably is (or was, before the Internet was everybody's default reference source) the World Almanac formerly published by the New York World-Telegram. The Old Farmer's Almanac, legendary though it be, is hardly in the same league.

I don't believe I've ever owned an up-to-date Whitaker's, but I do have an old one, and it is an essential tool in my Sherlockian research, as well as evidence of how valuable it must have been at times to Holmes and Watson. It is the almanac for 1893, right in the heart of the Baker Street era. I've lost track of how I came upon it, its original gilt-and crimson leather binding has been replaced, and its digest-sized pages are yellowing, but it is as vital a tool as ever it was.

Behold this volume of 728 pages (plus more than another 150 for advertisements). Holmes speaks accurately when he observes that "It is in double column. Though reserved in its earlier vocabulary, it becomes… quite garrulous towards the end." Every page is crammed with essential information — well, information, anyway — in what I would calculate to be 6-point type ("nonpareil", the British used to call it, as a chart on page 414 confirms).

Like just about any almanac, it begins with astronomical information, including the dates of the seasons, the incidence of Easter and Passover and Ramadan, and "the apparent right ascension of the principal planets at mean noon". Miscellaneous anniversaries also find a place, including the death dates of the Rev. J. G. Wood (he who identified the Lion's Mane) and Emperor Napoleon III.

Beyond that, there are exhaustive lists of peers and baronets, majors-general, Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools, judges, warships, archdeacons, professors — yes, Whitaker's is one of the "several trustworthy books of reference" in which Professor Moriarty's salary could have been ascertained. Oddly, I do not find his name here; but of course, this is the 1893 edition, and he is known to have died at Reichenbach in 1891.

The book continues with information about the Royal Academy (artists), banks, sheriffs, fairs, wheat prices, weights and measures, tax rates, and railway companies. Garrulous passages, interspersed with statistics, running from page 441 to page 571, cover the British Empire and the nations of the world. There are a couple of mentions of Mahratta, though none, so far as I can see, of pigs'-bristles. Page 534, which Holmes and Watson used to solve their cipher, is in this 1893 edition of the book mostly about the economy of Egypt, with a mention of the Khalifa.

The world is vastly changed since Joseph Whitaker, the almanac's first editor, put this volume to press 123 years ago. For that very reason, a Sherlockian (this Sherlockian, at any rate) finds it useful for the information it provides about postage rates, cab fares, the salaries of government employees (the postmaster at Wandsworth earned £450 a year, just like Mycroft Holmes), and the hours of the British Museum. Here, too, you can find details of the hood Watson was entitled to wear as a Doctor of Medicine, and a long description of how one might find the will of a deceased person (Doctors' Commons, to which Holmes refers in "The Speckled Band", was not involved).

And if a cipher message from Porlock ever comes your way, you'll be ready.

Image source: Mike Quinn [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons