While the dog that did nothing in the night-time may be more famous to the world-at-large, being cited in essays, court opinions and as the title of an award-winning play, Watson’s mysterious bull pup may have the edge to fame within the Sherlockian world.
When Holmes and Watson decide to be roommates at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet
, Holmes lists his shortcoming and asks the doctor to do the same:
“I keep a bull pup,” I said, “and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I'm well, but those are the principal ones at present.”
As the bull pup does not physically appear in STUD or any of the subsequent adventures, many have assumed it was only a metaphor. Peter H. Wood’s
article in the Spring 2014 issue of Canadian Holmes
, “I Keep a Bull Pup…,” is one of the most comprehensive looks at the issue with the division of the arguments falling into two camps which Wood calls the Literalist school
(the bull pup is a dog Watson owned or intended to own) and the Metaphorical school
(the bull pup is a gun or a bad temper).
Wood concludes that he can’t come to a conclusion to which camp has the most compelling evidence to be likely correct; he finds the evidence wanting in both cases.
I have taken my own look at the bull pup question and I, too, will look at the Literal and Metaphorical schools but I will begin at a school that Wood did not look at: the Doylean.
The Doylean School
The Doylean School, by necessity, looks at the matter outside the Grand Game. When Arthur Conan Doyle refers to a bull pup in his fiction he is always referring to a canine, whether an actual, physical dog, as in the short stories:
“The Winning Shot” (1883):
"Eh, Jock; see to mun's moo', rayther! — Blessed if he bean't foamin' like Farmer Watson's dog — t' bull pup whot died mad o' the hydropathics."
“A Straggler of '15” (1891):
He's got a bull pup o' mine that I gave him when I took the bounty.
Or the novel Beyond the City (1891):
"Finally, when the cabman, all top-heavy and bristling, had staggered off up the garden path, there emerged in a very leisurely way from the cab a big, powerfully built young man, with a bull pup under one arm and a pink sporting paper in his hand.
"The bull pup which they had seen upon the day before bolted from its hiding-place, and scuttled snarling from the room.
She came to the door with them, and as they glanced back they saw her still standing there with the yellow bull pup cuddled up under one forearm, and the thin blue reek of her cigarette ascending from her lips."
Or the play co-written with J. M. Barrie: Jane Annie; or, the Good Conduct Prize (1893):
“And the man has come with the bull-pups.”
“The band got five shillings between them from Missus to go away, but she had to pay extra for not taking the bull-pups.”
Or a canine in metaphor or simile as in the novels:
Micah Clarke (1889):
“Let us see what sort of sport the bull-pups make in the baiting of him!”
“In particular, friend Foster pinked the King in such wise that his Majesty ran howling down the street like a gored bull-pup.”
The Great Shadow (1892):
"Maybe, if we could have seen seventy mothers weeping for their lads, we should not have felt so pleased over it; but then, men are just brutes when they are fighting, and have as much thought as two bull pups when they've got one another by the throttle."
So when Doyle wrote Watson saying he had a bull pup, we can be sure he was referring to a canine.
The same can be said for references to bulldogs and bull terriers, they were either actual canines, similes or metaphors:
"There is Buller, the famous Cambridge quarter, only ten stone in weight, but as lithe and slippery as an eel; and Jackson, the other quarter, is just such another — hard to tackle himself, but as tenacious as a bulldog in holding an adversary." (The Firm of Girdlestone, 1889)
And those who have the physical characteristic of the animal:
"And there rides Ney with his red head, and Lefebvre with his bulldog jaw… (“How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom,” 1895).
So what, then, became of Watson’s dog? As the manuscript to A Study in Scarlet is apparently not extant, we cannot interrogate it as to Doyle’s intent. We cannot see if there are further passages or mentions of the bull pup that have been excised, either by author or publisher."
Martin Booth, in his biography of Doyle, The Doctor and The Detective
, remarked of the author’s writing of the Holmes tales:
"Good though the stories are, they do contain a lot of slapdash writing….This careless attitude towards the stories came about because Conan Doyle regarded them as little more than light fiction, good little money-earners. The effort of painstaking research that he applied to his historical novels, was, he felt, wasted here…" (p 155)
"One of the inconsistences in the stories, which has resulted in a bizarrely amusing consequence, concerns Watson’s dog, which was a bull pup, either a bulldog or a bull terrier. It appears in A Study in Scarlet but is never mentioned again….The truth of the matter is that Conan Doyle simply forgot the creature, but this has not prevented bizarre interpretations as to the fate of the temporary canine." (pp 156-7)
I’ll now enter the Game and open with the relevant entry from S. Tupper Bigelow’s An Irregular Anglo-American Glossary of More or Less Unfamiliar Words, Terms and Phrases in the Sherlock Holmes Saga
[keep a] bull-pup: Watson lists this as one of his shortcomings as a potential flatmate. The meaning of the phrase has bedevilled Sherlockians for decades, with opinions divided into three schools:
*young bulldog[.] Objection; there is no further evidence of such a dog in the Canon.
*a short thick pistol or revolver. Objection: the first firearm called by this name was not manufactured until 1937. (New Official Gun Book, ed. Charles R. Jacobs, c. 1951)
*Anglo-Indian or army slang for “have a bad temper.” Objection: no non-Sherlockian lexicographic source, contemporary or otherwise, has been found for this definition. The most authoritative source is this contention by Jacques Barzun, a celebrated man of letters, in his 1975 book, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers:
“The curious fact about that the dog is that he is never heard of again---and no wonder, for ‘keep a bull pup’ in the 1880s was army slang for ‘have a bad temper.’ The author probably put the phrase in the army doctor’s mouth for vivid local color.”
In correspondence, Mr. Barzun commented that the interpretation was supplied probably in the 1930s by a retired English army Captain, Humphry Fry, an admirer of Sherlock Holmes who was an English master at St. Bernard’s School in New York. Mr. Barzun said he and the Captain “often exchanged views about details in the stories. I must have asked him why Watson’s dog never appeared at 221B Baker Street.”
Jack Tracy opted for the [same] definition in his 1977 Encyclopedia Sherlockiana but later wrote to an inquirer that his sources were “oral history and tradition.”
The Metaphorical School The two major classes of the Metaphorical school: One that a bull pup is a revolver or firearm of some kind and two it is slang for a bad temper. As Bigelow’s entry under the bull pup heading points out there is scant evidence for either.
Bull pup as slang Jack Tracy in Encyclopedia Sherlockiana, aside from a never-appearing dog, lists “To keep a bull pup, in Anglo- Indian slang, means to have fits of quick temper.” To quote Wood from his article:
"In the bibliography he cites as one of his authorities, Sir Henry Yule’s “Hobson—Jobson,” an encyclopedia of Anglo-Indian slang, first published in 1903. As Sir Henry died in 1889, the compilation presumably covers Watson’s time in the great subcontinent. There is no citation in this work for “Bull-pup,” “bull (pup)” “Keep a bull-pup,” or any similar expression save for “keep a pig” alluded to above [The only “keep” phrase of any relevance seems to be “keep a pig,” which was Victorian slang for owning two rooms and subletting one to a friend, who used the room for his or her own purposes.], when challenged as to his source for the expression by Thomas D. Puller, Tracy replied: “... I have no scholarly or academic sources which may be formally cited for the Sherlockiana entry on ‘bull pup.’ My sources are informal (the Times allusions mentioned in the Annotated and the ESJ [sic] letters columns) and oral (the same world travellers you have probably been talking to yourself). I settled on the ‘temper’ definition because (1) the oral/informal references are so diverse in origin and so consistent in meaning and (2) it is the only explanation which makes sense in context."
Wood did a search of six slang dictionaries and found no entries defining bull pup as slang for temper. When one does a Google search today for bull pup as slang one cannot find an independent listing, Anglo-Indian or otherwise, as “having a temper,” only those that list the Sherlockian contention of Watson’s bull pup being so. The closest we come to it being British military slang is “bull--High polish on Parade Boots.” (Source: Glossary of British Military Slang and Expressions
; this article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of The Passengers' Log
, the magazine of the Sydney Passengers.
Bull pup as a firearm
In the world of firearms there is a type of weapon called a bullpup—one word as opposed to two words. It is a weapon, originally referring to a long gun, having its action (the mechanism that loads, locks, fires, extracts and ejects the ammunition) behind the trigger, creating a shorter weapon compared to rifles with the same size gun barrel.
The first such weapon was the British-made Thorneycroft carbine (no relation to Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc.) manufactured in 1901. The term bullpup for this type of weapon did not come into general use until the 1930s. A bullpup machine pistol wasn’t patented until 1936.
Thus, while Watson could have come back from Afghanistan with a rifle, it could not have been a bullpup nor would it have been called by that name.
|A Webley No. 2 .450 Centerfire|
In 1872, British gun maker Webley produced the British Bulldog. It was a weapon that filled a need.
It had a short 2 ½ barrel and fired large caliber .442 Webley or .450 Adams cartridges. “Upon its introduction in the early 1870s, Webley’s new British Bulldog had become an immediate sensation in Victorian England since the carrying of carrying firearms in Great Britain was accomplished quite discreetly.
|The topstrap carried the legend "THE BRITISH BULL DOG"|
It is quite obvious that the British Bulldog became a legend in its own time. By 1876, several European and American imitators jumped on the Bulldog bandwagon, marketing copies of self-cockers marked “British Bull Dog” over the topstrap.
Many of the European Webley copies came from Belgium and their overall finish and quality was noticeably inferior to the genuine British-made variations. Quite a number of these – both domestic [US] and foreign – were stamped with such markings as “Western Bull Dog,” “British Lion,” “Boston Bulldog,” etc., and, not surprisingly, many were indeed well made.
The name Bulldog became a powerful marketing tool to denote any big-bore, short-barreled revolver. Layman wrote:
“Generally speaking, it should be noted that the term ‘bulldog’ supposedly refers specifically to a small pocket revolver of large caliber---but the general design was so popular that smaller calibers of 32 and 38 were also marketed as Bulldogs.”
Webley later produced a .320 revolver with a .380 variant but did not market them as Bulldogs. Nor, apparently, did they call them “bullpups.” The 19th century reputation for the breed’s tenacity, combativeness and pugnacity was the perfect marketing for a small weapon whose bite was worse than its bark.
If Watson owned a pocket gun and called it by the cutesy moniker of “bull pup,” it was a private nickname with which he didn’t enlighten the reader, or Holmes, about.
The Literalist School Between attending Netley, shipping to India, being attached to the Berkshires at Kandahar, wounded in the battle of Maiwand, convalescing from a wound and enteric fever, shipping back to England, and spending a comfortless, meaningless existence in London, the question arises when did Watson acquire, or could afford, a bull pup?
As Owen Dudley Edwards puts it in his footnote on the dog in the Oxford Edition of A Study in Scarlet,
“Sherlockians have expended much ink in the quest of a domestic pet impossible in Afghanistan, illegal on the Orontes, inappropriate for a private hotel, and invisible in Baker Street.”
“It was common practice for officers and other ranks in the Victorian army to take their dogs, and other pets, along with them wherever they went---including the battlefield. The officers and men of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment were no exception…”
Stacpoole-Ryding, in his book Maiwand
“Lieutenant Richard Trevor Chute kept a dog, which landed him in trouble in the Officers’ Mess. In 1880, when the regiment was at Kandahar, Captain John Quarry…acquired a newly born bull terrier and he called it Billy. Billy was given to Sergeant 1485 William Guntrip, who Quarry held in high esteem. Guntrip was later killed at Maiwand and Billy went back to live with Quarry.”
There are two other dogs known to be with the 66th who have gone on to gather some fame.
“It is moving to record that Captain McMath's little dog ‘Nellie’—a pet of the Regiment—which had followed her master into action, was subsequently found by the burying party lying dead at his side.”
Master and pet were buried together.
The most famous canine at Maiwand was Bobbie, most likely owned by Corporal 1386 Peter Kelly. To quote Stacpoole-Ryding from “It’s a Dog’s Life in the Army”:
"There is a regimental legend that Bobbie was present at the famous stand of the last eleven at Khig. It is unknown if Corporal Kelly was present at the last stand preceding this event and escaped before the last eleven gallantly remained so their colleagues could make good their escape, leaving or being separated from Bobbie in the chaos. Corporal Kelly is recorded in the medal roll as being wounded in hospital at Kandahar on 1 September 1880 and therefore can be reasonably assumed to have been wounded at Maiwand and was recovering from his wounds. So, was Bobbie at the final stand or not? There is no evidence to support this either way; if he was then Bobbie must have been the only British witness of the famous stand. Some contemporary paintings of the ‘Last Stand’ show Bobbie being present, and in keeping with the regiment’s legend.
"What is known of Bobbie is that he got separated from his owner and the Berkshires at Maiwand and found himself among the Afghan infantry on the battlefield. He was wounded and managed to catch up with the retiring column making their way towards Kandahar and reunited with his master. The story states that his master was wounded; again there is no evidence to support this unless one takes the entry in the medal roll to mean that Corporal Kelly was wounded at Maiwand and was in hospital because of the wound.
"Bobbie returned with his owner and the regiment to England on H.M. Troopship Malabar docking at Portsmouth in February 1881. The regiment was stationed at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. On 17 August 1881 the men of the regiment who had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal were presented to Queen Victoria and Bobbie went along to have an audience with the Queen at Osborne House.
Bobbie was not, as sometimes stated, awarded a medal by the Queen as the Afghan 1878-1880 metal was not presented to the 66th until 1883 and by then the little white dog was deceased.
“[Bobbie] became a well-known figure around the barracks. However, in 1882 Bobbie was accidently run over by a hansom cab that was carrying a wedding party in Gosport whilst accompanying the 66th on a route march. It was reported that a soldier of the regiment tried to club the cab driver with his rifle butt, but was stopped by the commanding officer who happened to be present.”
So beloved was the dog the regiment had him preserved and he still can be seen today at The Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum.
As shown, dogs were not “impossible in Afghanistan” nor illegal on troopships. As Wood points out:
"Could he [Watson] have kept a pet dog in a private hotel in the Strand? The likelihood of a hotel guest having a pet dog to share, and possibly ease his “meaningless existence,” as Watson refers to his life before meeting Holmes, becomes higher as one moves up the scale of hotels. Luxury hotels cater to the whims and fancies of the wealthy, and to this day can provide any service the guests desire — and are able to pay for….Baedeker’s (1905) gives the cost of the “least pretentious hotels” en pension (i.e. with full room and board), as around 10 shillings a day in the Strand area of London. “Many hotels refuse to receive dogs,” it says, “but provide for their keep in suitable quarters for 1/6 to 3s. per day.” The cost of living, with the occasional meal and drink outside the hotel, plus a weekly hot bath at 1/-, would have swallowed up Watson’s pension even before including the cost of a dog’s room and board."
As such, dogs were not “inappropriate for a private hotel” so much as costly. But one could well imagine a patriotic private hotel manager welcoming two veterans of the fatal battle of Maiwand, one two-legged and the other four-legged.
But Edward’s pithy epigram isn’t so much a factual list of why Watson couldn’t have had a bull pup, since it’s inaccurate as to particulars, but a way to explain the last part: the bull pup’s invisibility at Baker Street.
I think that the transient nature of Watson’s dog has to do with the way he phrased his possession of it. Not “I own a bull pup,” or “I have a bull pup,” but “I keep a bull pup.”
True, “to keep” does mean “to retain possession of,” but it also means “to manage, tend, or have charge of.”
Remember: Watson arrived in England in November 1880, well ahead of the rest of the 66th which did not return until February 1881, when he says:
“I was so weak and emaciated that a medical board determined that not a day should be lost in sending me back to England. I was dispatched, accordingly, in the troopship Orontes,”
What if Captain Quarry asked the doctor to take his newly reacquired bull terrier pup Billy early back to the safety of England with him?
Or if it was the pet of his faithful orderly Murray who had so recently saved his life?
Or his old friend, Colonel Hayter, who had come under Watson care in Afghanistan?
Or in fact any of the dog-owning men of the regiment?
Watson then would have temporary keep of the bull pup until sometime after February 18, 1881 when the Malabar docked in Portsmouth. The pup may even have been retrieved by its owner before the start of A Study in Scarlet.
It could be argued he was too weak to take care of a pup, although if the was strong enough for a sea voyage, he may have been up to the task of caring for a dog. And perhaps like today’s service animals, the dog helped take care of him.
It may have been too heavy a burden for his wallet, but perhaps the owner made sure to cover Watson’s expenses.
Watson didn’t say to Holmes “I keep a bull pup temporarily for a comrade,” or offer some other qualifier to his statement. The full sentence could have been altered by Watson, his literary agent, or the editors at Ward, Lock & Co. But whether or not the manuscript suffered unknown editing, the fact remains there is only one brief passage to indicate the pup’s existence.
I offer the theory of Watson’s temporary stewardship of another member of the Berkshire’s canine from shortly before the doctor’s departure from Asia in October 1880 to a brief few months after his arrival in England in 1881, then returned to its owner.
True, it is surmise. But to paraphrase Holmes “But at least it covers all the historical facts."
Agree? Disagree? Have a theory of your own? Leave a comment for James below.