The Man Called Barker

By William A. Barton

In this article, we intend to explore the Canonical history of our scion’s namesake, Mr. Barker, as described in the Holmes story “The Retired Colourman,” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. We also engage in some speculation about this man, of whom even the Master Detective of Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes, thought enough to dub as his “hated rival upon the Surrey Shore.” (And you can bet that, if Sherlock Holmes considers someone competent enough as a detective to call him a rival, that man must be quite skilled at his trade indeed.)

Barker in the Canon—Physical Descriptions

            The first official Canonical mention of Baker, as that point unnamed, comes during Watson’s report to Holmes of his visit with Josiah Amberley at the latter’s home, the Haven. (For an “unofficial” record, see later in this article.) Watson describes a man that he encounters outside Amberley’s residence as “a lounger who was smoking in the street . . . a tall, dark, heavily moustached, rather military-looking man” who gave the good doctor “a curiously questioning glance” that stuck in Watson’s memory. Watson then reports that he saw the same man board the train that he took and then again at London Bridge, concluding that the man was following him. Watson finally adds that he lost the man in the crowd. (More on this later.) Holmes amazes Watson by filling in some details that the doctor had omitted from his description—that the man wore gray-tinted sunglasses and a Masonic tie pin, which Watson confirms. Later, in encountering that same man sitting with Holmes at Amberley’s, Watson adds that he is a “stern-looking, impassive man.” And, finally, Watson describes Barker as “our taciturn companion.” So we can probably conclude that he was a man of few words.

            These few passages are all that the Canon offers in the way of a physical description of Barker, although we can deduce from a later passage, in which Holmes describes how Barker nabbed him in climbing out Amberley’s window, that Barker must have been quite strong. How do we know? Holmes states that he recognized the detective only “when [he] could twist [his] head round,” implying that it took some effort to do so. We know from “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” that Holmes himself was inordinately strong for such a wiry individual: After Dr. Grimesby Roylott demonstrated his own strength by bending an iron poker nearly in two, Holmes performed the even more remarkable feat of unbending the same instrument. So if Barker was able to restrain Holmes even for a few moments, we can deduce that Barker was probably at least nearly as strong as Holmes himself or Holmes could have quickly turned and recognized his captor as his “friend and rival, Mr. Barker.” (Although why Amberley later could even wriggle and twist in the grip of two men of such strength – “two experienced man-handlers,” as Watson describes them – is another minor Canonical mystery.)

            We can determine one other thing about Barker’s appearance if we take into account the only illustration of the man, which accompanied the original publication of “The Retired Colourman.” In the scene in which Barker nabs Holmes as the latter is climbing out of Amberley’s window, Barker is depicted as wearing a bowler. Although his attire at the time may have been chosen so as not to stand out so much during his stakeout of Amberley’s home, we feel confident in deducing that this was probably Barker’s regular headwear. (If countless later portrayals of Homes wearing a deerstalker can be justified by the one Padget illustration in which he did so, we see no reason why we can’t picture Barker in a bowler, based on the only Canonical illustration of the man.) To see for yourselves, you can find this picture on the Contacts page of this Hated Rivals Web site.

Some Deductions and Speculations

            But what, if anything, can we also deduce about Barker based on his physical appearance as related in the story? What about those gray-tinted glasses that he wore? Perhaps they were merely part of a disguise that he wore to avoid detection while observing Amberley’s residence. But if so, he’s unlikely to have been still wearing them later, when he and Holmes confronted Amberley. And they apparently made him stand out enough that Watson noted them particularly, so they wouldn’t have been so effective in helping Barker blend into the background. We can speculate that, perhaps, Barker’s vision was more light-sensitive than that of most people. (Again, if the day had been so bright that many people were wearing sunglasses, Barker’s possibly wouldn’t have stood out so much in Watson’s memory to have noted them to Holmes.) Watson says that Barker is a “military-looking man” so probably he was in the military before assuming a civilian career as a private detective. And, if so, perhaps the sunglasses are the result of an injury to his eyes incurred in Her Majesty’s service—being too close to a shell burst, for example. (Although many of the conflicts that the British army engaged in during the last half of the 19th century were against foes armed with little more than spears or rifles, British artillery pieces were often captured and turned against their own forces. Or, if Barker had been an artilleryman himself, the untimely explosion of a “friendly” round could have resulted in impaired or especially sensitive vision.) If true, that could also provide a reason for Baker missing Holmes’ entrance to the Haven (see below).

            We can also deduce from the Masonic tiepin that Barker was a Mason. Or can we? Although membership in the ancient fraternal order is the most likely explanation for Barker’s jewelry, we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that the detective merely wore the pin as a device to gain the benefits of Masonic membership. During the Victorian era, many high officials in British government and authority were Masons, among them the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Force. (In fact, Masonic membership is said even today to be a requirement for any advancement within the MPF.) So being a Mason had distinct benefits if one wanted to be privy to many secrets of government, and such status could open many doors for a private investigator. And yet, on the other hand, Masonic membership had its drawbacks. One was expected to put his brother Masons before any other ties that he had and to lend help to them if they were in trouble. At the higher degrees of the York Rite Masonry that was prevalent in England, especially that of the Royal Arch degree, Masons were expected even to cover up for actual crimes committed by their fellow Masons –including murder and treason! If Barker was a force for justice at such a level that Holmes ranked him as a rival, we doubt that the man could remain a Mason, had he ever been one at all, on learning of the responsibilities of a Royal Arch or higher Mason. But he may very well have retained the Masonic tiepin (or secured one if he’d never joined a lodge) so that other Masons with whom he came into contact during his investigations would tend to trust him more than they would a man from outside the fraternity – and the additional doors that it would open for him in society and government would be a strong incentive for Barker to at least maintain the appearance of Masonic membership. Our opinion tends toward the latter explanation, although we can’t, of course, be dogmatic about it.

            One final speculation about a statement of Watson’s: The doctor observes Barker “smoking” in the street. He doesn’t say what the man is smoking, although we can guess that it was probably a cigar, pipe, or cigarette. (We could venture that perhaps Barker was disguised as a food vendor and was smoking meat, but that’s veering into the area of some pretty wild speculation. And based on how Barker is dressed in the illustration in the story, and Watson’s statement that he was “lounging” in the street, not working, we can almost certainly dismiss such an unlikely possibility.) So Barker, like Holmes and Watson themselves, was probably a smoker. (We say “probably,” as it could be that this was just part of a disguise that Barker adopted for his stakeout, but again, we can’t know that for sure from what information the Canon gives us about the man.)

Barker, the Detective

            So what about Barker’s abilities as a detective? Again, we turn to Holmes’ own descriptions of his “friend” and “rival” – the former term one that Holmes applies rarely in the Canon (Watson being the chief example) and the latter, one that he applies only to Barker. Holmes generally held a rather dim view of other detectives, both official and unofficial. He occasionally has kind words to say about Scotland Yard’s inspectors – MacDonald and Hopkins primarily – but for the most part considered them bunglers. As for fictional detectives, such as Poe’s Auguste Dupin or Gabriau’s Lecoq, Holmes pretty much dismissed them out of hand. And although he employed a number of operatives throughout the Canon, Barker is the only other private detective that the Master Sleuth of Baker Street ever names as one with whom he’s willing to work. After discovering that it was Barker who’d caught him slipping out of Amberley’s window, Holmes compared notes with his rival and they “continued the case together.” Barker, it seemed, had “come to the same conclusion as to foul play” in the case, as had Holmes. Although their methods were slightly different, their conclusions were identical – not too shabby to be on a par with Sherlock Holmes in that area.

            What else, then, can we conclude from the evidence about Barker’s proficiencies in his chosen profession? He must have been efficient, as in preparing to take Amberley in, Barker already has a cab at the door, ready to transport the man to the nearest police station. He must have gained the full confidence of Holmes, as the latter felt secure in leaving Barker “to look after the formalities” so that he could return to the crime scene to fill Watson in on Barker’s involvement in the case. As to Barker’s ability as a detective, Holmes states that he “has several good cases to his credit” (to which Inspector MacKinnon grudgingly answers, “He has certainly interfered several times” – something often said of Holmes himself.) And then Holmes pays Barker what can only be considered the highest of compliments: “His methods are irregular, no doubt, like my own.” (Emphasis added.) Although the comparison here to Holmes’ own methods is in the context of being irregular, we seriously doubt that Holmes would have made such a comparison at all if he didn’t consider Barker nearly his equal as a detective. He also trusts Barker to follow his own lead in completing the case in stating that Barker “has done nothing save what I told him.” And, we can see, too, that Barker is more concerned with seeing justice done than with his own ego, as like Holmes himself, he is willing to let the official police take the credit for solving the case.

Barker’s Reputation at Stake

            But what of the story’s record of Barker’s stakeout and his subsequent tailing of Watson, which the good doctor detected? Holmes tells us that “He had watched the house for some days and had spotted Dr. Watson as one of the obviously suspicious characters who had called there. He could hardly arrest Watson, but when he saw a man actually climbing out of the pantry window there came a limit to his restraint.” Barker was obviously a very patient man, as he’d watched Amberley’s residence “for some days,” and perceptive, as he’d obviously spotted Watson as a “suspicious character.” He also detected Holmes (who once bragged that he could have made a living as a burglar had he not chosen the side of justice) sneaking out of Amberley’s – but, then, why didn’t he detect Holmes entering the premises? Well, first, we don’t know that he didn’t. Holmes merely reports Barker’s detection and capture of him on leaving the house. Barker, being the taciturn individual that Watson describes, may simply have neglected stating that he’d spotted Holmes entering as well but waited until the intruder emerged to catch him red-handed. And if not, perhaps he was simply taking a necessary . . . well, break at the time (perhaps at a nearby public water closet?). After all, although he’d watched the house for days, he surely didn’t do so nonstop. And as we have no record of him working with anyone else, we can assume that, not being superhuman, he would still need to leave his post occasionally. (And we know that he did leave to follow the “suspicious” Watson, so we have an actual record of him doing so.) Either way, to have caught Holmes at all implies more positives about Barker’s observation skills than perhaps missing the entry does negatives.

Watson’s Tail

            But wait! In tailing Watson, Barker was not only spotted by the doctor, but according to the story, Watson managed to lose Barker. What does that say about Barker’s skill in following someone? (Remember how Holmes once said, in response to a suspect stating that he saw no one following him, that was what the man could expect to see if Holmes was following him.) Was Barker deficient in this area of the detective game? Well, first, we must realize that it is Watson who’s reporting this. Although we needn’t doubt the good doctor’s record of what he saw, we can speculate about what conclusions can be drawn. First, recall that the story takes place in 1898, so Watson had spent nearly 15 years working with Holmes (from 1881 to 1891 and 1893 to 1898). It’s not inconceivable that, in that time period, the good doctor had developed his own sleuthing skills sufficiently to be able to lose a tail. And yet, Watson never states nor implies that he deliberately lost the man following him. So did Barker fail here? Perhaps—and if so, it means little, as even Holmes made mistakes in some of his cases (for example, “The Yellow Face”) On the other hand, perhaps Barker meant to be seen, as a warning to this suspicious fellow to stay away from Amberley and whatever foul scheme the colourman was involved in. And perhaps Barker finally decided that this suspect really wasn’t worth further pursuit and broke off to return to his stakeout. Then again, maybe Watson never actually lost Barker at all. If you examine his actual statement, “I saw him once more at London Bridge, and then I lost him in the crowd,” you could conclude that Watson merely lost sight of his follower, who then pursued the doctor to his final destination, determined him to be no threat, and returned to Amberley’s. (Of course, you’d think that, if he’d followed Watson to Baker Street, Barker certainly would know that Holmes was on the same case and not been at all surprised to learn the identity of the man emerging from Amberley’s window . . .)

            In examining Holmes’ testimony of Barker’s strengths verses Watson’s report of Barker’s pursuit, however, regardless of what actually occurred in the latter, I think that we can still safely conclude that Barker was himself a master sleuth, capable enough in his field that Holmes could honestly place him on a level comparable to his own, as a more than competent rival in the whole art of detection. And if we don’t hear of Barker any further in the Canon, that’s probably because “The Retired Colourman” was the last story that Watson related about Holmes. (Most of the rest of the stories in the Canon that actually took place later in the saga were all penned by hands other than Watson’s.) So Barker could very well have figured in other of Holmes’ cases . . . perhaps even in one or more of the many “untold tales” that Watson hints at in the Canon. (Although Watson writes that, in 1898, he hadn’t previously met Barker, this could merely have been a literary device similar to his failure to recognize Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem,” even after he had admitted some knowledge of the professor in the earlier – but later published – Valley of Fear. Perhaps Watson actually met Barker on an earlier case that he never wrote up but then professed ignorance of the detective in “Colourman” to heighten the mystery. We’re unlikely ever to know . . . unless, of course, some of those earlier cases eventually come to light.)

Barker at Home (Alone . . .)

            Perhaps, too, we never hear more of Barker’s exploits because of his general area of operation. In the statement that Barker was Holmes’ hated rival on the Surrey Shore, we can surmise that perhaps most of Barker’s work took place south of the Thames, in the general area of London bordered by the southern English county of Surrey. Of course, we know that Holmes’ investigations ranged much more widely than the areas around Baker Street, and that was probably true of Barker’s cases as well. But if he was headquartered somewhere in south London, as Holmes implies by his description of the detective, Barker may very well have restricted his main work to that area. After all, he knew that the areas of London north of the Thames – and especially the West End – were well protected by Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street (and we won’t even mention Sexton Blake, Solar Pons, or other Holmes-like detectives operating in that general vicinity). Where exactly were Barker’s offices and/or flat in south London? We can’t really know, of course. Although Holmes identifies Barker with the Surrey Shore, that term was applied loosely to most of south London, whether actually within the old Surrey boundaries or not. Barker could indeed have lived or operated within the sections of London in Surrey itself, but we personally tend to believe that a detective of Barker’s caliber would probably choose a more urban, highly trafficked area, such as the nearby Elephant and Castle area, for example, or a similar location. (Where better to keep up on the local gossip that can often be a detective’s stock and trade than in a pub such as the historic Elephant and Castle?) This is, of course, mere speculation, and anyone else’s guess on this point is as good as ours.

            Another reason why we hear no more of Barker – not only in the Holmes stories but anywhere else – may be that, unlike Holmes, he didn’t have his own Boswell. Would Holmes’ name have become synonymous with the word “detective” if Watson hadn’t so ably describe the sleuth’s brilliance in the 60 tales that make up the Canon? Possibly, but unlikely. So Barker’s own cases may have ranged far and wide throughout England (and perhaps beyond), but as they remained unchronicled, we may never hear of the man’s true greatness as a detective, surpassed only perhaps  by that of Holmes himself. (Or will we . . .?)

Barker—the “Unofficial” First Meeting

            And then there’s that record that some Sherlockians point to as Barker’s first appearance in the Canon, years prior to his first official mention in “The Retired Colourman.” We refer, of course, to Watson’s brief description of a man that he encountered in the street while the good doctor was pondering the events of the Ronald Adair murder in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. To describe the event in Watson’s own words, “A tall, thin man with coloured glasses, whom I strongly suspected of being a plain-clothes detective, was pointing out some theory of his own [about the Adair murder], while the others crowded round to listen to what he said. I got as near him as I could, but his observations seemed to me to be absurd, so I withdrew again in some disgust.” Many Sherlockians have speculated that this man was, indeed, Barker. But was it really? True, Watson says that this man was tall and wore coloured glasses, traits that he later attributes to Barker — if, of course, you allow that “coloured glasses” and “gray-tinted sunglasses” are the same thing — and the doctor does suspect him of being a “plain-clothes detective.” But does that mean that this man is really Barker? We have our doubts.

At this point in his life, having recently lost his wife and some three years since last working with the missing Holmes, Watson’s observational skills undoubtedly were not as sharp as they may later have become, so he may very well have described “gray-tinted” sunglasses as “coloured” glasses. A reasonable mistake. Or perhaps Barker did wear sunglasses of a different color at this point in his career. But Watson also describes this man as “thin”—an adjective that he never applies to Barker—and makes no mention of him being heavily moustached, a trait that would have been difficult to miss. Further, Watson suspects this man of being a “plain-clothes detective.” Although he could have been referring to a private detective, the term “plain-clothes” seems to imply that he was talking about an official detective from Scotland Yard, who wore plain clothes as opposed to the uniform of the bobby on the beat.

The clincher, however, seems to be Watson’s description of the man’s theory as “absurd.” Would a detective that Holmes himself elevates to the lofty status of a “rival” publicly describe a theory that even Watson would think absurd? Again, we tend to doubt it. (On the other hand, again, this is Watson. Many of Holmes’ deductions at first seemed absurd – or at least unbelievable – to Watson until explained to him. So perhaps the theory that this man described wasn’t so absurd at all.) As Watson never mentions this man again and he figures no further in the story, we can never really know for certain. This man probably was not Barker, especially as Watson doesn’t later recognize him in “Colourman” from this earlier, brief encounter. (Although see our earlier caveat about this point.) But those who want to believe it to be the first Canonical record of Holmes’ rival are fully free to do so. We can’t, after all, conclusively state that it wasn’t.


In any event, we do have for certain the one record, in “Colourman,” to give us a mere glimpse of this man whom Conan Doyle, through the pen of Dr. Watson, called, simply, Barker. (No first name is ever recorded by Watson, but as you can determine elsewhere on our Web site, we also have some thoughts about that . . .) But we know that the great Sherlock Holmes obviously trusted and respected him, and that should be quite enough for any of us who enjoy and love these stories of the Master Detective of Baker Street. And, when Holmes at last retired to the Sussex Downs, we firmly believe that he could do so confident in the knowledge that, despite any previous areas of operation, all of London would thereafter remain safe in the capable hands of his “hated rival upon the Surrey Shore”—Barker!

Postscript—That Name, “Barker”

            Those who prefer to carry on the enjoyable game of pretending that the Holmes stories were actually penned by Watson and are true stories of the very real Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes, may wish to stop reading this article at this point. This short, final section of our article speculates on the reason that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose the name “Barker” for Holmes’ hated rival on the Surrey Shore.

            Of course, Doyle could merely have chosen the name at random, with no special symbolism or potential meaning behind it. He often used and reused names or variations of them throughout the Holmes stories. (And he did use an Inspector Barton – no relation – in another story.) But we find it interesting that the name – or, more correctly, the term – barker had a specific meaning among members of the Victorian underworld. In the criminal slang of the period, a barker was the term used for a pistol. It was probably a variation on the earlier term, “barking irons,” supposedly deriving from the bark-like sound that early pistols were thought to make. Could Doyle have chosen the name for Holmes’ rival based on the slang term? Possibly. If so, we wonder what it could have signified? Perhaps Doyle was hinting that Barker was especially proficient with a pistol, maybe even a marksman. If he’d been in the service – and Doyle described him a “military-looking man” – that would make sense. (Even more so if he’d been an artilleryman. Unlike the infantryman or cavalryman, an artilleryman’s prime sidearm was a pistol.) Or maybe in Doyle’s original conception of the character, Barker wielded an especially big pistol. Considering the heavy calibers of the typical British Webley or Adams revolver of the period, Barker’s standard sidearm would need to be especially foreboding to stand out among that crowd. We suggest perhaps the LeMat revolver, which fired nine rounds plus mounted a second barrel underneath the main one that fired a shotgun round. LeMats were manufactured in Britain for export to the Confederacy during the Civil War, and many were later converted from black-powder weapons to smokeless rounds. The weapons were still relatively available in England by the turn of the century and even later, so Doyle could conceivably have had such a weapon in mind in creating Holmes’ hated rival. (Or not. Just a thought . . .)

            As another possibility, maybe Doyle was hinting at Barker’s family origins. Most surnames in England came from an ancestor’s main occupation. In agricultural circles, a barker was the term given to a man whose primary job was to strip bark from trees. So perhaps Barker came from a country background either directly or at some point in his family’s past. If so, maybe his tracking skills were more developed in the wilds than in the city – and perhaps that was why Watson could detect Barker tailing him in the city. (Of course, as the term barker was also in use by then to indicate a shill for various shops and shows, such as—in America, at least—a circus, perhaps Doyle was hinting that Barker came from a show-business or circus background, the latter possibly even as the result of an early visit to the Americas. Could that have explained the gray-tinted glasses . . . ? An old circus wound from being shot out of a cannon or getting too close to the released breath of a fire eater or . . . no, no—best that we don’t even explore that line of speculation any further.)

            Well, maybe Doyle simply did choose the name at random. Whatever the reason behind it, however, the name Barker will always be fondly remembered and honored not only by those of us in The Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore scion, but also at least by all those who are thoroughly up on their Canonical trivia.