Over a period of 57 years, John Bennet Shaw amassed the biggest collection of Sherlockiana ever

My first introduction to the greatest collector of Sherlockiana in the world was a poster I saw last year at a fine book fair with the rather marvellous title Sherlock Holmes and John Bennett Shaw: The Detective and the Collector. The detective didn’t need an introduction but who was the collector and what was his business with Holmes?

John Bennett Shaw, I soon discovered, had, over a period of 57 years, obsessively gathered the biggest collection of Sherlockiana the world had ever seen in the hands of a private collector. He had begun collecting Sherlockiana when he was 23, stopping only a year before his death when he turned over the collection to a university library that had made Sherlock Holmes a special focus. By all accounts Shaw had been a witty character and his friends from the Baker Street Irregulars were always full of stories about this. Thomas L. Stix (“a member of the only three-generation-family invested in the BSI”!) recalls that Shaw was fond of saying that “to have a Sherlockian meeting you needed two Sherlockians and a bottle, but if necessary, one of the Sherlockians could be dispensed with.” In another variation, I think it was Sherlockian Derham Groves (the first Australian to have been invested in the BSI; would anyone know who the first Indian is?) who noted that John’s important requirement for a Sherlockian society was “Two people sitting at a table with a bottle on it. In an emergency you can dispense with one of the people.”

If you are a Sherlockian (or indeed a Holmesian) you would envy Timothy J. Johnson’s job as the curator of this definitive collection of Sherlockiana at the University of Minnesota’s Special Collections Library, which holds the world’s largest institutional collection of Holmes and Conan Doyle material (the Toronto Public Library holds the other large institutional collection of Doyleana) in the world.

The collection is well over 60,000 items, from first and variant editions to Writings on the Writings to original art works of illustrations. Plus complete runs of all the Holmes journals, starting with the Baker Street Journal. Johnson told me that the collection encompasses several collections within it and that, apart from the vast Shaw material, the library is the proud possessor of the books and private papers of the ‘dean of Sherlockiana’ himself — Vincent Starrett! The poster I saw (in itself a work of art since it was designed and printed by none other than Gaylord Schanilec, one of the world’s finest wood engravers and fine printers) was actually an announcement for a memorial conference that had followed the dedication of the John Bennett Shaw Library of Sherlock Holmes at the University of Minnesota. My quest to find out more about Shaw led me to a companion volume that had been brought out during the conference titled Sherlock Holmes: The Detective and the Collector.

I leaped at the chance to learn more about Shaw here but the essays — though every one of them a fine piece of Sherlockian scholarship — didn’t go into much detail about how Shaw acquired his impressive collection. Two essays here, though, do focus on Shaw — one a remembrance by a friend and another on Shaw as a collector of Sherlockian memorabilia.

As a collector, Shaw was a completist, especially with memorabilia. He had to have one of everything that had to do with Sherlock Holmes: from Sherlockian images carved from bars of soap to 221B automobile license plates. His advice to fellow collectors around the world had been: “Don’t throw it away, send it to me.” A tradition among Sherlockian collectors is to build rooms dedicated to the detective — many of them are of course replicas or reconstructions of the 221B sitting room. Apparently, “none surpassed Shaw’s library for Sherlockian atmosphere”.

So famous and respected a Sherlockian was Shaw that the Baker Street Journal devoted an entire issue to him (December 1990 number) and went so far as to break tradition by having his profile on the title page instead of Steele’s drawing of Holmes!

Though such an honour had been held some years before by Julian Wolff, one of the journal’s most esteemed editors, Shaw’s was still singular for being the first Sherlockian collector to be celebrated this way. He tirelessly worked towards encouraging and helping other groups to form Sherlockian societies, including some BSI scion societies. In 1968, Shaw saw a group of college girls picketing the BSI annual dinner and he supported their demand for a Sherlockian society for women. These young women eventually went on to found ‘The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes’.

As part of his Holmesian mischief, Shaw founded a rather personal club himself called ‘The Brothers Three of Moriarty’ in dubious honour of Sherlock Holmes’ arch villain. Every year at this society, the members would gather to hold an ‘Unhappy Birthday You Bastard Moriarty Party’, and one of the rites of the society was singing “Unhappy birthday to you, Moriarty, you bastard, you.” Shaw’s bathroom was lovingly dedicated to Moriarty with “the dour image of Moriarty” adorning the toilet seat. “Everything in here is Sherlockian,” Shaw would quip, “except the dictionary, the phone book and the toilet paper in the bathroom.”