The Clapham Society Local History Series — 18

Clapham Mystery for Fu-Manchu fans
by Derrick Johnson

This article first appeared in the South London Press on 3 March 2017

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu
Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

The article in the paper of 6 January about the real Professor Moriaty reminded me that another criminal mastermind once lurked in the streets of South London – Dr Fu-Manchu. The sinister doctor was created by Sax Rohmer and appeared in over a dozen novels and feature films in the first half of the last century, rivalling Sherlock Holmes in popularity.

Sax Rohmer was the pen name of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward born in Birmingham in 1883. In 1912 he published The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu about the Chinese criminal mastermind and his ambitions for world domination. Rohmer’s hero was Nayland Smith, a less cerebral equivalent of Holmes, lately returned from Burma, and his narrator, and equivalent of Watson, was Dr Petrie.

The Clapham Society was asked by a lifelong fan of the characters who lives in Germany to help locate Dr Petrie’s practice in what is described as a ‘beastly healthy’ district of London. From his detailed study of the novels he was able to provide us with a number of clues. In The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu, the first work in the series, Rohmer refers to a house which faces a ‘malevolent common’ in south-west London. The area which is ‘not too remote’ connects with central London by a tramline that runs in front of the house and a tube station to Charing Cross is nearby. The building faces the south side of a relatively large common with clumps of elms and other trees, crossed by paths lit by night and with at least one pond called ‘Mound’ pond. On the north side is an edifice with a clock sufficiently large for its chimes to be heard by Petrie. The only street in the area to be mentioned by name is called Rectory Grove which, he says, is off the north side of the common. (The real Rectory Grove is some way from Clapham Common.)

Sax Rohmer
Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward known as Sax Rohmer

We know that Sax Rohmer was familiar with Clapham – indeed he met his future wife Rose Elizabeth Knox on Clapham Common whilst strolling there on a spring evening in 1905. She was from a theatrical family and her youngest brother Teddy was the Knox in Nervo and Knox which some readers will remember as part of the Crazy Gang.

Even allowing for poetic licence the clues all point to Dr Petrie’s practice being on Clapham Common South Side but precisely where? It can be deduced that it was on a corner and Petrie describes it as having a side entrance. There have been many changes to South Side since 1912 but we came up with two possibilities. Number 100 was built c.1890 and has an elaborate stone doorway in Cavendish Road inscribed ‘West Cross’. Just along from this entrance was a heavy wooden door with a grille leading to the garden. However, this is a considerable distance down South Side and I am not sure that Clapham Common station, the terminus of the tube line at the time, is ‘nearby’. Perhaps the house would have been further north and another possibility is number 76 which was built around 1888. This is a wildly eccentric detached house on the corner of Cautley Avenue with a row of gables and a corner turret, just the sort of building to catch the eye of Sax Rohmer.

Whether it was either of these or another, next time you walk along the south side of Clapham Common imagine Fu-Manchu ‘with his gigantic intellect, brow like Shakespeare and face like Satan’, accompanied by his beautiful Eastern slave girl pursued relentlessly by the ‘gaunt, bronzed and steely-eyed’ Nayland Smith. On a misty winter evening it may still send a shudder down your spine!