Adventure of the Priory School

#F-29 PRIO

In The Adventure of Priory School Sherlock Holmes chooses between shielding the rich and famous or justice for the friendless and unknown. He chooses both.

Sherlock Holmes Adventure of Priory School
This is the twenty-ninth Sherlock Holmes short story and the first in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

This is an analysis and not a summary of the plot. We highly recommend you read the actual story, if you haven't already.

Dating of the Story

A Critique: Three Perspectives

The Adventure of the Priory School stands alone in the Sherlock canon for several reasons which we will describe below. But many find it unrealistic and dissatifying: a father who doesn't rescue his youngest son from kidnappers, an accomplice to murder allowed to escape to Australia by Sherlock. The critique of this story can take one of three different directions.

Critique of the Father

Here we have a father who abhors public exposure so much that he: I think we can all agree this is not a great character and certainly not an outstanding father.

Critique of Sherlock

In this tale it appears Sherlock has lost his moral compass. For the first time he seems obsessed with money, taking a case he initially declined when offered a reward and demanding the said-reward before expounding his solution.

Moreover, he points the police in the direction of the inn-keeper who faces the gallows but allows Wilder who hatched the plan to escape to Australia. Is this ethical behavior of our detective-hero?

Critique of Doyle

One might say that the glaring faults mentioned above are a reflection of the carelessness that Doyle occasionally let creep into his stories. He was known to have preferred to spend time on his "more serious writing" and pressed for time he may have allowed the un-allowable to cheapen this particular plot.

The Correct Critique Is....

My theory is the true critique is #1 above: the Duke is a tormented character controlled by grief and guilt which caused him to act outside the normal bounds of behavior. Sherlock, rather than being a total narcissist understands the psychotic dilemma and responds in a manner that gets past the Duke's charade. And Doyle, rather than taking a cheap shot, reveals the complexity of the human psyche within the confines of Victorian-era British social norms (which he doesn't exactly critique.)

Have you ever heard the expression, "You can't make this stuff up" or, "Truth is stranger than fiction?" The Duke's avoidance of his own public role is bizarre enough it becomes believable. And who best understands that aversion to humanity than Sherlock himself, the only one who unravels the riddle.

Look below for more amateur-psychoanalysis of this Duke character and how Sherlock, the world's number one recipient of amateur-psychoanalysis, psychoanalyzed him.

Features of the Action Plot

A quick review of the structure indicates that The Adventure of the Priory School follows the typical Sherlock Holmes action plot. For a quick summary, the italicized words in parenthesis indicate the typical-Doyle pattern for Sherlock short stories.

Opening: A Dramatic Entrance

If you have followed our Sherlock-Holmes short story series, you know we like to compare Doyle's three different openings. Here we have a fantastic Baker Street Scene unlike any other.

First comes Watson's opening line:

We have had some dramatic entrances and exits upon our small stage at Baker Street, but I cannot recollect anything more sudden and startling than the first appearance of Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., PhD, etc.

What's In A Name?

Before we expound further on this theatrical entrance, let's hover over the name. I did do a search of Thorneycroft as I had never noted it in any list of potential baby names and suspected Doyle invented it for effect. Turns out it is the name of a bullpup rifle from this era. (Silly me, I didn't know there was such a thing as a bullpup rifle, though I do recall Watson kept a bull pup when he and Sherlock first met.)

The full name "Thorneycroft Huxtable" produces a veritable sound when spoken by the human tongue. Try introducing yourself to a stranger using that name and you'll see what I mean. Anyway, it leaves a questionable impression, no doubt intended by the author. Second he has a slew of letters after his name:

His card, which seemed too small to carry the weight of his academic distinctions, preceded him by a few seconds...

So our new prospective client gets a few seconds more of gentle ridicule. We know he is an educated man and can only guess what additional letters in what sub-specialties followed the grand name of Thorneycroft Huxtable. (By the way, DON'T eat crackers before introducing yourself with that name. It is not a good effect.)

Down He Goes

The next few sentences are so rich I just have to include them here:

...and then he entered himself - so large, so pompous, and so dignified that he was the very embodiment of self-possession and solidity. And yet his first action, when the door had closed beyond him, was to stagger against the table, whence he slipped down upon the floor, and there was that majestic figure prostrate and insensible upon our bearskin hearthrug.

I cannot think of any more dramatic or comical openings in the Sherlockian canon. But just in case you aren't convinced that Arthur Conan Doyle gave his literary-best to this tale, let me add one more piece of exposition:

We had sprung to our feet, and for a few moments we stared in silent amazement at this ponderous piece of wreckage which told of some sudden and fatal storm far out on the ocean of life."

More About the Man

It isn't the intent to rewrite the entire story on this page, so let me briefly outline what other gems can be gathered about this visitor in the next lines: Not exactly the kind of information you would read on a dating site. So why did I rehash all that? Mr. Huxtable is, you see, a proto-type of the real client in this case - the Duke of Holdernesse. And his lack of equanimity mirrors the final act of the Priory drama.

A Peculiar Request

And before we leave this pre-introduction analysis, one more dash of humor is thrown in. The embarassed man requests a glass of milk and biscuit. Just the thing I always ask for when I pass out on a stranger's living room rug.

Pre-Introductory Pronouncement and FulFillment

In many of the Sherlock tales, Watson starts with a pre-introductory pronouncement which is later fulfilled by the end of the tale. The pronouncement in this story, if it exists at all, is a bit weak compared to others.


The first line states "We have had some dramatic entrances and exits" then immediately describes the most dramatic entrance summarized above. We can expect a dramatic exit later, though it really fails to deliver the humor and drama of this opening scene.

Second, the character of the school principal is "so large, so pompous, and so dignified that he was the very embodiment of self-possession and solidity. And yet his first action, when the door had closed behind him, was to stagger against the table, whence he slipped down upon the floor."


The proud but staggering principal is a forerunner of the closing scene with the proud Duke. Never shall I forget the Duke's appearance as he sprang up and clawed with his hands, like one who is sinking into an abyss.

Below, we will draw a few more paralells between the principal and duke.

Introduction: The Case Unfolds

We move from pre-introduction drama to introduction as Dr. Huxtable outlines his case. A few interesting notes: The very busy Holmes is tempted away from the murder trial and documents case by the news of the six thousand pound reward with a classic Holmes-like sub-humor:

"It's a very princely offer. Watson I think we shall accompany Dr. Huxtable back to the north of England. And now, Dr. Huxtable, when you have consumed that milk, you will kindly tell me what has happened, when it happened, how it happened, and finally, what Dr. Throneycroft Huxtable of the Priory School near Mackleton has to do with the matter, and why he comes three days after an event - the state of your chin gives the date - to ask for my humble services."


We can deduce that the ever-present Mrs. Hudson silently produced the milk, and presumably biscuit, while Sherlock rehearsed all the known details and accomplishments of the Duke of Holdernesse. He also throws in one of his introductory deductions rather late (the abduction was three days ago due to the length of facial hair.) Apparently even Sherlock was too startled by the startling entrance to make that annoucement earlier.

In the next few pages Dr. Huxtable delineates the details of Lord Saltire's abduction, the disappearance of the German master, the unhappiness in the Duke's marriage and household, as well as the unequalled presitige of his preparatory school.

Sherlock Accepts the Challenge

The Abergavenny Murder and the Ferrer's Documents are forgotten:

His drawn brows and the deep furrow between them showed he needed no exhortation to concentrate all his attention upon a problem which, apart from the tremendous interests involved, (working for a prestigious client, not to mention the 6000 pounds) must appeal so directly to his love of the complex and unusual.

Of course Holmes does take the opportunity to reproach the principal for: He also does a little cross-questioning about how Huxtable knows about the intimate details of the Holdernesse household. If the Duke didn't tell him, who did? (For those who over-looked this clue, it was the duke's secretary, James Wilder.)

"In the meantime, I will do a little quiet work at your own doors, and perhaps the scent is not so cold that two old hounds like Watson and myself may get a sniff of it."

Nice that he includes Watson in his wolf-hound analogy. Holmes probably got enough criticism thrown at Huxtable that Watson escapes his customary appraisal.

Rising Action

Sherlock Holmes Priory School Bicycle Tracks

Of course, the rising action is the main part of a detective story, or any other story. It begins when Holmes and Watson, in the company of Huxtable, find themselves in Northern England. Many readers get stuck in the mud of the moor with longitudinal and patched tires. Our timeline below takes the 100 foot view of events, not to rehash them but to see how the parts fit together to create an action plot. (Events in parenthesis are not discussed during the Rising Action, but learned in the Falling Action.)

Climax: Confrontation with the Duke

Because the conversation in the duke's private office marks the climax, we will look at it separately. Of course neither the first-time-reader nor the duke are unaware that we are right on the threshold of discovery.

In fact, it is one of the criticisms of the story that Holmes begins the conversation, after dismissing Secretary Wilder, with these words:

"The fact is your Grace, that my colleague, Dr. Watson, and myself had an assurance from Dr. Huxtable that a reward had been offered in this case. I should like to have this confimred from your lips."

After a back and forth with the duke who confirmed the 6000 pound reward:

My friend rubbed his thin hands together with an appearance of avidity (ie greed) which was a surprise to me, who knew his frugal tastes.

He further startled Watson by requesting the cheque to be crossed to his bank. (Info: crossing a check refers to stating what bank it is to be deposited in instead of giving the presenter cash.)

The duke, as well as Watson and readers, are stunned by Holme's impudence. For those of you who are appalled by Holmes greed, wait until you read more about his motivation. Holmes then announces he has solved the crime.

The Duke fell back in his chair. "And who do you accuse?"

Sherlock Holme's answer was an astounding one. He stepped swiftly forward and touched the Duke upon the shoulder.

"I accuse you," said he. "And now, your Grace, I'll trouble you for that check."

Quite an unexpected climax, I would say.

Falling Action: The Motivation for the Kidnapping

Students using Sherlock Holmes: The Unit Study (see below) investigate the "Who" and the "How" and the "Why" of a crime and contrast when they are revealed in the Sherlock canon. In this story, Sherlock uncovers "How" in the afternoon of May 16 and the "Who" in the evening during the Investigation/Rising Action.

But he doesn't understand the "Why" until the Confession/Falling Action.

Even Sherlock did not know the reason behind the crime at the moment he sprang his climactic charge. But he learns.

Mr. Wilder is the duke's illegitimate and conniving son who kidnapped Lord Saltire in a plot to force his father to leave the estate to him instead. He has spent his adult life manipulating the father who looked after him but never claimed him. It's a simple enough explanation.

Not so simple, Sherlock responds. The teacher who tried to protect the boy has been murdered and the crime cannot be expunged merely by bringing Lord Saltire back home.

The duke finds out that not only is Wilder implicated in the crime, but he himself can be held as an accomplice by letting Hayes escape.

Let's delve further into the duke below.

A Closer Look at the Duke

At this point, we really need an analysis of the "famous statesman," The Duke of Holdernesse. Let's start with the obvious physical description. As you read down, consider which information might make him less appealing to the duchess (or anyone else.)

Looking at the Duke

While the tall, stately man is not a twin of the hefty, pompous principal, there is something equally unattractive in the way Doyle describes them both.

Let's consider his "long dwindling beard of vivid red." Those long pointy beards might look good on Thorin Oakenshield and his dwarvish kin, but for a grown man - and a statesman at that? Moreover, his watch chain is hanging in his beard. I'm thinking a Victorian copy of "Dress For Success" might be in order here.

Bad Actions by the Duke

Above we already mentioned that the duke stifled the police in their search even after offering a huge reward. (This was because his suspicions of Wilder "had never been entirely absent." Let's look at other potentially scandalous or otherwise dumb things this duke did:

The Duke's Motivation

Two things motivated the duke: guilt over the fate of the dead woman he had loved and fear of public exposure. These two emotions are inseparably entwined.

He was in love with a woman who declined marriage because of the effect it would have on his career. She died, and he is left with guilt. We don't know how old Wilder was when his mother died or how she died. The duke provided for the child and his education and brought him to the Hall once he was an adult.

It is interesting that he offered marriage to the woman who refused due to his career and presumably his fear of publicity even as a young man. (As his heart's companion, she must have know his abhorence of the public eye.) Unencumbered by marriage to the unnamed woman of lower-birth, he became a cabinet member but stepped down from the position, probably due to his gnawing fear of publicity. The irony is that his fear of publicity started this entire charade.

His love of this woman and his guilt regarding her death allowed James to manipulate him to the ruin of everyone.

A Few Good Things About the Duke

While we can't admire the duke, we can acknowledge he held something of a sensitive and kind disposition: In short, this is not an evil man but one wracked by guilt. Enough guilt to allow James Wilder to ruin both of them.

About James Wilder

He really was a bit of a bad dude. His manipulative behavior started small and ended up in big time trouble: That's where Wilder's behavior had taken him prior to May 13. Now look where it got him:

Duke of Holdernesse and Doctor Thorneycroft Huxtable

We have noted that there is a parallel drawn between these two men. As we saw above, we begin and end the story with proud men brought to physical despair: Huxtable in the introduction and Holdernesse in the falling action.

The introduction of this story indicates that both men have a list of letters and abbreviations after their names, indicating both have several college degrees. Both have a strong sense of public honor. In fact one could say their fear of public exposure is stronger than their sense of private honor.

Unlike the duke, the principal is NOT left in any legal danger from the kidnapping once all the players are sorted out.

Sherlock's Behavior in this Story

Sherlock and the Reward

Fans of Sherlock were surely surprised at his apparent greed in this story. In previous cases he: So it is surprising that he appears motivated by the large reward and demands it before telling the duke where his son is located.

Some have theorized that perhaps this event occured not long after his three-year hiatus and his funds were depleted by his travels. Afterall, he calls himself "a poor man." Maybe his funds really were short.

But the fact that he was too busy to accept the case initially also indicates that he had enough business to pay his bills. It wasn't his fee that motivated him; though the position of the duke did attract his attention.

How can we be certain it wasn't money he was after? Simply because he was not the least interested in the twelve thousand pound reward that the duke attempted to bribe him with. Six thousand pounds were offered and that's what he demands. Note that he DID do exactly what the duke wanted when he tried to press the twelve thousand pounds on Holmes and Watson. He was trying to buy their silence. Holmes gave it to him without charge.

Sherlock assessed and understood the duke. He knew he was trying to avoid publicity, though he didn't recognize Wilder as the motivation behind the kidnapping. He spoke to him in the language he understood. Holmes took the proffered reward because he had met the stipulated terms, even if they were somewhat of a charade. Or perhaps because it WAS a charade he saw through as soon as he saw the duke at the inn.

Sherlock Holmes was the son of a country squire and himself a famous detective who had successfully made his earnings "by his wits." He was not a poor man in the sense of needing money to live. But in comparison to a duke (the highest position under kings and princes) he was considerably lower on the social totem pole.

My favorite line in The Adventure of the Priory School:

"To humour your guilty older son, you have exposed your innocent younger son to imminent and unnecessary danger. It was a most unjustifiable action."

The proud lord of Holdernesse was not accustomed to be so rated in his own ducal hall.

Sherlock's Success in this Case

Sherlock comes across as the master detective that he is.

Sherlock Relents

While we might cheer Holme's success at cracking this case and confronting the duke fearlessly, one still has a few lingering doubts.

As he said himself,

"In the first place, your Grace, I am bound to tell you that you have placed yourself in a most serious position in the eyes of the law. You have condoned a felony (kidnapping) and you have aided the escape of a murderer."

It is interesting that Holmes felt "bound" to tell him he was in legal trouble, but as a free agent he didn't feel bound to report him to the law.

This is not the first time Holmes made the decision to not report a crime. In The Blue Carbuncle he let a first time thief escape punishment for fear that jail would turn him into a hardened criminal. In The Devil's Foot he let the lion-hunter escape the country knowing that he killed a man to avenge another death. In this case he states,

I am not in an official position, and there is no reason, so long as the ends of justice are served, why I should disclose all that I know.

Translation: As long as the murderer is punished, I'm not going to get any further involved.

Holmes doesn't demand any punishment be applied to Wilder, though he does state that "the continued presence of Mr. James Wilder in your household can only lead to further misfortune."

It is then that Holmes discovers Wilder will be dispatched to Australia, undoubtedly with funds to begin a new life for himself, but away from Lord Saltire and Holdernesse Hall.

One may wonder if this is indeed sufficient punishment for one who kidnapped his brother for his own financial gain.

A Closer Look At Holmes

Sherlock Holmes Magnifying Glass Silhouette

Sherlock and the Duke

Sherlock understood the duke and knew how to relate to him, how to confront him. They shared a common desire to avoid the public eye.

This is not the first time Sherlock has shielded others, often the titled-noble class, from public scrutiny. In fact one entire case (Charles Augustus Malverton) involves protecting the privacy of many victims of blackmail. The same with a more famous case Scandal in Bohemia.

As a lower-member of the upper class, he seemed to accept and protect their desire to escape scandal (even scandals of their own making.) Social class is one of the underlying themes of the canon. Sherlock and Doyle do not critique that class and its values; they merely work within it.

In this story, however, we see how Holmes definitively divides the line between social-scandal and the crime of murder. Keep your love affairs and family fights hidden, but justice requires crimes to be punished.

A New View of Holmes

This scene at the discovery of Heidegger's body reveals a different side of Holme's character:

Holmes turned the body over reverently, and examined it with great attention. He then sat in deep thought for a time

This is not the callous detective unmoved by a human corpse. While he does not exhibit the squeamishness common to most people in the company of the deceased, he is not hardened. It states he was "reverent" and "deep in thought for a time."

In fact, he makes it a priority to take care of the body by summoning a local peasant before returning to his main quest: his investigation.

Reading between the lines, one detects his reverence for humanity. Justice for the friendless German master trumps protection for the famous statesman and duke.

Sherlock At Work

His readers always liked Watson's inclusion of descriptions of Holmes at work. Again in this tale he portrays the genius' dual nature:

His eyes shown and his cheek was flushed with the exhiliration of a master workman who sees his work lie ready before him. A very different Holmes, this active, alert man, from the introspective and pallid dreamer of Baker Street. I felt, as I looked upon that supple figure, alive with nervous energy, that it was indeed a strenuous day ahead of us.

Moods of Holmes

Sherlock Holmes was not the impassionate silhouette often depicted. Evidence of his various moods and reactions in this story include: And while the specific tone and look of the detective are not described when he blamed the duke for leaving Arthur in danger, the words themself indicate a controlled but heart-felt condemnation.

Holme's Wit and Sarcasm

Here are a few more quotes and quibbles of the man:

"A criminal who was capable of such a thought" (to change the type of tires on his bike to throw off searchers) "is a man whom I should be proud to do business with."

"It was no brain of a country publican that thought out such a blind as that."
(The cow hooves on horse feet.)

"We were warm, as the children say, at that inn. I seem to grow colder every step I take away from it."

Holmes Expertise

Holmes was a man of many and varied talents. In this adventure we learn that he is familiar with 42 types of bicycle treads. In that era that probably covered most of them.

And, by the way, my depictions of longitudinal and horizontal tire marks are not the official designs of Palmer and Dunlap tires.

Holme's Counsel

We close the Falling Action with Sherlock's advice to the duke:

"I would suggest that you make such amends as you can to the Duchess, and that you try to resume those relations which have been so unhappily interrupted."

Obvious Comment: When you start getting marriage advice from Sherlock Holmes, you KNOW your family is in serious trouble.

That leads us to the question if we should add family therapy as one of Sherlock's diverse talents?

I think not.

Denouement: Horse Hooves and Checks

Two little issues remain in the closing paragraphs. They are both telling enough.

Horse Shoes

Sherlock had said it was no country publican that had shod the horses with cow-like horse shoes. So who did? The duke considered the question and took Holmes to the family museum. We learn that not only did it possess such horse shoes, but it came from his distant relatives who were cow maurauders in the Middle Ages.

Yeah, I wouldn't be too proud of that family history either. No wonder they didn't like the peering public.

Holmes wet his finger and ran it across the ancient horse shoe. Yuck! Even though this was pre-Covid, wetting a Medieval museum heirloom is NOT the thing to do.

The Check

Holmes again surprises readers, Watson, and the duke with his exit. He announced that the horse/cow shoes were the second most interesting object he had seen in the North. When the duke asked him the first:

Holmes folded up his check and placed it carefully in his notebook. "I am a poor man," said he, as he patted it affectionately, and thrust it into the depths of his inner pocket.

Final Ending

This tale started with a dramatic entrance and ended with an uncustomary exit (though maybe not exactly as dramatic as the entrance.) We have tracked how the endings of Sherlock Holmes stories range from the philosophic to the flippant.

This one is a bit of both, with his flippancy winning the upper hand.

Final Notes

At the commencement of this article, it was noted that one could find fault with Doyle, Sherlock, or the duke for the duke's impermissible behavior, and I chose to blame the duke. It is not that I cannot find fault with either Sherlock or Doyle.

Sherlock's behavior in this story points to a master detective who 1) didn't discover everything (he was surprised to find Wilder was Holdernesse's son); 2) who embodies both justice and compassion; 3) who always stays a bit unpredictable.

Basically he is the good guy all around. In this story, anyway.

In spite of that, I still wouldn't go to him for family counseling.

And Doyle? Yes he wrote a great story, even if it does tend to get a bit stuck in the mud while we are out chasing bicycle tracks. Nonetheless, there are a few flaws.

Weak Points & Unanswered Questions

A few points left unanswered after the denouement:

Baker Street Treasure Hunt

Those of you joining us on the Baker Street Treasure Hunt will love this item:

A bearskin hearth-stone rug

So who drug that thing into their apartment: Holmes, Watson, or Mrs. Hudson?

We'll never know.

Background Information: Entail

The kidnapping occured because Wilder wanted to break the entail. But what is an entail?

An entail is an inheritance under British law that required an estate to be passed to specified heirs (ie the oldest legitimate son.) That prevents a family mansion from being sold or passed outside of the family.

Unbeknownst to Mr. James Wilder, the duke would not have been able to make him the main heir by law, so the entire kidnapping plot was a mute point anyway.

Oh well. Crime really doesn't pay.

The unit study below analyzes eight of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. The Adventure of the Priory School is not one of the eight in this unit study.

Buy Sherlock Holmes: The Unit Study

Sherlock Holmes Worksheet Sherlock Holmes Teachers Key
Student Guide AND Teacher's Answer Key Included
$2.99 Download - 183 pages
Eight of the most popular tales demonstrate how to investigate a detective story.
Add to Cart button

Sherlock Holmes Pages

A catalog of our pages on Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock: The Unit Study Sherlock Holmes Unit Study
8 popular stories for Middle or High School
The Speckled Band Speckled Band
Compelling mystery of the whistle in the night
Silver Blaze
Who, where, and why of a dead man and missing horse
The Red Headed League Red Headed League
A silly-looking prank masking an international crime
The Engineer's Thumb Engineers Thumb
Is this one of Doyle's best - or worst - stories?
Crooked Man
Crooked Man
A truly crooked man in a twisted tale of betrayal
in Bohemia
Scandal in Bohemia
Multiple scandals in this drama of love gone wrong
The Dancing Men Dancing Men
Irony of honor in one of his saddest cases
The Final
Final Problem
Doyle's daring decision and the outcry that followed
More About Sherlock Consulting Detective
Interesting tidbits about the world's only consulting detective
More About Dr. Watson Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes
There's more to Dr. Watson than readers first see
Super Hero Prototypes Holmes and Watson: Superheroes prototypes
Are Holmes and Watson the super hero protypes?
List of All Short Stories List of Sherlock Holmes Short Stories
List of stories and longer books
Sherlock Holmes Quotes
Famous quotes, brilliant sayings, and intriguing insights
Action Plot Summary Summary of Sherlock Action Plot
The unique action plot made Sherlock stories a classic.
Who Is the Best
Sherlock Actor?

Sherlock Holmes best actors
If you want to watch, find who portrayed him the best.
Kids and

Sherlock stories for kids
Most appropriate Sherlock stories for kids
What makes Sherlock #1 Sherlock Holmes popularity
Why is he fiction's most popular character?
What about women?
Sherlock Holmes and Women
An armchair quarterback in the battle of the sexes

Ready To Use Resources

Literature Unit Study Box Literature Unit Study Box Literature Unit Study Box

Top of This Page

About Our Site

Hands-On Learning

homeschool curriculum sign
See All Products

GreatBlueHeron Egret

HOME | Our Curriculum | Contact Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Affiliates | About Us |

By Karen Newell Copyright© 2009 - 2023 Learn For Your Life All Rights Reserved

New Pages Site Map Contact About Us