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Baker Street Wiki

"The Adventure of the Priory School" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Priory School" tenth in his list of his twelve favourite Holmes stories.


Holmes receives a visit from Dr Thorneycroft Huxtable, the founder and principal of a boys' preparatory facility called Priory School in Northern England. He beseeches Holmes to come back to Mackleton with him to look into the disppearance of one of his pupils.

The boy's father, the Duke of Holdernesse, has offered a reward of £5000 to anyone who can tell him where his son, the ten-year-old Lord Saltire, is, and a further £1000 to anyone who can tell him who his kidnappers are.

James Wilder, the Duke's personal secretary, has also been indiscreet enough to mention something to Huxtable about the young Lord's unhappy home life. His parents no longer live together, his mother, Lady Edith, having moved to southern France. Wilder has said that Lord Saltire's sympathies were with his mother in these matters. Upon arrival at the school, though, Lord Saltire had seemed to be quite happy, and in his element.

Less than a fortnight later, however, the lad suddenly disappeared from the school. Due to others' having been present outside Lord Saltire's room who would have seen him pass if he'd gone that way, Huxtable reasons that the child could only have left by climbing out of his window at night and down the thick ivy to the ground. Curiously, the German master, Heidegger, is also missing, along with his bicycle. Lord Saltire had received a letter that very day from his father, but Huxtable has no idea of the contents, as the boy had taken the letter with him. He was fully dressed, too. However, Heidegger left his shirt and socks behind.

Huxtable despairs of the lack of progress by the official inquiry into the child's disappearance. There had been a report of a boy and a young man being seen boarding a train to Liverpool, but after being tracked down, they proved to be totally unconnected with Lord Saltire.

Holmes decides to accompany Huxtable back to Mackleton, even though he is quite busy with business in London. He tells Huxtable first that if he is going to telegraph home, it would be wise to let the rumour of progress in Liverpool persist, in order to lessen the kidnappers' fears that they would be discovered, which might cause them to move Lord Saltire to a different locale, thus hindering Holmes's investigation into locating him.

Once in the North, Holmes asks the Duke a few questions. His Grace does not think that his estranged wife has anything to do with his son's disappearance, nor has there been a ransom demand. He can also think of nothing in the letter that he wrote, posted by James Wilder along with dozens of others, that could have upset Lord Saltire.

Holmes establishes that the boy and his kidnappers could not have used the nearby road without being seen, suggesting that they went cross-country. As if to confirm this, the police find the boy's school cap in some gypsies' possession. The gypsies swear that they had simply found the hat dropped on the moor, but the police --- inherently prejudiced against people of "questionable nature" --- lock them up, anyway, in hopes that one or more of them will reveal more information in exchange for their release.

Holmes and Dr Watson go hunting for clues. They find a bicycle track, but it is not Heidegger's; it does not match his tyres. However, Holmes observes from the track that one of the bike's tyres has a patch on it. Most anything else observable has been obliterated by cow tracks, making sleuthing rather difficult. Indeed, the only marks on the ground anywhere nearby are these cows' hoof-prints.

Eventually, Heidegger's bicycle tracks are found, and they end in a clump of bushes some distance beyond where he apparently had his head smashed in. There he lies, quite dead, with his twisted bicycle nearby. He is wearing shoes over bare feet, and his coat is put on over a night-shirt. Holmes dispatches a nearby peat-cutter to alert Dr. Huxtable of the horrifying discovery.

A number of things may already be deduced:

  • Lord Saltire left the school of his own free will, and had ample time to dress for his journey;
  • Heidegger hurriedly went after him, having seen him climb down, which explains the German master's less than complete dress;
  • The boy had a swift means of escape, for the tall and able-bodied Heidegger would not have bothered with his bicycle if the small boy had merely been on foot;
  • The slight-figured boy had an adult companion, for he himself could not have smashed Heidegger's head in;
  • No other cyclist, nor another man on foot could have anything to do with the murder, for there are no marks on the ground to indicate this;
  • Something caused the boy to leave school at night, either homesickness (unlikely) or the letter he was mentioned to have received.

Holmes and Watson find themselves at the Fighting Cock Inn, and meet the less-than-hospitable innkeeper, Reuben Hayes, who seems startled indeed to hear that Holmes wants to go to Holdernesse Hall, the Duke's nearby house, to tell him news of his son. The two men have lunch there, and Holmes suddenly realizes something: he and Watson saw lots of cow tracks out on the moor, all along their line of investigation, but never at any time did they see any cows. Furthermore, the patterns of the hoof prints were quite unusual, suggesting that the cows in question had walked, cantered, and galloped – very unusual behavior for a cow. Holmes and Watson sneak out to Hayes's stable and examine the horse's hooves. As Holmes has expected, there is evidence of recent shoeing, but using old shoes attached with new nails. Examining the nearby smithy, Holmes and Watson are rather belligerently asked to leave by Mr. Hayes. A short way down the road towards the Duke's house, Holmes stops to quietly talk over the situation with Watson, and concurs with him that the morose and sinisterly-sulking Hayes appears to know all about the sordid business at hand.


Holmes examines James Wilder's bicycle.

Shortly afterwards, the two men hide as a cyclist comes racing along the road from the direction of the Duke's. It is the secretary James Wilder, and he looks extremely agitated. He arrives at the inn and leaves his bicycle beside the front door, while Holmes and Watson keep watch from a group of rocks nearby. Soon afterwards, a trap pulls out of the stable yard and gallops away at a frenzied pace along the road towards Chesterfield. A while later, someone else arrives at the inn; it is getting dark, however, and so only a fleeting glimpse of the new visitor is caught in silhouette as he steps through the lighted doorway.

Under cover of the gathering darkness, the two friends cautiously make their way back to the Fighting Cock. Coming close to the inn's front door, Holmes observes Wilder's bicycle tyres and notes that they are the same make as the tracks they'd encountered earlier on the moor, and as expected, one tyre has a patch. Holmes stands on Watson's back to peer through the window at the meeting inside with the new visitor. His look is very brief, and then they leave.

The next morning, they go to Holdernesse Hall, where they find that the Duke is not at all well upon hearing the tragic news of the murdered German master. Nevertheless, Holmes demands from him a cheque for £6000, saying that he has earned the reward. His son is at the Fighting Cock, and Holmes accuses the Duke himself as being one of the culprits.

Holmes has not, however, deduced the whole story. He had found Lord Saltire, and seen the Duke with him while standing on Watson's shoulders, but now the Duke reveals that the actual mastermind of this crime is James Wilder. He had conceived a plan to kidnap Lord Saltire to force the Duke to change his will. Wilder has always felt cheated, because he is, as it turns out, also the Duke's son, born out of wedlock to the Duke's late lover, before he married the Duchess, who bore the Duke a legitimate heir, but then had left the family due to James' resentfully-negative attitude towards her and her child. Wilder knew very well that his father would not call the police on him, as he abhorred the very idea of scandal. The plan began to unravel, however, when Wilder hired Hayes – who has now fled, but been arrested the previous night in Chesterfield on Holmes's information – to do the actual kidnapping. Wilder had not previously known that Hayes had killed Heidegger, and when Wilder heard the news, he was so overcome with grief and horror that he confessed all to his father. So anxious was the Duke to avoid scandal --- and still feeling favor for James, who reminded the Duke in every way of his deceased mother --- that he agreed to let his younger son stay at the inn for another three days, and to keep quiet, so that Hayes could flee justice.

All ends well, except for Hayes, who faces the gallows as Heidegger's murderer. Lord Saltire is brought home from the inn, and the Duke writes to his estranged wife asking her to reconcile with him. This he feels she will be willing to do, for the major source of the friction between them is going away: James Wilder is being packed off to Australia to seek his fortune there.

As for the falsely-planted cow's tracks, they were accomplished by fitting Hayes' horses with special antique shoes shaped like cow's hooves, which afterwards had been removed and replaced with the horses' previous shoes.


The story was dramatised as part of the Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett. However, the ending was changed. In the dramatisation, Wilder takes Lord Saltire as a hostage in a chase led by Holmes, the Duke of Holdernesse, and Watson through an underground cavern beneath the priory cathedral. Having climbed to the top of a cliff-like structure with the boy, Wilder slips and falls to his death, while Lord Saltire is rescued.