The Adventure of the Naval Treaty

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"The Adventure of the Naval Treaty"
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date 1893

"The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of 12 stories in the cycle collected as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" 19th in a list of his 19 favourite Sherlock Holmes stories.[1]


Holmes holding a rose, drawn by Sidney Paget.
"Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers..."

Dr. Watson receives a letter, from Percy Phelps, a former schoolmate, which he refers to Holmes. Phelps has been appointed to the Foreign Office by his uncle, Lord Holdhurst, and a valuable secret document has been stolen from his office: an important treaty relating to naval affairs. It disappeared while he was working alone one night, making a copy of the treaty for Lord Holdhurst. He expected no one to come in, but Joseph Harrison, brother of his fiancée Annie, had said he might come by.

The building holding Phelps' office had two entrances, with a stairway from each to a single landing and a further stairway to the office. A commissionaire kept watch at the front entrance, but the side entrance was unattended. Phelps pulled the bell cord in his office to summon the commissionaire and order a cup of coffee. To his surprise the commissionaire's wife came up instead and took the order. He continued with his copying, but when the coffee didn't arrive, he went down to the front entrance, where the commissionaire was asleep with the kettle boiling furiously. At that moment, the office bell rang. Phelps rushed back upstairs, but the office was empty and the treaty was gone.

The thief must have come in through the side entrance. No footprints were seen in the office despite it being a rainy evening. The only suspect at that point was the commissionaire's wife, who had quickly hurried out of the building at about that same time.

This was followed up, but no treaty was found with her. Other suspects were the commissionaire himself and Phelps's colleague Charles Gorot. Neither seemed a very likely suspect, but the police followed them both, and the commissionaire's wife. As expected, nothing came of it.

Phelps was driven to despair by the incident, and suffered a nervous breakdown, described as "brain fever", and was delirious for more than two months. He convalesced at Briarbrae, the Phelps house in Woking, under the care of his fiancée, Annie, occupying a room previously allotted to Joseph Harrison. His reputation and honour are apparently gone, and his career is in dire jeopardy.

Holmes is quite interested in this case, and makes a number of observations that others seem to have missed. The absence of footprints, for instance, might indicate that the thief came by cab. There is also the remarkable fact that the dire consequences that ought to result from such a treaty being divulged to a foreign government have not happened in all the time that Phelps has been ill. And why did the thief ring the office bell?

Holmes gathers some useful information at Briarbrae. Annie has been nursing Phelps during the days while a professional nurse has kept watch at night. Joseph, it seems, is along for the ride.

After seeing Phelps at Woking, Holmes makes some inquiries in town. He visits Lord Holdhurst, but dismisses him as a suspect, and is quite sure now that no-one could have overheard their discussion about the work. Holdhurst reveals to Holmes the potentially disastrous consequences that might occur if the treaty should fall into the hands of the French or Russian embassies. Fortunately, nothing has yet happened, despite the many weeks since the theft. Apparently, the thief has not yet sold the treaty, and Holdhurst says the villain's time is running out, as the treaty will soon cease to be a secret. Why, then, has the thief not sold the treaty?

Holmes returns to Woking, not having given up, but having to report that no treaty has turned up yet. Meanwhile, something interesting has happened at Briarbrae: someone tried to break in during the night, into Phelps's sick room, no less. Phelps surprised him at the window but could not see his face through the hooded cloak that he was wearing. He did, however, see the interloper's knife as he dashed away. This happened the very first night that Phelps felt he could do without the nurse.

Unknown to anyone else at this point — although Watson infers it from his friend's taciturnity — Holmes knows what is going on. He orders Annie to stay in her fiancé's sick room all day, and then to leave it and lock it from the outside when she finally goes to bed. This she does.

Holmes sends Watson and Phelps to London on the train, pretending to go with them. Instead he remains near Briarbrae, watching from concealment. At about two o'clock in the morning, the interloper appears — out of the tradesman's entrance of Briarbrae. He opens the sick-room window and extracts the treaty from a secret compartment in the floor. He then steps straight back out the window into Holmes's hands.

The thief is Joseph, who hid the treaty in what was then his bedroom. He has been unable to retrieve it since it became Phelps's sick room, with either Annie or the nurse always there. That's why the stolen treaty has not led to any diplomatic uproar. Holmes has to knock Joseph down twice before he surrenders the treaty and runs away.

Joseph dropped by Phelps's office as he had suggested he might, entering through the side entrance. Not finding Phelps, he rang the bell; and in the same moment saw the treaty. He guessed its potential value, seized it, and ran off through the side entrance. Joseph needed a lot of money due to heavy losses on the stock market. Being a very desperate and selfish man, he cared nothing for the consequences to Phelps or his own sister.

Phelps has spent the night at 221B Baker Street under Watson's watchful eyes (although there has been no danger). Always one with a flair for the dramatic, Holmes has the treaty literally served up as breakfast to Phelps the next morning. Phelps is ecstatic, Holmes is quietly triumphant, and as usual, Watson is dumbfounded.

Holmes explains that several clues all pointed to Joseph: the thief knew the ways of the office well, and rang the bell; Phelps had shown his relatives around the office; Joseph had intended to stop in at the office; the theft occurred very soon before the departure of the train for Woking; the thief left no footprints, showing he had come in a cab; and the burglar who tried to break into Phelps's room was familiar with the layout of the house. Joseph used the knife to pry open the sick-room window, but Holmes suspects he may have had a more sinister additional use in mind.


The story has two incidental interesting points for the modern reader about the period of its writing. First, the unabashed nepotism (in the most literal sense) of Phelps' appointment; today it would be a crime. Second, the roles of France and the Russian Empire (Britain's future World War I allies) as rivals of Britain and potential buyers of the treaty. In a spy story set in his present, it was as natural for Doyle to portray these two countries as the potential buyers of the stolen naval treaty as it would have been to portray the Soviet Union in that role in a Cold War spy thriller. And in fact, this story is one of the very first in the emerging genre of spy story.

This is the longest of the short stories published in The Strand Magazine before Sherlock Holmes's "death" in "The Final Problem". As such, it was originally published in two parts: the first describes the events before the interview with Lord Holdhurst, while the second explains all events thereafter.

This story contains the first reference to "The Adventure of the Second Stain", which would not be published until around 11 years later.

The school buildings "rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea", which Holmes points out to Watson from a train near Clapham Junction still exist today, and can still be seen by passengers on that railway line.


The story was adapted for the 1968 BBC series with Peter Cushing. The episode is now lost.[2]

The story was adapted in the first series of the Granada TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which stars Jeremy Brett.

"The Great Game", the third episode of the 2010 television series Sherlock, uses The Adventure of the Naval Treaty and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans as inspiration, as both deal with the theft of government papers related to the navy.

"Art in the Blood", the 23rd episode of Elementary, is inspired by the story: the treaty, clients' characteristics, etc.

"The Adventure of the One Hundred Tadpoles" of the NHK puppetry Sherlock Holmes is based on the story. In it, Holmes and Watson try to take back a stolen picture that is for the art competition whose theme is tadpole, nickname of Sir Percy Phelps, founder of Beeton School.

Wikisource links[edit]


  1. ^ Trivia on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Favorite Sherlock Holmes Stories | Trivia Library
  2. ^ Stuart Douglas - "Missing Episodes". Archived from the original on 2012-07-21. Retrieved 2011-05-29. [dead link]

Works related to The Naval Treaty at Wikisource