Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb

Updated on March 15, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Colin has been reading as long as he can remember, and the works of Conan Doyle were some of the early works that kept him reading.

By the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb in 1892, Sherlock Holmes had already dealt with a wide range of crimes, including murder, manslaughter, and bank robbery. With The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb counterfeiting would be added to this list.


The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb was published by the Strand Magazine in March 1892, and was the ninth short Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The preceding month, the Strand Magazine had published The Adventure of the Speckled Band, and that along with The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb and ten other short stories, would make up The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the compilation work also published in 1892.

A Short Review

The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb takes its name from the basic fact that an engineer, by the name of Victor Hatherley, has had his thumb chopped off in a murderous attack. Hatherley had been employed by a shadowy German figure to repair a hydraulic press, and when the engineer had found out too much its operation.

The case is one with no real mystery; the criminals are known, and even Victor Hatherley knows the reason why the attack occurred. The only possible mystery is the actual location of the press, and whilst Holmes deduces this, on arrival in the general locale, its location is obvious to all.

The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb is one of the handful of cases that was not dramatised by Granada TV for their Jeremy Brett starring Sherlock Holmes series. As such it is often a case that is forgotten about, and of course, as there is no great detective work undertaken by Sherlock Holmes, it is less memorable than many other written stories.

Arguably, the one memorable point about The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb is the fact that the criminals are not caught. This is, of course, not unknown in Sherlock Holmes stories, as Holmes sometimes lets perpetrators go, as in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, or natural justice catches up with the criminals, as in the case of The Five Orange Pips, but in this case there is seemingly no justice.

Dr Watson tends to the wound

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary

The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb commences with Dr Watson explaining how he had moved out of Baker Street, and established a fairly successful practice near to Paddington Station. Indeed, officials at the railway station were known to bring Watson patients if the need arose. One such patient would prove to be a hydraulic engineer by the name of Victor Hatherley; Hatherley being brought to Watson early in the morning by a railway guard of the doctor’s acquaintance.

The reason why Hatherley has been brought to Watson is obvious, as his thumb has been cut off. The story of this wound is one which Hatherley is going to have to tell the police about, although he is fearful that they will not believe him.

Watson of course advises his patient that he should first visit Sherlock Holmes, and set the problem before him.

Watson and Hatherley arrive at Baker Street before Holmes has had breakfast, and the detective genially welcomes his visitors to join him in partaking of some bacon and eggs. Once the breakfast has been consumed, Hatherley sets about explaining his predicament.

Victor Hatherley is a 25 year old bachelor who had apprenticed for seven years as a hydraulic engineer. With a small inheritance behind him, Hatherley had set up his own business two years previously, but business had been virtually non-existent since. Then one day, a gentleman by the name of Colonel Lysander Stark, a man with a German accent, had visited Hatherly and hired him.

The commission though, was a strange one. Stark had asked a number of personal questions before telling him that the commission would be for one night only, but the payment for the commission would be large. Hartherley was to be paid 50 Guineas, a huge sum of money for the day.

Stark explains that his hydraulic press was being used to compact Fuller’s Earth, a substance used to purify oil and greases, and secrecy was required as he wished to buy up surrounding property cheaply before news of his discover was made public.

Desperate for the work, Hatherley travels down to Eyford in Berkshire the same evening that he had been commissioned. Hatherley is collected from the station by Stark, although the carriage in which the engineer is transported is one that he cannot see out of. Hatherley is told that the house containing the press is only seven miles from the train station, although the engineer believes it is more like 12 miles.

Holmes interrupts the narrative to ask about the freshness of the horse when the engineer was picked up from the station.

On his arrival at the house, Hatherley is briefly left alone, and a woman comes up to him, and speaking with a German accent, warns the engineer to leave the house immediately. Hatherley though is in need of the money, and so refuses to heed the warning.

Hatherley told to leave

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

The woman departs, and then Stark, and a Mr Ferguson, join Hatherley and take the engineer to the hydraulic press. The press proves to be one of the rooms of the house, and it takes Hatherley but a moment to find the hydraulic leak with use of an oil lamp, and the engineer explains to Stark how to mend it. It is though obvious to Hatherley that the press is not being used to compact Fuller’s Earth, but is being used to press metal.

Realising that Hatherley knows too much, Stark attempts to do away with the engineer, and so Hatherley is locked inside the press and the machine is switched on. Hatherley manages to escape through one of the walls of the room with the help of the woman he had previously met; a woman later identified as Elsie. Elsie aides Hatherley’s escape through an open window, but Stark is right on his heels, and as the engineer hangs from the windowsill, so Stark brings down a meat cleaver, and cuts one of the engineer’s thumbs clean off.

Hatherley drops to the ground, but manages to rush off into some nearby bushes, but soon passes out. When he comes around though, Hatherley is no longer in the bushes, but has some how been moved to Eyford railway station. Catching the next train to London, Hatherley had then of course been brought to Watson to bandage the wound.

Holmes has listened intently to the story, and once finished, the detective digs around until he uncovers a newspaper clipping that tells of the disappearance of another engineer, Jeremiah Hayling, a year before. It seems that Stark had previously had to get the press repaired.

Holmes, Watson and Hatherley then make their way to Scotland Yard, where they enlist the help of Inspector Bradstock, and soon the party is on their way to Eyford.

On the journey a discussion is made about where the house might be, and a circle with 12 mile radius is made on a map. Opinions are put forward, but Holmes decides that the house must be at the very centre of the circle, the carriage journey of 12 miles merely being a ruse of six miles out and 6 miles back to confuse the engineer.

Bradstock and Holmes are already in agreement that Stark is in charge of a band of counterfeiters; Scotland Yard knowing that an operation was being undertaken in the Reading vicinity but being unable to pinpoint it.

On arrival at Eyford, the party discover that a nearby mansion is ablaze, and Hatherley immediately recognises it as the building he was in the previous night. Of course, the finding of a severed thumb by the firemen, only confirms this.

The fire seems to have been started by the oil lamp that Hatherley had abandoned in the press room. The fire though had not spread quickly enough to prevent the occupants of the house escaping with several bulky boxes; the boxes obviously containing already counterfeited coins.

Examining the ground, Holmes discovers that it was Elsie and Ferguson, a man known locally as Dr Beacher, who had moved the unconscious Hatherley the previous night; the pair probably being unwilling to be party to another murder.

The criminals are never caught, despite subsequent efforts from Holmes, and Hatherley is upset about the loss of 50 Guineas. The only consolation that Holmes can give is that the engineer has a story which he can dine out on for a long, long time.

The Engineer Hanging

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb

  • Date of Events - 1889
  • Client - Victor Hatherley
  • Locations - Eyford, Berkshire
  • Villain - Colonel Stark


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