I am quoting from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Gloria Scott by Arthur Conan Doyle:

It was a prosaic way of forming a friendship, but it was effective. I was laid by the heels for ten days, but Trevor used to come in to enquire after me.

From the context it's clear that Holmes was staying in bed for 10 days, but does being laid by the heels mean that it was his heels which were in pain or is it an expression that is used no matter part of the body is the source of pain (for example may I say 'I was laid by the heels due to a stomach ache')?

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    Please see Farlex. To put in fetters or shackles; imprison. Holmes was effectively imprisoned in his bed through illness. Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 12:00

1 Answer 1


to "lay by the heels" was a method of punishment and restraint in times gone by

To place one's hands or feet in shackles; to lock up or imprison one

Free dictionary

Here is a depiction:

Getty Images

Layin by the heels

The bilboes referred to in the picture are:

An iron bar with sliding shackles, formerly used for confining a prisoner's ankles

Oxford Lexico

Hence, Holmes uses the term as a lighthearted allusion to being imprisoned and confined by his illness.

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    Please don't answer questions than could have been answered by a simple look-up. Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 12:04
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    And we hates bilboeses. Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 12:23
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    @EdwinAshworth Just as we hates Bagginses, my Precious?
    – Anton
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 12:58
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    @WeatherVane It's always difficult to draw the line between dismissal of a question and just simply answering it. Dismissal does not really help anyone, but I suppose answering too easy a question encourages others to use the site as free counsel. This was not a trivial question, pivoting as it does on archaic usage, allusion, analogy and avoidance of contemporary meaning. I am sorry if I got it wrong.
    – Anton
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 13:06
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    For what it's worth, I've seen it happen that many times answers such as these on stackexchange become the number one google result after several years. 🤷‍♀️
    – Kirk Woll
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 21:58

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