With due respect and appreciation to Sherlockian scholar Chris J. Miller, here's the latest of countless attempts to come up with a viable chronology of the lives of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. To be read as a participant in The Great Game.
As Mr Miller says; "The Canon is what Dr. Watson allowed to have published under the auspices of his agent, Dr. Conan Doyle, no more and no less. And the sad fact is that the vaults of Cox & Co. Bank at Charing Cross, wherein Watson in his later years preserved the “battered tin dispatch box” that held his papers (as he described in THOR), was destroyed by the London Blitz during World War II. No further reminiscences from Watson’s pen shall ever be forthcoming, so as to unrevealed details all we can do is speculate… which can, however, be fun in its own right."

1852John H. Watson is born (date derived from STUD)
1854Sherlock Holmes is born (date derived from LAST)
The Gloria ScottGLORSep, 1874Holmes’s first case, during the vacation after his second year of college4/93Memoirs
The Musgrave RitualMUSGJul, 1879Holmes’s third case in London (living in Montague Street)5/93Memoirs
(pre-1881)Other cases Holmes recalls from “before my biographer had come to glorify me” (per MUSG) include:
• the Tarleton murders
• the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant
• the adventure of the old Russian woman
• the singular affair of the aluminum crutch
• Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife
• …as well as the case of Mrs. Farintosh, concerning an opal tiara (mentioned in SPEC)
A Study in ScarletSTUDJul, 1880Watson is injured in Afghanistan12/87Study
Win, 1881Watson meets Holmes; they take rooms at 221B Baker Street
Mar 4, 1881Watson’s first case with Holmes begins (the Jefferson Hope case); 1st app. Inspector Lestrade
Resident PatientRESIOct, 18818/93Memoirs
Cardboard BoxCARDAug, 1882?1/93Memoirs
Yellow FaceYELLearly Spr, 1883?2/93Memoirs
Speckled BandSPECe. Apr, 1883The infamous case of Helen Stoner, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, and the Indian swamp adder2/92Adventures
Charles Augustus MilvertonCHASJan, 1886?4/04Return
Beryl CoronetBERYFeb, 1886?5/92Adventures
Second StainSECOAut, 1886Holmes is retained by the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to avert a diplomatic crisis12/04Return
Reigate SquiresREIGApr, 1887Leading into this case’s country vacation, Holmes’s health has suffered “from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of ’87,” namely  “The whole question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company and of the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis… an investigation which had extended over two months,” in which he “outmanoeuvred at every point the most accomplished swindler in Europe.”6/93Memoirs
Greek InterpreterGREEJun, 1887?First appearance of Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft Holmes (b. circa 1847)9/93Memoirs
Sign of the FourSIGNSep, 1887Holmes and Watson solve the mystery of the Agra treasure for Mary Morstan, and Watson proposes to her2/90Sign
Five Orange PipsFIVEl. Sep, 1887In addition to this (and others fully chronicled), “The year ‘87 furnished us with a long series of cases,” including:
• the adventure of the Paradol Chamber
• the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse
• the loss of the British barque Sophy Anderson
• the singular adventures of the Grice Pattersons in the island of Uffa
• the Camberwell poisoning case, which Holmes solved “by winding up the dead man’s watch”
•… and undated but apparently recent is the case of “Major Prendergast [and] the Tankerville Club scandal,” in which “He was wrongfully accused of cheating at cards.”
One more (noted years later in NORW) is the case of “that terrible murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in ’87.”
Moreover, at this point in his career, Holmes admits to having “been beaten four times–three times by men, and once by a woman.” (Given the date, that cannot be a reference to Irene Adler.)
Silver BlazeSILVAut, 1887?12/92Memoirs
Noble BachelorNOBLOct, 1887Besides this case:
• “the little problem of the Grosvenor Square furniture van” was recently on hand but “is quite cleared up now”
• Holmes’s “last client of the [romantic] sort” was “The King of Scandinavia”
Valley of FearVALLJan, 1888Holmes and Watson come to the aid of John Douglas, formerly a Pinkerton agent in America, hunted by old enemies from the “Scowrers” (a thinly disguised version of the Molly Maguires)… who have tracked him with assistance from Prof. Moriarty (in the chronologically earliest reference to same)9/14Valley
Win, 1888Dr. Watson married Mary Morstan, and soon purchases a medical practice in the Paddington district (per STOC)
Win, 1888Watson reads (in the press) or hears (from Holmes) about, but does not participate in, several cases, including (per SCAN):
• the Trepoff murder in Odessa
• the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee (in Ceylon)
• a delicate mission for the reigning family of Holland
• the Darlington substitution scandal
• the Arnsworth castle business
A Scandal in BohemiaSCANMar 20, 1888Holmes meets (and is outsmarted by) former opera singer Irene Adler, thereafter known to him as “the woman”7/91Adventures
Stockbroker’s ClerkSTOCJun, 18883/93Memoirs
Naval TreatyNAVAJul, 1888In addition to this case, the month includes two others that remain unchronicled:
• the Adventure of the Tired Captain
• the Adventure of the Second Stain (apparently different from the published case of that title, as it implicates “many of the first families in the kingdom,” and involves Holmes with both French and Polish authorities)
Crooked ManCROOSum, 18887/93Memoirs
A Case of IdentityIDENSep, 1888Holmes tracks down a wayward suitor for Miss Mary Sutherland. He has also recently been consulted on:
• the Dundas separation case
…and has “some ten or twelve” other cases on hand, including:
• an intricate matter referred to him from Marseilles
Oct, 1888Jack the Ripper. Although two earlier killings attributed to this notorious serial killer occurred on Aug 31 and Sep 8, the case exploded in the London press after a double killing on Sep 30, with a letter and postcard sent to the Central News Agency around that same time claiming credit and coining the name. There can be no serious doubt that Sherlock Holmes would have been consulted on so infamous a case, and we may presume he succeeded in solving it, as after one more brutal killing on Nov 9 the Ripper was not heard from again. For reasons of his own, however, Watson chose never to record or even mention this investigation… although we may note that he records no other cases during this time period. Later writers have offered more than one fictionalized account of Holmes’s pursuit of the Ripper, but we shall likely never know the true details.
Boscombe Valley MysteryBOSCe. Jun, 188910/91Adventures
Man with the Twisted LipTWISlate Jun, 188912/91Adventures
Engineer’s ThumbENGRJul, 1889One of only two cases introduced to Holmes’s attention by Watson himself (pre-Hiatus, at least), the other being:
• the case of Colonel Warburton’s madness
Hound of the BaskervillesHOUNOct, 1889Holmes solves the centuries-old legend of a spectral hound haunting the moors around Baskerville Hall10/01Hound
Dying DetectiveDYINNov, 1889Holmes’s practice has prospered such that his rent paid to the beleaguered Mrs. Hudson is “princely” at this point12/13Last Bow
Blue CarbuncleBLUEDec 27, 18891/92Adventures
Copper BeechesCOPPApr, 18906/92Adventures
Red-Headed LeagueREDHOct, 1890“I find that in the year 1890 there were only three cases of which I retain any record,” says Watson in FINA. Two are chronicled; the third remains unknown. Another case (technically undated, but unknown to Watson when Holmes mentions it in 1901 (in SUSS), thus quite probably datable to this year) is that of:
Matilda Briggs, “a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”
Win, 1890-’91Per FINA:
• “During the winter … and the early spring of 1891, I saw in the papers that [Holmes] had been engaged by the French government upon a matter of supreme importance”
• Holmes mentions to Watson a recent case in which he has “been of assistance to the royal family of Scandinavia”
The Final ProblemFINAApr 24 – May 4, 1891Holmes secures evidence to convict Prof. Moriarty’s criminal gang, but the mastermind tracks Holmes and Watson to Switzerland. In a confrontation with his nemesis at the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes seemingly perishes.12/93Memoirs

May, 1891 – Apr, 1894 • THE GREAT HIATUS
Having faked his own death to elude pursuit, Holmes travels the world incognito. For two years he explores Tibet as a Norwegian named Sigerson, visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the “head lama.” He passes through Persia, “looks in” at Mecca (difficult though this must have been, if Richard Burton could manage it in disguise then surely Holmes could), and pays a brief visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum (in Sudan), information about which he passes home to the Foreign Office (presumably through his brother Mycroft, who is in on the secret). He then spends some months in Montpellier, France, researching coal-tar derivatives, before returning to London. (Some Sherlockians have speculated that Holmes’s father may have been named Siger, given his choice of pseudonym.)
Meanwhile, even while mourning and memorializing “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known” (FINA), Watson suffers an additional sad bereavement—presumably the premature death of his wife, Mary, for reasons unknown—and relocates to a small Kensington practice. (Kensington per NORW; all other details per EMPT.) (Some speculate that Mary’s death may have lay beneath Watson’s decision to relate the tale of Holmes’s death and write no more.)

The Empty House EMPTe. Apr, 1894Holmes returns from his self-imposed exile and reintroduces himself to Watson, promptly solving the murder of young Ronald Adair and capturing the killer, Col. Sebastian Moran, the last of Moriarty’s old gang. Watson (per NORW) soon sells his practice and returns to the shared rooms in Baker Street.10/03Return
Golden Pince-NezGOLDl. Nov, 1894Watson decribes “three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for the year 1894,” most of which sadly remain unchronicled, including:
• the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker
• the Addleton tragedy, and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow
• The famous Smith-Mortimer succession case
• the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin—an exploit which won for Holmes an autograph letter of thanks from the French President and the Order of the Legion of Honour
Wisteria LodgeWISTl. Mar, 1895Before commencing this case (in which he identifies the notorious ex-President Murillo, an exiled Central American despot), Holmes remarks on “how bored I have been since we locked up Colonel Carruthers.”9/08Last Bow
Solitary CyclistSOLIApr, 18951/04Return
Three Students3STUMay, 1895Leading up to this case, “a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great university towns” (i.e., either Oxford or Cambridge)6/04Return
Black PeterBLACe. Jul, 1895Watson reports that he had “never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95. His increasing fame had brought with it an immense practice.” Shortly before this particular mystery, “a curious and incongruous succession of cases had engaged his attention,” including:
• his famous investigation of the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca—an inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of His Holiness the Pope
• his arrest of Wilson, the notorious canary-trainer, which removed a plague-spot from the East End of London
Norwood BuilderNORWAug, 1895Other cases mentioned in the “months” since the Return include that of Murillo (WIST, above), and:
• the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland
Bruce-Partington PlansBRUCl. Nov, 1895At the request of his brother Mycroft (making his second and last published appearance), Holmes once again comes to the aid of the government. At this stage in his career, he can refer casually to “Brooks or Woodhouse, or any of the fifty men who have good reason for taking my life.”12/08Last Bow
Veiled LodgerVEILOct, 18962/27Case-Book
Missing Three-QuarterMISSFeb, 1897Watson remarks that things had been “very slow” preceding this case, and that “For years I had gradually weaned [Holmes] from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career, [and] I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus.” (In fact, no cocaine or other drug use is ever chronicled post-Return.)8/04Return
Abbey GrangeABBEl. Win, 1897Holmes willingly subverts the law (not the only time, but one of the most brazen) to excuse the death of an abusive husband and reunite his wife, Lady Brackenstall, with her lost love Captain Crocker9/04Return
Devil’s FootDEVIl. Mar, 1897Watson: “in the spring of the year 1897… Holmes’s iron constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant hard work,” requiring a rest-vacation in Cornwall at the instruction of “Dr. Moore Agar, of Harley Street, whose dramatic introduction to Holmes I may some day recount.” It is there that this case arises.12/10Last Bow
Retired ColourmanRETISum, 1898Simultaneous with this case, Holmes is “preoccupied with [the] case of the two Coptic Patriarchs”1/27Case-Book
Dancing MenDANCl. Jul, 189812/03Return
Problem of Thor BridgeTHORe. Oct, 1899Watson mentions notes of several unsolved cases, which although undatable are worth mentioning for their curiosity value, namely those of:
• Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world
• the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged
• Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science
Six NapoleonsSIXNJun, 1900In May of the previous year, Holmes was consulted about the missing Black Pearl of the Borgias, which he recovers herein. By the time of this case, he has won the unreserved respect of Lestrade and the rest of Scotland Yard, as demonstrated herein. Immediately following these events, Holmes turns to studying “the Conk-Singleton forgery case.”5/04Return
Priory SchoolPRIOMay, 1901Holmes receives a remarkably large award of £12,000 from Lord Holdernesse at the conclusion of this case2/04Return
Lady Frances CarfaxLADYSum, 1901There is a simultaneous case, since Holmes notes, “I cannot possibly leave London while old Abrahams is in such mortal terror of his life.”12/11Last Bow
Sussex VampireSUSSNov, 19011/24Case-Book
Red CircleREDCWin, 1902Holmes’s client in this case mentions that he “arranged an affair for a lodger of mine last year… Mr. Fairdale Hobbs.”3/11Last Bow
Shoscombe Old PlaceSHOSMay, 1902As this case opens, Holmes is examining evidence from an ongoing one:
• “the St. Pancras case [in which] you may remember that a cap was found beside the dead policeman. The accused man denies that it is his. But he is a picture-frame maker who habitually handles glue.”
He also mentions to Watson another recent case, in which he:
• “ran down that coiner by the zinc and copper filings in the seam of his cuff,” since which Scotland Yard has “begun to realize the importance of the microscope.”
Three Garridebs3GARl. Jun, 1902It is in this same month, Watson tells us, “that Holmes refused a knighthood for services which may perhaps some day be described”10/24Case-Book
Sum, 1902Watson leaves Baker Street for rooms in Queen Anne Street (per ILLU; a prestigious address for doctors in this period), and soon marries again (per BLAN). The details of these events remain unknown.
Illustrious ClientILLUSep 3, 190211/24Case-Book
Blanched SoldierBLANJan, 1903Holmes reports that as this case arose, he:
• “was clearing up the case which my friend Watson has described as that of the Abbey School, in which the Duke of Greyminster was so deeply involved” (this would appear to be a veiled reference to PRIO, as nothing else comes close; that was almost two years earlier, but perhaps some follow-up work was required)
• “had also a commission from the Sultan of Turkey which called for immediate action, as political consequences of the gravest kind might arise from its neglect”
Three Gables3GABSpr, 190310/26Case-Book
Mazarin StoneMAZASum, 190310/21Case-Book
Creeping ManCREESep 6, 1903“…one of the very last cases handled by Holmes before his retirement from practice.”3/23Case-Book
Aut, 1903Sherlock Holmes retires. He moves from London to the Sussex Downs, where he takes up the study of beekeeping (as first revealed in SECO in late 1904). His farm is located “five miles from Eastbourne,” according to Watson’s introduction to His Last Bow.
Lion’s ManeLIONl. Jul, 190712/26Case-Book
His Last BowLASTAug 2, 19149/17Last Bow

As in past posts, an underscore indicates a case published post-Hiatus yet set in the earlier period, and a question mark signals that the year assigned to a case cannot be certain. While I have alluded to the highlights of some of the more famous adventures, I have endeavored as much as possible to avoid spoiling the details of these tales, to preserve the enjoyment of those who may not yet have read them. (The notes therefore relate primarily to other interpolated cases and noteworthy life events.)

Some final observations. Much attention has been paid over the years to Watson’s statement in the opening of VEIL that “Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and… during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings.” If Holmes began his practice in 1877 and retired in 1903, then excluding the three years of the Hiatus that makes 23 years of “active practice,” so that fits. However, if Watson joined him in 1881 and worked with him until his retirement, then (again subtracting the Hiatus) that would be 19 years, not 17… which leaves us wondering how to account for two years in which Watson was apparently not “cooperat[ing] with him and… keep[ing] notes of his doings.”
In this context it seems particularly relevant that not a single case in this chronology falls during the years 1884 or ‘85. Other solutions have been proposed, but I believe this is the most plausible location for our “missing years.” Watson’s words in SPEC regarding “notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes”—written in ‘91, in a passage referring to Holmes in past tense—offer additional corroboration that the missing years must be early in the Partnership, thereby helping make sense of what should otherwise be a description of ten years’ worth of notes, not eight.
Where Watson was during this period remains a matter for speculation. Some commentators point to a long-unpublished early play by Dr. Conan Doyle, Angels of Darkness, which purports to be an account of Dr. John Watson’s adventures in San Francisco in the mid-’80s, during which he woos a young woman named Lucy Ferrier; advocates of an additional marriage seem particularly fond of this solution. However, the general consensus (which seems to me far more likely) is that this was a complete fiction on Doyle’s part, using the name of his friend as a protagonist. Alternatively and more plausibly, it’s possible that Watson (having recovered from his 1880 wound) returned to complete his term of service as an Army surgeon. It’s even possible that he was wounded a second time, thereby explaining later reference to his injured leg (per SIGN, rather than his shoulder, as described in STUD).
At any rate, if Watson had notes of some 70 cases by 1891, he had far more by the end of the Partnership:  in 1904’s SOLI he informs us that “From the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a very busy man. It is safe to say that there was no public case of any difficulty in which he was not consulted during those eight years, and there were hundreds of private cases”… and later that same year, in SECO, he refers to “notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded.” We may therefore conclude without doubt that the sixty chronicled cases of the Canon, and even the others mentioned along the way as noted above, merely scratch the surface of Holmes’s career; but they are all we have. (We can also infer from the first passage that after 1901—and the huge payday in PRIO—Holmes began to wind down his practice in preparation for retirement.)
We may sadly surmise that Watson passed on in early 1927, as the last published case (SHOS) appeared that year in the March issue of The Strand, and the collected Case-Book published later that spring bore a prefatory note from Dr. Conan Doyle, rather than from Watson himself (as in 1917’s Last Bow). Conan Doyle himself likewise passed on in July of 1930. As to Holmes, matters are less clear. William Baring-Gould appears to have been the first to suggest that Holmes’s chemical research into bees’ royal jelly allowed him to distill a serum to slow his aging, a speculation now entertained by many, suggesting that he lived well beyond a typical span and may survive even today (at the robust age of 156). Certainly it is a curious fact that the Times of London has never published an obituary for Holmes, as one would surely expect in the event of the death of so famous a figure.
Confident as I am about the reasoning behind this chronology, and its validity as a framework and reading-order for the known history of Holmes and Watson, there always remain points of ambiguity about which legitimate debate may swirl, and which may never be settled with absolute authority. I welcome comments and input from readers interested in exploring such ambiguities! Surely close analysis and discussion of the available clues, after all, is a worthy tribute to the methods of the Great Detective.