The Abominable Bride, BBC's New Year's Day Sherlock special which was watched by nearly 9m, has been criticised for dressing suffragettes up in Ku Klux Klan-style hoods. Crime writer David Hewson said: "Did no one at script stage ask: Why are suffragettes wearing shiny purple Klan hats?"

The show's producers were also censured for suggesting that the votes for women movement came from women who wanted revenge on men who had wronged them.

Lecturer Elin Wyn said in a Sunday Times report: "People dressed up like the KKK turned out to be suffragettes. I was very angry. The writers are quite misogynist. They don't give women decent roles at all."

Another viewer complained that the Sherlock special had failed the Bechdel Test. This test, also called the Mo Movie Measure, has three criteria: A film or TV show must have at least two women in it; they must talk to each other, and it must be about something other than a man.

Historians were also angered by inaccuracies in the show which was set in 1895. The first united national suffrage group, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was not founded until 1897.

On social media, many also tweeted their confusion over the storyline which wandered from 19th-century England to the modern day and also included a surreal dream sequence.

Sherlock writer Steven Moffat denied he held sexist views. "I think it's one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings," he told Wales Online.

"I'm certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong.

"It's not true and in terms of the character Sherlock Holmes, it is interesting. He has been referred to as being a bit misogynist.

"He's not; the fact is one of the lovely threads of the original Sherlock Holmes is whatever he says, he cannot abide anyone being cruel to women – he actually becomes incensed and full of rage."

The BBC responded to the criticism by saying: "The Sherlock viewing figures were the highest of the day, slightly ahead of EastEnders, which achieved 8.3m."

The detective series starring Benedict Cumberbatch also beat viewing figures for the Queen's speech on Christmas Day, which drew in 7.2m people.