I have always thought of myself as a Northerner because I was born and bred in Yorkshire but in truth my birthplace is a stone’s throw away from the Nottinghamshire border and only a mile or two of fields saved me from the fate of being a Midlander. As far as I am aware, I have no blood relatives or ancestors buried in any London cemetery; however I do have a personal connection to an easily overlooked vault close to the Anglican Chapel in Kensal Green. This vault, with its massive granite capstone, houses the mortal remains of William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the Marquess of Titchford and, from 1854, the 5th Duke of Portland. The duke is famous for being somewhat eccentric and for the unusual nature of his additions to the ancestral home at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. My tenuous connection with the duke is that my great-grandfather cleaned the chimneys at Welbeck Abbey and my grandmother worked in the kitchens; I am descended from the serfs on the estate.
The Dukeries, the area of North Nottinghamshire where the estates of the Dukes of Newcastle, Norfolk, Kingston and Portland are to be found, is just 10 miles from where I grew up. I heard stories of Welbeck Abbey, its eccentric Duke and of the tunnels and underground rooms he built beneath the main house from my father. Whilst he was, to all appearances, a sober man and certainly not one given to flights of fancy, I eventually came to realise that my father was a mine of disinformation. Whilst often containing a kernel of the truth his stories were prone to exaggeration; on trips to Clumber Park, once the estate of the Dukes of Newcastle, my father told me that the main house had been sold by an impoverished Duke before the war and then carefully demolished, all the bricks and building stones meticulously numbered and then packed and shipped off, along with all its furniture and artworks, to America where the mansion had been rebuilt for a millionaire, lovingly recreated exactly as it was, down to the carpets and curtains, the dinner service and the books in the library, in sunny California. It was true that the house had been demolished in 1938 but the rest turned out to be total bullshit. As a child I loved my dad’s stories about Clumber Park and neighbouring Welbeck Abbey; he told us that the Duke of Portland had built an underground home beneath the mansion, with a subterranean library, stables and a tunnel from the house to Worksop Station that was big enough to take a horse and carriage. The greatest wonder of the underground house he said, was a ballroom with a glass ceiling that had been built beneath the ornamental lake and where, if you looked up, you could see the carp swimming in the clear green waters above your head. It was only later that I learned to be sceptical about the details in these accounts. My grandmother later confirmed that she had worked for a while in the kitchens at Welbeck but the only detail I can remember her telling me is a story about accidentally shutting the oven door on a kitchen cat that had been napping inside, and the unholy noise it made when she lit the fire beneath the oven. I would love to be able to quiz her now about every last detail she remembers of the place (and everything else from her life) but she died in 1985.
The Duke of Portland expired at his town mansion, Harcourt House, 19, Cavendish-square, at half -past five on Saturday morning, after an illness of but brief duration. The health of the Duke had, indeed, for some time past been a cause of anxiety to his friends, owing to his advanced age, but it was not until the early part of the past week that his illness assumed such a serious aspect as to alarm his family, and on Friday he was seen to be sinking fast. During the night he got worse, and before day dawn on Saturday morning he had breathed his last.
London Evening Standard - Monday 08 December 1879
William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck was born in London 1800 and baptised at St George’s in Hanover Square. From childhood he was always rather dreamy and delicate and his parents took the decision to educate him at home rather than subject him to the rough and tumble of Westminster School, his father’s alma mater. Despite this he had a five year army career from the age of 18 though he did move regiment rather regularly, starting off in the Foot Guards before moving to the Light Dragoons and finishing off as a captain in the Life Guards. He saw no active service and suffered from ‘lethargy’ caused by his delicate health throughout his short career. In 1824 he changed regiments once again, moving to the Royal West India Rangers as a Captain; an unusual move since the regiment had been disbanded five years earlier. He happily stayed on in the non-existent army unit for another 10 years, drawing half pay and not having to be bothered with any tiresome duties. His family encouraged him to go into politics and he was duly elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Kings Lynn in 1824, a position he promptly resigned from two years later on the grounds of ill health. To escape further family attempts to find him a useful career he fled to the continent until he his father died in 1854 and he became the 5th Duke of Portland. His position finally allowed the highly introverted middle-aged man to become what he had probably wanted to be all along – a recluse.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph of Tuesday 09 December 1879 carried a rather good obituary of the 5th Duke. The version below is abridged!:
THE LATE DUKE OF PORTLAND. The "Recluse of Welbeck" is dead. He will be missed, but not by many; for not many saw or had intercourse with him; but by those who do miss him, he will be missed greatly. There was, perhaps, no man of whom so little was known and so much was said, as his Grace the Duke of Portland. The art of minding one's own business and not caring about the business of anyone else, was by him cultivated keenly, and brought to perfection. He was in the world, but not of it, in the ordinary sense of that term, and popular imagination had surrounded him with a brilliant nimbus of romance. And yet he was intensely practical and matter-of-fact. In all he did—and he did much—there was a method, as sane as that of the philosophic Dane. The Most Noble William John Cavendish Scott Bentinck, fifth Duke Portland, in the county of Dorset, of Titchfield, in the county of Southampton, Earl of Portland, Viscount Woodstock, of Woodstock, in the county of Oxon, Baron of Cirencester, in the county of Gloucester, one of the co heirs of the ancient Barony of Ogle, and a family trustee of the British Museum, was born in London on the 18th of September, 1800. He the second and last surviving son of William Henry Cavendish, fourth duke, by Henrietta, eldest daughter and coheiress with her sister, Viscountess Canning, of the late General John Scott, of Balcomie, in the county of Fife.
Every year since the Duke Portland inherited his estate, he has spent a princely fortune in carrying out alterations in building and in pulling down again. For cost the Duke’s building achievements are without precedent in the history of the country. Welbeck Abbey is at the present day a wonderful place, and has no equal. There are passages underground for miles, buildings under the sods of magnificent proportions, and a ball-room that surpasses the hall of the cutlers in dimensions and puts the Albert Hall to the blush. The most striking feature of the Abbey is the large Gothic Hall, which was restored by the Countess of Oxford in 1751. The fan like tracery of the calling, the elaborate designs, and the splendid decorations are a feast to the eyes. All the rooms are furnished with princely luxuriance, and they are very numerous. Like the famous Worcester, the Duke of Portland was of an inventive turn of mind. He believed in labour-saving contrivances, and wherever he could he applied them. The necessity for waiters was minimised even in his great dining room. An hydraulic shaft connected the dining room with the kitchen, and by means of it a small waggon was lowered to the underground passages. The rails upon which the waggons run—like miniature tram rails—terminated in a cupboard, and in this cupboard, which was also a stove, food could be kept hot till needed for the table. The hundreds of valuable and high-class pictures hung in the various rooms showed his Grace's mind was highly cultivated and artistic. Indeed, the earlier part of his life was devoted to the cultivation of art.
|The underground picture gallery|
But the outside of the abbey, the grounds, the "works" as they are called, are the most striking proofs of the strangeness of the Duke’s ways, and thoughts, and doings. The grounds seem to be literally undermined. Extending in all directions from the abbey are burrows or passages. There are burrows to the right of the abbey, burrows to the left, burrows to the north, and burrows to the south, burrows to the east, and burrows to the west. Not mere borings or excavations, but lofty, spacious passages, brilliantly lighted by costly apparatus for letting in sun-light, and where sun-light cannot be admitted, by lights from gas. By an underground passage we come to the celebrated riding school, the like of which is not to be found in Europe, or in the world. It is entered by a trap door, opened by means of a curiously-designed crank in the passage. In the days of the Duke of Newcastle it was used as a riding school, now it is magnificent museum of art over I50 feet in length. Hundreds of pictures are arranged— not hung—round the gallery, and piled in stacks on the floor are thousands of volumes of books, some modern, and many old, rare, and valuable. The floor of this gallery is of oak, and the ceiling is made to represent brilliant midsummer sky. Mirrors in profusion are placed about, and light is shed from four chandeliers suspended from the roof, and each weighing a ton. This apartment is lighted by over two thousand gas lights, and when all are illuminated the effect must be brilliant. There are many miles of passages under the grounds. One extends from the Abbey half the way to Worksop; another was only used by the Duke, and the stranger found in it was deemed guilty of an offence approaching high treason. The passages are all broad enough for three people to walk abreast in them, and pleasant to walk in. The library, like the picture gallery, is underground, and is the work of many years. It is divided into five large rooms, and so arranged as to form, when desirable, one very large room. This library is 238 feet long. Another immense and superbly-constructed room has been erected underground. At one end it is approached by spiral staircase, and the other by subterranean passages. Church or ball-room? It would do admirably for both. Some say it is intended for the first and some say for the second. It was begun five years ago, and left in an incomplete state. There are many of these rooms at Welbeck. They are free from draughts, admirably lighted, magnificently decorated, and all very costly. Comparatively few outbuildings are to be seen at this home of errate fancy. The most remarkable of those which can be seen is undoubtedly the new riding school, a building of gigantic proportions and of extraordinary beauty. The walls are of solid stone and the roof of wood, iron, and glass is nearly four hundred feet in length and one hundred feet wide, and divided into a great centre and two isles. The central department is decorated with frieze painted brass work representing birds, beasts, and foliage, and of perfect workmanship and elegant design. It is fifty feet high, and lighted by 8000 gas jets. Here the Duke took pleasure in seeing his horses exercised.
|The kilometre-long plant corridor which runs between the main house and the riding school|
The "works" are marvels. He employed constantly upon them over 2.000 workmen. In fact, Welbeck was like an industrial village. There were wood yards, machine shops, factories, end even gas works, all within the grounds. He was ever building and pulling down again. A writer in ‘the World’ a year ago said of him that he had refined taste and skill in architecture. The Duke of Portland was a builder-up of good work and a puller-down of bad. There are many stories of his impatience of ugliness, and tenderness to its authors. An architect at one time employed by him built a gateway, which when completed became abhorrent to him; yet so considerate was he of the artist's feelings that he could not find it in his heart to remonstrate with him. So be tried another way. One night he waited till the architect had driven off it his dogcart, and then set all his men to work at overtime and double pay to pull down the hated edifice. By morning not a vestige remained, and the architect on his arrival rubbed his eyes in amazement; and neither he nor the Duke ever took the slightest notice of its disappearance. There was, too, a memorial bridge erected in the memory of Lord George Bentinck, near the spot where he breathed his last, close to the wood and opposite village of Norton. Short work was made of this bridge, as of numerous other odds and ends of architecture on the domain, and the present reign of perfection was inaugurated.
|The Illustrated London News from 1881|
The late Duke was always what the world calls eccentric He visited not at all, and encouraged no visitors. He hated ceremony and the penalty of dismissal was said to be the result of a workman lifting his hat or specially noticing him as he walked about the grounds. A man who wanted work always obtain it at the Dukeries, but his Grace had a contempt for idlers. It was said that if he found a man ‘dawdling’, that man was sent instantly about his business. He was what people call a "good friend and a bitter enemy." He never forgave an affront, and could wait for years to repay it as some of the workpeople found to their cost. He detested "limbered tongue" people, if he found that any of the workpeople had been revealing secrets to the world he would dispense with their services. The Duke was enormously wealthy. It was currently stated that he had coming "a thousand pounds per day and two for Sunday." According to a contemporary his rent roil was something like £400,000 per annum. He had estates in Middlesex, Ayrshire, Northumberland, Derbyshire, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire.
There was no peace for the Duke even after his death – in 1897 began the long running Druce case when Anna Maria Druce claimed that his grace had lived a double life, pretending to be her father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce a successful London upholsterer. Druce had been buried at Highgate in 1864. As the 5th Duke had never married and had no children the Druce case was essentially that Anna Maria’s husband was the rightful heir and the Druces should inherit the entire Portland estate. The case was only settled in 1907 when Druce’s body was exhumed at Highgate see here for the full story.