The Tunnelling Duke
Nobility Underground

One of Britain's barmier blue-bloods was a man with more names than I've had hot suppers: the fifth Duke of Portland, Lord William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck. He was born in 1800, died in 1875, and in the time in between weirded out whole crowds of friends, servants, and family members.

It cannot be ascertained for certain if he was mad from birth, or came from mad parents. He was certainly mad, however; or rather, as he was sufficiently monied to earn this more elavated synonym--eccentric.

Benefactor and builder though he was, he learned at an early age that having vast amounts of cash means never having to function like a normal member of society, and thus, he elected never to do so.

No Padded Walls in THIS Place

The Duke's base of operations was Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, an enormous estate the first part of which was constructed in the 12th Century.

It went from Catholic to Protestant hands in the 16th Century, as things were wont to do at the time, and from Royalist to Roundhead hands in the 17th, again as was largely the militarily imposed fashion. The Royalists recaptured it in 1645.

The Fifth Duke--that's our man, there--in his time initiated a major building plan, adding vaults, workshops, a hospital, courts, studies, and house rooms.

Of all the rooms in the Abbey, he used only four.

'Ah.' you say. 'Well, that's a touch odd. But certainly not outlandish. Perhaps he just like things a bit cozy. Nothing wrong with that.'

'Fair enough,' I say. 'Keep reading.'

How Not to Be Seen

More to it than not standing up when you're a duke. Each of those rooms he inhabited was equipped with two letterboxes, one for incoming mail and one for out, to facilitate his not being seen.

For lunch, half a roast chicken, passed through the door, every day. For dinner--the other half.

All other rooms had pink walls and were otherwise bare except for the lavatory pans in the corners.

On the road, he wore a silk hat, the top of which reached two feet from his head--but he compensated for this ostenatious equipage with extraordinarily deep umbrellas, which kept him hidden.

If the railways were his only option, he would actually have his carriage--fully curtained, of course--detached from the horses, hoisted up, and placed in the railway car--with him inside.

It is possible that the Duke was otherwise perfectly sane,and just suffering from a terrible case of agoraphobia. If so, the condition worsened considerably as he aged, but he had the money to indulge it.

Can You Dig It?

He did. A lot. The Fifth Duke made it possible to navigate his way through huge portions of the estate via a system of underground tunnels and chambers, the likes of which I haven't seen outside Moria. In order to finance the project he called in the huge loans he had made to the government, causing a financial crisis for then-prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who, among other things, had this to say: 'oh, bloody hell.'

Deeply, Darling. Deeply.

The additions to the underground network included:

  • Stables
  • Kitchens
  • A 1.5 mile long gaslit tunnel, wide enough to accomodate two carriages side-by-side
  • A 10,000 square foot ballroom
  • A 240,000 square foot riding school, supported by fifty pillars and lit by 40,000 gas jets.

The ballroom was never danced in, nor did anyone ever ride in the school. Ventilation ducts pockmarked his gardens, and his gardeners began to wonder if they weren't just wasting their time.

Already Buried, Really

Whatever his demons were, the Duke never faced them--or hardly anyone else, for that matter. His eccentricity stayed with him until end, when the house and estate passed to the next in line. The house was used by the military during both World Wars, and one wing worth is currently held by the military, which has an officers' training school there.

5th Duke of Portland (1854-1879)
Born 1800 Died 1879

The British peerage has proved to be the breeding ground of many an eccentric and none more so than the decidedly strange 5th Duke of Portland. Born on the 18th September 1800, he was the second of the three sons of the 4th Duke of Portland, but in his youth demonstrated no particular signs of the peculiarity which was to characterise his later life.

Known under the slightly more manageable name of John Bentinck, he displayed an early enthusiasm for riding (his father maintained a successful racing stud) and together with his three brothers formed a racing partnership that went under the name of 'Mr. Bowes', before embarking on a career in the army. But everything changed in 1824, with the death of his elder brother Henry, leaving John as the next in line for the title. He left the army and entered politics, becoming the Member of Parliament for Kings Lynn, although he never took an active part in politics and resigned the seat in 1826 in favour of his younger brother George.

In 1834 he made his one and only marriage proposal to the actress Adelaide Kemble, and as tempting as it might have been for Ms Kemble to become a duchess and share in the vast Portland fortune, she was forced to decline being already, if secretly, married. Whether it was this rejection that somehow unhinged him is not known (some people suggested that he had leprosy, and it seems reasonably certain that he began to suffer from some kind of skin condition), but John began to develop an aversion to the company of his fellow man. By the time he succeeded his father as the Duke of Portland in 1854 he had come to the definite conclusion that he did not like other people and therefore resolved to have as little to do with them as possible.

Anyone who happened to cross the path of the Duke would have been presented with a most incongruous sight. He habitually wore an old fashioned brown wig, topped with a two foot high hat, together with at least one long frock coat and his trousers were always secured by a piece of string tied a few inches above his ankles. He invariably carried an umbrella which he used, not to ward off the rain, but to rather ward off the gaze of any curious onlookers. Not that there were very many onlookers as the Duke made it his business to avoid people as far as possible, and generally stayed at home at Welbeck Abbey.

Known as the 'Prince of Silence', all his servants and tenants were under strict instruction not to acknowledge his presence in any way (They risked dismissal should they even touch their caps in the traditional mark of respect.) Although he appeared perfectly happy to correspond with members of his family and former friends, he took no part in public life, never entertained and refused to have any contact with anybody on any pretext whatsoever.

If the duke did feel the need to venture out, he had his own black carriage in which he rode with the blinds drawn down. When he had occasion to travel to London, he would take this carriage and have it driven onto a flat bed railway truck. Thus insulated from the travelling public he would travel by train to London, where his carriage would be unloaded and driven to his London residence Harcourt House in Cavendish Square, where he had enclosed the garden with a ground-glass screen, in order to ensure that he could walk unobserved by his neighbours.

The Duke's one passion appears to have been building and he spent a great deal of money on expanding his ducal palace at Welbeck Abbey. There he had constructed a huge library, an immense billiard room and the largest ballroom in the country. To which he added extensive stables, including a riding school with a quarter of mile gallop.

What made these extensive additions to the property so notable (and they apparently cost around two or three million pounds over a number of years) was that the Duke, in an entire disregard for convention had them all built underground, underneath the existing building. (The ballroom could only be accessed by means of a lift; although quite why the Duke wanted a ballroom is a complete mystery as he never even entertained the thought of hosting a ball, which might explain why the room was only ever used as a picture-gallery.) He even constructed a private tunnel that led the one and a quarter miles to nearby Worksop. It was all a magnificent and entirely pointless construction; "All is vast, splendid and utterly comfortless"1 as one contemporary remarked.

Needless to say the 5th Duke never married, and pursued his solitary life until the end. After his death on the 6th December 1879 at the age 79, he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in North London. In accordance with his instructions, his tomb was planted around with shrubs that soon completely obscured it from view, thereby rendering the duke as anonymous in death as he was in life.

But the strange tale of the 5th Duke of Portland did not end with his death.

There was a certain Anne Maria Druce of 68 Baker Street, London who in 1896 claimed that the Mr Druce to whom she had been married was none other than the 5th Duke of Portland. Asserting that the Duke had in fact led a double life and that the funeral of the Mr Druce held in 1864 had been merely a ruse to enable him to fulfil his other role as the Duke of Portland, Mrs Druce petitioned the Home Secretary for permission to open Mr Druce's coffin at Highgate Cemetry, in order to demonstrate that it was empty and that her son was the rightful Duke of Portland.

No one in authority appears to have taken these allegations all that seriously, although the press enthusiastically reported the allegations in much detail and at great length, and so the incumbent 6th Duke of Portland continued to enjoy the benefits of his title unmolested. Of course, the fact that the 5th Duke had spent much of his life in seclusion lent a certain credibility to the Mrs Druce's tale, and the affair dragged on until 1903 when Mrs Druce disappeared into a mental institution.

This might have been the end of the story, but there was a G.H. Druce, who was the son of the original T.C. Druce by an earlier marriage and who had been living in Australia. No doubt encouraged by the press coverage of his step-mother's allegations he returned to England and claimed that he was the rightful Duke of Portland and began raising money by public subscription to fund his campaign. Although it does not appear that this G.H. Druce made that much effort to pursue his claim, another member of the Druce family began to dispute his version of events. So G.H. brought a charge of perjury against the offending family member and the whole affair ended up in court.

In the beginning Mr G.H. Druce appeared to have a strong case supported by a number of witnesses, prominent amongst whom were a Mr Caldwell from the United States who claimed to have known the 5th Duke and helped in arranging the false funeral in 1864, and a Mrs. Robinson who was the Duke's secretary and who had a diary in which she had recorded the whole story. Unfortunately, as Mrs. Robinson explained, this diary had been stolen before the trial by agents of the 6th Duke in an effort to suppress the truth, but she had made a copy.

As it turned out the trial soon devolved into something of farce, much to the entertainment of all and sundry. It transpired that Mr Caldwell made a habit of appearing at such trials in return for suitable compensation and was in essence a professional perjurer. He was later certified insane and died in a lunatic asylum in 1911. Under cross-examination Mrs Robinson admitted that she had been paid £250 to provide her testimony and the case of G.H.Druce rapidly collapsed.

Just to make completely sure the presiding judge ordered the coffin of the late Mr Druce to be opened and there on the 30th December 1907 they discovered within the corpse of deceased T.C. Druce. As the judge himself was to remark in his summing up; "One more striking proof of the unfathomable depths of human credulity" 2.

I believe that it is correct to refer to the 5th Duke as 'William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck', as he was the descendant of the original Hans Bentinck whose grandson the 2nd Duke assumed the surname of Cavendish-Bentinck, after which the 4th Duke adopted that of Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck. However he also appears in the guise of 'William John Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck' and 'William John Cavendish Bentinck Scott'



1 Augustus Hare In My Solitary Life quoted by Brian Masters see below
2 Theodore Besterman The Druce-Portland Case quoted by Brian Masters see below

  • Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)
  • Welbeck Abbey at
  • Papers of William John Cavendish Bentinck Scott, 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879) in the Portland (Welbeck) Collection
  • Charles J.Archard The Portland Peerage Romance (1907)

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