The Dilettante Society on The 5th Duke of Portland

Words: Lady M and F Dashwood
Illustrations: Christine Dilks
Friday 12 February 2016
reading time: min, words

"The scandal delighted Victorian audiences, while the duke's secretive habits and efforts to remain undetectable fuelled public speculation"


If there’s one thing about the great British aristocracy of old, they certainly did create the most wonderful weirdos​. With their detachment from the troubles of the world of ordinary folk, and the luxury to indulge their wildest whims and flights of fancy, anyone of a peculiar disposition born into this extraordinarily lavish lifestyle was sure to get up to interesting antics.

During the mid-nineteenth century, while Nottingham’s centre was erupting as a hotpot of industrial action, in the outskirts of our fair shire, decidedly more strange developments were underfoot. The grand Welbeck Abbey was shrouded in mystery. Tales of a subterranean maze of tunnels, secret chambers, and underground ballrooms began to circulate; while rumours of the supposed disfigurement and madness of the elusive duke captured the imagination and fired the rumour mills.  

William was certainly a most curious character. Exceptionally shy and introverted, he shunned the expectations bestowed upon him, and indeed what was considered normal conduct, to become a reclusive man of mystery. Accounts of his character and habits vary considerably and are rife with contradiction. From thoughtful, friendly employer and diligent estate manager, to neurotic nut case, prone to dramatic mood swings and erratic behaviour. Yet his architectural legacy, at once a bizarre folly and the most extensive and expensive land redevelopment of his era, was a remarkable achievement. So who exactly was this enigmatic man who earned the title ‘the burrowing duke’?  

Born in 1800 into a bewildering tangle of aristocratic lineage, grand titles of duke, earl, viscount (not the biscuits) or marquess were in bountiful supply for the Cavendishes. As was only deemed fitting for a man of such aristocratic heritage, he pursued the traditional career dabbling in both the military and politics. So far, so conventional, yet things were about to get much more interesting.  

William’s more peculiar habits took hold in 1854 when, following the death of his brother, he found himself in possession of not only the title 5th Duke of Portland, but also the grand estate of Welbeck Abbey, originally a monastery dating back to 1140. It was after this most unexpected acquisition that William withdrew from public life and was able to develop the peculiar passion which became his legacy: the impressive remodelling of his estate.

The duke took great interest in the construction and upkeep of the 15,000 acre estate; groundbreaking designs were chosen to provide the utmost practicality, while his regular inspections ensured the work was carried out to his exacting standards. In 1860, in a display of great Victorian innovation, a gasworks was built to power much of the estate. An avid equestrian, the duke built an impressive riding house to rival few others in the world. Constructed in cast iron with a 50ft high glass ceiling, despite its vast dimensions of almost 400m length, the building was heated and lit with 4,000 gas jets to allow riding at night and in winter. While the impressive kitchen gardens covered a hefty 22 acres, providing an array of crops, including a 300 metre long wall of peaches.

Yet the duke’s notoriety was not achieved through these more conventional improvements, but a project much more in aid of his reclusive habits and intense desire for privacy – his great architectural achievements beneath his land. Painted pink and gaslit with porthole-like windows was a network of subterranean corridors and apartments that spread throughout the estate for up to six miles. One particular tunnel, wide enough for two carriages, led 1.5 miles from the estate towards Worksop, thus allowing the duke undetected access in and out of the grounds. Perhaps the most impressive construction was an underground ballroom which boasted a lift that could transport twenty guests and a ceiling painted as a sunset. Unused for its original purposes, it was later utilised as a picture gallery to house the family’s art collection from past centuries.  


Despite dwelling in a grand abbey, the duke preferred more modest accommodations. The majority of the house, though lavishly decorated and furnished, was shut off and emptied all but for the lavatories, which were bizarrely installed in the corner of almost every room. He commissioned a small apartment for himself, fitted with a trap door which afforded access to his subterranean labyrinth, carefully ensuring his whereabouts were always unknown. He even went as far as to erect a bedchamber fitted with large doors to ensure ultimate privacy and seclusion. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who would go to such lengths to ensure solitude, the duke was a man of very few words, or more often, no words at all. He spoke to attendants rarely; all other communication and instructions for his workers took place by written note. His rooms were all fitted with town letter boxes, one each for outgoing and incoming messages.

A man of fastidious habits and rules, the great army of workers in the duke’s employ were under strict instructions that should they ever catch a glimpse of their elusive master, never to acknowledge his presence. It is said he had a particular aversion to anyone who raised their hat to him, and one poor misguided fellow was dismissed on the spot for this indiscretion. Another tale goes that once when the duke called for his carriage to be driven to London, it took his men a number of ale stop-offs to realise the duke was in fact a passenger when he cried, “What the devil are you stopping for now?!” from within the carriage.

Despite this, the perplexing chap was known to be a highly charitable and considerate employer. His extensive developments gave employment to thousands of local skilled and unskilled labourers, providing good wages and accommodations along with, strangely enough, an umbrella. When roller skating came into fashion, he built a skating park for the staff and their families. Such acts of thoughtfulness earned him the nickname ‘the workman’s friend’.

The duke died in 1879, leaving his title and the estate to his cousin. Yet even his passing brought only more intrigue, when the widow of a London business owner claimed the duke had in fact lived a double life as her father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. The scandal delighted Victorian audiences, while the duke’s secretive habits and efforts to remain undetectable fuelled public speculation. After a lengthy investigation and much controversy, the grave of TC Druce was eventually opened and found to contain the body of the real TC Druce, after which the lady in question was admitted to a mental asylum.

Perhaps William was merely a man thrust into the limelight by his stately heritage, when all he really wanted was to be left alone. Yet this very desire to remain reclusive and live on his own terms fuelled a legacy so outlandish it outshines that of most of his class and peers. For people of all walks of life, be they born into great wealth or more modest means, the most extraordinary achievements are always achieved by those who dare to be different: those who live by their own rules, who follow their obscure passions and private ambitions without giving a damn about what anyone else thinks. We may never have the resources to achieve our wildest ideas in the way the duke was afforded, but we can surely have a good time trying.  

The Dilettante Society Meeting, The Alley Cafe, Monday 15 February, 7.30pm, free. All welcome – the more the merrier.

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