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.