William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (1800 – 1879)
When I started researching this series I began to wonder where the point at which eccentricity ended and madness began lay. Perhaps eccentricity is the label we attach to someone who is rich enough to indulge their lunatic tendencies. A case in point would be the Fifth Duke of Portland whose eccentricities earned him the nickname, the Tunnelling Duke.
In his early years Portland showed no signs of his later eccentricity, engaging in horse racing and serving in the army and then become the Member of Parliament for King’s Lynn, a seat which he resigned in 1826. In 1834 he sought the hand of the actress, Adelaide Kemble, in marriage but she was forced to decline his overtures because she was already married. Whether this tipped him over the edge or whether he developed some form of skin complaint – some rumours suggested he suffered from some form of leprosy – he became increasingly insular and when he inherited his title on his father’s death in 1854 he resolved to have as little to do with his fellow-men.
If you were to encounter him, you would always remember him. He wore an unfashionable brown wig, a hat that was two feet tall, at least one frock coat – he often wore two – and his trouser legs were secured by a piece of string a few inches above his ankles. His outfit was topped off with a big umbrella, not because he was concerned that he would be caught in a passing shower but because he didn’t want the hoi polloi to gaze on him. If he went out he travelled in a black carriage with the blinds down (natch) and if he went by train the railway company had to supply a special carriage on to which the carriage was loaded. At the other end the carriage would be unloaded and off he went.
Portland’s gaff was Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire which dated from the 12th century. He only used four of the rooms in the place and requested that the servants, upon pain of dismissal, did not recognise his presence in any way. Each of the rooms he occupied were fitted with two post boxes, one for incoming mail and the other for outgoing, his preferred method of communicating with relatives and the outside world. The rooms were painted pink and had a lavatory pan in the corner for his convenience.
Astonishingly, Portland engaged in extensive building works, spending some two to three million pounds on constructing a huge library, an enormous billiard room and the largest ballroom in the country. Quite why a notorious agoraphobe would want to build rooms for essentially public entertainment is anyone’s guess. Portland even had a tunnel constructed, one and a quarter miles long, which ran from the coach house to the railway station at Worksop so he could catch the train unobserved. At least he created employment for 15,000 locals over the 18 years of construction.
When he died Portland was buried in Kensal Green cemetery and true to form he ordered that bushes be planted around the grave so that it would be obscured from view. Even when he was six feet under that was not the end of the eccentric duke. In 1896 Anne Maria Druce claimed that her hubby who was said to have died in 1864 was none other than Portland who was leading a double life. She wanted Mr Druce’s grave opened, feeling sure it would be empty, and pressed for her son to be recognised as the 6th Duke. The unfortunate Mrs Druce was consigned to a mental institution in 1903, perhaps making my point as to the difference between eccentricity and madness.