The aristocracy of Nottinghamshire has produced more than its fair share of mad gets over the centuries and it’s time to celebrate the most sartorially challenged of them all, The 5th Duke of Portland. Andrew Graves (Mulletproof Poet) gives us a little insight into his chosen literary figure for Dawn of the Unread as well as a poem. If ever there was a figure perfect for a graphic novel it’s Willy Cavendish…
Apparently, only the rich are afforded the luxury of being truly eccentric in this country; the rest of us poor boggers have to make do with being a bit mental. But as eccentrics go, you can’t get much more entertaining than the late great 5th Duke of Portland: failed politician, underground phantom, sartorial nightmare and proper Notts nutter.
The Duke, otherwise known as William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, spent much of his life residing at the once-impressive Welbeck Abbey, taking up the title of Duke when his father died in 1854. Although no-one has been able to pinpoint the beginning of his strange behaviour, certain historians believe it stems from the period up to the assumption of his duties; not only was he shunted up the pecking order upon the sudden death of his older brother, but his one and only marriage proposal was knocked back by the actress Adelaide Kemble.
Whilst his early military career had been nothing less than honourable, his life in the political arena – as a Tory MP for King’s Lynn – had been a notorious disappointment. With a mid-life crisis looming and all other toff-related avenues explored and blocked off, there was nothing else for it but to devote time and money into being a full-time mentalist.
The first thing one would have noticed on the rare occasions that the Duke sallied forth from Welbeck Abbey was his appalling dress sense; it would have had the Victorian equivalent of Gok Wan reaching for his pistol. On a good day, he would wear up to three frock coats – yes, all at the same time – and his wig-encased head would be topped with a two foot-tall stovepipe hat. He would also fasten pieces of string around his ankles, for no apparent reason, finishing off the ensemble with the application of false beards and moustaches.
The Duke’s obvious discomfort with the outside world – there were rumours, never confirmed, of him suffering some sort of skin condition – manifested itself in the extreme lengths he went to in order to remain hidden from the general public. His extremely put-upon valet was the Duke’s sole conduit to the outside world, with tasks ranging from nipping over to Worksop to collect the racing results by telegraph to acting as the go-between for the Duke and his doctors, who were denied actual physical contact with him. Various ailments and symptoms were communicated to the doctors, and the recommended treatments would be sent back.
Predictably, and probably unfortunately for him, he was the biggest employer in the area. He was actually seen as a very decent gaffer for the times, with his workforce being treated and paid well (and being gifted with free umbrellas, something the Duke carried with him whatever the weather), as long as they didn’t look, point at or touch their boss. One worker made the mistake of saluting his painfully shy employer and was sacked on the spot. He also built an ice-rink for his staff, and was extremely narked when it wasn’t used. According to the records of a relative, the Duke “wished his housemaids to skate, and if he found one of them sweeping the corridor or stairs, the frightened girl was sent out to skate whether she wanted to or not”.
The true legacy of the Duke was, by far, his insatiable mania for building projects. He went on a huge rebuilding binge at the Abbey, adding a peach wall that stretched for a thousand yards. a ballroom (that was never used), a mirror-lined riding stable with 4,000 gas lights (where overfed mares grew fat through lack of exercise), and a miniature railway network. What’s more, much of his additions were all built underground, linked by a secretive network of dimly lit tunnels. His subterranean obsession made it difficult to cope with those who – strangely – preferred walking on the ground, in daylight. “Here have I provided for you at enormous expense a clean pathway underground, lighted with gas too, and you will persist in walking above ground”, he said, in a rare outburst.
Even his death – in 1879, in London, at the age of 79 – was bestowed with the Tales of the Unexpected treatment, in the shape of the infamous Druce Case, when it was claimed that not only had he lived a double life as an upholsterer called Thomas Druce, but he’d fathered kids who were, in effect, the heirs to the dukedom. That particular episode took twenty years to clear up and was exposed as false. When the 6th Duke of Portland took residence at the Abbey after his uncle’s death, amongst other things he found hundreds of unframed masterpieces, crammed haphazardly around the edges of the riding stable. There was also an impressive Gobelin’s tapestry which, according to Catherine Caulfield’s book The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Eccentrics, was ‘rolled up and packed with peppercorns in an old tin box’. Whether barmy, reclusive, or simply a rebel with an urge to build, the 5th Duke of Portland remains a truly unique local legend.
by Mulletproof Poet
beneath the weight of a century
and its spare change seasons
beneath the jet fighter trails
a future and reason
wrapped in ambiguity
and garments of wire
the house that never rests
welcomes or smiles
where tunnels spread as arteries
pulsing under woodland skin.
where bleeding gaslight scabs old wounds
and long forgotten things
where ghosts of obese horses
stare always at themselves
where no dancers waltz to memories
and distant church bells
where time takes a holiday
and masterpieces hide
to consider their tin box options
of oil based suicides
a recollection of a workforce
digs deep and shields its eyes
and chambermaids skate eternally,
carving stories in the ice
where authorities of silence
command the passages of age
cursing lonely circumstance
and a name scrawled on a page
where a duke found no peace,
company or home
but a necessary labyrinth,
a forever in which to roam
This article was originally published in LeftLion