The Reclusive John Bentinck And The Welbeck Abbey

Jun 5, 2024 0 comments

In the village of Welbeck, in the Bassetlaw District of Nottinghamshire, England, sits a large country mansion within an expansive 17,000-acre property. For several generations, the Welbeck Abbey has been owned by the Cavendish-Bentinck family and until the 1990s, it was the residence of the Dukes of Portland.

Welbeck Abbey's origins trace back to the 11th century, but it was under John Bentinck, the 5th Duke of Portland, in the 19th century that the abbey underwent significant building and renovation. John Bentinck was, as author Bill Bryson describes, “one of history's great recluses”, who “went to the most extraordinary lengths to avoid all forms of human contact.” The Welbeck Abbey was where he put his eccentrics to work, making extraordinary architectural additions to the sprawling campus including a vast underground labyrinth of tunnels and secret passageways connecting various rooms—features he himself rarely used.

Photo credit: Tran Quility

William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, also known as Lord John Bentinck, was born in 1800 to William Bentinck, the 4th Duke of Portland. As a younger son, he was not originally destined to inherit the title. However, upon the death of his brother, William Henry, in 1824, he became the Marquess of Titchfield and heir to his father's dukedom.

At the age of 18, Bentinck joined the army, rising to the rank of captain and later serving with the 2nd Life Guards in 1823. However, poor health forced him to retire early. Bentinck then entered the political arena, becoming the Member of Parliament for King's Lynn from 1824 to 1826. He resigned his seat due to ill health, passing it to his uncle, Lord William Bentinck. During his brief political career, Bentinck was not particularly active and rarely spoke in either House of Parliament. When he succeeded his father as the 5th Duke of Portland in 1854, he delayed taking his oath in the House of Lords for over three years.

As the Duke aged, he became increasingly reclusive, holing himself up in one corner of his stately home and communicating with his servants through notes passed via a special message box cut into the door of his rooms. Food was delivered to him in the dining room by means of a miniature railway running from the kitchen. Nobody was allowed to see him, except his butler. When the Duke was ill, he communicated with his doctor in the same manner he did with his servants and employees—through notes.

Photo credit: Hector

The Duke rarely ventured outside during the day, preferring nocturnal outings with a lady servant carrying a lantern 40 yards ahead of him. On the rare occasions he did walk out during the day, he wore two overcoats, an extremely tall hat, an exceptionally high collar, and carried a very large umbrella behind which he attempted to hide if someone addressed him. His servants were instructed to treat him as they would a piece of furniture, passing by without acknowledgment. The tenants on his estates were well aware of his wishes and knew they were required to ignore him if they encountered him. On one occasion, a worker who raised his hat to the Duke was promptly dismissed.

When it was necessary for the Duke to travel to London, he would climb into his horse-drawn carriage, which would then be loaded onto a railway wagon for the trip to the capital. Upon his arrival in London, the carriage, with the Duke still sealed inside, would be driven to his London residence, Harcourt House. All the household staff were ordered to keep out of sight as he hurried into his study through the front hall.

The Duke’s reclusiveness and eccentricity became legendary, culminating in the construction of a vast underground labyrinth of tunnels and secret passageways within the abbey. These included a complex of rooms and tunnels beneath the estate, connecting various underground chambers and above-ground buildings. One of these tunnels, nearly a kilometer long, ran from the house to a horse riding school and was wide enough for several people to walk side by side. Parallel to it was another, more roughly constructed tunnel used by workmen. A longer, more elaborate tunnel, one and a half miles long and intended as a carriage drive, was broad enough for two carriages to pass and led towards Worksop. It featured domed skylights visible on the surface, and by night was illuminated by gaslight.

The underground ballroom converted into gymnasium by the Welbeck College students until the College moved away. Photo credit: Ron Young

At its peak, the Duke had 15,000 men working on his estate. Upon completion, they had built, among other things, a library nearly 250 feet long, an observatory, a vast billiards room, and a ballroom measuring 160 feet long and 63 feet wide. The ballroom reportedly had a hydraulic lift that could carry 20 guests from the surface and a ceiling painted to resemble a giant sunset. These were remarkable investments, especially considering that the Duke never hosted any guests.

Despite his reclusiveness, the Duke was a considerate employer. He provided his employees with umbrellas and donkeys to facilitate their commute without fatigue. When roller skating first became popular, he had a rink installed near the lake for the benefit of his staff and encouraged them to use it. His good relations with his employees earned him the nickname "the workman's friend."

When the Duke died in 1879, his heirs found Welbeck Abbey in a state of disrepair. Barring the four or five rooms in the west wing that the Duke used as living quarters, the rest of the rooms were stripped of furniture, with only a commode in the corner. Most of the rooms were painted pink. One upstairs room, which the Duke had used, was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of green boxes, each containing a single dark brown wig.

Welbeck Abbey Tunnels

Nearly 20 years after his death, a strange lawsuit thrust the Duke back into the public eye, the very life he had tried to avoid while alive. In 1897, a woman came forward claiming that the duke had led a double life and was, in fact, her father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce, who had supposedly died in 1864. The woman claimed that the duke had faked the death of his alter ego Druce to return to a secluded aristocratic life at Welbeck Abbey. And thus, her son was heir to the Portland estate. The case went all the way to the court and eventually leading to the digging up of Thomas Charles Druce’s coffin revealing the body of the real Thomas Charles Druce.

Although the case came to nothing, the publicity surrounding it ignited interest in the reclusive Duke. In 1933, British crime fiction writer R. Austin Freeman wrote Dr. Thorndyke Intervenes, based on the Druce-Portland case. Decades later, in 1997, Mick Jackson's novel The Underground Man, loosely based on the Duke's life, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.


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