Tunnels, trained maids, trick doors… this dude is our hero.
Money. You can do pretty much anything if you have enough of it. But when you have too much, crazy stuff tends to happen.
On that note, meet William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fifth Duke of Portland. The heir of a prosperous estate in the Midlands of central England in the late 19th century, William wanted for nothing and indulged his passions for horse racing and opera freely.
But William was no playboy. He was an oddball and was intensely introverted. His family knew this, but when his older brother died suddenly and William was put into the position of being head of the family and lord of the manor, it… didn’t go well.
When he assumed his Dukedom, William’s reclusive nature was amplified. Instead of involving himself in political issues as he was expected to do, he took to home improvement in a big way. The Duke before William had been so paranoid that England would see a shortage of wood that he’d planted huge forests of oak trees that were reaching maturity right as William assumed his duties.
Faced with a surfeit of building materials, William got to work. He quickly came to be known as the “Workman’s Friend” for the massive projects that he undertook at his estate, which was called Welbeck Abbey. He had as many as a thousand Irish workmen laboring underground for years at a time, hollowing out a network of tunnels and rooms that stretched some two-and-a-half miles. The massive complex included a library, a 158-foot-long ballroom and a billiard room big enough to house a dozen tables. All the rooms were heated and lit by gas lamps, allowing William to hang out subterraneously in any season or hour of the day. The reclusive Duke also had a mile-long tunnel dug to the nearest railway station so that he could travel there with utmost privacy.
The subterranean chambers weren’t deep beneath the earth — in fact, most of them had ceilings with enormous skylights to let the sun in. What mattered to the Duke is that they were out of sight of his presumably nosy neighbors.
And every damn wall was painted pink
No one knows why, exactly. In all the literature about William, I couldn’t find a single clue that illuminated his apparent fondness for the color. But his underground empire was pale rose as far as the eye could see.
Once his tunnel network was established, William had his carpenters install a trapdoor in the floor of his bedroom so he could disappear underground without being noticed. He was often spotted wandering his underground halls looking them over with pride, but if any of the housemaids happened to be down there with him they were required to turn and face the wall until he was out of sight.
The new Duke became even more eccentric after trying to woo a popular singer named Adelaide Kemble
. Kemble shot him down mercilessly, and the damage to his tender heart was apparently so severe that he ordered mail slots cut in every door in the house so he could communicate with the house staff solely through letters, eliminating the need for actual human contact.
Yet despite his standoffish nature, William was remarkably well-loved by the people around him. He gave each of the diggers a suit, a top hat, and a donkey
for transportation. One of his housemaids wrote a memoir about her time with him in which she raved about his generosity and kindness from the other side of the door.
When his workmen struck for a higher wage
, though, they quickly learned that the Duke didn’t play around. Perhaps suspecting that his laborers had no other employment prospects in the region, the eccentric Duke told them, “You can strike as long as you like, it does not matter to me if the work is never done.” They started up digging again pretty quickly after hearing that.
As he grew older, William’s architectural ventures became increasingly absurd. There were a number of natural lakes on the estate’s grounds, which William ordered to be drained and cemented over for some unknown reason. He also had to be persuaded against knocking down the servants’ quarters to build a glass-lined passageway to the chapel.
Duke William died in 1879, likely of natural causes. He was succeeded by his cousin William Cavendish-Bentinck, who inherited an estate in serious disrepair. Only five rooms of Welbeck Abbey were habitable, all of them painted pink. When a fire ravaged the building in 1900, much of William’s folly was erased from the world.
Today, although Welbeck Abbey is open for tours, they unfortunately don’t include getting to see any of the underground chambers, which are presumably no longer safe to enter.
Duke William probably would have found some satisfaction in his life’s labors being kept out of view, his obsession with privacy being the true legacy he left behind.