The Tunnels of Welbeck
Author : Paul Screeton

Welbeck Abbey The Invisible Prince and the Tunnels of Welbeck By Paul Screeton (Folklore Frontiers 32)

I offer you a Dukeries detective story without a solution. I’ve done some spadework on this underground mystery and hope this account whets others’ appetites to consider whether there is a geomantic dimensions. If not, it is a rattling good example of eccentricity, both factually and in fiction.

Although Booker-nominated novel “The Underground Man” (1) by Mick Jackson is based upon the life of William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, fifth Duke of Portland, there are additions, omissions and subtle changes regarding the “Invisible Prince.”

The duke was a reclusive, hugely wealthy Victorian aristocrat with a penchant for subterranean passages and chambers. My attention was drawn to a claim that the largest of these was wide enough for two coaches to pass, running from the ancestral home, Welbeck Abbey to Worksop railway station. (2)

Knowing this Nottinghamshire mecca for rail enthusiasts well, I thought I would check out this particular “fact” for myself. For, I guessed, that the most likely terminus for the tunnel seemed the former buffet at the station, currently masquerading as The Mallard (named after the record-braking steam locomotive). A small, one-bar, The Mallard has had some alterations since I was last there in the mid-1980’s when it was owned by Bill Southard (there being no longer direct access to the platform.)

Bill once had cellar work to do, trustingly leaving me in charge for 20 minutes; and it was this cellar and basement used by a folk club (an upper room was used by freemasons) which made me connect with the alleged tunnel. (4) However, one of the 1998 owners assured me there was no tunnel exit there, nor had he heard of one elsewhere at the station.

Now suspicious of the guardian-based tunnel credentials, I sought out the library/museums and a helpful lady there put a real dampener on the quest. Despite Jackson’s fictional duke arriving at the station by his tunnel, this had to be poetic licence, for the nearest tunnel culmination was a mile from the railway at Sparken Hill, by the present A57 bypass.

Much subsequent information is taken from a book the fount-of-knowledge lady told me (5) in which references are made to the unfulfilled plans to tunnel to Whitwell railway station and the possibility of a personal halt on the line.

However, in 1869, the Worksop Drive tunnel was completed along with its 80 “sunlight clusters” of gas lamps (previous to this was the underground tramway from the kitchen block to the dining-room, utilising a wagon large enough to carry one complete course of a dinner for ten).

My main source is deficient on any organised attempt to present a coherent description of the tunnel network or provide any truly justifiable reasons for the prodigious constructions. However, hiding buildings underground or well away from it, is seen to be so the palatial country seat could be seen to best advantage.

Nevertheless, we must consider the duke’s health. Apparently, being prone to neuralgia in the slightest chill, his heavy clothes, umbrellas and those tunnels would keep him warm and dry. Shyness, insecurity and obsession with privacy might also have a bearing on the tunnelling (the land above the main tunnel was a public right-of-way).

The ultimate expression of the duke’s underground experiments was a subterranean library with a floor made of waterproof concrete. Also proposed in 1872 was an underground chapel (never consecrated or ballroom as it somehow became!). Another huge excavation was planned as a bachelor’s hall, larger than the size of a football pitch, where young men could be as rowdy as they wished to be without disturbing others.

The works at Welbeck remained unfinished upon the duke’s death on December 6, 1879.

If I have raised questions without a resolution and created disappointment, maybe I can make amends by recommending a reading of Jackson’s book. This sinister fantasy has a number of fictional aspects added to the real duke which should interest earth mysterians.

As for the original duke, much legend crystallised around him, including an unfair tale of a bonfire of paintings worth a fortune. His death led one commentor to write that he was seen either “as a baleful wizard or as a benevolent spirit like Robin Goodfellow.” (6)

Martin Jeffrey adds “This is the beginning of our research into Welbeck Abbey (now an army training college) and to its mysteries. I will also give my personal insights into the abbey and what happened when I worked there for a month..”

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