W e l b e c k A b b e y
If you were given the grand name of William John Cavendish Scott Bentick, you could surely only achieve fame. It is one of those names that just sounds as though they were destined for something, much like the name Isambard Kingdom Brunell.
John Bentick, as he was usually known, came into this world on 17th September 1800, his father being the fourth Duke of Portland.
Once childhood had passed, John pursued a career in the army until the death of his elder brother in 1824, when he then took the title of the Marquis of Titchfield.
Leaving the army he went into Politics and subsequently became the Member of Parliament representing Kings Lynn, situated some 75 miles [120 km] away from Welbeck on the East coast. John cannot have had a great political interest though, as after only two years he gave up the seat to his younger brother.
In 1854 his father died, and because he was now the elder, he inherited the Dukedom and became the fifth Duke of Portland.
With the title came wealth, and the Duke would certainly need this as he set about some extensive, and rather unusual building work at his home, Welbeck Abbey.
The area of land that Welbeck Abbey occupies first gets a mention in the Doomsday Book, when it is recorded as belonging to a Hugh FitzBaldric.
Later Thomas de Cuckney built an abbey there in the 12th century, and it survived until King Henry the VIII came along.
As we all know, monasteries and King Henry have the same relationship that you and I share with our dentist, hence the demise of four hundred years of use. The present house was mainly built in the sixteen hundreds, and only a few inner walls and basements are thought to remain from the original abbey.
There are lots of tales concerning tunnels of impossible lengths for the technology that was available at the time, these include false stories of one to Worksop railway station some 4.5 miles [7.2 km] away, and also some very conflicting reasons for why he done the work.
The longest tunnel is over a mile long [ 1.25 or 1.5 miles accounts vary ] , and is physically large enough for a horse and carriage to pass through. The popular myth is that there was a complete system of tunnels of comparable size under the estate, in which the duke would ride along in his carriage, this is not the case though.
In addition to the large tunnel mentioned above, there are a number of smaller tunnels, some of these are evident by the 4in thick skylights, which like the underground rooms, have these placed in their roof for illumination. An extensive system of gas lamps was otherwise relied on for lighting.
Also constructed were several libraries, a dining room, kitchen, and billiard room.
I would speculate that the majority of these were mostly constructed by the 'cut and shut' method, where by a trench is dug, then the top is boarded over, a popular method for early train transit systems.
The Underground Ballroom
This is the greatest spectacle at Welbeck, and was supposed to have been the largest room without a supported ceiling of its time, measuring over 10,000 sq ft [ 160 foot by 65 foot approx' ].
The ballroom [ which has also seen use as a gymnasium ] was known to have been constructed by the 'cut and shut' method, as was another later and similarly large room - unfinished at the time of the Duke's death - that was later turned into a sunken garden.
Besides the workforce needed to keep an estate of this size functioning on a day to day basis, a considerable number of men were needed to undertake the work of excavation. The time period for all this activity was around 18 years however, so the workforce was not as large most likely, as some accounts put the figure.
The idea that it was done to relieve un-employment is suggested, like it is with so many follies. [ I have actually lost count of how many times when researching all the articles for this site I have seen that mentioned, maybe I'm just an old cynic. ]
The fact he was generous to his workers seems fairly universal in sources, but Headley and Meulenkamp mention that there existed an 'estate ghetto' - their words not mine - called Sligo, where the majority of the imported workers lived. The camp's name giving the clue to their most likely homeland.
So it seems the Duke's philanthropy was available for whoever could assist him to achieve his odd 'underground desire', rather than just being out of concern for local unemployment.
The big question is why he did all of this. Some sources said he was disfigured in some way, but other contemporary sources say he wasn't, so who was right? Most likely he was not, as surely this would have stopped him from a psychological point of view, of having had his career in the army and also in Parliament.
He certainly became eccentric in later life however, travelling to his London home in fashionable Cavendish Square, first via the large tunnel, and then in a closed horse carriage, which rolled onto a specially built flat railway trailer at Worksop station.
This meant he could go from one home to another, without ever having to be seen, hidden behind the closed blinds of his carriage, as it jostled around strapped onto its railway trailer, while the train cluttered its way down to London.
Later life saw him living in just several rooms of the vast house, with direct verbal communication with other people being avoided, the rooms incidentally were supposedly painted pink. There were also varying accounts of his sanity and cleanliness. The latter most likely a rumour spread by people with bad intent, that men like the Duke will always attract.
There are many people who given the chance would opt to live a life of - what is regarded as - eccentricity, and avoid contact with other people, but their circumstances do not allow it.
People like Howard Hughes and the Duke of Portland, simply possessed the financial means to fulfil their ambitions. This of course does not make them mad, like the Duke has often been portrayed, but none the less .......not totally compus mentis either.
Sadly the house is now used by the army as a training college for young officers. The park has public footpath access, and some of the tunnel entrances are visible according to the Warsop Web a local site about Welbeck.
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