10 of Britain's Eccentric Aristocrats
10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats

D.G. Hewitt - July 13, 2018

Perhaps it’s because they have far too much money and free time on their hands. Or maybe it’s genetic. But whatever the reason, Britain’s aristocracy has a long history of producing eccentric individuals. Indeed, many of the best-loved personalities in British history had their own, unique and quirky ways that made them stand out from the crowd.

In most cases, such eccentrics were largely harmless. They used their inherited wealth and the privileges that came with their social status to indulge their own quirks and passions. In other cases, though, they were more malevolent, often bullying their servants or neglecting their families and friends.

While any list of Britain’s eccentric aristocrats could be much longer, here we have just ten of the best examples of what can happen when a man has too much money and no real responsibilities:

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Lord Rokeby’s long beard and love of wild swimming led many to believe he was mad or even worse. NPR.org.

Lord Rokeby

Matthew Robinson, the 2nd Baron Rokeby, was arguably just a man who was many years ahead of his time rather than a true eccentric. Indeed, his love of nature and personal freedom and his shunning of conventional norms might be seen as pretty mainstream today. However, in 19th century England, and in the refined and restricted upper echelons of society in particular, he was dismissed as a deviant or even worse.

Born in the county of Kent in 1712, Lord Rokeby came from distinguished stock. His father was fabulously wealthy and had served King George II and even his sisters were high-flyers in London society. However, while he followed convention and did what was expected of him by first attending the prestigious Westminster School and then reading law at Cambridge, he soon rebelled. A visit to Germany as a young man opened his eyes to the health benefits of bathing in cold water – and Lord Rokeby’s life was transformed.

Rather than living the life of a rich gentleman in London, Lord Rokeby took up residence by the Kent coast. He would go down to the sea every day without fail, swimming in the cold waters whatever the weather. At times he had to be rescued after almost drowning due to the cold or from exhaustion. But even this didn’t deter him. His daily habit became famous and people would go to the coast just to watch him. After all, this was a time when nobody swam, especially in the sea, and especially not an aristocratic gentleman.

If the swimming was seen as odd, so too was Lord Rokeby’s facial hair. In an era when all the men were clean-shaven, he let his beard grow all the way down to his knees. Again, people would make an effort to try and see him for themselves. Sadly, his eccentric ways led to rumors starting. Some said he was a misanthrope or mentally deranged. There were even claims that he was a cannibal. In reality, he was just a nature-loving, slightly eccentric loner, and, by all accounts, a charming and considerate gentleman who treated his servants and those living on his estate very well. And, perhaps Lord Rokeby had the last laugh after all. He died in 1800 at the age of 88, long outliving many of those who mocked him for believing that daily swims could be good for the health.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Lord Clancarty used his vast fortune to fund research into UFOs. History Extra.

Lord Clancarty

William Francis Brinsley Le Poer Trench, 8th Earl of Clancarty, 7th Marquess of Heusden – otherwise known as simply the Earl of Clancarty – was not afraid to put his opinions forward, even if they were widely ridiculed. He used the free time afforded to him by his wealth and social status to become one of the world’s foremost UFO ‘experts’, publishing widely and speaking publicly on the subject of extra-terrestrial life. The peer even brought his personal passion into the House of Lords, Britain’s second political chamber, though he never got official government recognition for his outrageous theories.

Born in 1911, as a boy, young William grew up in rural Ireland before moving to England to be educated at the private Pangbourne Nautical College. Despite his family wealth, he was encouraged to become independent and so he worked for several years in the advertising business in London. However, by the time he reached his 30s, he had become fascinated by the subject of UFOs and began devoting increasingly greater amount of time to his independent research. In 1956, he became the editor of the Flying Saucer Review, and then, three years later, he founded Contact International, a global organization for fellow believers.

When William inherited his title and became the 8th Earl of Clancarty in 1975, then, he saw an opportunity to bring the topic of UFOs and extra-terrestrial visitors to Earth right into the heart of the British establishment. The new life peer established the House of Lords’ very own UFO Study Group, and he even debated members of the government about the possibility alien craft had visited earth. Notably, the existence of UFOs was far from Lord Clancarty’s most extreme belief. The aristocrat was also a subscriber to the so-called ‘Hollow Earth theory’, arguing that UFOs were based inside the hollow core of Earth. What’s more, he also argued that President Eisenhower had personally met with aliens and was then hiding the truth and that Adam and Eve came from another planet to populate Earth.

In his later years, Lord Clancarty left London and lived a quiet life by the sea. When he died in 1995, he left a huge collection of personal research related to UFOs to Contact International. He is widely regarded as a true pioneer in the field, though for some, he was purely a true British eccentric.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
“Mad Jack” once famously rode a bear through a room full of dinner party guests. Daily Telegraph.

John “Mad Jack” Mytton

In Regency England, Lord Byron was famously described as the man who was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. But the flamboyant poet had nothing on John Mytton. Not for nothing was the wealthy aristocrat known as “Mad Jack”: he was wild as a youth and only got wilder as he grew up, Indeed, to many, he was the ultimate English eccentric, harming himself far more than he harmed anyone else.

Mytton’s story began in 1796, when he was born to a very wealthy family in the county of Shropshire. As was the custom, young Jack was sent away to be educated. However, he only lasted one year at the prestigious Westminster School before he was kicked out for fighting with a teacher. He lasted just as long at the equally-prestigious Harrow School. Ultimately, his parents had no alternative but to hire private tutors to educate their wayward son, but he scared most of these away too. On one famous occasion, he left a horse in one tutor’s bedroom.

Despite this lack of discipline, Jack won a place at Cambridge University. He packed 2,000 bottle of port for his undergraduate course but soon left without graduating. A Grand Tour of Europe followed, and then a brief stint in the British Army, though his one year as an officer was mostly taken up by gambling and drinking. By 1818, he was back home in Shropshire, waiting for his 21st birthday when he would come into his full inheritance.

Even being elected a Conservative Member of Parliament (thanks to some shameless bribing of voters) failed to calm Jack down. Instead, he seemingly focused all his energy of having a good time. He would ride his horse through hotels and banqueting halls, leaping from balconies while in the saddle. He would also throw money around, gifting tens of thousands of pounds to complete strangers. His crazy ways extended to pushing himself to the limits, whether this was riding naked in snowy weather or performing stunts in his horse and carriage. On one legendary occasion, he even rode a bear through his house, startling guests he had invited round for a formal dinner party.

By 1831, Mad Jack was broke. Fearful of his debtors, he escaped to France, taking a beautiful young woman he met on Westminster Bridge with him. He spent three largely uneventful years in Calais (well, apart from the time he tried to rid himself of hiccups by setting himself on fire) before returning to England. Still broke and with no way of paying off his debts, he ended up in prison, dying of alcohol-related illness in 1834.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Henry Cyril Paget blew his fortune on having a good time – and looking good. Daily Beast.

Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey

He may have only been on this planet for 29 years, but Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, lived every one of them to the full. He was the antithesis of an aristocratic gentleman: instead of being reserved and polite he was flamboyant, outgoing and occasionally offensive. And instead of being responsible, he was reckless, especially with his money. Not for nothing have numerous plays and books been written about this ‘black sheep’ of the British nobility.

Born in 1875, Henry was the eldest son of the 4th Marquess of Anglesey, a small island off the coast of Wales. For the first few years, it looked like he was following the script: he went to the prestigious Eton College and, upon graduation, entered the British Army. What’s more, at the age of 23, he married, with the union to his first cousin making excellent social and economic sense. However, within less than a year of getting wed, Henry’s father died, leaving him not just the title but also several family estates. These estates alone gave young Henry an annual income equivalent to around $15 million – and he was determined to enjoy every penny of it.

For starters, Henry lavished huge sums of money on fine clothes and jewelry. He loved to dress in luxurious furs and be decked out in fine necklaces. However, his biggest vice was showing-off. He loved to be the centre of attention and for this reason he even set up his own theatre company. Not content with performing at his own private theatre (built in the family home at huge cost), Henry decided to take the show on the road. The Gaiety Theatre Company toured Britain and Europe, with Henry the star of the show, of course. His sensual dancing and cross-dressing scandalized polite society. Even when his wife divorced him because of his outrageous behaviour, he refused to calm down. In fact, he got even worse, spending huge sums of money on his wardrobe and other eccentricities such as converting his cars so that perfume came out of the exhaust pipes.

By 1904, he was broke. Worse, he was massively in debt. Henry was forced to start selling off his flamboyant collections, but he never was able to get back into the black. At the start of 1905, he fell ill. He died, aged 29, in a Monte Carlo mansion, his ex-wife beside him. He left behind huge debts for his descendants to deal with. But he also left behind a colourful story, and he was greatly mourned by the people of Anglesey who had learned to love his eccentric ways.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
William Cavendish was likened to a badger due to his love of tunnels. Wikipedia.

William Cavendish

To say that William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the 5th Duke of Portland, was shy and introverted would be a major understatement. This 19th century aristocrat was a straight-up misanthrope. He deliberately hid himself away from the public and even from his own servants. However, despite his eccentric ways, William was able to keep his business interests going and even thriving. Indeed, despite his strange ways, he died a very rich man and he continues to fascinate historians to this day.

Born in London in September of 1800, young William was a sickly child. As a result, he was home schooled and often kept indoors by his overprotective mother. Unsurprisingly, though, as was the custom for upper-class gentlemen, he joined the British Army in 1818, and even rose to the rank of captain, military life was not for him. He resigned in 1823 on the grounds of ill health. Similarly a post-army stint as a Conservative Member of Parliament lasted less than two years. Rather than concerning himself with the hard work and responsibilities that came with the titles and positions he inherited, William became increasingly reclusive, especially once he started work on the family home, Welbeck Abbey.

Overseeing the renovation of the huge home, William – by now the Duke – ordered all the rooms to be stripped of furniture and even paintings. He then moved into just five of them, keeping these as minimalist as possible. But it was what was going on under the home that really got people talking. It’s estimated that the Duke ordered the construction of around 15 miles of tunnels under the house and the estate. And he didn’t just stop at tunnels, either. Numerous underground chambers were built, including a library, a billiards room and even a ballroom.

The great irony was that the Duke never held any dances in his underground ballroom. And nor was he ever likely to. He shunned all contact with the outside world. He would never invite anyone into his home and, if he really did have to communicate with someone, he would do so by letter. Indeed, all the rooms in Welbeck Abbey were fitted with letterboxes for correspondence, including for posting notes to his servants. Inevitably, rumors spread, suggesting that perhaps the Duke was physically deformed or simply mad. However, he kept on top of his numerous work interests – and, indeed, was regarded as a good and fair employer – and did occasionally venture out, though residents of his estate and his servants knew to look away if he was approaching.

Despite all of the work that went into making Welbeck Abbey the perfect hideaway, due to reasons of poor health, the Duke spent the final few weeks of his life in London. He died in 1879 at the age of 79.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Henry de la Poer Beresford was crazy, reckless and selfish in his youth. Wikipedia.

Henry de la Poer Beresford

Many of England’s most peculiar aristocrats have been harmless eccentrics. While they may well have frittered away their privilege and good fortune or devoted their lives to follies rather than to anything of any real substance, they never really harmed anyone. But the same cannot be said of Henry de La Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford. This 19th century aristocrat was a spoiled rich boy who never grew up and a man who would often take delight in other people’s misfortune.

Born in April of 1811, he was the second son of the 2nd Marquess of Waterford. However, when his elder brother died unexpectedly, he stood to inherit the title and all the privileges that came with it, and indeed he did. Young Henry was named 3rd Marquess of Waterford in 1826 (two years after he had become of the Earl of Tyrone). Far from instilling in him a sense of maturity, duty and responsibility, however, inheriting the title only made him become wilder and more reckless. Indeed, most of the most infamous examples of his eccentric ways came after 1830.

In 1837, for example, Henry was riding home from the horse races with some friends. They had been drinking heavily and, when they arrived at a toll booth just outside of the town of Melton Mowbray, the gatekeeper demanded payment up front. Instead of paying him, however, Henry proceeded to beat him up and, finding some red paint nearby, covered him and a police constable with it. They then proceeded into town and painted several houses and the pub red too. The police tried to stop them but were attacked themselves. Only with the aid of reinforcements were the mob stopped and put in the cells for the night. Of course, Henry could laugh off the incident and simply pay for the damage done. Ever since then, “paint the town red” has been used as a term for having a wild night out.

On a more sinister level, it’s alleged that Henry once offered the London & Greenwich Railway Company £10,000 (a huge sum back then) if they would arrange a train crash so he could watch and laugh at the victims. Another story tells of how Henry handed out free gin in central London and encouraged drunken people to fight and riot for his amusement. Or then there’s the time when he galloped his horse down a crowded street, hitting dozens of people and then turned up to court on the horse the next day.

Fortunately for the people of London, Henry married the daughter of the Baron Stuart to Rothesay in 1842. He moved to her family home in Ireland and married life seemed to do him good. By all accounts, he was a model husband and gentleman, even if it’s his crazy and reckless youth for which he is largely remembered.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
The eccentric ways of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson were evident from an early age. Daily Telegraph.

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson

Lord Berners, also known as Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, was a novelist, composer and general man of high culture. But, while this may suggest that the aristocrat was a man of refined taste and manners and every inch the perfect English gentleman, he also had a stranger side. Indeed, Lord Berners was famous for his eccentric ways. Evident from an early age, these only became more pronounced with age and, when he finally came of age and had a whole country house and estate to himself, he was really able to indulge his inner craziness.

By all accounts, Lord Berners had a normal childhood for an English aristocrat. He was born in the family home of Apley Hall, in the county of Shropshire, in 1883. His parents were very different. Young Gerald’s father was an officer in the Royal navy and so was rarely home. His mother was from a relatively humble background and was far from an intellectual. She was strongly set in her ways and believed in the traditional gender roles. So, while Gerard’s grandmother tried to install in the boy her strong sense of religious duty, his mother tried to forge him into a manly man – something against which he, as a sensitive homosexual, rebelled against.

Even as a boy, Gerald started gaining a reputation for being a bit different. On one occasion he famously threw a dog out of a window: he had learned that dogs could be taught how to swim by simply throwing them in water, so he wanted to see if they could be made to fly. Even the strict environment of the prestigious Eton College failed to straighten him out. Luckily, however, he didn’t need any of the benefits of an expensive education because, in 1918 his uncle died, making young Gerald the 14th Baron Berners, a title that came with a large home in Faringdon House, as well as lots of land and even more money.

When his mother died, Gerald moved into Faringdon House himself. He was joined by his lover, Robert Heber-Percy (a man 28 years younger than him) and his wife and child. Here, in the comfort of his own home, he was free to do as he pleased. So, he would dress his dogs in jewels and pearls, invite horses in for afternoon tea and dye the feathers of his pigeons bright colors. Visitors to his house, among them Salvador Dali and H.G. Wells, would be pleased to find random jokes and phrases written on pieces of furniture. They would also see him driving around his vast estate with a pig’s mask on his head in an effort to scare the local residents. His Rolls-Royce was also fitted with a clavichord so he could play music as he drove around.

Lord Berners died in 1950 at the age of just 66. He left his home and estate to his young partner and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of Faringdon House. While he is often remembered for his eccentric ways, he was also a respected composer and author, penning ballets, symphonies, novels and four autobiographical tomes.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Francis Egerton dressed his dogs up as gentlemen and invited them to dinner. Wikipedia.

Francis Egerton

Many of the most notable British upper-class eccentrics were recluses and hideaways, preferring their own company to that of others. This was certainly the case with Francis Henry Egerton, the 8th – and last – Earl of Bridgewater. The aristocrat was a born entertainer and loved to host lavish dinner parties, with no expense spared. However, no other humans were invited. Rather, Francis preferred to dine with his dogs and would always ensure that his many canine companions were able to enjoy the finer things in life.

Born in November of 1756, Francis enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Like many gentlemen from the upper classes, he entered the Church of England, becoming a man of the cloth. However, he was not really born to serve. Indeed, while he was put in charge of two rural parishes, he performed his church duties by proxy. His real passion lay in the sciences and in the collection of antiquities, plus he also wrote widely on a huge range of subjects, from nature to coal mining and England’s canal system. Indeed, the Egerton Manuscripts, the culmination of his life’s work, can be seen in the British Museum today.

But it is for his more eccentric habits rather than his unparalleled collections and fine mind for which Francis really stands out. In his later years, he moved to Paris, moving into a large home. Here, he would keep numerous dogs and cats, with his pets enjoying the freedom of the property. According to those few visitors who got a glimpse inside the home, Francis liked to dress the animals up as ladies and gentlemen. What’s more, he even had huge dinner parties, with formally-dressed dogs sat at long tables with Francis as the head. After dinner, the dogs would lounge on luxurious couches or in richly-decorated rooms especially for them.

While he undoubtedly loved dogs and cats, he wasn’t so keen on other animals. Francis loved hunting and, when he grew older, he asked that his garden be stocked with hundreds of rabbits as well as dozens of pigeons and partridges. The birds would have their wings clipped so that Francis could hit them with his shotgun as he sat in his wheelchair. In 1823, Francis finally inherited the family title, becoming the Earl of Bridgewater. It was a title he would only enjoy for six short years. He died in 1829 and, since he had no children, the earldom died out with him. Much to the surprise of those who got to know him, Francis left almost all his money to the arts and to the British Museum – his beloved dogs received nothing.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Sir Tatton Sykes is renowned as one of England’s strangest aristocrats. Wikipedia.

Sir Tatton Sykes

As the eldest son of the 4th Baronet of the same name, Sir Tatton Sykes was born into enormous wealth and privilege in 1826. And it was a privilege he enjoyed to the full. His was a life full of earning and spending vast sums of money, of fast horses and young women and of eccentricities. However, far from being a harmless eccentric, history has not looked favourably on Sir Tatton. These days, his actions are seen as those of a spoiled bully who needed to learn some manners.

Upon his father’s death in 1863, he inherited the Sykes baronetcy, complete with title, a generous annual income and a luxurious home called Sledmore. His very first act upon moving into his ancestral home was to order the servants to destroy all the flowers in the garden. Sir Tatton Sykes truly hated flowers. He called them “nasty, untidy things”, and his war against them wasn’t confined to his own back garden. The Sledmore estate was also home to an entire village where servants and other people lived. Sir Tatton ordered that all the flowers here be destroyed too. Indeed, if you lived on land owned by the eccentric aristocrat, the only ‘flower’ he would permit you to grow was a cauliflower.

Despite his vast wealth and comfortable surroundings, Sir Tatton grew increasingly eccentric – and unpleasant. He came to believe that it was important he maintained a constant bodily temperature. To this end, he always dressed in layers, both at home and outside. If he got too warm, he would simply take off a layer, tossing it to the floor for a servant to pick up. He even wore two pairs of trousers and would, to the alarm of everyone else, simply take off a pair if he felt his temperature was getting too high.

Sir Tatton also became increasingly paranoid as he aged. Unsurprisingly, when he married at the age of 48 (to a well-bred lady 30 years his junior!) the union was far from a happy one and soon ended, leaving the eccentric aristocrat all alone. In his later years, he refused to eat anything but rice pudding. However, maybe there was some wisdom in his ways, for Sir Tatton lived to the ripe old age of 87, dying in 1913 and passing his title and wealth onto his son, Mark, who would be far more sensible.

10 of Britain’s Eccentric Aristocrats
Sir John got into partying in his 80s – and just kept going. The Irish Independent.

Sir John ‘Jack’ Leslie

In almost every way, Sir John Norma Ide Leslie, 4th Baronet, was the quintessential aristocratic gentleman. He was tall, charming and handsome in his youth, was well-connected, lived in a huge house and was fabulously wealthy. And, indeed, for almost all his life he did what was expected of gentlemen of his social standing. When he died in 2016, however, he had become known as the “Disco King”, which tells you all you need to know about his crazy final few years on Earth.

The cousin of Sir Winston Churchill, Sir John was born in New York in 1916. He was just a young boy when he was brought back to the family pile, Castle Leslie in Ireland. However, he spent almost all of his young life in London, mixing with the social elite and earning a well-rounded education. As was the way at the time, this was followed by university in Cambridge and then into the British Army. When the Second World War ignited, Sir John was sent to northern France, However, his was to be a brief war. He was captured in May of 1940 and spent the rest of the conflict in a prisoner-of-war camp.

After the war, Sir John lived a largely uneventful, if very comfortable, life. He didn’t have to work, just enjoyed the good life in London and continental Europe. In 1994, he returned to Castle Leslie, and from then on, his more eccentric ways started becoming apparent. He would give visitors ghost tours of the stately home, adding theatrical twists and flourishes. And it looked like he was going to enjoy a quiet final few years – until he hit the age of 80. To the shock of his family and friends, he chose to spend the landmark birthday in Ibiza, partying at a world-famous nightclub. He became hooked to dance music and partying.

From then on, Sir Jack was a regular at Ireland’s finest clubs. He would regularly return to Ibiza and he also partied his way around the world, earning him the title of “Disco King”. Of course, he would always wear his gentlemanly tweeds and trademark hat, even when on the dance floor. Speaking soon before his death, he explained that “the boom boom music” as he called it “electrifies me. I can leap up and down – it shakes my liver up.” Sir Jack died at the age of 99, having recorded his colorful life in an autobiography entitled, appropriately enough, Never a Dull Moment.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The life of history’s most eccentric aristocrat who lived fast and died young after frittering away £43million on fancy dress.” Zara Whelan, The Daily Post, December 2017.

“Meet Lord Rokeby, the original hipster with water on the brain.” The Daily Telegraph.

“Welcome to the crazy world of John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton.” The Daily Telegraph.

“The eccentric Duke who adored misanthropy, built 15 miles of tunnels.” Goran Blazeski, The Vintage News, November 2016.

“Sir John Leslie: Obituary.” The Daily Telegraph, April 2016

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