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 thrive. 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 homeschooled 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.