12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats

Tim Flight - June 18, 2018

With wealth comes power, and it is a well-worn maxim that power corrupts. With near-unlimited funds and well-connected friends, many people throughout history have allowed themselves to fall prey to vice and crime, and their lives have been used ever since to warn us of the snares and traps into which we may fall. The list of such power-corrupted people is endless: the Marquis de Sade, whose wealth and power allowed him to indulge his wildest sexual fantasies, the excesses of the Catholic Church over the centuries, Albert B. Fall and countless other corrupt politicians bought with bribes.

But what of those whose personalities are naturally, shall we say, unusual? For every wealthy person corrupted by wealth and power, there is another whose natural eccentricity, enlivened by wealth and connections, leads them to pursue unusual hobbies, beliefs, and enterprises, caring little for the opinions of others. Nowhere else is this more visible than the now mostly-extinct English aristocracy. In The English Eccentrics (1933), Edith Sitwell claimed that ‘eccentricity exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation’.

Sitwell, whose father, Sir George Rereseby Sitwell, appears later in this list, was writing from a position of authority. Commoners in the heyday of the aristocracy had the obligation to work for a living without the benefit of limitless funds, and so any overt eccentricity could mean destitution, whereas the aristocracy had the money and power not to care what others thought of them. Though the idea of hereditary rights and power is distasteful to modern palates, as this list will demonstrate we have simultaneously lost some marvelously absurd individuals with the decline of the landed gentry.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, 5th Duke of Portland, by Richard Dighton, England, 19th century. Harley Gallery

John Bentinck, 5th Earl of Portland

His Grace the 5th Earl of Portland (1800-79) had two defining characteristics: he did not enjoy the company of others, and he loved building. After a couple of years in society in his mid-twenties, the Duke decided that the social life of London was not for him, and over the next half-century he retreated further and further from public sight, culminating in one of the silliest and most ambitious building projects ever conceived. His desire for solitude was established in childhood, for rather than attending Eton or Harrow, Bentinck was educated entirely at home before joining the army aged 17.

He served as MP for King’s Lynn during his brief public career between 1824 and 1826, but resigned his post because of his self-diagnosed ill health. He returned to the army as captain of the Royal West India Rangers, but lived on half-pay as the role was largely ceremonial and did not require his presence. After some years traveling the continent, he succeeded his father as Duke of Portland in 1854, but the political responsibilities this brought did not deter him from avoiding society, for he did not take his oath in the House of Lords until 1857.

The Duke’s goal of avoiding other people informed his other great passion, building. Upon becoming Duke, His Grace set about ‘improving’ the family seat at Welbeck Abbey, North Nottinghamshire, at phenomenal expense. At the time of his death in 1879, 15, 000 men were employed on 36 projects at Welbeck. His most remarkable addition to Welbeck was the largest private apartment in England, a subterranean ballroom 174 feet long with room for 2, 000 people. To allow him to exist underground, Bentinck also added a series of libraries and a glass-roofed conservatory at the hub of the development.

All of these underground rooms were painted pink. So that he could avoid the company even of his servants, the Duke also had an underground railway built to carry his meals 150 yards from the kitchens to his dining room. Above ground, he built the largest riding school in Europe, with mirror-covered walls and chandeliers, but the 94 fine horses stabled there grew fat from lack of exercise, for he never invited anyone to visit him at Welbeck. The underground ballroom, of course, also never hosted anyone besides the Duke and his domestic staff when cleaning was required.

Other domestic eccentricities were a room filled floor-to-ceiling with green boxes containing brown wigs, a vast skating rink on which domestic maids were made to skate rather than clean in winter, and traveling in a bespoke carriage with sunken seats and curtains. Even the Duke’s dress was designed to avoid detection, and he twice refused the Order of the Garter because he would have to appear at Court to receive it. Nevertheless, he is remembered as a remarkably generous man, who would throw money to children from behind curtains as his carriage passed them, and a subscriber to many charities.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Adeline, Countess of Cardigan, England, mid-19th Century. Blogspot

Adeline, Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre

How’s this for a name? Adeline Louisa Maria de Horsey, Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre. As this ludicrous (and technically-illegal merging of titles by the woman herself) suggests, Adeline (1824-1915) did not do things by halves. Throwing caution to the wind, Adeline first came to the attentions of publicly-moralistic Victorian England when she became involved in a scandal. On several occasions in 1857 she was seen riding with the married 7th Earl of Cardigan without a chaperone. They were married a year later when Cardigan’s poor wife died. Polite society shunned Adeline despite the solemnization of their union.

The Earl died in 1868, and as a wealthy widow with a life-interest in the estates, Adeline was not short of suitors. One of these was the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, whom she rejected because of his bad breath. She instead met and married Don António Manuel de Saldanha e Lancastre, Conde de Lancastre, in 1873. She styled herself Countess of Lancastre, which was Anglicised to ‘Lancaster’, a probably-deliberate taunt to Queen Victoria, who used ‘Countess of Lancaster’ as her traveling pseudonym. Victoria had never forgiven Adeline for the Cardigan scandal, which seems to have delighted the Countess.

As she grew older, Adeline became markedly more eccentric. As a young woman she had been a famous sportswoman, and in old age continued to attend hunting meets across the country. Her cunning trick was to step out of her carriage, glance around, and then curse her groom for taking her horse to the wrong event. She could then watch the hunt with the rest of the spectators, in full hunting pinks. She also continued to shock polite society by smoking in public and wearing a leopard skin cape and tight red military trousers to cycle around London.

The parties she gave at the Cardigan estate at Deene, Northumberland, also sounded a hoot. As hostess, the septuagenarian Adeline delighted in dressing in mantilla and multiple layered skirts and playing the castinets. She would warn guests that Deene was haunted by a ghostly nun, disappear on a flimsy pretext, and then appear in a nun’s habit, drifting through the candlelit reception rooms. Polite guests would indulge Adeline by fainting and screaming in terror. As she neared the end of her life, Adeline kept a coffin in the Deene Ballroom, and staged rehearsals of her burial by climbing in.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Belhus, Essex, home of Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard, by J.P.Neale and W.Wallis, England, 1818. Wikimedia Commons

Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard

There are animal-lovers, and there are animal-lovers. The extraordinarily long-lived Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard (1761-1857) was one of the latter. At his mansion of Belhus, Essex, Barrett-Lennard had a tidy cemetery constructed exclusively for animals. Not only that, but the cats, dogs, and horses which he cherished as family members received a funeral service conducted by the vicar of nearby Aveley. They were carried to their grave in a coffin borne by the necessary number of footmen in a procession led by Barett-Lennard to the waiting vicar. Surprisingly, despite this eccentricity, Barrett-Lennard was married twice and served as an MP.

He even loved rats, perhaps the most-loathed of all animals designated as vermin. Where others would keep cats and terriers to kill all rodents foolish enough to make an appearance near agricultural produce, Barrett-Lennard instructed his servants to keep a bowl of water in the corn ricks to encourage the creatures. He also strictly forbade anyone to harm the no-doubt thriving population of rats that lived on his estates. Were a rat to be disturbed, it had to be gently caught in a sack and released contritely into the woods, allowing it to decide for itself where to infest next.

Barrett-Lennard was also extremely kind to people, an unusual quality in a nobleman. At a time when it was seen as improper for a gentleman to answer his own front door, he would do so himself rather than inconvenience his salaried-butler. Visitors were consequently often shocked by the terribly scruffy demeanour of Barrett-Lennard’s butler. In fact, his appearance was so unprepossessing that he was on several occasions tipped by strangers who mistook him for a gatekeeper. In his spare time, Barrett-Lennard, a highly-educated man, would compose Latin poetry and translate nonsense lyrics into Greek for his own amusement.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Sir John Dineley, Baronet, The Famous Knight of Windsor Castle by Alan Hogg, London, 1803. Wikimedia Commons

Sir John Dinely-Goodere

Sir John Dinely-Goodere, 5th Baronet (1729-1809), came from a long line of prominent aristocrats. He was the second-born twin son of Samuel Goodere, who was hanged for the murder of his own brother in 1741. John’s elder twin, Edward, inherited his father’s title and estates but died insane and unmarried in 1761, leaving his eccentric younger brother as his heir. Sir John decimated the family fortune, and had to sell his estate at Burhope, Herefordshire, in 1770. However, he believed himself to be owed £300, 000, albeit obtainable only by legal action. Destitute, he thus sought a rich wife.

Sir John’s friends had managed to secure him a pension as a poor Knight of Windsor, and he used his new address at Windsor Castle to secure a mate. Reckoning his family name to be worth a £10, 000 dowry (which sum could be reduced by £500 for especially beautiful brides), he compiled a list of suitable partners with careful notes on their looks and wealth. He advertised his thrice-annual wife-hunting trips to London in the fashionable papers and, when spying a suitable mate, would approach, bow low, and give them a piece of paper without speaking a word.

He would carry stacks of these impersonal written proposals with him at all times, and the content of them was unspeakably hilarious. ‘To the angelic fair of the true English breed: – worthy notice. Sir John Dinely, of Windsor Castle, recommends himself and his ample fortune to any angelic beauty of good breed, fit to become, and willing to be, a mother of a noble heir… Ladies at a certain period of life need not apply, as heirship is the object of the mutual contract offered’, ran one. Surprisingly, this romantic approach never secured the penniless Sir John a wife.

His ridiculous appearance would not have helped matters. John’s dress would have been fashionable several decades before, but by the late 18th century a powdered wig secured with a chinstrap, dirty silk stockings, and velvet breeches were no longer considered à la mode. Though he never managed to find a rich, beautiful wife to secure his debt and continue the baronetcy, Sir John had a few near-misses. On several occasions he believed that he had found a suitable candidate, only to discover that his beau was actually a man in drag. Undeterred, however, he continued the quest until his death.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
The Earl of Bridgewater’s footmen serve dogs at the dining table, England, probably post-1823. Hertfordshire Life

Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater

It was only at the age of 67 that Francis Henry Egerton (1756-1829) became an Earl, upon the death of his brother, but he had long before that time cultivated a reputation for outrageous eccentricity. Like Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard, this unusual behavior was centered around animals. A Church of England clergyman, in 1796 Egerton fled to Paris, probably owing to scandals around his illegitimate children. In Paris, it was reported that he kept cats and dogs dressed as aristocrats in his home, each with a personal footman who would attach their tailored leather boots and napkins at meal times.

Each day, his dogs were transported via carriage to exercise in the Bois de Boulogne, their attendants sheltering them with umbrellas when necessary. Unfortunately, his expectation that his pets would behave like gentlemen at the table was disappointed. ‘The blackguards have deceived me. I have treated them like gentlemen, and they have behaved like rascals’, complained Egerton. Their punishment was severe: ‘they shall wear for eight days the yellow coats and knee breeches of my valets and shall stay in the ante-room and be deprived of the honor of seeing me for a week’. The animals’ reaction is not recorded.

Egerton’s dress sense was suitably eccentric for a man of such proclivities. With a prominent under bite and upturned chin, his garish and flamboyant outfits were designed to distract attention away from his face. He wore a new pair of boots every day, made by the cobbler he shared with his pets, and kept the once-worn pairs in a room, so that he could calculate the date and remember the weather and what he did on a particular day by the residue collected on them. Somehow, this was deemed preferable to keeping a diary or consulting a newspaper.

Though he lived in France for 30 years, Egerton claimed never to have mastered French, and so instead conversed with non-English speakers in Latin. As you can probably tell from this linguistic eccentricity, Egerton was a well-educated man: he was elected as a member of the Royal Society in 1781, and was known for his works on genealogy, writing around 30 books in total. Academic concerns received much of Egerton’s estate in his will, along with charities in which he took an interest. Upon becoming Earl in 1823, he proclaimed himself Holy Roman Emperor, an entity formally dissolved in 1806.

Though France must have agreed with him in many respects, Egerton still missed fox hunting, and would frequently invite friends to engage in a miniature meet in his gardens, complete with hunting livery, hounds, and an imported fox. He also kept 300 rabbits, partridges, and pigeons, which he would take delight in shooting when fancy took him. Most remarkably, he also bettered Napoleon Bonaparte, whose designs on remodeling Paris involved altering the Hotel Egerton. His troops were soon discouraged, and a similar attempt by the Duke of Saxe Coburg was resisted by Egerton himself and 30 armed servants.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Portrait of a Huntsman (Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, 1857-1935, 4th Bt) by John Murray, England, c.1900. National Portrait Gallery

Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, 4th Baronet

It is inconceivable that the life story of Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny (1847-1935) has not been made into a film. A soldier, adventurer, and sportsman, Claude lived his life at an unrelenting pace right up until his death. ‘Where there is a daring deed to be done in any part of the world, an Englishman should leap to the front to accomplish it’, he thundered with patriotic fervor in his memoirs. His vigor and bravery were not always welcome, however, and he missed out on a spot on the Livingstone expedition to Africa, and volunteered unsuccessfully for several wars.

After the Livingstone disappointment, he made his own way to Egypt to fight against a Dervish uprising, but was refused permission to go to the frontline of fighting despite claiming to be a reporter for the Sporting Times. At times, he did manage to get involved in fighting, such as the time when, in 1905 (at the tender age of 58), he went big game hunting in East Africa, and ‘had the luck to arrive just in time to join the Sotik punitive expedition, so that I was able to combine a certain amount of fighting with some excellent sport’.

It is as a sportsman that Claude was most remarkable, however. In 1882 he decided to take up ballooning. On his maiden flight, he decided to become the first man to cross the English Channel in a hot air balloon, but broke his leg when the basket collided with a wall on take-off, adding to his tally of 14 broken bones. Undeterred, a year later he became the first man to cross the North Sea in a balloon. Aged 42, he was the first European to swim the Nile rapids, and walked 45 miles for a miniscule bet aged 61.

Claude was also known to be a keen boxer. He maintained that fighting was a manly activity and a strong indicator of character. Indeed, when it came to hiring male servants, Claude would make them fight a few rounds of boxing with him. It mattered not whether they won or lost, Claude merely wanted to see ‘sufficient spirit’. He also offered homeless people the opportunity to box him for a hot meal. His other noted hobby was somewhat less savory, though equally eccentric. For fun, Claude worked incognito as a volunteer hangman at Carlisle Castle, using the pseudonym ‘Charles Maldon’.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
‘Georgey a’ cock-horse’, cartoon of George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, by James Gillroy, England, 1796. National Portrait Gallery

George Hanger, Baron Coleraine

At the age of 22, George Hanger, Baron Coleraine (1751-1824) had already racked up enough controversies to fill a lifetime. Fighting for the losing side in the American War of Independence, Hanger had married a gypsy, fought 3 duels, and been injured in the war. But somehow he had enough energy left to dedicate the rest of his life to the stereotypically aristocratic pastimes of drinking, whore mongering, horse racing, and gambling. In a life well-lived, Hanger became a close friend of the Prince of Wales, lost his immense fortune, went to debtors’ prison, regained it, and became Baron Coleraine.

He was the son of Gabriel Hanger, an MP who was made the 1st Baron Coleraine in 1762. Rules of primogeniture meant that young George was not expected to inherit the title, and so he was packed off to Eton, the University of Göttingen, and finally the army. Of this latter period, George remembered in his memoirs that he ‘associated with men both good and bad, and with lewd women, and women not lewd, wicked and not wicked… human nature is in general frail, and mine I confess has been wonderfully so’. His gypsy-wife left him for an itinerant tinsmith.

His womanizing and tales of derring-do in American War made him attractive to the famously-dissolute Prince George of Wales (the eventual George IV so wonderfully portrayed by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder The Third). The two men indulged their passions for debauchery and fine clothes together, but ultimately the young nobleman proved too much for even the Prince. He was sent to debtors’ prison after running up some enormous outgoings in 1798, and upon leaving decided to make an honest living through selling coal, to the shock of society. This he did until he inherited the title Baron Coleraine in 1814.

Despite making an honorable living, George did not alter his eccentric behavior. A contemporary was distinctly unimpressed with him ‘introducing into the best apartments of the most respectable families, his cats, his dogs, and his monkeys, while reveling himself in every species of sensuality [with women of low-repute]’. His eccentricities, debauched behavior, and royal connections made him a frequent target of parody, and the satirist James Gilroy produced no fewer than 20 cartoons of him, such as the one above. Commendably, though, George was never a snob, and upon becoming Baron Coleraine insisted on being addressed as ‘Plain George Hanger’.

His memoirs are full of practical advice such as how women should elope through a window: ‘it will impress your lover with a respect for your heroism, and ever establish you, in his opinion, as a woman of spirit, courage, and spunk’. He also instructs women to settle their disputes by dueling with each other rather than involving men. His time as a coal merchant seems to have helped George to some ingenious money-making schemes, too: Scottish people spending more than 6 months below the border should be taxed, and clergymen should hire blind beggars to raise Church money.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Anna Maria Helena, Comtesse de Noailles, by Ary Scheffer, England, 1856. Wikimedia Commons

Helena, Comtesse de Noailles

Helena (c.1826-1908) added to her already considerable fortune by marrying Antonin, Comte de Noailles, in 1849, but after only 3 years of marriage, the couple decided to live permanently apart. This allowed Helena the freedom to indulge in some madcap schemes and become a patroness of the arts. In 1863, perusing the Paris Salon, Helena came across Ernest Hébert’s portrait of a young girl. When she was informed that the picture had already been sold, she instead decided to buy the child-model, Maria Pasqua. Despite her inexperience in child-rearing, Helena had strong views, and the money to enact them.

Maria was sent to a convent school in Sussex, but the Comtesse insisted on strict conditions. The school pond was drained because it was the breeding ground of insects, and Maria, who had her own loose-fitting uniform because Helena did not like the standard one, drank milk from a cow selected and approved by the Comtesse. The latter believed that children raised on milk were less likely to become alcoholics. Maria was also taught grammar and arithmetic according to a system devised by Helena, rather than the standard curriculum. Despite this unusual upbringing, Maria later married, and settled in Norfolk.

Helena had some unusual views on health. She firmly believed that methane had health benefits, and so grazed cows beneath her windows so as to make the most of their flatulence. Her pajamas comprised stockings filled with squirrel fur and a Norwegian wildcat skin. To cure bronchitis, Helena insisted, a diet of soft herring roe was all that was necessary. Once, when visiting Maria in Norfolk, Helena insisted that all trees within the vicinity of the house were cut down before her arrival. Maria’s inheritance even had the strange condition that she wear white in summer and avoid lace shoes.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Marble sculpture of Lady Sackville-West by Auguste Rodin, London, 1913. Musee Rodin

Victoria-Josefa Sackville-West, Baroness Sackville

One of 7 illegitimate children of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 2nd Baron Sackville, Victoria Josefa Dolores Catalina Sackville-West (1862-1936) was the daughter of a Spanish dancer with the stage name ‘Pepita de Oliva’. She was a woman of contradictions: though she once gave £60, 000 to a man she met on a train, she also was known to cut up used postage stamps to form a fresh stamp with no postmarks to save money and once wrote a letter on a side of ham to avoid buying paper. Her favorite stationery was toilet paper pinched from the department store, Harrods.

Like Helena, Comtesse de Noailles, Victoria had strong views on fresh air and interior decoration. The windows and doors of her home at Knole, Kent, were always kept open, and she dined outdoors year-round. To fight off the inevitable sore throats she suffered, Victoria would tie a pair of Edward Lutyens’s old socks around her neck. One bedroom at Knole was wallpapered with postage stamps (those again), and the so-called Persian Room was decorated with objects exclusively from Turkey, despite the inherent geographical paradox. Preferring fake flowers to real, she often landscaped with porcelain flowers, which were immune to slugs.

Her only child was the prolific writer, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), who was also a noted garden designer; one can only imagine what Victoria thought of her daughter’s insistence on using real flowers for the celebrated garden she created at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent. Vita was the product of her mother’s marriage to her first cousin, Lionel, which seems to have taken place primarily due to Victoria’s desire to keep ownership of Knole, though it flowered into a passionate match (for which we have her coded diaries as evidence). Unfortunately, the once-devoted Lionel’s infidelities forced Victoria to leave Knole for Brighton anyway.

Victoria was famous for her money-making schemes. Needing a new roof for her house in 1928, she founded the Roof of Friendship Fund, in which all of her friends were asked to pay for a tile commemorating their friendship with her. Incredibly, Lady Sackville’s natural charm and exuberance meant that many of her friends did actually make a contribution. Lady Sackville also raised money for others, and once tried unsuccessfully to eradicate the national debt through the Million Penny Fund, in which she asked famous people celebrating their birthdays to contribute a penny to commemorate each year of their life.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida Sitwell and Family, by John Singer-Sargent, England, c.1900. Wikimedia Commons

Sir George Reresby-Sitwell

The Sitwells made their fortune in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Sir George Reresby Sitwell, 4th Baronet (1860-1943), who inherited the title and lands aged 2, spent much of his life restoring the ancestral home of the Sitwells, Renishaw Hall. This was, in part, due to George’s pride in his ancestry, and partly to accommodate 7 separate studies to facilitate his antiquarian studies. George was a prolific historical writer, and at his death he had plans for such riveting works as ‘Pig Keeping in the 13th Century’, ‘Leper’s Squints’, and, best of all, ‘The History of the Fork’.

For a man so dedicated to the past, it is remarkable how many things George invented. He was most proud of the Sitwell Egg, intended to make a nutritious and easy meal for travelers. This comprised smoked meat encased in white rice with a synthetic lime shell, and George unsuccessfully tried to sell it to Selfridge’s on Oxford Street, London. Other inventions designed to further man’s progress included a musical toothbrush that played ‘Annie Laurie’ while its owner brushed their teeth, and a miniature pistol for killing wasps. Sadly, George died before his proposed work, ‘My Inventions’, could be written.

George was hilariously out of touch with modern life. He once fumed to his long-suffering son, Osbert, about the rudeness of a friend who had promised, but failed to deliver him, some jewelery. After all, the friend had explicitly stated that ‘I’ll give you a ring, Sir George, on Thursday’. When briefly interested in farming, George used his knowledge of 14th-century agriculture, and often tried to pay his children’s school fees in pigs and potatoes. Electricity was banned altogether at Renshaw. It will come as no surprise that the opening quotation of this article was written by his daughter, Edith.

What shines through the life and times of Sir George Sitwell is his overwhelming and stubborn force of personality. Indeed, he had a sign at Renshaw simply reading: ‘I must ask anyone entering this house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents me sleeping at night’. As a parent, he opposed all of his children’s plans, once writing to Osbert: ‘it is dangerous for you to lose touch with me for a single day. You never know when you might need the benefit of my experience and advice’.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Spy (Sir Leslie Ward)’s preliminary sketch of Sir Tatton Sykes for Vanity Fair, London, 1879. Chris Beetles

Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th Baronet

Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th Baronet (1826-1913) was another aristocrat with strong opinions on pretty much everything. For example, it was his opinion (and probably his alone) that the human body must be kept at a constant temperature. Thus he had numerous coats made, designed to fit over one another, all of which he would don first thing in the morning, which, as the day progressed, he would shed according to climate. As he would simply leave them wherever he happened to be, local children could benefit from a standing offer of 1 shilling for each coat’s safe return.

Tatton was also meticulous about his diet, which almost exclusively consisted of cold rice pudding. In 1911, his house at Sledmere caught fire while its owner was mid-pudding, and rather than escape with his terrified servants Tatton responded to the inferno with the words, ‘I must eat my pudding!’ Tatton eventually emerged, and simply sat on a chair on the lawn for the next 18 hours watching his house burned to the ground. Such was his dedication to rice pudding that, even though he travelled across the world a great deal, he always took his rice-pudding cook with him.

Tatton had many peculiar dislikes. Upon inheriting Sledmere, one of Tatton’s first acts was to forbid the tenants on the estate from growing flowers: ‘nasty, untidy things… if you wish to grow flowers, grow cauliflowers!’ He also had a fundamental objection to people using their front doors and, as well as forbidding his tenants to do so, when he had houses built for his workers these had a trompe l’oeil in place of a front entrance and a proper door only at the rear. Having surprisingly sold the famous Sykes racehorse stud, Tatton also restored and built 18 churches.

12 of the Craziest English Aristocrats
Lord Berners painting Penelope Chetwood and her pony at Faringdon, England, 1938. Whale Oil

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners

The 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950) mixed eccentricity with undoubted talent. At his house in Faringdon, Oxfordshire, Lord Berners had a pet giraffe, doves dyed multiple colors, whippets with diamond collars, and a 140-foot tower bearing the legend: ‘members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk’. And yet, Berners was an accomplished painter, novelist, and composer of numerous musical pieces, including 5 ballets and an opera. His self-composed epitaph is fitting: ‘Here lies Lord Berners/ one of the learners/ his great love of learning/may earn him a burning/but, Praise the Lord!/he seldom was bored.’

Growing up with a father he described as ‘worldly, cynical, intolerant of any kind of inferiority, reserved and self-possessed’ and serving for 10 years as a diplomat made Lord Berners intolerant of convention and pomposity. Taking a dislike to one embassy member who punctuated every sentence by pretentiously putting on his glasses, Lord Berners once attached them to an ink bottle and several pens on the desk, causing a hilarious scene. When objections were raised to his plans to build the Faringdon Tower, Lord Berners responded that ‘the great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless’.

Lord Berners, who was famous for entertaining distinguished guests, once taunted a renowned social climber, Sibyl Colefax, by sending her an invitation to ‘a tiny party for Winston [Churchill] and GBS [George Bernard Shaw]… There will be no one else except for Toscanini and myself’, with the address and his name deliberately illegible. Another pair of climbers, universally acknowledged as bores, rented his residence in Rome for their honeymoon, and Lord Berners had his butler send them 2 calling cards a day from his collection of other people’s, forcing them to hide from their supposed visitors for their entire stay.

But this persecution of the upper classes was all done with a sense of fun. As the picture above commemorates, Lord Berners once invited Penelope Chetwood and her Arab Stallion to tea, having taken literally the gossip that she was inseparable from the horse, and painted their portraits. As a famous man in the public eye, Lord Berners had to take precautions if he wished to be alone. When traveling by train, he would don a disguise and lean out of the window at each station to beckon people to sit in his compartment. Those who obliged never stayed long.

 

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

Caulfield, Catherine. The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics. Icon Books. 2006.

“George Hanger, Who Did His Best to Keep the Georgian Era Weird”. StrangeCo. January 12, 2015.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Shaw, Karl. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Extraordinary Exploits of the British and European Aristocracy. Robinson, 2017.

Sitwell, Edith. The English Eccentrics. London: Faber & Faber, 2005.

Smith, Peter. “The irrepressible Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater”. Hertfordshire Life, November 15th 2016.

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