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.
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.