The Gentle Mole
youngsters do not have time to explore their district. Children of today are
often strangers in their own locality. Today's generation has so much to do,
including watching television and surfing the net and it seems they are no
longer interested in rambling and enjoying the countryside. Yet I recall a
time when there was little else to do but ramble and no doubt we are so much
richer for it. I am not surprised that the average schoolchild is unaware
of the wealth of interesting history within walking distance of Warsop.
During my school days we heard many stories about the mad Duke of Portland. Tunnels had been dug all over the district so that the mad duke could come and go in secret. "The mad duke was disfigured and he had a terrible disease." "The tunnels allowed lovers to come and go without gossip and some of the tunnels went for many miles." "One tunnel went to Worksop railway station and several others to various gate lodges." "A tunnel from Welbeck ended at the old Warsop rectory." Our elders had passed down these stories and as a youngster I believed every tale. Many Warsop residents still talk of a "mad duke" and some think the earth is riddled with tunnels leading to Welbeck Abbey. Rumours are like snowballs rolling down a slope and no doubt some present day accounts will be more embellished than I show above.
In recent years I have been able to research some of the history of Welbeck Abbey and the dukes of Portland. The stories about a mad duke would be attributable to William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, born 17th September 1800. (I must explain that as was the custom, all male members of the family had the first name William, although only the eldest would use it). So William John was known as John. In 1818 John started a military career and with the rank of captain he served in several Guards regiments. In 1824 John transferred to a reserve regiment on half pay. This was due to the death of elder brother William. John took the title Marquis of Titchfield and became Member of Parliament for Kings Lynn. In 1826 John surrendered the parliamentary seat to his younger brother George, who was far more interested in a political career. March 27th 1854 the fourth duke died and John became the fifth Duke of Portland.
The idea of tunnels big enough for horses and carriages to pass through, certainly piqued my imagination and curiosity. I wanted to try to separate fact from fiction. At least one of the tunnels, starting near the stables was big enough for the special carriage used by the fifth Duke of Portland. The tunnel went for a mile and a quarter and other shorter tunnels can be seen going towards the lake. (Note: The current ordnance survey Explorer 270 map shows the skylights of this and other tunnels that are much shorter in length.)
One tunnel leads to an icehouse near the Greendale Oak. I hasten to say this is not at Cuckney. This is the remains of the famous tree called "The Greendale Oak." Welbeck park was famous for its oak trees of huge proportions. In 1724 the first Duke of Portland wagered with the Earl of Oxford that he could drive a horse and carriage through a tree. The Greendale Oak was chosen, as it was a giant of a tree. After a lot of chopping and cutting of the tree, a horse and carriage did indeed pass through and the Duke won his wager. Not surprisingly there's little left to see of the old tree, just the remains of a stump enclosed by an iron fence near the yacht house. Fortunately I have visited and have been able to see some of the evidence of which I write. I have necessarily had to borrow on the writings of several historians and sources, most of which is now public domain.
Think of digging tunnels. How deep should they be (or how near the surface?) Do we require skylights and vents? If we do need skylights then our tunnels must not be too deep. How far can we extend our tunnels? I am not an engineer but I would think we could go a long way provided the terrain allowed. If we meet with a hill we may have problems and if we go down a valley we will most certainly get wet. Without some pumping and drainage I fear that tunnels do not go as far as some of us imagined. But, excavations and construction of tunnels seems to me to be a fine way of providing work and a better way of improving the local economy than if one chose to throw half crowns on our streets.
The fifth Duke of Portland may have seemed peculiar to many - but he was certainly not mad. In a time of abject poverty in Worksop, Mansfield and district, the Duke's preference for excavations and underground workings provided a living for 15,000 workmen for 18 years at an annual cost of £100,000. The subterranean work included the digging of flood dykes and millponds. Other projects included an underground chapel, a library and ballroom. It was said at the time that the prime reason for all of the work was to provide a living for as many of the locals as possible.
With regard to the ballroom I heard of something I have not yet been able to substantiate - but I like the story and it goes like this. The fifth Duke had a passion for roller-skating and he wanted a rink built. He had one made for the estate workers and encouraged its use as a healthy pastime. When the Duke asked an architect to design a roof over the rink he was told that it must have columns or pillars to hold up the roof and some of the columns would need to be near the middle of the rink. This was not satisfactory for the Duke and he sent the architect away. Later the same architect returned to tell the Duke that if he would accept an underground rink (or room) he could pre-fabricate a roof to roll over at floor level and this could be done without any supports. So the underground ballroom, which also doubled as the Duke's private roller rink was soon built. When it was completed it had become the largest unsupported room in Europe. Or as we might say - it had the largest floorspace without obstruction. (55 yards by 22 yards.)
The fifth Duke was a kind man. He was often called "The workers friend". New workers were provided with a suit of clothes, a top hat, an umbrella and a donkey. Now that is starting to seem a little mad but the logic was that many workers had to travel some distance across the estate, regardless of the weather and the Duke did not want workers exhausted before they arrived at their place of work. When I first learned of this I could not help but wonder at how many donkeys were on the estate and from where they were obtained. Perhaps the Duke employed men to breed donkeys.
Most of the permanent workforce lived on the estate and when any worker, or member of his family became sick, the Duke would arrange a visit to ensure that anything needed would be provided. Food and fuel would be delivered. A doctor or a nurse would be called as appropriate. The Duke would also compensate widows and orphans after any fatal accident of a worker. I understand that a widow could expect to live on the estate free of rent, with an annual gratuity that was about half pay of a worker.
Not surprisingly, the Duke's love life (or lack of it) was often the cause for speculation and the object of rumour. As a young man the Duke liked to go to the Opera, where he fell for Adelaide Kemble, a well-known opera singer. She refused his proposal and he was not known to be interested in any other woman. John was intensely involved with all aspects of the estate management. The kitchen gardens at Welbeck were outstanding. The Duke had double walls built around the garden and used huge braziers as well as piped hot water to ripen exotic fruit. Peaches and pineapples were grown in a controlled microclimate. The Duke was known to be very knowledgeable with regard to horticulture and could often be found chatting with the gardeners. He was also known as one of the finest judges of horseflesh at that time. Countless winners of classic horse races had pedigrees traced back to Welbeck.
It is unlikely that there is any substance in the idea of love trysts in tunnels, or if there were any assignations, John would not be involved. The Duke did suffer ill health at times but there was no disease or disfigurement. It is known that he used a tunnel for trips to London. Each Journey would begin at the stables, where four fine horses would draw the Duke's wagonnette along a tunnel for a mile and a quarter. A couple more miles by road to reach Worksop railway station where a special "flat wagon" was kept in sidings. The wagonnette would be rolled onto the flat and fastened down and then shunted for connection to be made on a London train. The Duke remained inside, with blinds drawn for the entire journey.
Although this next snippet has very little to do with John, I include it, if only because I found it interesting. You will have traveled the A60 to Worksop and almost certainly have noticed that the road passes into Derbyshire for half a mile near the main entrance to Welbeck abbey. The road actually bends away from the abbey, but it was not always like that. The county boundary was at one time West of the A60 and never cut across it. The fourth Duke of Portland (John's father) was somewhat of a negotiator. It is said that when a railway company wanted to put a permanent way through land belonging to the Welbeck estates he would bargain and make certain stipulations. The Railway Company had to agree that they would provide adequate crossings for working people and for sporting activities. Also that a train to London would be available at a convenient station within easy reach of the abbey. (Perhaps Retford has been the choice in recent years.) Provision for transporting a horse carriage may well have been included in a deal. When the local authority requested use of the estate land for some road improvements, the fourth Duke agreed on condition that the A60 be moved further away from the abbey. So that is the reason we go into Derbyshire to get to Worksop.
Later in life the fifth Duke became a recluse. That is not unusual - we all get old and as we do so we cannot be expected to trip about as we did in our younger days. Being a recluse is not madness. John chose to use just 4 or 5 rooms in the abbey. These rooms were painted pink and each had a convenience in a corner.
On the 1st July 1878 the Duke's wagonnette carried John through the Welbeck tunnel for the last time. He remained in his London residence of Harcourt House until he died on the 6th December 1879. John's burial was a simple, cheap affair in Kensal Green cemetery. Many families mourned with reverence, the passing of their benefactor.
wonder if there are still many Warsop people who talk of a mad duke. - T.K.S.
Images courtesy of Andy Nicholson
Since the above was written and the pictures kindly included, the writer decided it appropriate to add his own photos taken on a public path near a Welbeck estates lodge. How many people, who have walked along a popular path just two miles South of Worksop, have been aware of a tunnel entrance? Of course the entrance is securely locked and the casual walker may mistake the entrance for a garage. Perhaps the management of Welbeck estates thinks it prudent to keep a low profile on this and other possible tourist attractions.
As I approached South lodge I met with a sign telling that this was the limit of parking. A public footpath from Worksop (2miles) comes around the lodge and between it and the tunnel. I remained on the public footpath so that I had no need to seek any permission to take pictures. Unfortunately I had to photograph into very bright sunshine but I was not able to wait until the sun went down
I was delighted to discover the end of the longest Welbeck tunnel was just where I had calculated but I cannot understand why this is called South lodge when it must be one of the most Northerly of lodges - Perhaps Northwest of the abbey..
Notice that the tunnel door is at path level. Behind the brickwork can be seen earthworks, or what looks like a railway embankment. It slopes gently away until the tunnel is below ground level.
Note the smoke from chimneys. Someone lives in the structure around the tunnel. South lodge is on the left of the path.
to further reading...
Nottingham University - Manuscripts and Special Collections
Andy Nicholson - The Great Houses and Families of Nottinghamshire
Andy Nicholson - Nottinghamshire History and Archaeology
If you would like to contribute to the Local History section e.mail Warsop Web firstname.lastname@example.org