Bachelor Dukes: The 5th Duke of Portland + the 6th Duke of Devonshire

5th Duke of Portland

Watch an online talk which explores the similarities between The 5th Duke of Portland at Welbeck and the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, from Dr Lauren Batt in conversation with Dr Fiona Clapperton.

The 5th Duke of Portland is best known for his reclusive and unconventional behaviour, which included building a network of underground tunnels, always wearing 3 pairs of socks, and communicating exclusively by letter through his bedroom door. Public interest and speculation about the mysterious ‘Mole Duke’ exploded after his death, stoked by a media frenzy surrounding the ‘Druce Case’, a bizarre court case that alleged that the duke had led a secret double life as a London furniture merchant.

In this talk, Lauren and Fiona will question whether the 5th Duke of Portland was a true outlier, or whether aspects of his character have been misinterpreted by comparing him with his Derbyshire neighbour at Chatsworth, the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Although these two contemporaries were only casual acquaintances, there are compelling similarities in their personalities and interests. They were both bachelors and enthusiastic builders, who were celebrated locally for the employment opportunities offered on their estates and were uncommonly reliant on their servants (the Duke of Devonshire’s closest friend was his head gardener).

By framing the 5th Duke of Portland and his ‘tunnel vision’ within a wider context of Victorian experimental engineering, competitive horticulture and social planning, such as occurred at Chatsworth in the same period, this talk will bring further nuance to this elusive man and the impact he had on the Welbeck estate.

Read an extract of the talk below.

“The 5th Duke of Portland, known to his family as Lord John, (and this is how I will refer to him just so I’m not saying the word ‘duke’ every other word) was the son of the 4th Duke of Portland and his wife Henrietta. As the second son, he was not expected to inherit the estate, but he became his father’s heir after the death of his older brother William Henry in 1824. They’re shown here playing together as children on the right of this family portrait by John Rising.”

Lord John as a child playing with his siblings, c 1805 John Rising (c) Harley Foundation, Portland Collection

Lord John as a child playing with his siblings, c 1805 John Rising (c) Harley Foundation, Portland Collection


“When I first started reading about Welbeck, the 5th Duke of Portland was the first name I came across. I read that he was obsessed with privacy to the extent that his servants were not allowed to look at him, and any servant who crossed his path in the corridor was dismissed on the spot. I read that when he rode or walked through his tunnels, a servant had to walk several meters ahead of him with a lamp and was not allowed to turn around. If any servant stepped out of line, they were sent to a skating rink to exercise as a peculiar kind of punishment. He communicated with his staff exclusively by letter through a door with two letterboxes, angled so that nobody could look through the hole into his bedroom.”

“He had strange personal habits and way of life, he ordered all of the rooms in the Abbey to be painted pink and had a toilet installed in the corner of every room with no other furniture. He also bathed obsessively in a bath with multiple taps, each one conveying water from a different source. He barely ate anything but insisted on a whole roast chicken being available at any time of the day. He wore three pairs of socks and a high collar to hide his facial disfigurements. Strangest of all, when I read he had several illegitimate children in London, where he lived a double life as an upholsterer called Mr Druce.”

“I’m sure that if you’ve ever come across the 5th Duke of Portland in your reading, or if you live in the local area, you will have heard at least one of these legends. Most of them are easy to challenge.”

“We know for example that the walls of the Abbey were not all painted pink, because we have a book of paint samples with corresponding room names compiled by the house painter that he employed. He may have been fond of roast chicken, but his papers at Nottinghamshire archives include his tasting notes for all the varieties of pear and plum and apple in the Welbeck kitchen gardens.”

“We also know that he was not disfigured, from descriptions by people who knew him, and also because his death mask is in the Portland Collection. It’s actually currently on display in the Harley Gallery.”

“The Mr Druce story, alleging that he had led a double life, was disproven during a court case in the late 19th century when the body of Mr Druce was exhumed as evidence that he had been a separate individual. The Druce case was a truly bizarre episode of history, which unfortunately I won’t have much time to go into today, but I recommend you look it up later. The stories about Lord John’s character and his behaviour are harder to refute, but the evidence we have suggests that he was kind and benevolent towards his staff.”

“Elizabeth Butler, who worked for the 5th Duke as a laundry maid, wrote several anecdotes in her memoirs, which paints a very different picture to the cruel duke who fired his staff for looking at him. For example, she recounts, “one summer day it was showery and he stood under a tree by the drive sheltering when a kitchen-maid came hurrying by, she had no umbrella, and he at once stepped out and offered her his, telling her to keep it!”.”

“Lord John’s kindness was also described in a very sympathetic newspaper article in the Sheffield Telegraph, written two years after his death that says, “of his kindness to all those around him there are many interesting instances. Deserving domestics, when they were ill, were the subject of his special solicitude. Frequently, they were sent to Matlock, Buxton, or the Isle of Man, and kept there for prolonged periods at his expense.” So many of the specific stories about the 5th Duke of Portland are demonstrably myths, in some cases based on a grain of truth but distorted and exaggerated over time.”

“That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Lord John’s life which is slightly strange or difficult for us to understand. He was a very private person, he did spend an awful lot of time and money building tunnels and a complex of rooms underneath the Welbeck estate, and his laundry maid Elizabeth Butler confirms that he did indeed wear three pairs of socks every day. But I believe that some of there mysteries can be resolved by putting the 5th Duke of Portland into context of his era, his family, his health, and his interests, and also his political outlook. I’m going to attempt to do that in this talk today by comparing him to another interesting character, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who I studied at Chatsworth.”

“The 5th Duke of Portland and the 6th Duke of Devonshire shared an ancestor in Bess of Hardwick, the formidable Elizabethan courtier who owned several grand houses in the Midlands, including Hardwick Hall, which you can still visit just off M1 junction 29, I think. Next year you’ll be able to come and see this portrait of her in the Portland Collection gallery.”

“She inherited Chatsworth through hersecond husband William Cavendish, and when she died it passed to their son Henry, who sold it to his brother, another William Cavendish, the 1st Earl of Devonshire. Since then, it’s passed through a fairly straightforward line of inheritance, and their descendants still own it today. Welbeck’s history is a bit more complicated. Welbeck Abbey was purchased by another of Bess’s sons, Charles Cavendish, along with Bolsover Castle, which you can see here. It’s two-thirds of the way from Chatsworth to Welbeck. And that was in 1613.”

“Since then, the line of owners got quite complicated, there were several female inheritors, but the Cavendish name was retained. More recently than Bess of Hardwick, the dukes of Devonshire and Portland were related through the 4th Duke of Devonshire, whose daughter Dorothy was Lord John’s grandmother and the 6th Duke of Portland’s aunt. Which, I think, makes them first cousins once removed, or something like that. But it wasn’t this family connection which first led me to compare the two dukes.”

“As I began to research the life of the 5th Duke of Portland, I was struck by similarities in their lifestyles, ambitions, politics, and personalities. These similarities led me to think that Lord John was not a complete anomaly in his time but had perhaps been misunderstood. The 6th Duke of Devonshire was the only son of the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his wife Georgina, who affectionately called him ‘Heart’. If you’ve seen the film The Duchess, you’ll know a little about his parents’ unusual family situation.”

“As the future duke, his parents kept a close eye on him as a child, and his mother worried about his reclusive tendencies and his preference for spending time with servants over other children. In 1801 when he was 11, she wrote, “His temper is a little susceptible. He wishes to have his own way, and if he does not he makes it a grievance and gets rather sulky. -This when added to the reserve of disposition which is pretty natural, and partly from deafness (and from not having been us’d to manly exercise which makes him prefer keeping out of the way or with servants, to the mixing with those in whose occupations he cannot take a part) will, unless it is counteracted become trouble to himself and to those around him.””

“As he grew into a young man, Heart, who became duke when he was twenty-one, launched himself enthusiastically into high society. But the deafness his mother referred to in her letter continued to hamper him his whole life and made him self-conscious in social situations. In his diary he wrote of dinner parties where he was unable to follow the conversation, and he also writes of how he gave up acting in plays, because he worried about missing his cues and letting the others down. He also gave up shooting, one of the staples of aristocratic living because the loud bangs caused him pain.”

“As well as deafness he suffered from acute anxiety about his health, which often caused him to retreat from company and stay in bed for several days at a time. His biographers have rather unsympathetically labelled him a hypochondriac. James Lees-Milne for example wrote, “Practically every journal entry makes mention of a physical weakness or an anticipation of fell disease. Had he not been so rich and able to engage private doctors at beck and call, he might not have concentrated so much on slight imaginary complaints…””

“So what does this have to do with Lord John, the 5th Duke of Portland? Well, it seems very likely that some of his unusual reclusive behaviour was also motivated by ill health or physical disability, particularly towards the end of his life. Derek Adlam who is our emeritus curator, and who I suspect might be watching today, so no pressure, found a letter written by the duke about a skin complaint.”

“Derek did some research into the different skin conditions which might contribute to some of the behaviours displayed by the duke, and he put forward a convincing argument that Lord John might have had psoriatic arthritis, a condition which might not be very apparent from the exterior, but which causes severe pain for the sufferer and worsens over time.”

“Derek spoke to an expert in psoriatic arthritis who was suffering from the condition himself. This expert said that there were occasions when his skin was so sensitive that even the briefest contact from clothing was excruciating. He also said that temperature regulation was difficult and that people with psoriatic arthritis might wear multiple layers of clothing to keep warm even when the weather is mild.”


Lauren Batt

Dr Lauren Batt

Lauren is a historian and Assistant Curator at Welbeck Abbey.

Her experience includes historical research for Gucci, and projects at Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall, and Derby Museums.


Fiona Clapperton – Education

Dr Fiona Clapperton

Fiona is a historian and Education and Engagement Manager for the Harley Foundation.

She has a PhD the social history of Country Estates, and her experience includes working at Chatsworth, English Heritage, and the Wallace Collection.

Find out more

Plan your visit to see The 5th Duke of Portland: Tunnel Vision at the Gallery.