The Disappearing Duke: The Improbable Tale of an English Family

The Disappearing Duke: The Improbable Tale of an English Family

by Tom Freeman-Keel, Andrew Crofts
     
 

Shortly after the fourth duke of Portland died in 1854, his son and heir, William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, began construction of a fantastic underground palace beneath the family's estate of Welbeck Abbey. The subterranean chambers were designed by the finest architects and engineers then working in the burgeoning Victorian Empire, featuring a vast ballroom…  See more details below

Overview

Shortly after the fourth duke of Portland died in 1854, his son and heir, William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, began construction of a fantastic underground palace beneath the family's estate of Welbeck Abbey. The subterranean chambers were designed by the finest architects and engineers then working in the burgeoning Victorian Empire, featuring a vast ballroom which would be the largest unsupported structure ever built, and passages stretching out to the farthest corners of the estate allowing the duke to travel up and out to the world undetected. But the caverns that lay beneath the surface of Welbeck Abbey were neither as dark nor as twisted as the secrets that lay behind the Cavendish-Bentinck name. In this extraordinary work of historical detection, the authors reconstruct a century of controversy surrounding a British family of unmatched wealth and influence, culminating in one of the most bizarre and contentious cases the British courts have ever seen. At stake were the stability of the empire's social order and the secrecy its privileged classes enjoyed. In unprecedented fashion, the British papers exposed the private lives of the ruling class to feed the curiosity of the masses. The press would never be the same and one man would be accorded the title of the disappearing duke.

Steeped in layers of deliberately manufactured mystery, the fifth duke of Portland -- unmarried and childless -- became the marquess of Titchfield upon the violent death of his elder brother. In addition to suspicions of fratricide, some observers of the family, and reporters, claimed that during the duke's frequent absences from Welbeck Abbey he had forged a second identity as Thomas Druce, who owned London's Baker Street Bazaar and was the subject of countless rumors throughout high society about his secretive lifestyle. Druce allegedly died in 1864, but his burial was called a fake by skeptics who claimed that the coffin was filled with lead rather than his corpse. When Druce's daughter-in-law reasoned that he might have survived for fifteen more years in his role as the duke, she set out to prove that her son, Sydney Druce, was the rightful heir to the dukedom. In a legal battle straight out of Alice in Wonderland -- with accusations of madness, perjury, and even grave robbing -- the previously unassailable aristocratic establishment, built upon centuries of tradition, threatened to topple at the drop of a gavel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When, in the early 19th century, the fourth duke of Portland informed his sons that owing to "the strain of madness" in the family, "the normal life of married bliss cannot be for you," Lord John, the future fifth duke, came up with a unique and eventually problematic solution: he lived a double-or perhaps even triple-life. Calling himself Thomas Druce, he wooed and married a 16-year-old village girl and fathered three children. Then he abandoned her, eventually bringing the children to London, where he had fathered the first of three children with another woman whom he refused to marry until his first wife was dead. Confused yet? There's more: Druce also joined the army, ran a successful London department store and might have checked himself into an insane asylum for a time under the name of Dr. Harmer. As the duke of Portland at mid-century, he had underground tunnels built both at his country house and, rumor had it, his London mansion, the better to keep his many secrets. How he managed to juggle his multiple identities is a mystery that British authors Freeman-Keel (From Auschwitz to Alderney) and Crofts (coauthor of Sold) never do solve, but they recreate a fantastic tale of deception, intrigue and madness. Still, though this is an entertaining read, those expecting a strict historical reconstruction of events will be less than satisfied; the authors provide little in the way of sourcing for this "dramatization of a true story in which the truth is tantalizingly elusive." (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Weird high jinks by minor nobility fuel this enjoyable, sometimes too leisurely stroll into Victorian history. Holders of one of the greatest private fortunes in England and an enormous family home called Welbeck Abbey, the Cavendish-Bentincks were a strange lot, and they declined nearly as quickly as they rose. By 1898, write British journalist Freeman-Keel (From Auschwitz to Alderney, not reviewed, etc.) and popular historian Crofts (Sold, not reviewed, etc.), even the once-grand family mausoleum had deteriorated. Down among the moldering skeletons was an eldritch world of dark tunnels and hidden doorways, for the lords of the manor liked nothing better than keeping secrets and squirreling away their treasures. A half-century earlier it had been rumored among the populace around Welbeck Abbey that down among the underground chambers the fifth duke of Portland was constructing "a chapel that would later be changed to a ballroom, which would be the largest unsupported structure in the world." Lord John, the aforesaid duke as well as marquis of Titchfield, and the other Cavendish-Bentincks, had a fine time of it in the mid-19th century; they were instrumental in Disraeli’s election, popular among the aristocracy (though whispered about), and well-enough liked by the locals to sire an illegitimate child or two. But their good times unraveled in strange ways that involved fratricide, blackmail, madness, grave-robbing, identity-switching, petty larceny, and all other manner of mischief, not to mention a couple of Bleak House–style lawsuits. It was enough to keep an Inspector Morse occupied for years, and the authors do a fine job of spinning out the saga. If their story is a little overblownat times, they pull together its many threads into a neat package by the end. A pleasure for mystery buffs. Agent: Andrew Lownie, UK

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786710454
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
01/22/2003
Pages:
311
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.25(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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