The saga of The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse
Visitors to the 15,000-acre Welbeck Estate near Worksop in Nottinghamshire are generally captivated by how it has continually been regenerated without losing its historic, individual character.
Yet most people who take advantage of the state room tours, run daily during August, or who indulge in homemade treats in the Harley Cafe will probably be unaware of some of the estate’s secrets hidden beneath the great house.
In the winter of 1851-52 the reclusive, eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, also known as Lord John, was involved in a serious accident, with a horse-drawn cab causing him a severe head injury.
This is said to have been one of the reasons for his becoming more and more withdrawn. He began an extraordinary programme of building works at Welbeck, including a maze of underground passages. One of them featured a set of tracks along which his dinner would be delivered from the abbey kitchens to the dining room.
This underground world and the fact that the Duke communicated with his staff by writing notes for them meant he could disappear for months at a time. It fuelled speculation that the Duke was leading a double life, resurfacing as Thomas Charles Druce who eventually became a partner in the Baker Street Bazaar in London – a forerunner of the modern department store.
The 5th Duke, William John Cavendish-Bentinck, to give him his full name, died in December 1879. Twenty-four years later George Hollamby left Australia to come to England to claim his inheritance: the grandson of Thomas Charles Druce believed he was the 5th Duke of Rutland’s rightful heir.
This fascinating tale is thoroughly documented in Piu Marie Eatwell’s book The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse which comes out in paperback this month.
Born in Calcutta but raised in the UK, Piu is a qualified lawyer and a former BBC television producer who came across the Druce-Portland case when she picked up in a second-hand bookshop a volume about famous Victorian scandals.
As part of her research she was given a private tour of Welbeck and also spent a huge amount of time poring over the archive of the Dukes of Portland which are in Nottingham University’s manuscripts and special collections department.
Piu points out that the Victorians were not as genteel as they are sometimes painted: “It was quite shocking the extent to which the adoption of double lives went on. It was partly because it was easier to do that then than now.
“Now, when you’ve got the internet, people can be traced very easily. It’s difficult to set yourself up as a different person living at a different address down the street without being caught.
“But the practices were different in those days. If your marriage was falling apart you couldn’t just divorce and get re-married in the way you can now, so if you wanted to change your life or live freely, you would have to adopt these very dishonest, multiple personae.”
Piu regards the 5th Duke of Portland as one of the great British eccentrics.
“It’s quite extraordinary what he did. I think there’s a fascination in the idea of this tortured soul who hardly went out, didn’t speak to people, built this maze of underground passages beneath Welbeck Abbey and what motivated him to do the things he did.”
The story was complicated because there are no records of Thomas Charles Druce’s birth or baptism, heightening the mystery about whether the 5th Duke was leading a double life.
“There’s a universal fascination with mystery,” says Piu. “People have an image of Britain as a land of zaniness, eccentricity, so there’s a fascination with the eccentric aristocrat and the Duke completely tapped into that.
“You wonder whether he was a total nutter or a genius, some kind of great mind working behind all of this. It cuts into all that thinking.”
The book details how people including the author Charles Dickens believed the 5th Duke and Druce were one and the same; the decade-long battle by Druce’s daughter-in-law Anna Maria to have his coffin exhumed to prove there was no body in it; and the obscene amounts of money that were offered, possibly by the 6th Duke, for the Druce family to drop the case.
Piu who spent a year writing the book says she was “extremely lucky” during her research to see part of the underground system created by the 5th Duke.
“A lot of the tunnels are closed off because they’re now dangerous and they’re falling through. But it’s quite extraordinary. I actually walked through some of the incredible vaulted tunnels that he created under the building. I also visited some of the places around the area that are mentioned in the book.”
On 1 May an audio book of The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse is released. It is narrated by actor Barnaby Edwards who is the chief Dalek in the Doctor Who audio books.
“He reads it very well and has got a great voice for the story,” says Piu.
The paperback comes out on 7 May. It will be released in the United States in October by publishers Head of Zeus.
Piu is hoping the story of the outlandish 5th Duke will also be told on screen. “There’s actually been interest expressed at various points by film companies in making a drama out of it. If it was done correctly it could be brilliant. The problem is it requires the right person to pick it up at the right time.”
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse is Piu’s second book. She had always wanted to write but decided she needed a career first. She wrote fiction for a while before she moved into what she calls “creative non-fiction”.
“It’s constructive, it’s got a drama, it’s got a story. It took me a while to get to that, to find out that was where my strength in writing lay.”
She moved to France when she married an English lawyer working in Paris. Her first book, They Eat Horses, Don’t They?, looks at whether myths about the French are true, such as are French women really thin and glamorous and is French food so wonderful.
“I’ve got two strains to my writing, both non-fiction,” says Piu. “One is writing about living in France and the other is quite different, historical true crime.
“I like to work on both at the same time and alternate books because I like the detective element and the research that goes into writing the true crime. But it’s nice every so often to have a bit of light relief – it can get quite heavy going, obviously – and to learn more about the country I live in.”
Piu is writing two more books, one a trivia book of amazing facts about France and another true crime story about the murder of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia – one of the oldest unsolved murder cases in Los Angeles history.
“It’s a challenge to research. It’s a different world – we’re not talking about Nottingham in the 1890s, we’re now talking about California in the 1940s.”
Before that Piu is looking forward to touring libraries and bookshops in Nottinghamshire later this month to talk about The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse.
“It’ll be really nice as I’ll be meeting people who have a real interest in the story because it’s local to where they live.”
* This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Country Images magazine