And now for a few more of the intriguing tidbits I’ve stumbled across while researching my novel.
This time, three very odd – and one, perhaps a little grim – factoids from the Victorian era.
The 5th Duke of Portland’s Underground Haven
William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the 5th Duke of Portland, was a truly eccentric Victorian aristocrat.
Never married, the duke was extraordinarily reclusive. His valet was the only servant permitted to lay eyes on him. His other servants received their orders via written notes posted by the duke through a slot in the door to his private apartments, followed by the summonsing ring of his bell. He preferred to take his strolls at night, accompanied by a female servant bearing a lamp. And he reportedly had the gardens of his London townhouse enclosed with ground glass screens so he might take a turn outside without the neighbours seeing.
The poor man most likely suffered from a crippling case of agoraphobia, and nowhere is this more evident than the building works he commissioned at his country seat of Welbeck Abbey, in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire (yes, Robin Hood’s stomping ground!)
At Welbeck Abbey, the duke employed an army of workers to make special additions to his family seat. He considerably renovated the abbey’s interior, and added a massive riding house for his stable of over one hundred horses (none of which he ever rode). But the oddest of his constructions is the network of sumptuous rooms and connecting tunnels that, over a span of twenty years and at a phenomenal cost, he had dug beneath the ground.
A ballroom, library, picture gallery, kitchens and wine cellars, all connected by gas-lit tunnels, some of which were wide enough to permit a carriage, others with tracks set in the tunnel floor so food could be whisked along from the kitchens. Now, to be accurate, the rooms are best described as “below ground” rather than “subterranean” as they are not completely covered with earth and admit natural light via skylights set in the ground above. But of course, the duke made sure the skylights’ glass domes were all screened from prying eyes by shrubbery.
The overseeing of all this subterranean work reportedly gave the duke great pleasure. But sadly, his reclusiveness meant he never shared his underground haven with a single guest, and by 1879 Welbeck Abbey had fallen into disrepair, the duke living in only four or five habitable rooms, all stripped of furniture … and all painted pink.
Welbeck Abbey is still in the Cavendish-Bentinck family’s hands today. It is a private residence, meaning access to the underground rooms and tunnels is not permitted. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to take a peek at what lies beneath!
The Fake Houses of 23 & 24 Leinster Terrace, London
In the 1860s, London’s original underground railway was powered by steam, and as such, its tunnels required regular “venting” sections, open to the air above. One of these venting sections can still be found at 23 & 24 Leinster Terrace, Bayswater – but from the street, you’d never know it.
Standing on the tree-lined pavement, all you see is an elegant row of white, stucco-walled terrace houses, in keeping with the rest of the genteel neighbourhood. From the rear, though, the secret is revealed – numbers 23 & 24 are nothing but a five foot thick facade, towering over a pit through which the Tube line runs (see this Daily Mail Article for some terrific photos).
A very Victorian way of keeping up property values by keeping up appearances!
The Gruesome Secret in Scotland Yard’s Basement.
The Thames has a long and grim history of disgorging London’s dead. Records show that in 1882 alone, 544 corpses were pulled from the river. Three of the more bizarre deaths connected with the Thames occurred during 1887 to 1889, when the limbs and headless torsos of three female murder victims were discovered in or near the river. They were dubbed, “The Thames Torso Murders.”
Now, the act of committing three murders, then dismembering the bodies and disposing of the parts about the city, is mind-bogglingly macabre. But the oddest of these three crimes surely must be the second, purely for where the killer chose to dispose of some of the remains.
The poor woman’s arm was found first, in Lambeth Road. Next, her arm was fished from the Thames near Pimlico. And not long after, her torso was found – dumped, of all conceivable places, in the construction site of New Scotland Yard being built upon London’s Victoria Embankment. Death on the Met’s brand new doorstep.
Scotland Yard has long since moved to London’s Broadway. Only one of the victims was ever identified. And the killer’s identity remains a mystery, as does what it was about Scotland Yard that drew him to dispose of his victim’s remains there. Mere opportunity? A sick joke? I doubt we’ll ever know. But the Jack the Ripper Casebook site has a thorough discussion of the case – including speculation the same killer committed similar murders more than ten years before ….
Oh. And these murders overlapped with Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in Whitechapel. Shudder. It’s a wonder any Victorian Londoner ever left the house.
Do you have any bizarre tales of Victorian London? Do share. You know I’ll be all ears!