Welbeck Abbey is located in the Dukeries in North Nottinghamshire. It was the site of a monastery belonging to the Premonstratensian order in England and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries became a country house residence of the Dukes of Portland. One of the Dukes put his name on the map by building a tunnel complex that radiated out from the house. The Duke in question was William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (formally the Marquis of Titchfield).
Welbeck 5th Duke by HughieDW, on Flickr
Born in 1800, he inherited the Welbeck Estate in 1854 and spent a fortune on building work, including the aforementioned 10km complex of tunnels along with underground rooms and a subterranean kitchen railway. He spent about £100,000 a year for more than eighteen years to realise his plans (at a cost of £2m in today’s money), and employed as many as 1,500 workers as the vicinity of the house resembled a builder’s yard. Many of the workers were Irish labourers (referred to by locals as ‘Sligo’) who built the London Underground.
He built four main tunnels in total, using the “cut and cover” technique. Tunnel No.2 was the longest at approximately one-and-a-half-miles long. Lit by the skylights by day (which appeared at intervals of about approximately 10-yards) at night a series of gas lamps illuminated the tunnel, the gas being supplied by the Duke’s nearby Gas Works. Starting by the lodge close-by to the riding school, it snaked north before swinging round to the east, coming out in the open briefly, before again disappearing underground again and continuing north-east towards the (inappropriately named) South Lodge.
Tunnel entrance to the south of the riding school:
Welbeck Tunnel entrance by HughieDW, on Flickr
The purpose of this tunnel was so the duke could ride off his estate undetected in the direction of Worksop Railway Station to catch the train to London. The tunnel was abandoned in the late 19th century when a section forming part of the lake dam failed. Remaining stretches of tunnel survive on either side of the lake. The tunnel's skylights can be seen from the Robin Hood Way footpath which follows its course and a masonry entrance can be seen between two (South) lodges at the north-eastern limit of the park. Tunnel No.1 was shorter, its entrance was just north of the abbey as it headed due north before coming out after approximately half-a-kilometre later. It was used as a carriage-way, broad enough for two carriages to pass and a track swung round to join the open stretch of Tunnel No.2.
How the scene may have looked back in the day:
People in Hiding: The Mysterious Duke. The Fifth Duke of Portland by HughieDW, on Flickr
Tunnel No.3 was the kilometre-long Plant Corridor which runs between the main house and riding house. It was built wide enough for several people to walk side-by-side.
Welbeck plant corridoor adj by HughieDW, on Flickr
Running parallel to the Plant Corridor to the north is Tunnel No.4, a narrower, rougher-hewn tunnel, which the duke had built for the servants. In addition there are many other smaller tunnels including a grotto corridor, a corridor-like fruit arcade, and corridors with narrow-gauge rails used to transport warm food to the main house. Additionally the Horse Corridor, decorated with antler racks, leads to the underground ballroom. At 50m long and 20m high it was the largest private room in England at the time.
Print of Welbeck from 1881:
Welbeckprint1881 by HughieDW, on Flickr
Speculation abounds as to why the duke had the tunnels constructed. One line of thought was that he may have had health issues (some suggest the skin condition known as Psoriasis) meaning he wanted to withdraw from the public eye. Others believe it was more down to the duke's obsession with technology and the fact he enjoyed the process of building and all its associated administrative hubris. What is for sure, however, is that he never married and on the 1st July 1878 his wagonnette carried him through the Welbeck tunnels for a last time when he traveled to London. He remained in his London residence at Harcourt House until his death on the 6th December 1879. His estate then passed to his nephew, Sir William John Arthur Charles James Cavendish Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland.
During the First World War the kitchen block was used as an army hospital then during World War II the army leased the main property as an Officers Mess while some of the tunnels were used as an ammunition depot until just after the end of the war. Welbeck was then leased by the Dukes of Portland to the Ministry of Defence who from 1953 operated it as Welbeck College, an army training college. That continued until 2005 when the Ministry of Defence moved out and the abbey reverted back to the family seat of residence.
The 5th Duke has been the focus of two books; Mick Jackson's 1997 Booker short-listed “The Underground Man” and Derek Adlam’s “Tunnel Vision: The Enigmatic Fifth Duke of Portland”.
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