Welbeck Abbey in North Nottinghamshire was the site of a monastery which, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, became the country house residence of the Dukes of Portland.
William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck (1800-79), the 5th Duke of Portland, built a 10km-long network of underground corridors on his Welbeck Abbey estate in part of Sherwood Forest.
Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck instructed his builders to construct pathways under the 69sq km of landscaped grounds. Tunnel No. 1 was about 500m long, wide enough for two carriages and had gas lamps installed overhead and led to a 2km pathway connecting the lodge and the south lodge, where the duke’s carriage was kept. The 910m-long Plant Corridor ran between the main house and riding house and was wide enough for several people to walk side by side. Running parallel to the Plant Corridor was a longer, narrower, rougher-hewn tunnel, which the duke had built for the servants, to ensure they never met.
There are many smaller tunnels including a grotto corridor and corridors with narrow-gauge rails on which warm food could be brought on trolleys to the main house. The Horse Corridor leads to an underground ballroom, the largest private room in England at the time – 50m long and 20m high. All these projects were funded by the duke’s properties in London around Portland Square and other properties in the West End.
Many rumours surround the eccentric 5th Duke. He is said to have spent most of his life in a small five-room suite within Welbeck and that he required that a fresh roasted chicken was available at any time, day or night. On the few occasions he left his house to walk in the extensive park, it was only at night and accompanied by a servant, who carried a lantern 30m in front of him and he was observed to only leave the house concealed under an umbrella, two large overcoats, a two foot high top hat, and a double ruff – even in fine weather.
In 1913, Archduke Franz Ferdinand accepted an invitation from the 6th Duke of Portland to stay at Welbeck Abbey and arrived with his wife, Sophie, by train at Worksop on the 22nd November. This was almost a year before his assassination, which triggered off the First World War.
The Archduke narrowly avoided being killed in a hunting accident during his stay. The Duke of Portland was out shooting pheasants with Franz Ferdinand when: “One of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the archduke and myself. I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death then and not at Sarajevo the following year.”
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