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The Lives of British Eccentrics

Updated on August 17, 2017
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Not many people would consider it normal to take tea regularly with a pet giraffe, or have a harpsichord fitted into their car. But such were the peculiarities Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Lord Berners.

Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Lord Berners
Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Lord Berners | Source

He lived in England from 1883 to 1950 and among his other activities he had the feathers of pigeons on his estate dyed in pastel pinks, blues, and other colours. He was also an accomplished composer, painter, and novelist.

His lordship had a roguish sense of humour. According to Roger Wilkes (The Telegraph) he built a 100-foot tower on a hill and stuck a notice on it that read: “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”

No contest here; Lord Berners was an A-list eccentric.

Eccentrics Defined

In their 1995 book Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James outlined many of the characteristics they say qualify a person for the label “eccentric.”

There are five salient qualities: nonconformity, creativity, curiosity, idealism, and self-awareness of being different. The writers suggest that missing any one of those traits means disqualification from membership in the guild of eccentrics.

Some secondary characteristics include: high level of intelligence, being opinionated and outspoken, possessing a mischievous sense of humour, not having a competitive nature, often being unmarried, and having unconventional living arrangements and eating habits.

Eccentrics not that Rare?

The English Eccentric Club in London (yes, there is one and it counts the Duke of Edinburgh as its Patron) claims that eccentricity is the norm and it bolsters its assertion with astrophysics.

“… considering that the Universe is still expanding after the Big Bang, not a single point in [the] time space continuum has the same location/co-ordinates for more than a split of a second, so any centre of anything remains such for no longer than that.”

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If eccentricity means deviation from the centre, and it does, and if the centre is constantly moving, and it is, pretty much everybody on the planet wobbles off the norm a bit. At least that seems to be the argument.

The club adds that, “From a philosophical point of view, all laws of the Universe are projecting themselves into all layers of existence, including human social, cultural, and intellectual behaviour … In fact, nothing in the Universe is centric ...”

All of which may sound a little like clever rationalization for people who are a bit batty.

Some Famous Eccentrics

One of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century belonged to an eccentric, Albert Einstein. In an article in The Telegraph (November 2005) Justin Stares reports on some of the recollections of the great scientist’s grandson.

Bernhard Caesar Einstein said his grandfather deliberately went out sailing when there was no wind and on one of these becalmed trips the eight-year-old Bernhard was treated to a three-hour lecture “on the mathematical properties of soap bubbles.”

When his doctor ordered him to stop smoking, Einstein would pick up cigarette ends from the street and retrieve the tobacco to fill his pipe.

Okay, so Einstein was not exactly a black belt eccentric, but Francis Egerton (1756–1823), 8th Earl of Bridgewater, certainly was. He threw elaborate dinner parties for dogs that he had dressed up in the latest fashions.

Dr. M. Aamer Sarfraz (Friday Times, August 2011) notes that another oddity of the earl’s “was his manner of measuring time. Egerton would wear a pair of shoes only once - when he was done with them, he would line them up in rows in order to count the passing days.”

Ready for dinner with his master.
Ready for dinner with his master. | Source

British Aristocratic Eccentrics

Britain is famous for its eccentric characters, many of whom seem to come from the ranks of the aristocracy and to have stepped straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Take James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) who believed that all children were born with tails and that there was some kind of conspiracy among midwives who cut off the offending appendages at birth.

Lord Monboddo.
Lord Monboddo. | Source

Or, how about Sir George Reresby Sitwell (1862-1943), 4th Baronet of Renishaw? He invented a small pistol for use in killing wasps and he banned electricity from his home for many years. He tried to pay for his son’s education at the elite Eton College with pigs and potatoes.

The Eccentric Champion

If there is a league table for eccentricity then William John Cavendish Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland would have to be near the top.

Born in 1800, he had a career in the military followed by a short stint in Parliament. In neither endeavour did he greatly distinguish himself.

He inherited numerous titles outlined by Peerage.com: 5th Marquess of Titchfield, 6th Earl of Portland, 6th Baron of Cirencester, and the 6th Viscount Woodstock.

But, his most important inheritance was Welbeck Abbey, a 17,000-acre (69 km2) estate partly in the Sherwood Forest in the British Midlands.

Welbeck Abbey.
Welbeck Abbey. | Source

The house is massive with hundreds of rooms, but the duke became reclusive and lived in a small suite. The rest of the Abbey was stripped of furniture and furnishings, and most of the rooms were painted pink.

In his 1995 book Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson writes that the duke worked hard at avoiding human contact. Instructions to servants were written down and delivered through a message box set into the door to his rooms. His food arrived from the kitchen aboard a miniature railway.

While he rejected personal contact with everyone except his valet he wrote many letters to a large network of family and friends.

He allowed visitors to tour the grounds and house but instructed anybody who might accidentally cross his path “not to see me.” A workman who saluted the duke one day was fired. Mostly though, he kept his outdoor excursions to the dark hours of the night, following a servant who carried a lantern 40 yards ahead of him.

Bryson relates that if it became necessary for the duke to visit London “he would have himself sealed in his horse-drawn carriage, which would be driven through a mile-and-a-half tunnel,” to the local railway station.

The carriage, with its passenger inside, would then be hoisted onto a special railcar for its journey south. In London, the sealed carriage would be driven to the duke’s home there, which he could scuttle into unobserved.

For a man apparently content to live in a small apartment in a vast mansion it seems very odd that the Duke of Portland began building extensions. He erected a huge indoor riding school and stabled 100 horses. For his servants he provided an outdoor roller-skating rink.

But, the strangest construction of all was a vast subterranean world. Fifteen miles of tunnels were dug with secret chambers and apartments. It seems like the work of an obsessive person.

The Telegraph reports that “he employed a team of hundreds of workmen to excavate a series of underground rooms. They include a 53 m (174 ft.) long ballroom (below) and a 76 m (250 ft.) long library …”

The underground ballroom at Welbeck Abbey
The underground ballroom at Welbeck Abbey | Source

Although why someone who took such pains to avoid human contact would want a ballroom remains a mystery.

Nottinghamshire History suggests all the underground construction was part of his obsession with being alone. His suite of rooms was “fitted with a trap-door in the floor, by which he could descend to the regions below, and thus roam about his underground tunnels without the servants knowing whether he was in the house or had left it.”

And, why would he want to be so isolated? Again Nottinghamshire History speculates: “It was said that he was smitten with leprosy, that he had an incurable skin disease; then that his love affairs had gone awry when he was a young man, with the result that he became a woman-hater, then a hater of mankind generally.”

The duke is said to have been besotted with the opera singer Adelaide Kemble, but she favoured Edward Sartoris, a wealthy landowner and politician, with her hand.

William John Cavendish Scott-Bentinck died in 1879 having let his ancestral home fall into disrepair. Unsurprisingly, the duke never married and so the estate passed to another branch of the family.

As Bill Bryson notes: “It isn’t every day after all that the British aristocracy produces someone of W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck’s rare and extraordinary mental loopiness, though in fairness it must be said they give it their best shot.”

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Bonus Factoids

In addition to his wasp gun, Sir George Sitwell also invented a musical toothbrush, and an eggless egg of smoked meat surrounded by rice encased in a synthetic lime. None of his creations were commercial successes.

The great 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized the value of such strange behaviour: “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained - that so few now dare to be odd, is the chief danger of our time.”

Sources

“Cultured Country House.” Roger Wilkes, The Telegraph, May 26, 2001.

“Eccentric: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness.” Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James, Villard, 1995.

The Eccentric Club.

“Einstein, Eccentric Genius, Smoked Butts Picked up off Street.” Justin Stares, The Telegraph, November 6, 2005.

“Different Sorts.” Dr. M Aamer Sarfraz, Friday Times, August 26 – September 1, 2011.

“James Burnett, Lord Monboddo.” Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.

“Sir George Sitwell, Eccentric Baronet.” h2g2, May 11, 2009.

“William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland.” The Peerage, May 6, 2011.

“William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879).” University of Nottingham, undated

“Notes from a Small Island.” Bill Bryson, Reed Books Canada, 1995.

“The Eccentric Duke and his Underground Tunnels.” A.P. Nicholson, Nottinghamshire History, April 16, 2004.

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