A brief history of Welbeck is contained in the Souvenir Programme of the Welbeck Abbey Historical Pageant held on 7th and 8th of August, 1939 to mark the Golden Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Portland. The Pageant is remembered by many older Whitwellians as one of the last great occasions in the old style to be held before the Second World War. The programme notes help to identity episodes relating to Whitwell. They tell us, among other things, that the Abbey of Welbeck was founded by Thomas of Cuckney in about 1154 for a colony of Premonstratensian canons from Newhouse Abbey in Lincolnshire. The order was founded at Premontre in France. A large tract of land between Cuckney and Belph was given by Thomas to the canons for their new monastery and they built their church of St. James, with its cloisters and domestic buildings on a level piece of ground by a brook named the Wellebek. The present house stands on this site.
Robert de Meynell, Lord of Whitwell at about the time of the founding of the abbey, granted the right to quarry in his land, wherever it should be most convenient, in order to build the abbey church and other buildings, with free ingress and egress for those who carried the necessaries for the building. A cart road seems to have been built for the purpose. It led from Belph Moor to Welbeck along a route, which became known as Water Lane, then as Lovers' Lane or Hardwick's Lane from Belph hamlet, parallel with the present Mansfield Road until it turned to pass the Fish Pond. Its name on early maps was, 'Harlot's Way'. The abbey church and most of the monastic buildings have long since been destroyed though some traces still remain.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Welbeck ceased its former role in about 1536, having served the community and beyond for almost 400 years. The last abbot, Richard Bentley, and his fellow-canons signed a deed of gift to King Henry Vill, of all their lands, buildings and other possessions. Resistance would have been pointless.
During the next 50 years the property was let by the Crown to various tenants including Richard Whalley, a forbear of Protector Oliver Cromwell, and to Edward Osborne, a ‘cloath worker’ who became Lord Mayor of London in 1583-4.
Shortly before 1600, Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, purchased the freehold, which he transferred soon afterwards to Sir Charles Cavendish, third son of the famous Bess of Hardwick. At this point the modem history of Welbeck begins, for the estate has passed by inheritance from Sir Charles through successive Dukes of Portland.
William Cavendish (1593-1676), the elder son of Sir Charles, was a man of great distinction and many, varied gifts. Created successively Earl, Marquess and Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he became the trusted friend of King Charles I, who appointed him Governor of the young Prince of Wales, afterwards Charles II, and made him Commander-in-Chief of all the royal forces north of the Trent during the Civil Wars. Charles I was entertained by William at Welbeck more than once.
The Duke was not, however, only a courtier and a soldier. He was a poet and a patron of poets, the chief authority of his time on horsemanship and the management and training of horses. He was also a great builder. Bolsover Castle, Nottingham Castle and Welbeck itself were either rebuilt or wholly transformed by him. He built the old riding school, now the chapel and library, in 1623.
His son, Henry Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1631-91) left no male heir, and at his death the estate was inherited by his third daughter, Margaret, the wife of John Holles, Earl of Clare, created Duke of Newcastle in 1694.
Upon Margaret's death in 1716, Welbeck passed to her only child, Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles who, three years previously, had married Edward Lord Harley, afterwards 2nd Earl of Oxford. During Lord Oxford's lifetime, the house at Welbeck was little used but Lady Oxford spent the whole of her widowhood there and devoted the last 15 years of her life to a great reconstruction of the house and the garden.
In 1734 her only surviving child, Lady Margaret Cavendish-Holles-Harley, married William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland - an alliance which, upon Lady Oxford's death in 1755, brought Welbeck into the possession of the family which still owns it. Their son, the politically active 3rd Duke, became Prime Minister in 1783 and in 1807-09. The 6th Duke was his great grandson, in honour of whose golden wedding the 1939 Pageant was staged. His granddaughter, Lady Anne, at present resides at Welbeck.
A.H. Thompson's book, 'The Premonstratensian Abbey of Welbeck', enlarges upon the above brief early history of the abbey. The twenty-five abbots are listed beginning with Berengar. The gift of land originally made by Thomas (of Cuckney) was, 'The whole land which is from the place of the abbey unto a place called Belgh (Belph), and Belgh, and whatsoever was within the bounds of that place, in ‘Medows’, in Pastures, in Woods, in lands tilled, and his whole Sart (Clearing) nigh Belgh, viz, where Galfr, Hugh and Druing lived, and the remaining part of the Sart which he had there.'
A deed of Ralph Silvan who had land at Thorpe Salvin, and his wife Margaret, gave to the abbot all their part which they had in that place, and the Wood between the Rivulet and the Cart-way, which leads from the place of the Abbey unto Belgh.
The Abbey of Newhouse founded 'daughter' abbeys including Welbeck, but only three of these produced offspring. Sulby (Northants) founded one abbey, Croxton (Leicestershire) founded two, but Welbeck founded at least seven, staffed originally from among its own canons. Welbeck founded Durford in Sussex and Hagnaby, near Spilsby in Lincolnshire, both in Abbot Berengar's time. These were followed by Leiston, near Aldeborough, Suffolk and Beauchief Abbey, near Sheffield, both in 1183, West Dereham in Norfolk in 1188, Torre Abbey in Devon in 1196 and Halesowen, near Birmingham in 1218.
Welbeck became the chief house of its order in England for a time after the start of the One Hundred Years' War, when links with France were all but completely severed. Various gifts and grants were made to the Abbey. In 1291, a charter of Edward I granted free warren to the abbot and convent in their land at Belph and Creswell. In 1327, during the time of the 10th Abbot, John Nottingham, licence had been obtained to acquire land up to the value of £10 per year. In 1392, land was bought in East Retford, Nether Langwith, Creswell and Whitwell.
By 1488 when John Acaster had become 20th Abbot, the dilapidated Abbey had been somewhat restored, materially if not spiritually. A visitation by a superior, Redman, in 1491 resulted in him forbidding the consumption of fleshmeat in the houses of lay-folk near the Abbey (e.g. at Belph) and in unlicensed places in the monastery. One of the canons, Richard Coil, had to fast for seven days after a scourging, for absence from matins. His fondness for secular company and for female company in hours of leisure was punished by the recitation of seven psalters within the year and by abstinence from speech with seculars for 40 days.
Few specific references to Whitwell have been located in these early years, but we can imagine that men from Whitwell parish must have helped the last Abbot to count the king's deer in Sherwood in 1531 or to have helped satisfy Sir Christopher Wren's request to the steward of the Duke of Newcastle dated 4th April, 1695. He reminded the Duke of a promise made in 1693 to supply some 'great Beames' then required for St. Paul's Cathedral 'measuring 47 feet long, 13 inches by 14 inches at the small end ... and of growing timber, and as near as can be without sap.' Did Whitwell woodmen plant considerable areas in Welbeck Park and its environs, to clothe the landscape about the year 1726? Where was the White Stone by Welbeck? At East Retford on 10th April 1741, the Court ordered Bassetlaw Hundred to pay John MacLellan, a travelling Scotsman, the sum of £24..7s, he having been robbed of that amount at or near the White Stone. Again at East Retford, on 12 June 1732, John Pilley late of Anston, Yorkshire, barrel maker, was sentenced ‘to be transported for seven years to some of his Majesty's Colonyes or Plantations in America for stealing out of Welbeck Park 113 Kitt Staves, 13 Piggon Staves, 13 Kitt Bottoms and 2 Joyner Pannells valued at ten pence, the property of Richard Porter Esquire, Abel Smith and Isaac Johnson,’ He had probably passed through Whitwell on his way.
During Lady Oxford's alterations in the 1740's and 50's, most of the materials used came from local sources. Stone was brought from Creswell Crags, Mansfield and Roche Abbey. Paving stones came from Bolsover and Steetley, and loads of marble were landed at Stockwith. We are also told that ‘two setts of water closets’ were bought and installed in 1743-4 and 'four mouse-traps costing sixpence each'.
Upon Lady Oxford's death, Welbeck came into the possession of her daughter, Lady Margaret, who must have been quite a remarkable lady. She was good at turning in wood, jet, ivory and amber. She had a menagerie and was interested in botany and entomology too. She corresponded with Rousseau on educational and on natural history topics. She had married the 2nd Duke of Portland. He was the grandson of William Bentinck, friend and confidant of William of Orange, who had accompanied the new king from the Netherlands.
Their son, the 3rd Duke, was busy in politics in Ireland and in the Home Department, eventually becoming Prime Minister in 1783 and from 1807-09. He was not treated kindly by historians generally, his political influence being due to his rank, his mild disposition and his personal integrity.
His son, the 4th Duke cared less for politics than for the management of his estates. His Scottish estates did benefit from the building of roads and lime kilns. He built the harbour at Troon and a tile factory at Kilmarnock for the manufacture of land drains, the two places being linked by a railway. The first railway locomotive to run in Scotland was built for him in 1816 though it proved unsatisfactory. The Duke also lent a hand to a revolutionary ship builder, named Symonds, when he produced a new sailing ship design, which out-sailed most of the Navy's craft. He later took an interest in the first iron-hulled, steam-driven ships. He experimented agriculturally with the optimum spacing of planted trees, the amount of manure giving best results with such crops as beans and cauliflower’s and, nearer to home, the making of water meadows between Clipstone and Carburton. He made barren, sand land much more productive.
Turberville tells in his book about Welbeck Abbey, of the 4th Duke's kindliness and consideration. A porter at one of the lodges had permanent instructions to give food and drink to any tramp coming along the road, who applied for it. A house steward, who once suggested a reduction in the servants wages, was given to understand that the reductions, if applied, would begin with him. The Duke aimed to provide work for the framework knitters of Nottinghamshire during the strike of 1821, primarily for the married men. He was nicknamed ‘Leather-breeches’ through his love of the land; he seems to have inspired a mixture of affection and awe in both his family and his acquaintances.
Some idea of the way of life can be perhaps gauged from the censuses of 1841 and 1851. At the Abbey in 1841 lived housekeeper Mary Hiskey, seven female servants, a male servant and a 'housewatch'. William Pickard was porter at 'The Lodge'. Two grooms, eleven male servants and three outdoor watchmen lived at 'The Stables'. In 'The Gardens' lived William Tillery, 30, gardener from Scotland with his family, a female servant and two other gardeners. In 'The Outhouse' lived five chimney sweeps, two of them aged ten years, probably only there temporarily. Other Welbeck addresses were Moss Cottage, the Kennels, Grange Farm, Poultry Yard and Gate Cottage.
A different picture of the establishment is given in 1851 when the Duke was in residence. He was then aged 82 and had been born in Middlesex. His three daughters, Lady H. Bentinck, aged 52, Lady M. Bentinck, aged 40, and Lady C. Dennison, aged 40 (to the nearest five years), had all been born at Welbeck. The Duke's niece Georgina A.F. Bentinck, aged 39, was also in residence together with son-in-law John Evelyn Dennison, aged 39, and three visitors, all ladies in their sixties, two from London and one from Edwinstowe. Among the 54 servants living in the Abbey were house servant Samuel Levick, aged 19, assistant baker George Levick, aged 17, and helpers in the stables George Lowe, aged 25 and William Freeman, aged 13, all of Whitwell.
The servants living in the Abbey consisted of two 'visitors' servants, four house servants, a housekeeper, two ladies' maids, five laundry maids, eight housemaids, four kitchen maids, one cook, one cook's apprentice, one assistant baker, three footmen, one house steward, one night watchman, eleven 'helpers in the stables', one coachman, three postillions, four grooms and one civil engineer. Isaac Butcher aged 53, under butler, lived with his family at the next address, the ‘Mop Hall’. A total of seven houses in Welbeck contained a population of 117.
In an interview in the 'Worksop Guardian' of January 10th, 1930, Mr William Eyre of Creswell, who was born in the reign of William IV and who worked at Welbeck as a cabinetmaker for 63 years, remembered the 4th Duke. He also remembered the estate as it was before the tunnels and riding schools were built.
The 5th Duke assumed the title in 1854 and much of the present day appearance of the estate is due to his designs. His household in the censuses of 1861 and 1871 was rather different from that of his father. The staff of 1861 at the Abbey included 21 year old Jane Gascoigne from Belph among the three housemaids, house steward, cook, under-butler, steward's room boy, three kitchen maids, still room maid, and a housekeeper. By l871, the Duke was aged 70 and had a household containing two watchmen, among whom was Richard Lenthall, aged 43, born in Steetley, three kitchenmaids including Louisa Collingham aged 18 from Whitwell, a house steward, a confectioner, a baker, a footman, a page, an agricultural labourer, a gas and water fitter, a cook and six housemaids. The inclusion of an agricultural labourer and a gas and water fitter among the Abbey residents does seem somewhat eccentric, a fact commented on in the Druce-Portland case in which an attempt was made to challenge the 6th Duke's right of succession.
Little new building had taken place in the 'Welbeck' section of the estate. But in that part of the estate lying in Holbeck parish, Hunciecroft was already built by 1861. A start may have been made on Stable Court since under the heading, 'Woodhouse Hall', entries (6 to 11) refer to 'New Stables' occupied by two stablemen, a groom, a builder's foreman with his family, and two carters including William Hazlehurst, aged 25, from Whitwell. In the same area are listed, a laundry, two houses at the Woodyard, where gardener William Tillery now lived, then four houses containing four gardeners and one brick maker with his family. The Holbeck census also lists, 'New Works' and, 'Brickyard' and four houses in course of erection.
By 1871, addresses in 'Welbeck' apart from the Abbey were 'Lodge near New Works', occupied by watchman Lenthall, 'Millwood Lodge', occupied by the Harringtons, the head of the family being a valet and the two year old daughter Mary Ada having been born in Whitwell, and lastly 'Welbeck Gate' occupied by the Lowe family. Father was a groom and 18 year old son William had been born in Whitwell. Three houses were listed as unoccupied. Besterman's book on the Druce-Portland case states that tunnelling operations commenced in 1864 and also that underground rooms, picture gallery and ballroom were not constructed until 1872. However several lodges in Holbeck parish were by now occupied, including Oaksetts, Welbeck Dairy, Poultry Lodge, Milk Lodge, Welbeck Laundry, Laundry Lodge, Welbeck Garden House, Welbeck Gardeners' Room, Gas Works House, Hunting Stables, Welbeck Carriage House, and Woodyard House with six empty houses.
There is evidence that the Duke owned traction engines as early as 1860, probably for haulage. A framed certificate produced by Worksop artist J. Baldock for the Worksop Labourers' Friendly Society was presented to Richard Flear of Carburton on 20 October 1860. Among the illustrations of farming activities and local scenes surrounding the award is one of the Priory Church and one of a traction engine. The Retford and Gainsborough Times reports in May 1874 that a young boy was killed, when he fell from a trailer-coupling under the wheels of one of the Duke's machines in Worksop. In June of the same year, an engine travelling at top speed from Worksop to Welbeck sent forth a shower of sparks, thus setting fire to the dry roadside grass. By the following year, doubts about the Duke's engines were being expressed. 'They are all very well on newly macadamised roads, they act something like steamrollers. But after a thaw or in continued wet weather they ought to stay at home. Coming five or six along our Worksop streets in a line, they quickly transform what little solid matter there is to the consistence of oatmeal gruel.' They were probably carting materials to or from the new railway station. They were governed by strict regulations. In May 1877, a Grantham man was fined £1 for driving a traction engine and cultivator on the highway between Carburton and Edwinstowe without having a boy in front with a red flag. In November l880, Thomas Wells of Whitwell Common was charged as the owner of a traction engine, with allowing his locomotive during the hours between 8 o'clock in the afternoon and 4 o'clock in the forenoon to pass over any turnpike road or highway. He was fined ten shillings.
Mr Eyre of Creswell recalled seeing the 5th Duke and speaking to him 'scores of times'. 'He used to talk to all the workmen. He knew them all and they were very fond of him. It would be difficult to find a better friend, the men knew that'. Turberville states that the 5th Duke did not, as his father frequently did, come and see for himself but remained unseen in the background. He says, 'it is quite clear that he was interested in every detail of business, and that he possessed practical aptitude similar to his father. But he preferred to see things through the eyes of his agents except only at Welbeck where he was apparently most at ease.'
In the early 1870's, the Duke was much opposed to Forster's Education Bill, which sought to provide for elementary education, wherever such provision did not exist. His aid was constantly invoked, to furnish funds to bring existing 'Church Schools' in the locality up to standard, so that the influence of the Church could be retained. He was most interested in the Church schools at Cuckney, Clipstone, Kirkby, Bolsover, Creswell, Mansfield and Sutton-in-Ashfield as well as many others. His greatest anxiety seems to have been reserved for the school at Whitwell. It seems to have been the one most of all dependent upon his support, since even the most trifling necessities required by the households of the schoolmaster and schoolmistress were supplied from Welbeck. While the inspector reported favourably on the efficiency of the school, it became clear that additional buildings would be required, even before the increase in population consequent upon the sinking of Whitwell pit, started in 1890.
The Duke could express himself quite forcibly in print, as evidenced in his letters to Sir Robert Anstruther in Fife, rebutting allegations that he had issued circulars to his tenants telling them how to vote in 1868, but he was rarely if ever heard to utter a word of anger. He was kind and considerate though some of his kindnesses seem a little odd. He supplied his employees with umbrellas (does one still linger in any Whitwell attic?) and with donkeys. (Bicycles only became popular in the late 1860's.) He built a roller skating rink and urged his employees to use it and the boats on the lake for exercise.
The Duke is best remembered for the immense works that he undertook. It was stated in 1878, when the Duke was ill in London that the number of men employed at one time at Welbeck was estimated to have been between 1500 and 1600. £113,000 was paid to a single firm of iron and brass founders for a great variety of works but chiefly for water and gas installations. Many temporary buildings were erected, mess rooms and workshops. A number of navvies lived in the grounds and there was for a time a whole encampment of Irish labourers known locally as 'Sligo'. On June 20, 1874, a fight was reported at the Greendale Oak, Cuckney between, 'a number of Irish and navvies employed at Welbeck.' The Irish were living in a 'large clubroom' at Norton in which some windows were broken in the fracas, the police having difficulty in quelling the disturbance and arresting the ringleaders. In 1871, the census of Norton shows 24 out of 25 men living 'out of houses' to have been born in Ireland. They slept in 'detached buildings or barns'.
Further indications of the number of workers and the effect on the locality can be gained from Retford Times reports. On January 24th, 1874, it seems that the brick and tile makers in the employ of the Duke of Portland held their annual supper at the Rose and Crown, Creswell. On 3rd February 1877, 126 masons and labourers, employed under Mr Collingham at the estate of the Duke, held their annual supper at Mr Collingham's house, the Boot and Shoe, Whitwell. A week later we read that Mr Tom Palmer of the Jug and Glass at Whitwell provided supper for 120 of the men at Welbeck employed under Mr Tinker, who was Clerk of Works, a former Whitwell resident.
In early 1877, storms and floods hit Welbeck and the surrounding area. The contractor's workshops of Messrs Hydes and Wigfull were in such a state that all operations ceased and many of the vans, in which the labourers lived, could not be reached without much wading. Welbeck lake overflowed and filled some of the tunnels breast high with water rendering them also quite impassable, while the underground church at Welbeck was filled to a depth of three feet with water. The same Retford Times reported three weeks later that, 'Everyone will be pleased to know that work is once more in a brisk state at Welbeck in one or two departments.'
A further report dated 25 September, 1875 reads, 'The people of Whitwell kept the Duke of Portland's 75th birthday in a capital manner on Tuesday last. A sight worth seeing was the turnout of that prosperous village to celebrate the day; and although it was understood to be against the ideas of the Duke, still he could not fail to be gratified to know that so many of his work people and tenants were wishing him continued length of days, and doing it in a harmless sort of way.' The report goes on to describe the procession of the school children of the parish, 700 to 800, through the village, with banners and flags to a large tent hired for the occasion, where the children and widows were regaled with a supply of cake, bread and butter and tea after which the public were admitted. Dancing followed until 11 p.m. The canteens at each end of the tent were supplied by Mr W. Collingham of the Boot and Shoe and Mr Thomas Palmer of the Jug and Glass.
On the occasion of the Duke's 78th birthday, when he was ill in London, there were no demonstrations at Welbeck, except that the whole of the work people left their work somewhat earlier than usual ‘also for each person there was a liberal allowance of good old ale, in which the health of the nobleman was drunk right heartily...’
In October 1878, considerable agitation was reported in the press consequent upon 'the rapid reduction in numbers of the work people at Welbeck, large numbers of whom have either been dismissed or have received notices that their services will no longer be required. On Saturday last about fifty men received notice to quit. The reductions have so far mostly been amongst the masons, bricklayers and the labourers. The men engaged upon the asphalt works have also for the most part been dismissed.' The report on 8th November was to the effect that the number employed was only a third of the previous number of about 1500 which, 'in these times of depression is very serious indeed. 250 navvies and labourers were discharged last Saturday and also a number of tradesmen -joiners, smiths, masons, bricklayers ... These, it is generally understood, will be followed by others and, in fact, reports say that everything is coming to an end at Welbeck. The 'Estate men' will however continue their avocations at Welbeck. At the moment, the Duke is making extensive improvements on his Scottish estates including the building of a massive sea wall. The joinery required in other improvements upon the estates in Scotland is to be done at Welbeck.' Mr Sam Malthouse of Whitwell was an unemployed mason in the 1881 census, but he found work under the new Duke, being golf and cricket professional at Welbeck for 35 years.
In 1875 and 1878, the old Duke was often unwell. In the summer of 1878, he went through the tunnels to Worksop and up to London for the last time and never again returned to Welbeck. He died on 6th December 1879 and was buried simply as was his father, who had stipulated that no more than £1.00 was to be spent on his funeral.
The 6th Duke, in his book, Men, Women and Things, records the desolation of the scene, when he first succeeded to the title; his sister, Lady Ottoline Morrell, reinforced the comments in her biography. By January 2nd, 1880, however, the Retford Times was able to record, 'It is pretty generally known that at the death of the late Duke, much of the work projected at Welbeck was in a very unfinished state and some portions only just begun. Little has been done since the summer of 1878 and portions look like a wilderness when deserted, as they were, by batch after batch of workman, dismissed. It is announced that the whole of the work is to be finished at once in accordance with the late Duke's wishes'.
Prosperity did return to Welbeck, and the 6th Duke continued the benefactions of his predecessors. Until the time of the Pageant in 1939 many Whitwellians found their livelihood 'down at Welbeck'. It was said in the 1930's that, 'it was like Piccadilly Circus at "knocking-off" time.' During the war, which followed, numbers naturally fell. Many estate workers had joined the Sherwood Rangers and other regiments pre-war and of those who returned, not all went back to work at Welbeck. Mrs Hollis from Belph spent four years nursing wounded men at the hospital, one of several nurses tending up to sixty patients there. Winifred, Duchess of Portland, was the prime mover behind many charitable acts involving nursing and also the welfare of animals. Mrs Hollis now lives in 'The Winnings' built by the Duke out of racing success at the instigation of the Duchess. She was responsible for the building of Harlow Wood Orthopaedic Hospital and for many other charitable acts.
Now, very few Whitwell people find their employment at Welbeck, though Mr George Parker of Dukes Cottages, Belph still drives the Estate lorry and Mr Ted Margetts of Welbeck Street (appropriately) likes to keep his hand in at the building trade, despite being well past retirement age. But many Whitwellians have long memories, mostly pleasant, of their time spent at Welbeck whether at work or at leisure.