SUES FORUM 2: 04/2020


Our first Forum seems to have been well received and so we intend to continue with this venture, at least for the duration of the current restrictions.  For our first item Roger has decided to pursue further the theme of hermitages; for the second John has submitted a book review, whose relevance to the aims and objectives of SUES we hope will be recognised. We have then a response from one of long-standing members. Finally, there is an indication of what Roger has in mind for future editions.

We hope to extend the range of contributors, so please send us any responses, comments or new ideas. Contact details are given below.

Two Cavendish Recluses

Roger Mitchell

Being a recluse is perhaps half-way to being a hermit. Choosing to be a recluse is usually a matter of temperament rather than religious zeal and isolation may not be complete. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a recluse as ‘having little contact with society’. The most successful recluses are those about whom we know nothing. Just being a recluse is not normally sufficient to achieve fame and my two Cavendishes led active and indeed distinguished lives. Neither was a lifelong recluse and both had ample wealth to fund their unusual lifestyle, to live in comfort and to access anything that they might desire. For one of them, the one word summary in the Dictionary of National Biography is simply ‘recluse’, while the other one is described as ‘natural philosopher’, but even in the first paragraph of his biography we are given an indication of his aversion to society in the following sentence.

‘Though a principal member of London’s philosophical clubland, Cavendish’s shrill voice, shuffling gait, almost Trappist reticence, unfashionably plain dress, and pain at his increasing celebrity were all noted by more sociable contemporaries’. 

The lives of the two men only overlapped by ten years but both were descended from Dukes of Devonshire. Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), natural philosopher as well as recluse, was the grandson of the 2nd Duke, while (William) John Cavendish-Scott- Bentinck, fifth duke of Portland (1800–1879), an entrepreneur and builder as well as a recluse, was the great grandson of the 4th Duke. We will take them in chronological order.

Henry Cavendish

If Henry Cavendish had not been a recluse, we would have heard more about him and would recognise him as the outstanding scientist of late 18th century Britain with impressive research into chemistry and electricity, little of which he bothered to publish, and the popular reputation as ‘the man who weighed the world’. He did this in 1797-8 by measuring the force of gravity between masses in the laboratory. His answer of six billion trillion tonnes is within 1% of current estimates. In ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, Bill Bryson pays tribute to his scientific genius, but cannot resist enjoying his eccentricity. I have used some of his material in the following brief account of his life as a recluse.

His shyness was almost a disease and for him any human contact was a source of the deepest discomfort. On one occasion, a foreign admirer started to praise him.

‘For a few minutes Cavendish received the compliments as if they were blows from a blunt object and then, unable to take more, he fled out of the house. It was some hours before he could be coaxed back’.

He attended meetings of the Royal Society but members were warned not to approach or look at him. Those who sought his views were advised to wander into his vicinity as if by accident and ‘to talk as it were into vacancy’. If their remarks were scientifically worthy, they might receive a mumbled reply. If not, Cavendish fled.

He had a town house in Bedford Square and a suburban house with laboratory at Clapham but he never received guests. His drawing room was a laboratory with a forge in an adjacent room and his personal space was very limited, although he had a library containing 12,000 books, which were available to trusted scientists. He ordered his dinner by leaving a note on the hall table, his only communication with his female domestic staff. He inherited money from both sides of his family and at his death his estate was in the region of £1,000,000 which went to Cavendish relations. Seventy years after his death, the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was opened, funded by 7th Duke of Devonshire, but taking its name from Henry.

Fifth Duke of Portland
Fifth Duke of Portland

By contrast, if the 5th Duke of Portland had not been a recluse, we would probably not have heard of him unless we lived somewhere close to the Welbeck estate and realised how much it expanded and prospered in the mid Victorian period. It was only in later life that he became a recluse. As a young man he was an army officer, an outstanding horseman, and a rather unwilling MP. In the 1830s he unsuccessfully courted the opera singer, Adelaide Kemble. Thereafter he lived an isolated life, unmarried and seeing little or no society. It was rumoured that he even refused to allow the workpeople engaged on the improvements to his estates to show any sign of recognition on meeting him, and if he happened to see one of the maids while walking the corridors, she was temporarily banished from the house. This lonely, legendary man was far from idle but managed his estates and his domestic life almost entirely by correspondence. The “Prince of Silence” rarely spoke to his attendants; he wrote down on paper what he required and placed it in the letter-box of the door opening into the ante-room. Then he rang a bell, when a servant would come and read what he had written and carry out the order accordingly.

At Welbeck, his hothouses and greenhouses were reputed to be the best in the country and his walled gardens extended to 22 acres. Even so, he lived modestly and entertained as little as possible and so most of the produce was given away or used to feed his large resident staff at Welbeck where he extended the house, developed the park, greatly increased the size of the lake, built the second biggest riding school in the world as well as the grandest poultry house in the kingdom. There were schools and houses for staff including ‘The Hermitage’ built for a resident chaplain. In 1875 the estate had 35 lodges with five more under construction.

Most memorable of all were the underground rooms, a suite including a chapel and a ballroom with a floor area of a quarter of an acre and a roof span of 63 feet with no supporting pillars. These rooms were all linked to two and a half miles of underground drives, entered by grand Roman portals, lit by skylights and gas lamps (1,100 in the three original rooms) and often wide enough for two horse-drawn carriages to pass each other. They were heated by hot air. It is said that the special apartment used by the Duke was fitted with a trap door in the floor by which he could descend to the tunnels without the servants knowing where he was. He would then reappear as mysteriously as he had left.

A visitor in 1951 described these rooms as follows.

‘A tour through these vast halls is a little disappointing. The result of the Duke’s burrowings are much less cavernous than one may expect (or hope). The rooms are not too low down for skylights and are not, therefore’ gloomy during the day.’

The Duke made Welbeck the epitome of the great Victorian country estate and left it and the great part of his property to a cousin, whom he had never met. He died in 1879 leaving almost £2,000,000. 

The word ‘hermit’ does not appear in any of the material that I have found about either man. Neither man was motivated by religion. Henry Cavendish was close to being an agnostic, while the Duke of Portland seems to have believed in the necessity of an established church as much as he believed in God. Both men were active in their quest for improvement. For Henry Cavendish this was through increased scientific knowledge and understanding. For the Duke of Portland it was the betterment of his estates and the people who lived on them. Both died rich and both are still remembered as much for their temperament as for their very considerable achievements.

The 1951 visitor, whose description of the underground rooms is given earlier, was clearly intrigued by the fifth Duke and here is his judgement on the man and his work.

‘The chief human and visual interest of Welbeck …. is connected with the mysterious fifth Duke of Portland, a handsome but lonely, self- isolated man…… Local legends may gradually have added a great deal.

The Duke travelled to London in his carriage, which at Worksop was placed on a railway truck, the sun blinds carefully drawn. In the park, such acquaintances as the Vicar had orders not to see him when he passed them. On the other hand he was on friendly and natural terms with the hundreds of workmen employed on his vast and crazy building enterprises. Each workman received a donkey and an umbrella when he started work so as to make travelling through the park more comfortable.

What then made the Duke go underground? Some said that he was concerned about unemployment and wanted to give as many men work as possible, others suggested that he did not want to spoil the original appearance of the house, an unlikely reason considering the singularly unattractive frontages of Welbeck. May it not rather be suggested that the Duke, in his excessive, morbid shyness wanted to indulge his mania aedificandi without appearing showy? He chose to hide his buildings, as he chose to hide himself.’

Who was the visitor? Answer next time.

A Gorbals Boy At Oxford

John Sharp

Ralph Glasser

Recently a friend recommended that I read Ralph Glasser’s ‘Gorbals Boy at Oxford’, a subject which he thought would appeal to me. However, after completing a few pages frustration set in, as it was not clear exactly how this Gorbals boy got to Oxford. It then emerged that the volume was in fact the central section of a trilogy. I sent, therefore, for the complete set and started to follow Glasser’s life right from the beginning, a course of action I thoroughly recommend. The first volume, ‘Growing up in the Gorbals’ describes Glasser’s background and early life, ‘Gorbals Boy at Oxford’ his experiences as a working-class boy at a prestigious university, and ‘Gorbals Voice, Siren Songs’ his later life.

Ralph Glasser was actually born in Leeds in 1916 of a Jewish immigrant family, but from an early age he grew up in a tenement apartment in the Gorbals in Glasgow, one of the worst slums in Europe. His mother died when he was a child and he was brought up by his father, a man who was not without education, but who found it difficult to relate to his children and whose life was bedevilled by a gambling addiction. His two daughters, Ralph’s elder sisters, left home as soon as they could. Glasser had a limited education and left at school at 14, working first as a ‘soap boy’ in a barber’s shop and then in a factory as a garment presser. His autobiography provides vivid descriptions of the utter squalor and misery that existed in the Gorbals and which continued at least until the 1960s, a disgrace to a civilized society. Flats were cramped and dilapidated, toilets were shared, offal and vermin adorned the streets, working hours were excessive, workers were underpaid and the pawnshops flourished, as did crime and prostitution. However, the young Ralph Glasser did have one striking characteristic and it was this that saved him: intellectual curiosity. He attended night school and lectures, including one by Einstein when he was thirteen, and spent hours in the Mitchell Library. One day, he entered an essay competition, winning first prize and the offer of a place at Oxford.

As a young man in the Gorbals Glasser encountered political ideology. Many of those he knew responded to the appalling social conditions by turning to left-wing politics. The Communist party flourished, and one of Glasser’s closest friends went to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Yet Glasser himself was not sure. This was the thirties and there was enough evidence already to show that the Soviet Union was not the workers’ paradise that some of his friends believed. He shared a feeling that something needed to be done, but was not sure what and how.

It was a miracle that he got to Oxford, both in the physical sense – he actually cycled more than 300 miles from Glasgow to start his career there – and the fact that he was accepted without formal qualifications. It was also a culture shock as he became acquainted with young men from privileged backgrounds, those who could afford to take the material things of life for granted. However, there was also a strong left-wing element amongst both these students and their lecturers. Glasser met and conversed with the most distinguished of them, but his reaction was not what might have been hoped by these socialist intellectuals. He felt that their socialism was something theoretical, that they had little idea about what real poverty was. Asked by Richard Crossman ‘Why do people work ?’, Glasser replied ‘Because they’d starve if they didn’t.’ This was not the answer that the academic wanted. Despite this and the disparities in social background Glasser managed to adjust to his new life, though all the time he felt he was looking over his shoulder at the environment he came from, but to which he increasingly did not belong.

After the Second World War Glasser obtained a further degree at the London School of Economics.  He then worked for the British Council and later as a consultant on Third World Development. He was distinguished as a psychologist, an economist and a novelist. The third volume of his trilogy describes these later years, but he says little about his work, much more about his amorous exploits and marriages. He also refers to a returning interest in his Jewish background, though he never fully engaged with the faith. Perhaps the least successful of the three books, ‘Gorbal Voice and Siren Songs’ is reflective about relationships, including those with his father and his sisters, which were in many ways unsatisfactory. What is striking especially in this volume is Glasser’s extraordinary honesty about himself, his self-critical analysis of his own motives.

Ralph Glasser died in 2002 after what is in many respects an extraordinary life. His autobiography includes many fascinating anecdotes, but it is frequently discursive and reflective. He does, however, raise questions that have an abiding interest: the intolerability of misery and squalor, how the world can be reformed, the class system that is embedded in our society, the conduct of personal relationships and many more. The story of his rise from the slums to a distinguished public career, via Oxford, is fascinating and inspiring. One is left with the image of a boy in ragged trousers attending a lecture by the world’s leading scientis at the age of thirteen and haunting the public library in search of self-education.

A Reason to Learn Turkish!

Jacqui Henshaw

Thank you for the fascinating piece on Hermits. Not a subject I have ever given more than a passing thought to but very apt at this time. I have a friend who chooses never to leave her house to the extent she is no longer able to. This isolation does not worry her very much. Our late son-in-law would also have rather preferred the stay-at-home policy as he was not fond of ‘the general public”. For myself, my husband and I find it boring in spite of a daily walk, some shopping, various small projects and simple mind-numbing leisure pursuits. I am on a Committee for our residential site in Cyprus and find myself longing for controversy over the documents we have written so I can pen a reply. So, I am making a tentative attempt to learn Turkish (our apartment is in the North of Cyprus which is Turkish) to add to my limited attempts so far. I am looking forward to anything SUES will contribute.

Coming Shortly

Roger Mitchell

There is not going to be very much real travel in 2020 and so we must make the most of the opportunities for virtual travel. This offers the additional opportunity to travel through time as well as through space and I intend to cross the Atlantic and arrive in

America in the Gilded Age 1869 – 1909

‘The Gilded Age’ was the title of a satirical novel by Mark Twain and Charles Warner published in 1873. Historians have subsequently used the phrase to define the period after the Civil War when America expanded and industrialised. There was greater prosperity but it was not shared out fairly. The ‘Robber Barons’ like Frick, Morgan, Rockefeller and many others did disproportionately well, often by dubious means. There was corruption, and plutocrats rather than presidents tended to run the show. In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became President after McKinley’s assassination. Roosevelt was a leader of the progressive movement and made serious efforts to reform and regulate. He was also a pioneer of conservation. The first decade of 20th century is therefore more accurately described as ‘The Progressive Era’ but I think that I am allowed to use the Gilded Age as a convenient ‘umbrella’ label.

I begin my 40 year period with the opening of the trans-continental railroad in 1869 and go through to the end of Roosevelt’s presidency. This period then covers developments in architecture, literature, art and conservation that particularly interest me. Depending on how long it takes before ‘normal service is resumed’, I hope to contribute an introduction to some of these topics via the Forum.


  • Queen Anne Style
  • The First Skyscrapers
  • Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie Style in Chicago
  • Newport ‘Cottages’ and the Vanderbilts in Hudson Valley and North Carolina


  • Henry James and Edith Wharton
  • Mark Twain
  • Lady Betty Across the Water by Charles and Alice Williamson 1906*
  • Ab-o’th’-Yate in Yankeeland by Ben Brierley 1885*
    • * Both these books are readily and freely available to read online and both are great fun

Landscape and Art

  • Thomas Moran – The Turner of the American West
  • Remington and Russell – The Cowboy Artists
  • The National Park Service – Protecting Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion etc


Chair: Alan Potter
07713 428670

Secretary: Roger Mitchell
01695 423594 (Texts preferred to calls)

Membership Secretary and Forum Editor: Chris Nelson
07960 117719


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