The Burrowing Duke of Cavendish Square | Features

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Iceberg houses are not new. Todd Longstaffe-Gowan tells the little-known story of a mysterious West End dig and his reclusive brain

A Scientific American contributor remarked in Animals Underground (April 1898): “There is no doubt that, whatever the first impulse to dig, many animals regard this most disagreeable effort as a form of real amusement. It also confers a right of ownership.

The pleasure of digging is not, of course, reserved for animals alone; some humans also possess an irrepressible urge to dig. For example, the great clergyman and antiquarian George Henry Law (d. 1845), Bishop of Bath and Wells, championed the excavation of the Bone Caves at Banwell in Somerset to create what has recently been described as “a solemn reminder of the deluge, a sort of biblical deluge theme park”; and William Lyttle, the “Mole Man of Hackney” (died 2010), felt compelled after digging a wine cellar under his house down a suburban street in east London, digging a labyrinthine network of deep tunnels – some as long as 18m in length.

Although such extreme compulsions may seem strange, irrational, pitiful, and even self-destructive to outside observers, they are, according to Sharon Begley, author of Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2017), “responses to otherwise unbearable and even crippling anxiety…even the craziest compulsions are adaptive, even pragmatic, and far too human. A compulsion is both balm and biological curse, superficial madness (or at least eccentricity) and profound relief”.

Few people showed a greater compulsion to dig than the reclusive William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, 5th Duke of Portland (1800–1879). The Duke, one of England’s wealthiest men, was a perverted and enigmatic aristocrat who from the late 1830s led a secluded life, surrounding himself “with an atmosphere of nearest mystery “.

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