When the Les Enfant terribles of apparel arrived at London’s centre of bespoke tailoring of all places opposite Prince Charles’s tailor the makers of sartorial elegance were up in arms to protect their image. Even worse when Messrs. Abercrombie & Fitch opened their flagship store at 7 Burlington Gardens shoppers were greeted by male models stripped to the waist.
All this might be seen as innovative edgy retail and the American retailers must have thought they were the first owners of that property to shock – how wrong they were. This grand building, known as Queensbury House was once owned by The Duke of Queensbury who seems to have spent his long life as a gambler, drinker and notorious womaniser.
He was the last person to employ a running footman, during one interview for the post; the candidate was given a full livery outfit to wear, despite the particularly hot weather. He was then made to run back and forth in front of the house while the Duke timed him from the balcony. When the Duke shouted “You’ll do for me”, the candidate briskly replied, “and this” (pointing at the gold braided uniform) “will do for me!” at which point he sprinted off, never to be seen again.
The Duke seems to have single handily stopped the consumption of milk in London, for he was said to believe bathing in milk ‘maintained his potency’ and gallons were needed for each bathe, for many years Londoners avoided drinking milk because they feared it may have come from his bath.
In 1752 he moved to 17 Arlington Street, for the primary reason that it was next door to Miss Frances Pelham to whom had come to the attention of his lecherous eyes. Miss Pelham’s brother, the Hon. Henry Pelham, was not enamoured of Lord March as he was then, as a suitor for his sister and had him thrown out of the house. His Lordship was undaunted; he had a bow window built in his house which commanded a view of a convenient window of Miss Pelham’s so he could continue his ardent courtship with her.
He was given the Dukedom in 1778 at the age of 58 when his uncle the Third Duke of Queensbury died having been predeceased by his two children.
The newly ennobled Duke of Queensbury then took up residence in his Mayfair home and pursued a long and distinguished career as a gambler, drinker and womaniser until his death 203 years today on 23rd December 1810.
In his latter years the Duke would sit on the balcony and leer at passing ladies. If any took his fancy he’d have his butler run down and pass lewd messages to them. At the ripe old age of 85 the Duke had Sarah Baartman, the South African Hottentot Venus brought to the house so he could minutely examine her voluptuous figure in private. [ A caricature of Baartman drawn in the early 19th century left ] Regularly lampooned the Duke was known as ’The Star of Piccadilly’ for what the poet Wordsworth satirised his lifestyle in a sonnet as ’degenerate Douglas’.
For all his womanising he is better known for being an inveterate gambler. Men with too much money and time on their hands would wager obscene sums of money on trivial events – which droplet of water will reach the bottom of a window pane, is one often quoted. A member of White’s Club, in 1749 he placed a wager that became known as ’The Race Against Time’. Written in its famous betting book, it’s still in existence and reads:
‘Col Waldegrave betts Ld. March fifty guineas, that his Lordship does not win the Chaise match. N.B. Ld Anson goes col Waldegrave halves. paid.’
In short the Duke wagered that he could get a four wheeled carriage carrying a man and drawn by four horses to run a course of nineteen miles in an hour. It seems incredible now that this should seem so stupendous, but many of that time would have thought it impossible – because even if the state if the roads been better, carriages were heavy and cumbersome, without springs or tyres.
He immediately put all his ingenuity to the problem for he had bet another thousand guineas on the outcome. The rules were carefully regarded and, as no carriage body was required, this was stripped away from the frame by carriage makers he had contracted.
In fact he commissioned several carriages to be built, and at great expense, to find the fastest, lightest one for the race. Even the equipment was given careful scrutiny and the traces were made of silk and harnesses of silk and whalebone. The total weight of the carriage and harness was an incredible two and a half hundredweight.
The event took place on Newmarket Heath on 29th August 1750 at seven o’clock in the morning. Lord Queensbury was a spectator; the dubious privilege of riding in the ‘carriage’ with no seat, no support and little to cling on to was given to his groom. It was said they went off so fast that the carriage had covered four miles in the first 9 minutes. In fact the entire nineteen miles was covered in a phenomenally fast 53 minutes and 27 seconds.
Towards the end of his life Queensbury made a notable figure about London when he drove out. He always wore dark green and had long tailed black horses, and in winter he would also carry a muff. Two servants were seated behind him and his groom, Jack Radford followed on horseback ready to execute any commissions. As Radford’s commissions were usually taking notes and messages to desirable looking girls that took the Duke’s eye he managed to increase his unsavoury reputation.