Today (December 31) in London History – “he was also a dirty young man”

The On this Day in London History podcast for December 31 looks at the life and “accomplishments” of William Douglas, the fourth Duke of Queensberry, the platonic ideal of a sybarite. December 31 is the anniversary of his interment under the communion table at St. James’s Piccadilly.


London Calling. 

There’s a dirty old man buried under the communion table at the smartest church in the West End of London. 

The church is St. James’ Piccadilly – Christopher Wren’s only West End church. The dirty old man is William Douglas, the fourth Duke of Queensberry. 

The date: December 31st, 1810. 

Knowing that – there he is, under there, under the communion table – is something you never forget. Something you think about every time you go into St. James’ Piccadilly. Or, in my case, every time I go by St. James’ Piccadilly.

I think of the whole course of Douglas’s life. He wasn’t just a dirty old man. He was also a dirty young man. Lady Louisa Stuart said he was “the most dissipated young man in London.” That passage is worth quoting in full. Her Ladyship described Douglas as “the most fashionable, most dissipated young man in London, the leading character at Newmarket, the support of the gaming table, the supreme dictator of the Opera-house, the pattern whose dress and equipage were to be copied by all who aimed at distinction and … the person most universally admired by the ladies.”

He certainly had his enemies. Wordsworth described him as “degenerate Douglas.” To Sir Walter Scott he was “that reptile who wears a ducal crown.”

Reptile, lecher, dirty old man, degenerate, dissipated, dirty young, man, Queensberry didn’t care. He was contemptuous of public opinion. He was one of the richest men in the kingdom. He had, as the saying goes – cover your ears here if you’re prim and fastidious – the fourth Duke of Queensberry had fuck you money in spades. He knew what he wanted. And he had the means to get what he wanted. And that was all there was to it. What he wanted and what he did was to dedicate himself to pleasure. To wine, women, song and horses. 

We can track him there in the smartest part of the West End of London. I do this on the rare occasions when I guide our Old Palace Quarter Walk. Sure enough, Douglas – the platonic ideal of the sybarite – was a member of White’s, the most exclusive gentleman’s club in London. He was that rarity there, a successful gambler. In 1750 he wagered 1,000 guineas – that’d be about 250,000 pounds in today’s money – that a carriage could carry a passenger 19 miles in an hour. He arranged for the construction of a skeletal vehicle of lightweight materials that barely fitted the definition of a carriage and trained horses specially to pull it. Sure enough, he won the wager, won it going away. The carriage got over the ground – did the 19 miles – in 54 minutes. 

From White’s we can go around to his house at 138 Piccadilly, passing the communion table he’s comfortably stretched out under in St. James’s. We catch another glimpse of him at his house. He had it fitted out with a balcony – he liked to watch the traffic below, liked to see and be seen. Maybe at his side on the balcony is today’s catch, a slender and very attractive young dancer. Or maybe a fuller figured diva from the Opera House. 

Hey, the Duke of Queensberry was a Scot and remember that sage old piece of Scottish advice – don’t marry money, go where money is. The string of beautiful young women who made themselves available to the dirty young man and eventually the dirty old man – over the course of his long bonking career – they were just going where money was. When the Duke died he was worth £900,000 pounds. That’d be a cool 75 million in today’s money. Plenty of fuel for the single-minded pursuit of pleasure.

And on that note, Happy New Year’s Eve everybody. 

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