“contagion lies in a wainscot”: the tragic history of the dukes of Bolton & 37, Grosvenor Square

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles considers the tragic history of the family of the dukes of Bolton and the strange coincidence that brought about the deaths of two peers in the same house in London…

Trigger Warning: This post deals with themes of suicide.

Writing in July 1765, Horace Walpole was at pains to insist that there could not be anything particularly alarming about a building. He was reporting to a friend the latest tragic death by suicide of a member of the House of Lords, which had happened in the same house, the same room even, where another lord had also ended his life 25 years before:

I do not believe that shooting one’s self through the head is catching, or that any contagion lies in a wainscot that makes one pull a suicide-trigger, but very possibly the idea might revert and operate on the brain of a splenetic man

Walpole Correspondence, xxii. 312

The previous peer to take his own life at 37, Grosvenor Square, had been Richard Lumley, 2nd earl of Scarbrough. He had very obviously suffered from mental health issues throughout his life, though his final suicide shocked his close friend, the earl of Chesterfield, who never forgave himself for failing to prevent it. The latest victim was Charles Powlett, 5th duke of Bolton, but in his case, no one could quite understand why he had chosen to do what he did.

Bolton’s father had succeeded to the dukedom unexpectedly following the death of the 3rd duke without heirs. This transformed plain Charles Powlett MP for Lymington into the marquess of Winchester (by courtesy) before he succeeded his father in turn as 5th duke on 9 October 1759. Along with the title and the family’s seat in Hampshire, Bolton took on a new residence in London: 37, Grosvenor Square. During his occupancy, Bolton oversaw substantial renovations, undertaken by the architect John Vardy, who worked with William Kent on designs for a new palace of Westminster, before his own death just a few months before Bolton’s.

Engraving and etching. View of Grosvenor Square with a circular garden in the centre. Within the garden, there are horses, horse-drawn carriages, dogs, and people. Around the outside of the gardens their are large buildings facing into the garden.
A view of Grosvenor Square London
(c) British Museum

As a member of the Commons, Bolton had been a reliable Court supporter, backing the Pelhams as a matter of course. When the Pelhamites were purged by the earl of Bute in 1762, he joined them in opposition. His closest political friend was the 2nd Earl Temple and as such he also came to be associated with the rising political troublemaker, John Wilkes. Bolton’s brother, Lord Harry Powlett (who later became 6th duke) credited himself with introducing Bolton to the Temple faction when he made his peace with the Court after inheriting the peerage. Whether that was so, or not, Bolton proved a prominent backer of Wilkes in his early clashes with the administration. When Wilkes was sent to the Tower over publishing number 45 of the North Briton, Bolton and Temple offered to stand him bail, unlike the 3rd duke of Grafton, who was approached but thought discretion the better course of valour. Again, following Wilkes’s duel with Samuel Martin Bolton and Temple were there to visit the stricken man as he lay in bed having been shot in the groin.

Despite all of this, Bolton never seems to have been imagined as anything other than a relatively junior lieutenant in the opposition. He always featured in the numerous lists drawn up by the opposition for jobs in a new administration stripped of Bute’s followers. But the places for which he was slated were normally pretty minor: governor of the Isle of Wight was the usual one; only once did someone consider him a possible candidate for the higher profile role of lord steward.

Bolton’s suicide came in July 1765 just after the latest round of speculation about new government offices being dished out. Was he disappointed not to be considered for something better than the Isle of Wight, a seat in cabinet and the Garter? Joanne Major and Sarah Murden have suggested that political considerations may have been a factor. This was not, however, Walpole’s understanding. In the same letter in which he had dismissed the notion of ‘contagion… in a wainscot’ he had stated quite clearly ‘nobody knows why or wherefore, except that there is a good deal of madness in the blood’. Walpole probably had in mind the first duke, Bolton’s great-grandfather, who, before being promoted to a dukedom, had been dubbed ‘the mad marquess’. Some thought his eccentric behaviour a carefully crafted political carapace to keep him safe in troubled times. If so, he certainly played the part well:

For many weeks he would not open his mouth till such an hour of the day when he thought the air was pure. He changed the day into night, and often hunted by torch-light, and took all sorts of liberties…

Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury

The first duke’s sons, Charles the 2nd duke and Lord William Powlett, were also the subject of comment, a contemporary lampoon mocking them:

The two Winchester geese would be just like their dad

Could they tell how to get wit enough to be mad…

Obviously, eighteenth-century attitudes to mental health issues were far removed from contemporary ones, but might it be that there was genuinely an hereditary condition that afflicted all of these members of the same family? It is striking that just two years before the 5th duke succeeded to the peerage, his half-brother, Colonel Charles Perry, recently posted to Canada, also took his own life.

None of this, it must be said, featured in the report of Bolton’s death sent to his closest friend, Temple, by Temple’s brother, George Grenville. Grenville noted that numerous rumours abounded, but reported the following as ‘the most probable’:

He is said to have returned home from riding out and soon after to have complained of a most violent pain in his head and that in order to obtain some relief from it he sent for a surgeon to bleed him, who at his return found the Duke dead upon the floor shot through the head. If this was the case this unhappy accident seems to have been the effect of the gout flying up into his head to a degree to bereave him of his senses…

Additional Grenville Papers, 291-2

Bolton died without legitimate children, so was succeeded in the dukedom by his brother who became the 6th (and last) duke of Bolton. After his death the marquessate of Winchester went to a cousin, while much of the family property was inherited by the 5th duke’s illegitimate daughter, Jean Mary, and her husband, Thomas Orde was ultimately raised to the peerage as Baron Bolton.


Further reading:

Additional Grenville Papers 1763-1765, ed. J.R.G. Tomlinson

Correspondence of Horace Walpole, ed. W.S. Lewis

The History of Parliament: the Lords 1660-1715, ed. R. Paley (2016)

J. Major and S. Murden, A History of the Dukes of Bolton 1600-1815: Love Loyalty (2020)

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