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Modern Britain

Druce Portland Affair

by Jackie Speel, 1 May 2010. Updated 9 October 2014

Like a few other people Thomas Charles Druce was more notable when dead than while alive - and for whom he turned out not to be.

The following is an attempt to tell the story of what is generally known as the Druce-Portland Case - in actuality a sequence of legal cases and other activities - in a reasonably chronological form. As with most such stories, at the time the information appeared in a less sequential manner.


The Baker Street Bazaar - about half way along the street of that name, which links what is now Marylebone Road and Oxford Street - began as a horse bazaar and was owned, prior to his bankruptcy in 1832, by John Maberly, MP. The firm continued, and extended into carriages and other goods, notably ladies' requirements, and furnishings. The upper floors of the building were occupied for a number of years by Madame Tussauds' waxworks. This area was subsequently converted into function rooms (known as the Portland Rooms) which were used for balls, bazaars and similar activities. The Metropolitan Board of Works (London's governing body at the time) required an additional exit to be constructed as a result of this change of use.

Thomas Charles Druce's origins are somewhat obscure: he was born around 1794, long before the registration of births became a legal requirement. It was later reported that he had once stated he was born in a village near Oxford. Some doubts, however, were expressed on this by those researching his origins during various of the trials: they were not able to identify any family for him. According to members of the family and household there was no mention of, or visits by, relatives - though Druces can be found in the nineteenth century across the social scale from the legal profession to agricultural work, while a Thomas Charles Druce sailed to Boston in the United States in 1830.

The Druce of the case worked for a while as a salesman in Oxford Street before entering the Baker Street Bazaar and, according to an associate, he became wealthy through his own work and abilities, in due course buying out his associates. In the records there are a scattering of legal cases involving the firm - petty theft by employees and similar matters.

Thomas Charles Druce married twice: on the first occasion, in 1816, his wife stated that she was of due age but was in fact under twenty-one. The relationship with the woman who was to become his second wife began while he was still married to his first. There were children by both relationships, and there was mention of an adopted son and daughter. The family moved every couple of years, apparently whenever T C Druce found a house he preferred to the existing one, eventually residing in Hendon, North London. He enjoyed good health until the year of his death, 1864, when he became ill with fistula and complications arising from this. The death was witnessed by a servant: the eldest son of the second relationship, Herbert Druce, was among those who saw the body and attended the funeral. While there was medical attendance on the patient there was no doctor's signature on the death certificate. This was not, however, a legal requirement until 1875. T C Druce was buried in the Druce vault in Highgate Cemetery. (Any encounter with followers of Karl Marx, buried in a different section of the cemetery, including with the textile firm manager, Friedrich Engels, is purely hypothetical.)

Baker Street Bazar
An illustration in an article entitled Smithfield Club Prizes showing the uncarting of the cattle at the Baker Street Bazaar, published in a supplement to the Illustrated London News, 13 December 1856

Herbert Druce, who had entered the firm in 1864, eventually became the manager of the Baker Street Bazaar. He also acquired ownership of the family vault, in which several other members of the Druce family were variously buried, which necessitated some internal reconstruction.

The fifth duke of Portland was a somewhat eccentric character, who disliked being seen: he was responsible for a tunnel building programme at his home of Welbeck Abbey, and used elaborate means to obscure his activities and movements there and at his London residence. He died childless, several years after T C Druce, in 1879, and the title, money, Welbeck Abbey, and all passed to various relatives.

The start of the affair

The actual story begins some decades after these two deaths. Some of the omissions and confusions in the story arising were probably the result of this extended interval - the usual mixture of deaths, memory lapses, and what can be defined as the absence of a crystal ball in keeping records, and similar problems, rather than a deliberate attempt to confuse.

Walter Druce was a son of T C Druce's second marriage: he married his sister's governess, Anna Maria, who was several years older than him, much to his family's dismay. He died fairly young - there being ongoing financial problems. In 1898 his widow petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court of London to have her father-in-law's coffin opened, as she was of the impression it did not actually house his remains. She stated that in 1874 she had met a Dr Harmer, then resident in an insane asylum, whom she was convinced was T C Druce. She then started developing her story in various ways, claimed that a number of peers were involved - and that T C Druce was also the fifth duke of Portland in disguise.

She had researched the family history and had found that her father-in-law and the duke had been active or less visible in complementary fashion. She also discovered the fact of several of her husband's siblings being illegitimate - which was, apparently the first they had learnt of the subject - and that there was a 'tunnel' apparently linking the Baker Street Bazaar with the duke of Portland's London residence. (This was, in fact, the access required by the MBW.) There was sufficient uncertainty over the matter to justify a court case: especially as Herbert Druce refused to allow the disinterment of his father.

Anna Maria Druce pursued her case over the next couple of years in various courts - starting with the London Consistory Court. (There was a legal uncertainty as to whether it was the Consistory Court or the Home Secretary who had jurisdiction over the exhumation of bodies in consecrated ground - which may have been one factor in allowing the case to continue.) It was eventually pointed out that Druce, Harmer, and the duke had notably different birth years, that Anna Maria Druce had previously made use of T C Druce's will and codicil, and various people associated with her father-in-law were still alive and denied the claim, as did Dr Harmer's wife and doctor. There was some dispute over whether photographs of Harmer and T C Druce showed the same man.

Fifth duke of Portland or Druce?

Purported to be a photograph of the duke of Portland in a false beard, while posing as Druce, as published in the pamphlet, Which is the Duke? The claim was hard to prove because the duke himself was highly reclusive.

In due course Anna Maria's case was dismissed, and she then pursued various subsidiary cases through several courts. Some of her comments in the various legal contexts were 'rather eccentric' and drew rebukes from the judges and persons whom she had summoned. Among those who were called was one Margaret Hamilton, who was to appear in the later case, and who was rather dubious about some of Mrs Druce's claims: the authorities at the time noted that there were major inconsistencies between the two women's testimonies. Anna Maria Druce was eventually declared insane and placed in an asylum.

The court case

As a result of Anna Maria Druce's research, heirs of the first marriage were discovered, which meant that any claims passed to them. A grandson by the first marriage George Hollamby Druce, who had been living in Australia took up the legal pursuit. He had come to an arrangement with a cousin via a senior line whose legitimacy was disputed. George Hollamby pursued over a number of months various avenues to create or augment his case, seemingly going outside the borders of strict legality at times. Witnesses were sought via newspaper adverts and publications were issued, and two companies were formed (there being a dispute in relation to the first) to finance his case (this being an example of what is known legally as champerty). Purchasers of shares were promised a high return on the successful completion of the case.

The court case proper - the trial of Herbert Druce - began in late 1907, with George Hollamby Druce claiming that his half-uncle, Herbert Druce, the current owner of the Baker Street Bazaar, had committed perjury in stating that he had seen his father dead and buried. If the case were proved G H Druce would become the duke of Portland, and the current holders of titles and properties would lose out (though the title could not be rescinded from the existing holder). During the course of the trial various lawyers were present observing on behalf of, or representing the interests of, the duke of Portland, Lord Howard de Walden and others.

Three witnesses in particular presented stories which supported G H Druce's claims: Robert Caldwell, Margaret Hamilton, and Mary Ann Robinson. A number of other witnesses provided a range of information, of a corroborative or background nature. Various people claimed that they had seen Druce on the morning of his supposed funeral and variously after his death. Photographs of Druce and the duke were produced by various parties involved and there was again some disagreement over resemblances.

Among those who had responded to the adverts was a Mary Ann Robinson, living in New Zealand, who 'by chance' bought an Australian newspaper and spotted an advert. She had lived on the duke of Portland's estates and had met him on occasion. She wrote to the address provided, and was visited by two members of the Druce family. She was encouraged to write up her memoirs and embellish them as much as she wished. At various points she was sent leaflets on the Druce Portland case. When she had created her documentation - including two diaries and letters, arrangements were made for her to come to England. She brought a 'companion', Miss O'Neil, with her: on the ship and in London various documents she had were supposedly stolen or appropriated. She claimed inter alia that she had known Charles Dickens, who had introduced her to the duke of Portland and arranged for her to have a job as 'outside correspondent' with him.

Further statements

Robert Caldwell, an Irish-born naturalised citizen of the United States claimed that he had suffered from an unpleasant condition of the nose which had not responded to treatment, but on going to India had been taught how to cure it. On returning to England, he claimed, he had cured the duke of Portland of the same affliction, when noted medical persons had not been able to do so. He had been paid a large sum of money for this, and had become friends with the duke: in 1864 he had helped organise the mock funeral of T C Druce, involving a procession of fifty coaches.

Margaret Hamilton told a complex story of being born in Rome and then being adopted by the Atkinson family, subsequently marrying a man named Hamilton. She claimed to have spent various periods of time with her father in London and became an acquaintance of the duke, knowing that he was also T C Druce. She stated that he had called her Madge and had at one point promised to marry her, but her father had objected.

Various witnesses were called on both sides to provide information on the events of some forty years previously. Miss Catherine Bayley, initially the Druce children's nurse and then the housekeeper, who stated that the family had moved every couple of years, that she was not aware of Druce using any other name - but there had been rumours among the servants about a fake burial. A photographer for a while based opposite the Baker Street Bazaar, patronised by T C Druce, gave slightly contradictory information, while there were claims that the making of a coffin had been observed. It was also argued that the small cabinet photographs of the type produced by Miss Robinson were not generally available until some time after the date she claimed to have acquired them. A number of technical legal questions were raised as to whether various documents were allowed, and there was much comparison of handwritings and other documentation. Various inconsistencies were discovered in the stories - though many could probably be explained by remembering events of several decades previously. There was also a certain amount of sniping between various involved members of the legal profession.

Investigations and exhumation

A number of investigations into several of the witnesses were being pursued in parallel to the perjury trial. It became clear that much of the stories of Robert Caldwell, Mary Ann Robinson, and Margaret Hamilton were fabrications. The New Zealand police found that Miss O'Neil was in fact Mrs Robinson's daughter - and, in the records, noted that there were 'frequent male visitors' to their house. This house had at one point burnt down - the police statements on the event being somewhat ambiguous, especially as none of the jewellery claimed to be owned by the Robinsons was found in the ruins: the few items saved did not include the alleged documents which Mrs Robinson had presented.

It also became apparent that Margaret Hamilton - it was slightly uncertain at the time whether she had in fact married Mr Hamilton - had not been living where she claimed she had been in the UK during the crucial years, but had been residing with her husband. Major flaws were exposed in Caldwell's story - and he admitted that he had made statements which were ambiguous or incorrect (including that his brother had adopted his given name). He had also been involved in a court case in the States, when he had attempted to make money with claims about the private life of a judge, including being in possession of compromising letters.

Caldwell managed to evade police supervision - Chief Inspector Walter Dew had held the warrant for the arrest - and returned home to the United States: he was then deemed to be too physically ill and mentally incapable to provide further statements. Much of his story was decided to be a fabrication. (The story about the 'funeral with fifty carriages', however, may have had a slight factual basis - there were regular auctions of carriages and other vehicles at the Baker Street Bazaar: and there may well have been some display of mourning.)

Eventually Herbert Druce consented to the exhumation of his father's remains, and this was done at the end of December 1907. There was a claim by the prosecution that there may be tampering with the grave and a request for police supervision of the grave - but the police decided to provide minimal protection, 'the grave being on private ground, and visible by policemen on patrol'. Various medical people, journalists, and others attended the exhumation - but George Hollamby Druce was excluded, despite his attempts to attend. The coffin of T C Druce, on being opened, was found to contain the remains of T C Druce, sufficiently preserved to be immediately recognisable.

End of the case

The claim promptly collapsed. George Hollamby Druce initially intended to carry on his case - but did not (and much was made in certain quarters of the cousin with a theoretically better claim). Mrs Robinson and Mrs Hamilton were arrested, the former by Inspector Dew, and were tried for perjury. Mrs Robinson had, in fact, known Charles Dickens when young: and the balance of evidence, it was argued, was that she was the daughter of the Atkinson family. Both women were sentenced to short prison terms reduced on the grounds of their advanced age (they were in their late sixties/early seventies).

The two firms financing the case ceased operating, the investors losing their money. The Director of Public Prosecutions investigated the possibility of bringing charges of champerty and maintenance against the investors and George Hollamby Druce but decided in effect that there was insufficient money to be made out of the proceedings to justify the pursuit.

There was another minor trial involving an investigator attempting to get money for having pursued detail in the 1861 census in an attempt to prove that Druce and the duke were different people - mainly through their having different birth dates. While the information was accurate the fee claimed for the investigation was somewhat excessive by standards of the day, and the case faded out.

Herbert Druce was told by the judge that he left the court with his reputation intact. He returned to running his business, dying in 1913. Mrs Anna Maria Druce and Robert Caldwell died within a fortnight of each other early in 1911, and several others died that same year. George Hollamby Druce died in the 1940s. Inspector Walter Dew was to be chiefly notable for his involvement in the arrest of Dr Crippen.

The Baker Street Bazaar continued for a number of years, and the buildings were used as a subsidiary hospital during the First World War: the site has since been rebuilt.


Main Sources / Further Reading

There is much information in the various newspapers of the time of which some are more readily accessible than others. Various sides produced documentation to bring their various cases to the general reading public.

A number of documents can be found at The National Archives and other repositories: a number of autograph letters by Inspector Dew can be found in the documents, along with cuttings, and copies of publications.

Online books include, in the more formal section, The Portland Romance, Ancestry Online, Historical Directories while a listing of the records of the duke of Portland can be found on the University of Nottingham website.

Other sources are of varying usefulness - and there is a tendency in some cases to conflate various members of the family. Anna Maria Druce's relationship to T C Druce is sometimes unclear, and George Hollamby Druce is sometimes confused with his father, George Druce.

A new book published in 2014 was The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue, written in the style of a detective story.



Text copyright © Jackie Speel. An original feature for the History Files.