Douglas, William (1724-1810) (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


DOUGLAS, WILLIAM, third Earl of March and fourth Duke of Queensberry (1724–1810), latterly known as ‘Old Q,’ only son of William, second earl of March, and Lady Anne Hamilton, daughter of John, earl of Selkirk and Ruglen, was born in 1724. His father having died 7 March 1731, he succeeded to the earldom of March on coming of age, and on the death of his mother, who was Countess of Ruglen in her own right, he became also Earl of Ruglen. On the death of the Earl of Cassilis in 1759 he laid claim to his title and estates as heir-general, but his claims were disallowed both in the court of session and on appeal to the House of Lords. Even when a schoolboy he is said to have been famed for his escapades in London, and during more than half a century his follies and extravagances rendered him a conspicuous figure in the clubs of London. After he had turned seventy years of age the tastes he affected were those of the young men of the period when he was a young man:—

And there insatiate yet with folly's sport,
That polish'd sin-worn fragment of the court,
The shade of Queensb'ry, should with Clermont meet,
Ogling and hobbling down St. James's Street.
(Imperial Epistle from Kien Long, 1795.)

He was first known on the turf, and began by winning a wager against Count Taaffe that he would travel in a four-wheeled machine the distance of nineteen miles in an hour. He had a spider-carriage for two horses constructed for the purpose of wood and whale-bone, the harness being made of silk. The match came off on the course at Newmarket 29 Aug. 1750. In this year the Jockey Club was instituted, and when the racecourse at Newmarket was purchased by the club in 1753, March took a house overlooking the course, and set himself seriously to develope horse-racing into a science. Besides acquiring by purchase and careful breeding an unsurpassed stud of racehorses, he bestowed special attention on his stablemen and jockeys, whom he dressed in scarlet jackets, velvet cap, and buckskin breeches. In 1756 he won a match in person, dressed in his own colours. He was remarkably fortunate in betting; among the persons from whom he won large sums, the Duke of Cumberland and Mr. Jennings the antiquary have been specially mentioned. The passion of Charles James Fox for racing and betting may be partly accounted for by the fact that ‘Old Q’ was permitted by Lord Holland to be one of young Fox's mentors.

On the accession of George III in 1760 March was nominated a lord of the bedchamber, and in 1761 he was made a knight of the Thistle. In the latter year he was chosen one of the sixteen representative peers for Scotland, and was often re-elected, serving until 1790. It was through the information of March and others that Wilkes was put on his trial for his ‘Essay on Woman’ in 1763. From Aug. 1766 March was vice-admiral of Scotland. On 26 Oct. 1776 he was nominated first lord of the police, this office, however, being abolished in 1782. On the death of his cousin Charles, third duke of Queensberry [q. v.], 22 Aug. 1778, he succeeded as fourth duke, and on 8 Aug. 1786 he was created a British peer by the title of Baron Douglas of Amesbury, Wiltshire, with limitation to the heirs male of his body. On the regency question in 1788 Queensberry was the only one of the lords of the bedchamber who opposed the government. According to Sir N. W. Wraxall he was influenced in doing so by two motives, ‘his great personal intimacy with and devotion to the heir-apparent, joined to his conviction that the sovereign had irrecoverably lost his mind’ (Memoirs, ed. Wheatley, 1884, v. 243). With the discretion learned by his experiences on the turf, he had, previous to deciding to cast in his lot with the prince, taken the precaution to have special inquiries made indirectly of the physicians. During the discussions on the question the prince and his brother Frederick spent a great part of their time at the duke's house in Piccadilly, ‘where plentiful draughts of champagne went round to the success of the approaching regency’ (ib.) On the recovery of the king in 1789 he was at the instance of the queen and Pitt removed from the office of lord of the bedchamber. The ‘ratting’ of the duke exposed him to much obloquy, and for a time he deemed it prudent to take refuge on the continent. In his later years Queensberry sold his house at Newmarket. He was a munificent patron of Italian opera, partly owing to his admiration of the prima donnas and dancers. He is also said to have himself displayed great taste in a song. For some time he lived in a villa at Richmond, which he had fitted up with great taste and adorned with costly pictures and statues, and where he had collected one of the finest assortments of shells in the kingdom. The loss of a lawsuit in reference to a lawn adjoining the villa, and another reason of a less creditable kind, gave him a distaste for this residence, and he latterly lived almost exclusively in his house in Piccadilly, now No. 138, next Park Lane to the west, the peculiar porch of which, still standing, was constructed to suit his growing infirmities. Latterly he spent the greater part of the day at the corner of the bow window, or when the weather was fine above the porch. In the street below a groom named Jack Radford always remained on horseback to carry his message to any of his acquaintance (Raikes, Journal, iv. 50). When he became very infirm, he had always within call his French medical attendant, the Père Elisée, formerly physician to Louis XV, to whom he allowed a large sum for every day that he lived, and nothing more after his death. He died in London 23 Dec. 1810, and was buried 31 Dec. in a vault in the chancel of St. James's Church, Piccadilly, under the communion-table. ‘He was,’ says Raikes, ‘a little sharp-looking man, very irritable, and swore like ten thousand troopers’ (ib.) Wraxall, who knew him intimately in his last seven years, says that his intellectual faculties survived his bodily decay. Wraxall mentions that he ‘nourished an ardent and permanent passion’ for a daughter of Mr. Pelham, who was refused him by her father on account of Queensberry's irregular habits, and who became herself an inveterate gamester. About 1798 the duke stripped his grounds near Drumlanrig and round Neidpath Castle, near Peebles, of the greater part of their fine plantations. His reason for doing so is said to have been to furnish a dowry for Maria Fagniani, whom he supposed to be his daughter, on her marriage to the Earl of Yarmouth. On the same lady George Selwyn, also in recognition of paternal claims, bestowed a large fortune; and it was generally supposed that Queensberry and Selwyn were both equally mistaken. In a sonnet beginning with ‘Degenerate Douglas’ Wordsworth denounces his depredations, and they are also the theme of a poem by Robert Burns. The duke was one of Burns's special aversions, and is satirised by him in ‘The Laddies by the Banks o' Nith’ and ‘Epistle to Mr. Graham of Fintrie.’

The duke having died unmarried, his titles and estates were dispersed among several heirs, chiefly Henry, third duke of Buccleuch, who became fifth duke of Queensberry, Sir Charles Douglas,who became marquis of Queensberry, and Francis, sixth earl of Wemyss, who became earl of March. The duke's personal property, amounting to over a million sterling, was devised by a will formally executed, and twenty-five codicils more irregularly drawn, to a large number of persons, including, besides several of the aristocracy, a group of very miscellaneous individuals (see list in Scots Mag. lxxiii. 113–14, and Gent. Mag. lxxx. pt. ii. p. 659, lxxxi. pt. i. p. 184). To the Earl and Countess of Yarmouth and their issue male he left 100,000l., the two houses in Piccadilly, and the villa at Richmond. The Earl of Yarmouth was also residuary legatee, by which it is supposed he obtained 200,000l. The legacies were disputed, but were ultimately paid over by order of the court of chancery. Mr. Fuller, an apothecary in Piccadilly, made a claim against the executors for 10,000l. for professional attendance during the last seven and a half years of the duke's life, during which he asserted he had made 9,340 visits, in addition to attending on him for 1,215 nights. Verdict was given for 7,500l. (Gent. Mag. lxxxi. pt. ii. p. 81).

[Douglas's Scotch Peerage (Wood); Scots Mag. lxxiii. 108–14; Gent. Mag. lxxx. pt. ii. pp. 597–598, 659, lxxxi. pt. i. p. 184, pt. ii. p. 81, lxxxvi. pt. ii. p. 460; The Piccadilly Ambulator, or Old Q, containing Memoirs of the private life of that evergreen votary of Venus, by J. P. Hurstone, 1808 (with sketch of the duke seated above the porch in Piccadilly); Wraxall's Memoirs; Raikes's Journal; Jesse's George Selwyn and his Contemporaries, containing many of the duke's letters when Earl of March; Horace Walpole's Letters; Memoirs of Sir Thomas Picton; Works of Robert Burns; Fox's Correspondence; Trevelyan's Early Life of Fox; Jesse's Reign of George III; Fitzgerald's Dukes and Princesses of the Family of George III; Wheatley's Round about Piccadilly. The duke as Earl of March figures in Thackeray's Virginians.]

T. F. H.