Unearthing Queer Stories at Chiswick House and Gardens: The Bachelor Duke

In celebration of Pride 2022, Rowan Frewin, a much-loved VEA, freelance illustrator and LGBTQ+ researcher, has delved into the not-so-known LGBTQ+ history of Chiswick House and Gardens, writing for us the following piece. 

In looking at LGBTQ+ histories at Chiswick House and Gardens, the focus has generally fallen on Georgiana Cavendish and her relationships with women, but she isn’t the only point of interest when talking about queer pasts.

William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858), Georgiana Cavendish’s son, inherited Chiswick House in 1811 (aged just 21), and is now remembered for introducing exotic animals to the grounds of Chiswick House and commissioning the building of the Conservatory. Despite being an incredibly eligible bachelor Cavendish never married, earning him the moniker ‘The Bachelor Duke’. Partly as a result of this title, and partly due to scarce details about his personal life, there has been speculation about his sexuality.

Cavendish had a great interest in horticulture which is reflected in his impact on the landscape of Chiswick House and Gardens. In 1821 the Horticultural Society (now the Royal Horticultural Society) leased part of the Duke’s estate at Chiswick to be used as an experimental garden; it was through the society that he met Joseph Paxton. Fiona Davison describes their meeting in ‘The Hidden Horticulturalists’, noting that “The unmarried Duke was partially deaf and, despite his enormous wealth and social standing, was a shy and rather nervous man. In the young Joseph Paxton he met someone with a confidence and self-possession that he himself lacked.” (Davison, 2019, p.24.) Paxton began working at Chiswick in 1823 as a labourer, and by 1826 Cavendish had offered him the job of head gardener at Chatsworth House. In the 1830s Paxton acquired bananas imported from Mauritius which he subsequently propagated and named Musa Cavendeshii after Cavendish, the Cavendish Banana remains the most widely eaten banana in the world.

Paxton and Cavendish’s friendship would endure until Cavendish’s death in 1858, and through this relationship Cavendish’s interest in horticulture grew and Paxton’s career flourished. However, there remains questions as to whether their relationship was platonic or romantic. We do know both men had relationships with women, with Paxton marrying Sarah Brown in 1827 and Cavendish quietly conducting a 10 year affair with a woman named Eliza Warwick (who we know little about), however this does not erase the possibility of a romantic relationship between the two. Helena Michie notes the “hesitation of most scholars […] to think of the Sixth (‘Bachelor’) Duke of Devonshire’s lifelong affection for Joseph Paxton as Sexual.” (Michie, 2015, p.115), this is often the case when looking at LGBTQ+ pasts, there is often an added layer of scrutiny and burden of proof for queer reading of historical figures. Sadly, as is often the case with marginalised identities in history such concrete evidence simply does not exist meaning we are unable to say for certain, however there are things we can look for which imply the possibility that Cavendish may have been attracted to men.

Although our perception of homosocial relationships and our modern understanding of LGBTQ+ identities influence the way we see a relationship like Cavendish and Paxton’s, their relationship would not have been typical for the period either. Clayton asserts that “It was hardly usual for a celebrated society figure, born into a more exalted family than the Queen’s own, a close companion to the Emperor of Russia, well educated, refined, a possessing the worldly resources to do whatever he pleased- it was hardly usual for such a man to grown intimate with his gardener.” (Clayton, p.32) Their relationship was more than merely employer and gardener; in 1838 Cavendish became President of the Horticultural society, and that same year Paxton and Cavendish embarked on a seven month continental tour together in search of plants. Despite an impressive career that included being director of Furness Railway, Designing the Crystal Palace and serving as an MP, Paxton continued to work at Chatsworth until Cavendish’s death in 1858, at which point Paxton resigned his position. Clayton notes that it is the response to the Duke’s death that is most indicative of the bond between the two men, “Most telling of all is the outpouring of sympathy Paxton received on the Duke’s death. By everyone, even the Duke’s own family members, Paxton is recognised as the chief mourner.” (Clayton, p.33)

Although we cannot be sure of the nature of the Duke and Paxton’s relationship it is clear they shared a strong bond, as Clayton concludes: “Given the available evidence, there is no way to know and little need for an answer. Definite knowledge is hardly necessary in such a case. The intense nature of their bond is clear without further probing.” (Clayton, p.33). And, while his bond with Paxton is the strongest suggestion that Cavendish may have been attracted to men, it is not the only one. In Brighton Crime and Vice, 1800-2000s Cavendish gets the following mention: “Brighton’s present gay capital, Kemp Town, was where the 6th Duke of Devonshire, a bachelor, enjoyed an unusually close friendship with his butler, who for 25 years occupied a small house connected to the rear of the Duke’s home.” (d’Enno, 2007, p.92.)


Clayton, J. (2003). Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Davison, F. (2019).

The Hidden Horticulturalists. London: Atlantic Books. D’Enno, D. (2007).

Brighton Crime & Vice, 1800–2000. London, Grub Street Publishers. Michie, M. (2015).

Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

https://www.chatsworth.org/about-us/chatsworth-house-trust/history-of-chatsworth/19th-cent ury/

https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/pdf/Chatsworth/Joseph-Paxton-Interpretation-timeline-v 2(1).pdf