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5 May 2021

William Douglas-Hamilton (1845–95), 12th Duke of Hamilton

Written by Sarah Beattie, Curator, Ayrshire & Arran/Dumfries & Galloway
An oval portrait of a young man, displayed against a white background. He is shown seated, looking to the right. He wears a dark jacket and a white shirt.
William, 12th Duke of Hamilton by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–73), 1863, oil on canvas, Brodick collection
Boisterous and fun-loving, William spent his life racing horses, gambling and sailing ... while the Hamilton estates and fortune crumbled around him.

William was born on 12 March 1845 at Connaught Place, near Hyde Park, in London. He was the elder son of William, 11th Duke of Hamilton (1811–63) and Princess Marie of Baden (1817–88). William was undoubtedly named in honour of his father and his grandfather, William Beckford (1760–1844). His younger brother Charles (1847–86) was born in 1847 and his sister, Mary (1850–1922), followed shortly after in 1850.

William was educated at Eton before following in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps and enrolling at Christ Church college, Oxford. However, unlike his relatives, William failed to complete his education and was dismissed from the college for ‘unruly behaviour’. He was known to be a keen boxer and is described in The Peerage as ‘full bodied, of a rudely ruddy complexion, had a powerful neck, and seemed strong enough to fell an ox with his fist … [with] a frankness of speech bordering on rudeness’.

An oval portrait of a young man, displayed against a white background. He is shown seated, looking to the right. He wears a dark jacket and a white shirt.
William, 12th Duke of Hamilton by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–73), 1863, oil on canvas, Brodick collection

This description of a robust and rather cocky young man can be seen in the portrait of William painted by the German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–73) in 1863. This portrait was one of a set of three that Princess Marie and the Duke commissioned of their children from Winterhalter. It’s likely to have been one of the last commissions the 11th Duke ever made. After the Duke’s sudden death in July 1863, William inherited his father’s titles, wealth, land, responsibilities and the family debts at just 18 years old.

However, the young and unruly William took very little interest in the responsibilities of his new role. Indeed, even a more level-headed duke would have struggled to negotiate the debts amassed by previous generations of the Hamilton family as a result of their extravagant spending. Although the Hamilton estates in Scotland and England brought a regular income, the family’s debts already ran into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

William’s financial problems only increased over the next few years, and by his early twenties his personal finances were desperately low because of his excessive spending and gambling debts. Luckily, his racehorse Cortolvin won the Grand National steeplechase at Aintree in 1867 and his income was boosted by his winnings (approximately £16,000). Other wins and trophies followed throughout the years. For example, in 1878 William’s horse Midlothian won the Goodwood Chesterfield Cup, shown below.

A silver ornament is displayed on a wooden shelf, against a plain grey wall. The ornament is a model of someone on horseback, holding a long spear, attacking a large bison. The silver models are mounted on a wooden plinth.
The Goodwood Chesterfield Cup by Hancocks & Co., 1878, Brodick collection

William was apparently unfazed by the lingering shadow of financial ruin; between 1868 and 1882 he had two large passenger steamers and two luxury yachts built, at great expense, by Blackwood & Gordon of Port Glasgow. In 1868 the first steamship, the paddle steamer Lady Mary, was launched, followed two years later by his first yacht, Thistle, and then the paddle steamer Heather Bell in 1871.

On 10 December 1873 William married Lady Mary Montagu (1854–1934). Mary was the daughter of the German-born Countess Luise von Alten (1832–1911) and William Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester (1823–90). William and Mary married at the family seat of the Dukes of Manchester, Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, which had belonged to the Montagu family since 1615. In 1884 Mary Louise (1884–1957), William and Mary’s only child, was born.

Even after his marriage William continued to lead a life of pleasure and dissipation. Throughout the 1870s William improved his Easton Park estate in Suffolk. In 1874 new stables and a gas house were built, and gas lighting was fitted throughout the house. The following year, a model farm, dairy and slaughterhouse were built on the estate for the amusement of his new wife and their guests. William threw extravagant parties at his newly improved home with plenty of food, drink and hunting. He and his guests entertained themselves by weighing each other on the jockey scales and keeping a record of the weight they gained. In 1878 William held a large shooting party at Hamilton Palace. The guests, including the Prince of Wales, shot over 5,000 items of game. Other high-profile guests included Queen Victoria’s mother and the Empress Eugenie, who were both close friends of William’s mother Marie.

After selling both the Thistle and Heather Bell (in 1874 and 1876 respectively), the Duke commissioned a final luxury yacht, also called Thistle, in 1882. It cost over £17,000 and was extremely expensive to run. Thistle carried the Duke to racecourses across Europe as he followed the fortunes of his racehorses. Like previous generations of the family, he also spent large sums of money purchasing items for his collection. William’s collecting habits reflected his love of racing and drinking, and his personality can be seen in the quirky items below, which are all believed to have been purchased or commissioned by the 12th Duke.

To fund his extravagant lifestyle, William made the decision to sell some of the Hamilton Palace collection. The Hamilton Palace sale took place across 17 days at Christie’s, London, in June and July 1882. The Hamilton sale has been described as the ‘the most magnificent sale of a single collection that has ever been held anywhere’. [1] It included paintings, objets d’art, books and manuscripts collected and commissioned by the 10th Duke of Hamilton and William Beckford; it raised a total of £397,562. The 1882 sale signalled the beginning of the end for Hamilton Palace as one of Britain’s finest houses and collections. Further sales took place in 1884 and in 1919. After the sales, Hamilton Palace was used less and less by the family and by 1919 the 13th Duke had moved out completely. Demolition of Hamilton Palace began in November 1921 and continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

William’s indulgent lifestyle also contributed to several on-going health problems, including gout, dropsy (fluid retention) and kidney problems. He was advised to travel to improve his health and in January 1895 he left for the Mediterranean on board the Thistle. His health continued to decline and in early May the Duchess travelled to Algeria to be with him. William died on 16 May 1895. His body was embalmed and returned to England on board the Thistle before being buried in the Hamilton Mausoleum. In 1921 the 12th Duke and his father were re-buried on the hillside above Brodick Castle, after the mausoleum was damaged by subsidence and flooding.


[1] Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, 1961

This series of blogs would not have been possible without the expert knowledge and generosity of internal and external colleagues. Particular thanks are due to Dr Godfrey Evans for his extensive research on the Hamiltons and their collections; Dr Amy Frost for taking the time to discuss her work on Beckford, his Jamaican plantations and their enslaved workers; Dr Bet McLeod for sharing her knowledge on William Beckford and the Hamilton ceramics; and to Sue Mills, Education Officer at Brodick, for always being patient and generous with her knowledge of the castle.

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