Wentworth Woodhouse — Wed 20th March 2019

Most of our mem­bers had read Catherine Bailey’s fas­cin­at­ing book Black Diamonds, the Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, which maps the his­tory of coal mining in South Yorkshire and the down­fall of the Fitzwilliam family.

So it was with great anti­cip­a­tion that we gathered at Wentworth Woodhouse — formerly Britain’s largest private res­id­ence, with a 606-foot front­age — for a guided tour by the excel­lent volun­teers of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.

It was our first out­side visit of the year and one of the most pop­u­lar ever, with a party of 52 mem­bers and their part­ners arriv­ing in glor­i­ous sun­shine on the spring equi­nox for what turned out to be a 90-minute tour of just some of the more import­ant formal rooms in two sep­ar­ate groups.

The Georgian mas­ter­piece of Wentworth Woodhouse, largely hidden from public view on the edge of the vil­lage of Wentworth, boasts an east front wider than that of Buckingham Palace and in its heyday provided employ­ment for 1,000 local people main­tain­ing its reputed 365 rooms and sur­round­ing estate.

A member of staff work­ing on the res­tor­a­tion of a statue.

The Grade I listed coun­try house was bought for the rel­at­ively knock­down price of £7 mil­lion by the Trust, which aims to restore it to its former glory at a cost of up to £200 mil­lion, with assist­ance from the National Trust who are cur­rently paying the wages of the full-time staff. Scaffolding alone, which shrouded much of the famous façade on the day of our visit, is cost­ing £1 mil­lion.

Ongoing work on the East Front, as seen from the inside.

The house has 250,000 square feet of floor space and covers an area of more than two and a half acres, sur­roun­ded by 180 acres of park­land and an estate of 15,000 acres.

The ori­ginal Jacobean house was rebuilt by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the first Marquess of Rockingham (1693–1750), and vastly expan­ded by his son, the second mar­quess, who was twice Prime Minister. In the 18th cen­tury, the house was inher­ited by the Earls Fitzwilliam who owned it until 1979 when it passed to the heirs of the eighth and tenth earls, its value having being boos­ted by the vast quant­it­ies of coal dis­covered on the estate.

However, this turned out to be a double edged sword. Following nation­al­isa­tion of the coal industry on New Year’s Day 1947, Manny Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power in the Labour gov­ern­ment, ordered that the formal park­land in front of the house be sac­ri­ficed to open­cast coal mining, and the work­ings exten­ded right up to the front door of the house. Controversially, Shinwell insisted that the coal be obtained ‘at all costs’ in the interest of Britain’s post­war indus­trial drive, des­pite the pres­id­ent of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association claim­ing that it amoun­ted to van­dal­ism.

A con­tem­por­ary news­pa­per pho­to­graph show­ing what the pres­id­ent of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association described as the ‘van­dal­ism’ of the lawn in front of the house.

Although the grand east front of the house is the best known and the most illus­trated, it was the west front fin­ished in 1734 which was inten­ded to be for the family’s private enjoy­ment rather than the impress­ive east front which demon­strated their social and polit­ical ambi­tions.

Wentworth Woodhouse actu­ally com­prises two joined houses. The west front, with the gar­dens facing north west towards the vil­lage, was built of brick with stone detail. The grander east front is said to have been built as a result of rivalry between two branches of the family. The Stainborough branch of the Wentworth family inher­ited the Earl of Strafford’s minor title of Baron Raby but not his estates, which went to Thomas Watson (who added Wentworth to his sur­name). The Stainborough Wentworths, for whom the Strafford earl­dom was revived, lived at nearby Wentworth Castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We roun­ded off our morn­ing visit with lunch at either the Rockingham Arms or George & Dragon pubs in Wentworth vil­lage.