Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Wentworth Woodhouse - a sleeping giant.

Pemberley: A Sleeping Giant.

The house and estate of Wentworth Woodhouse.

In 1813 Jane Austen wrote her most celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice. In her story, Mr Bingley, a country gentleman from the North of England, comes to reside in the same Hertfordshire village as Mr and Mrs Bennett and their several daughters. Mrs Bennett's dreams are fulfilled when Mr Bingley courts her eldest, until he is visited by an arrogant friend who is richer by far. Whilst the wealthy Mr Bingley presents an extremely fine catch for Miss Jane Bennett. his friend Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy would be an even bigger catch for her younger sister Elizabeth, if only Mr Darcy weren't so haughty and Elizabeth so unbending.

Darcy is the owner of Pemberley, said to be one of the finest houses in England but placed for the purposes of the book in Derbyshire. Hence many have assumed it to be Chatsworth and I've also heard mention of it possibly being Lord Byron's house at Newstead, in nearby Nottinghamshire. However it is now commonly believed that Pemberley was modelled on the house of Wentworth Woodhouse, just over the Derbyshire border into Yorkshire. One clue being in the name Fitzwilliam which Mr Darcy uses as a Christian name, but is the surname of another related character.
The Earls Fitzwilliam succeeded to Wentworth Woodhouse in 1782 when Jane Austen would have been about seven years old and remained there in good and bad fortune until 1989. The first Fitzwilliam to become master of Wentworth Woodhouse was the Fourth Earl Fitzwilliam who inherited the house via a female line and brought his title with him. The female legacy might explain some of the power of Lady Catherine De Burgh in Austen's story, which I must now read again with fresh eyes.

The Wentworth Woodhouse site is mentioned in the Doomsday Book. One of its owners was a key player in the reign of Charles the First  but little remains of those earlier dwellings.  There was significant building at Wentworth in Jacobean times but this Western facing house was altered and extended around 1730. Massive further building around 50 years later created essentially two adjoining back to back houses with two very different but equally impressive frontages. The 'other front' and it's magnificent state rooms are from the period when the Whigs were the all powerful gentlemen of England. The Eastern frontage is said to be twice as long as that of Buckingham Palace and Wentworth Woodhouse with its 350-365 rooms is reputed to be the largest private house in England.

In my childhood it was used as a PE college, and I remember that when the M1 motorway was built (with a junction in my village of Aston), there was this amazing house to be seen over to the right just a few minutes to the North of us. Later it became shrouded in mystery and was closed to the public for the majority of my adult life.

When I researched some of my family history, I found paternal ancestors and relatives, Loxley, Marshall and Cartwright who for several generations lived and worked on the land and underground in the mines around Wentworth. They were in Tankersley, Birdwell, Pilley, High Green, Chapletown, Elsecar, Hoyland Common and other nearby villages. My grandfather Thomas Brackenbury, together with brothers and cousins, moved from the failing agriculture of Louth in Lincolnshire, to work in the pits of South Yorkshire, almost certainly those owned by the Wentworth Woodhouse estate. My maternal grandmothers family the Lawtons, were also quite close at Langsett, Midhopestones and Stocksbridge. I'm quite sure that the lives of my ancestors were heavily influenced by the attitudes and fortunes of the Earls Fitzwilliam and their extensive lands around Wentworth Woodhouse.

The house became very wealthy in the days when coal powered the industrial revolution, but lost much of its fortunes when the postwar Atlee government nationalised the coal mines in 1947. Emmanuel Shinwell was particularly vindictive towards Wentworth Woodhouse and ordered the opencast mining of the formal Repton designed gardens on the Western side and the felling of ancient woodland (which had been admired by Austen when Elizabeth Bennett first visited Pemberley). Shinwell said that he hoped the house would fall into the hole created by the opencasting which came within 12 feet of the Western frontage.

Further financial disaster hit in the year following nationalisation when Wentworth Woodhouse was hit by a second tranche of death duties within a handful of years. This story is fascinating.

Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK had been a teenager and debutante in the UK when her father Joe was US ambassador to London. She returned home and after completing her education became involved in charity work. At the outbreak of WW2 Joe junior joined up and went to serve in France. Wanting to be near him, Kathleen (known as Kick) moved back to London and worked on organising the supply of nurses to serve the front line. She resumed her social contacts from her debutante years and much to Joe and Rose's disapproval married the Marquis of Hartington, heir to Chatsworth. As we've all seen in television's fictional  Downton Abbey, the route to salvation of many English country houses was to marry American money. Kick's marriage was short lived as her brother and husband were both killed in action in France, leaving her alone and desolate.

Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish, the young widowed Marchioness of Hartington, needed social interaction and began a relationship with Peter Wentworth, recently installed as the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. Joe and Rose Kennedy were incensed. To marry one titled English Protestant had been bad enough, but to propose to repeat the exercise and link the Kennedy fortunes to yet another ailing English estate, this time with a divorcee, was completely beyond the pale. In May 1948, Kick and her beau flew to Paris to meet Joe, who was there on US business, to try to bring him round. Afterwards they flew south for a holiday on the French Riviera, but their private plane was brought down by turbulence over a mountain range, killing all four occupants and catapulting  the Wentworth Woodhouse estate into financial disaster.

The death of the Chatsworth heir had made space for it to be inherited by the spare who was married to Deborah, the youngest of the Mitford sisters. Deborah was resourceful and determined, and went on to be the saviour of Chatsworth. Her model of business development has influenced the National Trust, English Heritage and private owners of other country houses and estates, but sadly it could not save Wentworth Woodhouse.

Wentworth Woodhouse hadn't fully recovered from being used by the military in the war or from recent death duties from the demise of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam. The 8th Earl had let the Eastern side of the house for use as a ladies PE college. It had been devastated by the nationalisation of coal and the opencasting of the Western gardens and land. Another set of death duties was a bridge too far and most of its treasures had to be sold.

The saviour of the eastern lands and possibly the house itself, was an indomitable principal of the Lady Mabel PE college. When the government announced their intention to open cast mine the eastern lawns, Miss Casson asked them where they expected her young ladies to learn to play lacrosse or to obtain their necessary fresh air and exercise? They didn't trouble her or the house again although there is some subsidence from them removing some coal from underneath the North Eastern corner of the house.

In the late 1980's, the PE college was absorbed into Sheffield Hallam University and the house was no longer needed. The line of the Earls Fitzwilliam came to an end as there was no male heir (nowadays it could have been inherited by a daughter). The house was sold to a reclusive private individual who kept it from public view and squandered its remaining treasures including the massive Stubbs Whistlejacket painting, now in the National Gallery. This looked like the end until a retired architect called Clifford Newbold got bored with retirement and looked for a new challenge. He heard of, fell in love with and bought Wentworth Woodhouse.

The Newbold family have put their hearts, their souls and their money into soothing and awakening this sleeping giant. They have fought the government for compensation for mining damage. They have made the house safe from weather damage and partially restored key rooms and parts of the gardens. They have allowed film and television companies to use it as sets for all manner of things and although the colours and furnishings provided by the film and TV companies aren't authentic they are better than empty spaces and peeling walls so they've left sets in place until further restoration work becomes financially and practically possible. They've made the house available for craft fairs, weddings, conferences and events. Since 2012 they've been offering some limited tours.

I'd failed to realise that tours were available until very recently, but went a fortnight ago and it has to be seen to be believed. There's an inferior copy of Whistle-jacket in the place where the original overlooked the drawing room. The 60 feet square, magnificent marble hall, which once hosted parties for royalty and the nobility still has a curtain rail around the balcony edge from which hung drapes so that Miss Casson's young ladies could play badminton without endangering the statues. The chapel is painted green for a forthcoming BBC appearance, masquerading as the House of Commons. The Christmas trees are twinkling in the pillared hall ready for festive fairs and mince pie tours. Tea is served in China cups in one of the smaller rooms. The great staircase is presided over by a marble statue of the goddess Ceres, 'collected' from Herculaneum by a former owner on his European tour, because he wanted a focus to draw the eye of people entering or leaving the marble hall. If only she could be sold, the whole house could be restored, but there's a covenant keeping her firmly in her place. So much work needs to be done, but what has been done has been with pride, sensitivity, love and in some cases a touch of humour.

Sadly Clifford Newbold died in the spring of 2015 and there were presumably even more crippling death duties although whatever of the house, land and estate village can be put in trusts has been secured in the best possible ways. The house had to be put up for sale and negotiations are at a final stage to sell to a Cambridge educated man who made his fortune in Hong Kong. The future is uncertain although there are positive signs that he intends to further develop the businesses devised by the Newbold family to bring the house back into use with public access. There are still tours advertised for December, January and February but everything beyond that is on hold, so if you want to see this sleeping giant during her current period of wakefulness, you'd better book fast as I have done.

My husband and I were part of a very small party who did the Strafford Tour on Thursday 19 November.
We were made very welcome by Robert, who met us outside, and by the very informative lady who served teas and coffees and conducted the tour. She was a mine of information and no explanation was too much trouble for her. I'm sorry I've forgotten her name. There was also a helpful former student volunteer guide.
The house was wonderful and I very much hope that the new owners will continue the work of restoration and keep the house open to the public.
I've reviewed it on trip advisor 5*.
I told the lady guide that I'd email you as there was no time to write in the visitors book.
We had to run away fast at the end as I'd got a train ticket to London, booked long before we found out about the tour. I made the platform at Doncaster with 3 minutes to spare!
I've just mailed you through the website to book for the Clifford tour in February to see different rooms.
Very Best Wishes Jan LB

(C) Jan Loxley Blount. December 1st 2015

For further info see:

Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister: Deborah Devonshire: 9781848541917: Books

Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty: Catherine Bailey: 9780141019239: Books

Wentworth Woodhouse - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Fascinating Facts - Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse - now booking house tours - garden tours soon

Wentworth Woodhouse for sale with £8m plus price tag - BBC News

Speech On Nationalisation Of Coal - British Pathé

In history of pride and prejudice, the inspiration for Mr Darcy | The Times

Wentworth Woodhouse has five miles of corridors, through which guests once had to follow different coloured confetti to find their way back to their bedrooms.
The estate has housed three illustrious aristocratic families: the Wentworths, the Watsons and the Fitzwilliams, the last of whom are thought, along with the house, to have inspired the character and home of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
There was previously a Jacobean house on the site, which belonged to the local nobility, the Wentworths, and which was at one time inhabited by Thomas Wentworth, a hugely successful adviser to Charles I, who later signed his death warrant.
The current baroque house was built by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham, in 1825, who gave it the name Wentworth House. A small part of the original house can still be seen.
When Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, lived in the house it became a Whig party stronghold. Lord Rockingham was prime minister twice, once between 1765 and 1766 and again in 1782. He died during his second term.
In the late 18th century the estate was inherited by the Fitzwilliams, who retained ownership until 1989, although it was used by the military during the Second World War.
The Fitzwilliam family at first benefited from the mining of estate lands. However, the nationalisation of their coal mines in 1947 reduced their wealth greatly and the house was let as a teacher-training college. The house and 90 acres of land were then bought by Wensley Haydon-Baillie, a pharmaceuticals millionaire with Spitfire and Rolls-Royce collections, who ran up huge debts. In the 1990s artworks from the house’s treasure trove collection were sold at auction.
They included Whistlejacket, a painting by George Stubbs that sold for £11 million and which is now on show in the National Gallery, as well as a first edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1477 by Thomas Caxton, and acquired by the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1776. The book sold at Christie’s for £4.6 million in 1998.
The current owners bought the property in 1999.

Post Script 20/01/16

Since writing this I've read more than half of 'Black Diamonds' which is fascinating beyond belief. In the light of this, there are probably things I've written which I need to expand or update.

I've also chatted to someone called Jim who, like my mum, now resides in Swallownest Care Home.  Jim remembers Wentworth House and village from the days of his youth, when it was still a family home and from later times when it was a training college for PE teachers. He described the students playing with shuttlecocks in the marble hall. Vicky, his friend and carer, was a PE student at Wentworth - I look forward to talking to her next time I visit my mum.

ALSO I've joined a writing group in Muswell Hill where I began a story (fiction) based on my thoughts about Wentworth and area. The more I read of Black Diamonds the more links I find to places and events associated with my father's family history and my own childhood.

Writing group exercise (fiction) 14/01/16

The air had suddenly turned cold

The air suddenly turned cold, the dog let out a cry and Mr Armitage breathed no more. Family members and neighbours crowded in to pay their respects, some in tears, some in solemn silence. A wooden coffin was knocked together by the man next door using  pieces of floorboards and part of an old chest of drawers. The body was placed inside and stood up in the corner, so that life could carry on until the day of the funeral. The curtains were kept drawn, as were those of most of the houses in the street. Extra layers of clothing were worn as the fire couldn't be lit for fear of the body developing a bad smell. It was sad but it wasn't a shock.
He'd worked down the pit since he was a boy and his lungs must have been black with coal dust. Everything was black, even the corn growing in the fields had flecks of black amongst the gold and the stream ran a sort of orangey brown from the sulphurous deposits dissolved.
The big question was what would happen to the family now? His wife had suffered the trials of pregnancy and childbirth seven times over, each time hoping for a son to follow him down the mine, but only one boy was born and he didn't make it past his first birthday. All the rest were girls. Three were now married and had their own homes, one had a baby but no husband. So Mrs Armitage, her three daughters and her grandson would now be homeless, as their house was owned by the mining company.

Jan Loxley Blount 20/01/16

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