A look into the history of Wentworth Woodhouse

The marble salon at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon

The marble salon at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon - Credit: Archant

Wentworth Woodhouse, a splendid South Yorkshire stately home, has a tangled and turbulent history. After being neglected for years, it’s finally at the start of a long road to repair, as Tony Greenway discovers.

Sunset at Wentworth Woodhouse by Caroline Berry

Sunset at Wentworth Woodhouse by Caroline Berry - Credit: Archant

Author and award-winning filmmaker Catherine Bailey first set eyes on Wentworth Woodhouse — a privately owned Grade1 listed stately home in the village of Wentworth near Rotherham — in 1999. The view took her breath away. Here was a simply vast building with a facade twice the size of Buckingham Palace, around 365 rooms and five miles of corridors. It had also been ravaged by time and was in a state of neglect.

‘I was in Yorkshire researching a television series and someone said I should have a look at this house nearby,’ she remembers. ‘I made the mistake that everybody makes when they walk down the path from the village. At first, I thought the stable block was the house. Then I kept going and couldn’t believe the size of it or that I’d never heard of it before. It was on the scale of Chatsworth or Blenheim and yet it seemed to be this forgotten palace. I couldn’t go inside, though. The shutters were drawn and it looked rather derelict.’

Her TV series never came to fruition, but Bailey’s curiosity went into overdrive as she dug deeper and deeper into the house’s history, so she decided to write a book about it. ‘I was haunted by Wentworth Woodhouse,’ she says. ‘The more I found out about it, the more I felt I had to write about it, because the bones of an extraordinary story were there.’

‘Extraordinary’ is certainly one way of putting it, because the history of Wentworth Woodhouse — a private home for over 25 years, the largest in Europe — is triumphant, tangled and turbulent. It was built between 1725 and 1750 and one of its owners, Charles Watson-Wentworth, was British prime minister twice (albeit briefly both times). The house then passed to the Fitzwilliam family in 1782, where it became a focal point for the local community which would often be invited to its events and gatherings. It’s reported that an estimated 10,000 guests attended a party for the 5th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1807.

The long gallery at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon

The long gallery at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon - Credit: Archant

Yet the Fitzwilliams, who made most of their fortune from the coal discovered on the estate, were often tainted by scandals and feuds. For example, the 7th Earl, William ‘Billy’ Fitzwilliam, was born in a remote part of Canada and could never shake off the accusation that he was ‘a changeling’ who had been swapped at birth with an unwanted girl. His war hero son, Peter, died in a plane crash in 1948 with his rumoured lover Kathleen, the sister of — wait for it — John F Kennedy.

Well-known guests stopped by down the decades. The artist George Stubbs was a regular visitor, and one room in the house was especially designed to showcase Whistlejacket, his famous painting (currently hanging in the National Gallery in London) of Charles Watson-Wentworth’s racehorse. In 1835 the young Princess Victoria stayed at Wentworth Woodhouse while, in 1912, 76 bedrooms were made ready for the visit of George V and Queen Mary. In World War Two, the house was used by military intelligence and, more recently, became a location for moviemakers. Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall and the TV series Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, were both filmed there. Some press stories have even credited Wentworth Woodhouse as the inspiration for Pemberley, the home of Mr Darcy, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (although the Jane Austen Society disputes this).

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In 2007, Bailey’s book Black Diamonds was published and became a bestseller. Incredibly, she wrote it all without ever seeing the inside of the property. ‘I’m glad I didn’t because it meant that I had to work a bit harder,’ she says. ‘What I had was a set of floor plans, photographs of all the main rooms and I spent a lot of time in the locality talking to people who worked there so that was how I was able to visualise it. I was obviously worried about (not going in) at the beginning. But by the end, it didn’t matter. I felt that I knew every inch of it by the time I finished writing.’ Mind you, it was galling when Bailey discovered that 16 tonnes of estate papers, which she could have used for research, had been burned on a massive bonfire in the 1970s.

Coal has both made and nearly destroyed Wentworth Woodhouse. In Black Diamonds, Bailey contrasts the glamorous life of the Wentworth Woodhouse blue bloods with the back-breaking toil, grime and squalor of the 115,000 men who worked in their mines; although the Fitzwilliams were said to be respected employers. Not everyone was impressed by them, however. After the war, Manny Shinwell, the Minister for Fuel and Power and no fan of the aristocracy, told the Fitzwilliams that he would bring deep cast mines ‘right up to your bloody front door’. When he did, it caused subsidence problems that are still being dealt with today.

The grand staircase at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon

The grand staircase at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon - Credit: Archant

Architect Clifford Newbold bought the property in 1999. After his death, the house was sold to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT), a charity set up to secure its long term future. Chair of the Trust is Julie Kenny CBE, a former High Sheriff of South Yorkshire, who has been a leading businesswoman in the area for three decades.

‘It seemed to me that this house needed to be shared on a wider scale,’ says Kenny, who thinks its renovation is symbolic of the revival of Rotherham as a whole. ‘I saw it as a catalyst for change. I’m one of Rotherham’s intervention commissioners, trying to help the town get back on its feet. Rotherham is such a wonderful place with wonderful people and fantastic businesses. That was why I got behind it. I thought that if we could secure the house, Rotherham could recapture its civic pride with a place of national and international importance.’

Getting a building of this size back to its former glory is going to take money, though, and lots of it. A figure of £42million has been bandied about. Is that right? Actually, says Kenny, ‘some experienced people around the table are saying it could be £100million, £150million, £200million. But think about it in the context of the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace. That’s going to cost £389million, but it’s in a good condition to start with. We’re double the size and we’re not in a good condition. So we need to raise significant sums.’ The restoration process will also take time as well as cash, an estimated 15-20 years.

In 2016, Wentworth Woodhouse made headlines when Chancellor Philip Hammond awarded it £7.6million in his autumn statement. Kenny points out that this amount will be spent on repairing the property’s roof — all four acres of it. ‘It will stop water ingress and save the historical content of the house, some of which is 300 years old and not seen anywhere else in the world,’ she says. ‘But it is a lot of money. I appreciate that.’

The former chapel at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon

The former chapel at Wentworth Woodhouse Photo Jane Vernon - Credit: Archant

The house is open to the public for guided tours and as wedding venue, and it will also be marketed as a location for TV and film productions; but it’s still to be decided if ‘free roam’ will be offered to the public in future. The National Trust has also announced it will be working with the WWPT to offer advice on ‘presentation, visitor services, opening hours, visitor experience, volunteer management and marketing.’

Last October, Catherine Bailey returned to Wentworth Woodhouse for a special book-signing event and this time she went inside. ‘It was actually my second time inside, because I’d been there to give a talk three or four years ago,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t a disappointment to me because it’s such an incredibly splendid place but I remember being rather shocked by the state of it. It was much denuded. You could see how it once would have been when the Fitzwilliams had been there but there were no pictures on the walls and no carpets on the floor. It was just bare.’

Still, the house has played a big part in Bailey’s life for the best part of two decades, so she’s excited that it has been saved for the nation. ‘In the years after the war, particularly the later years, the public couldn’t get access to it,’ she says. ‘So I think it’s amazing that it’s going to be shared again. If it had been bought by a Russian oligarch, it would have remained closed. It’ll now be a place for old memories and exciting new ventures.’