Massive potential squat in Daily Mail
tony at tlio.org.uk
Wed Feb 28 16:07:47 GMT 2007
THE HOUSE WITH 365 EMPTY ROOMS
"a quarter of a million square feet"
Feuds and fortunes: Robert Hardman discovers the family secrets behind the
grand-looking Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.
HOW I SEE IT by Robert Hardman
Daily Mail - 24th February - 2007
Five front doors. A room for every day of the year. Mile after mile of
corridors echoing with scandal. And no family's lived here for 28 years.
Welcome to Britain's biggest (and emptiest) mansion.
YOU WOULDN'T want children playing hide and seek in . this place. They
could starve to death - or grow up¬ - before someone finds them. It is the
most jaw¬-droppingly enormous private house I have ever seen. No wonder
Edwardian guests were issued with confetti to lay a trail from their
rooms; without it, they might never have made it to bed.
Mind you, 'house' is a woefully inadequate word to describe Wentworth
Woodhouse, Britain's largest stately home. Even members of the Royal
Family - and several have stayed here - would agree that this is, by any
standards, a palace. In fact, it is twice as wide as Buckingham Palace,
with a room for every day of the year and a quarter of a million square
feet of floor.
In their day, the Earls Fitzwilliam employed hundreds and entertained
thousands here. For the past eight years, though, barely a soul has
stepped through any of the five front doors. Sealed off, this 18th-century
colossus near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, has been forgotten. Until now.
A compelling new history of Wentworth Woodhouse, its occupants, their
fortunes and their scandals has suddenly unlocked awkward secrets, and
cast a fresh spotlight on the house often described as 'unquestionably,
the finest Georgian house in England'.
While the story has all the makings of an epic screen drama, the attention
will not be welcomed by all the descendants of the Fitzwilliam line, some
of whom are still not on speak¬ing terms with one another. Nor will
America's Kennedy clan wish to be reminded of the tragic consequences for
John F. Kennedy's adored sister when she dallied with a Fitzwilliam.
For the previous owner, a boom-and ¬bust Eighties entrepreneur, it will be
a painful reminder of a collapsed business and a failed marriage. And for
the present owners, a reclusive family of North London property
developers, the publicity is as welcome as dry rot.
The book has fascinating insights into the dynasty that once ruled this
Yorkshire roost. It transpires that, thanks to a little aristocratic
philander¬ing, there may be people in these parts unaware that they have
Yet, despite the fresh exposure of three 20th-century Fitzwilliam
scan¬dals, I soon discover that most people round here really miss the old
Tourists are not encouraged at the big house. However, they are certainly
welcome in the yellow-stoned village of Wentworth, where the doors are
still painted in Fitzwilliam green and the houses belong to a Fitzwilliam
And they are welcome at the huge garden centre that has opened in the
estate's old kitchen gardens. Visitors can even wander into the old bear
ASTONISHINGLY, a bear was still living there, by way of decoration and
entertainment, at the start of the 20th century. Asked what he would like
as a farewell present, the last bear-keeper chose the bear and retired in
1902 to a local almshouse, while the bear lived in his coal shed.
The road that leads to the house is private - but there is also a public
footpath so I decided to walk. A few abandoned modern buildings lurk in
the trees, unlovely monuments to the teacher-training college that
sprouted here after the war.
Then, 200 yards down, to the right of the path, there is a massive
Georgian facade that could be a stately home all on its own. This is
merely the stable block. I walk another 200 yards, past the grave of the
great 18th-century racehorse Whistlejacket. The treeline suddenly stops
and there it is: a great pile of Georgian stone stretching symmetrically
either side of a mas¬sive central section which, on its own, is larger
than some parliaments I have seen.
THE upper reaches are still stained black from the coal¬mining that once
supported this place. The motto Mea Gloria Fides (Faith is my glory.
[Check that. Ed.]) remains etched on the stonework and the only visible
signs say 'private'.
There isn't a single light visible in a single window. A solitary grey
pick-up is parked outside what I can only describe as the south wing of
the east wing. Clearly, someone somewhere is watching because, as we walk
back to our car, the grey pick-up follows us and a man makes a note of the
photographer's licence plate.
Today, the house and some 30 acres around it belong to a company called
St. Ledger Investments Ltd, which is run by Paul and Marcus Newbold,
brothers and property developers from Highgate, North London. Their
father, Clifford, an 80-year-old architect, bought the place for £1.5
million in 1999 and reputedly lives here with a small team of restorers.
'I spoke to one worker who said it had taken two years to do up one room,'
says Craig Homer, owner of the village shop. At that rate, the house
should be finished by the next millennium.
Like everyone I come across in these parts, Craig has never met the
Newbolds. 'They keep themselves to themselves,' is the usual refrain. My
own written enquiries yield an e-mail from Marcus Newbold that says: 'We
are currently investigating a whole variety of potential uses which would
be appropriate to this historic location.'
Overall, the locals seem glad that someone is looking after the place.
What surprises me is the pining for the ancien regime. Here we are, deep
in Arthur Scargill country, just a few miles from the epicentre of the
1984 miners' strike, and everyone says that they would love to see the old
toffs back at the big house.
'You won't hear a bad word about the Fitzwilliams round here. I never
have,' says Martyn Johnson, a retired policeman from a long line of local
miners. 'It's sad they've gone. That's our Chatsworth, our Blenheim, up
the road there and it feels like it's been taken away.'
We are in the bar of the George and Dragon (painted Fitzwilliam green),
drinking Went worth Imperial from the village brewery (also Fitzwilliam
Ernie Laister, 71, spent much of his life working as a joiner on the
estate. 'I was very happy the day I got my job with the Fitzwilliams
because that carried a lot of respect,' he says. 'The wages weren't great,
but everyone got looked after.'
That is why there is so much interest in Black Diamonds, the newly
¬published history of the Fitzwilliams, their house and their coal. 'They
were our royalty,' says Ernie.
The house is really three stately homes in one. Originally an Elizabethan
property owned by the first Earl of Strafford, it passed to a cousin, the
Marquess of Rocking¬ham. He began by adding a new house on the west side
of the old one in the 1720s. But when some competitive cousins started
building something even bigger nearby, he decided to beat them. Up went
the vast east front.
In 1782, the house passed to a sister who had married the 3rd Earl
Fitzwilliam. Amazingly, the couple felt it wasn't quite big enough, so
they added an entire storey to the east front. And that is the monster we
The apex of the family's fortunes was still to come. The house and estate
straddled rich seams of coal which powered the British Empire, and the
Fitzwilliams employed thousands in the family mines, which were famed for
their safe working conditions [check this ;-) ed.].
At the same time, though, there were seething tensions in the family which
came to a head in 1902 with the death of the 6th Earl. He and his wife had
produced eight sons and six daughters - but the eldest boy, Viscount
Milton, suffered from epilepsy, then seen as a sign of lunacy.
As the new book explains, the family were dismayed when he not only
married but went on to produce a son, Billy, during self-imposed exile in
the wilds of Canada. Milton died young, leaving Billy as the heir.
When the time came, however, Billy's aunt, Lady.Alice, attempted a vicious
coup, alleging that Billy was in fact a Canadian settler's child whom
Milton had substituted in the place of a little girl.
Whatever the truth (and one descendant is said to be planning a DNA test
using a lock of Milton's hair), the coup failed. Lady Alice was expelled
from Wentworth Woodhouse and Billy presided over a momentous epoch. The
King and Queen, no less, came. to stay and toured one of Billy's mines.
Industrial relations remained good at Wentworth. Before the General Strike
of 1926, the miners' leaders came to see Billy to tell him that they did
not want to strike. 'You must,' he told the gobsmacked union leaders, 'or
you'll let the others down.'
Fresh scandals were not far off. Billy had four daughters but just one son
and heir, the beloved Peter. Spurning the local aristo. set, Peter was
commendably chummy with the local lads and energetically so, it seems,
with the lasses.
Catherine Bailey, author of Black Diamonds, believes that Peter is linked
to at least three unwanted pregnancies by local girls, who were quietly
paid to disappear. One man, still alive, apparently has no idea of his
BILLY died in 1943 and everything passed to Peter, who proved himself a
very gallant member of the SOE, the precursor to the SAS. He won the
Distinguished Service Cross for his heroics with a fleet of motor torpedo
boats. Married with a young daughter, the new 8th Earl was very popular
with his workers.
'If! had my way, I'd have Wentworth back in Peter's day,' says retired
mining engineer Charles Booth, 83, as we sit in the George and Dragon.
'Everyone liked Peter. He was a loveable rogue.'
But the post-war Labour Govern¬ment wanted to teach the old order a
lesson. It commandeered Peter's park for open-cast mining. As bulldozers
tore up the ancient landscape, Peter tried to give the place to the
National Trust - but was refused when the trust decided it couldn't afford
A government plan for a massive hostel was averted only when Peter leased
the east wing to the local council as a teacher-training college. But he
still had his lands, his fortune and his wandering eye. In 1948, Peter
left his young family at home and whisked his latest conquest off for a
trip to the South of France. She was Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy, the
beautiful sister of future President John F. Kennedy.
In his desperation to get there, Peter ordered the pilot of the chartered
plane to ignore a storm gathering over the Ardeche mountain range.
Emerging from a cloud, the pilot was unable to avoid the ridge ahead of
him. No-one survived [check possible conspiracy. ed].
'I remember our headmaster telling the school: "I have some terrible news
for Wentworth,'" Ernie Laister recalls. 'Things went downhill from then
PETER'S widow and daughter inherited the contents of the house - including
a Stubbs collection worth tens of millions today - and the title and land
went to cousin Eric, a childless alcoholic. A celebrated court battle was
then waged between his distant cousins, Toby and Tom Fitzwilliam - two
brothers - to decide the succession. ~
Toby was older and had an heir. Tom had no heir, but argued that their
parents had not been married at the time of Toby's birth. The court found
in favour of Tom and, after Eric's death, Tom took the title ¬only to die,
heirless, in 1979. The Fitzwilliam title died with him.
His last act was the ordering of an epic bonfire of 16 tons of family
papers, which took a fortnight to burn.-Did-he want to cover up details
about his own inheritance? To gloss over Billy's birth in the wilderness?
Or just to tidy up years of clutter? We shall probably never know.
The land - some 16,000 acres went to his stepchildren, the village went
into a charitable trust and the house was sold to Wensley Haydon-¬Baillie,
a colourful pharmaceuticals millionaire.
'He was fun,' says Martyn Johnson.
'He thought he was lord of the manor, but he invited us all to his
wedding.' Haydon-Baillie's aristocratic fantasy crashed with his business
in 1998. His debtors claimed the house and the Newbolds snapped it up for
the cost of a smart London semi.
There is no Earl now but there is still a huge network of Fitzwilliam
cousins who hold a reunion every year. The 'Billy' branch recently tried
to include the 'Toby' branch, but their offer was rebuffed. Some wounds,
it seems, are still sore.
A few cousins still administer charitable trusts that continue to help the
locals. Every villager can apply for Fitzwilliam money to help fund their
children through university. Every Wentworth pensioner gets a £35 voucher
'I remember Peter's wedding,' sighs Charles Booth. 'My sister, Mavis, gave
them a bouquet. If only he'd never got on that plane. The village has
never been the same since.'
Black Diamonds: The Rise And Fall Of An English Dynasty, by Catherine
Bailey is published on March 1 by Viking, priced £20.
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