Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire

Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse is a Grade I listed country house near the village of Wentworth, in the vicinity of Rotherham, South Yorkshire, England. "One of the great Whig political palaces" its East Front, 606 ft (185 m) long, is the longest country house fa├žade in Europe. The house includes 365 rooms and covers an area of over 2.5 acres (10,000 m²). It is surrounded by a 150 acre (0.6 km²) park and a nearly 90,000-acre (360 km2) estate (now separately owned). Built by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham (1693–1750), and added to by his heir, in the nineteenth century it became the inherited family seat of the Earls Fitzwilliam.

The huge length of the East Front is credibly the result of a resentful rivalry with the Stainborough branch of the Wentworth family, who inherited Strafford's minor title, Lord Raby, but not his estates, which came to Watson, who added Wentworth to his surname. The Wentworths, for whom the earldom was revived, lived, not by accident, at the nearby Wentworth Castle, which was purchased in 1708, in a competitive spirit, and strenuously rebuilt in a magnificent manner.

The Baroque, brick-built, western range of Wentworth Woodhouse was begun by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, after 1728 Lord Malton, after he inherited it from his father in 1723. It replaced the Jacobean structure that was once the home of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, whom Charles I sacrificed in 1641 to appease Parliament. The builder to whom Wentworth's grandson turned for a plan for the grand scheme that he intended, was a local builder and country architect, Ralph Tunnicliffe, who had a practice in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.

Wentworth Woodhouse1

The grand East Front is the more often illustrated. The West front, the "garden front" that Sir Thomas Robinson found to be finished in 1734, is the private front that looked onto a giardino secreto between the house front and the walled kitchen garden, intended for family enjoyment rather than social and political ambitions expressed in the East Front. Most remnants of it were redesigned in the nineteenth century.

In April 1946, on the orders of Manny Shinwell (the then Labour Party's Minister of Fuel and Power) a "column of lorries and heavy plant machinery" arrived at Wentworth. The objective was the mining of a large part of the estate close to the house for coal. This was an area where the prolific Barnsley seam was within 100 feet (30 m) of the surface and the area between the house and the Rockingham Mausoleum became the largest open cast mining site in Britain at that time: 132,000 tons of coal were removed solely from the gardens. Ostensibly the coal was desperately needed in Britain's austere post-war economy to fuel the railways; it was, however, useful cover for an act of class-war spite against the coal-owning aristocracy. A survey by Sheffield University, commissioned by Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl, found the quality of the coal as "very poor stuff" and "not worth the getting"; this contrasted to Shinwell's assertion that it was "exceptionally good-quality."

Shinwell, intent on the destruction of the Fitzwilliams and "the privileged rich", decreed that the mining would continue to the back door of Wentworth, the family's East Front. What followed saw the mining of 99 acres (400,000 m2) of lawns and woods, the renowned formal gardens and the show-piece pink shale driveway (a by-product of the family's collieries). Ancient trees were uprooted and the debris of earth and rubble was piled 50 ft (15 m) high in front of the family's living quarters.

Local opinion supported the Earl. Joe Hall, Yorkshire branch President of the National Union of Mineworkers said that the "miners in this area will go to almost any length rather than see Wentworth Woodhouse destroyed. To many mining communities it is sacred ground" - in an industry known for harsh treatment of workers, the Fitzwilliams were respected employers known for treating their employees well. The Yorkshire branch later threatened a strike over the Government's plans for Wentworth, and Joe Hall wrote personally to Clement Attlee in a futile attempt to stop the mining. This spontaneous local activism, founded on the genuine popularity of the Fitzwilliam family amongst locals, was dismissed in Whitehall as "intrigue" sponsored by the Earl.

The opencast mining moved into the fields to the west of the house and continued into the early 1950s. The mined areas took many years to return to a natural state and much of the woodland and the formal gardens were not replaced.

I highly recommend Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds for more detail.

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