WENTWORTH WOODHOUSE

Flashback to the 1940s: A bitter dispute between a Government minister and an aristocrat

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News - 26 April 1946 (BNA)
Wentworth Woodhouse, photographed from the air in 1946. The house itself is the largest private residence in England, and was built for the first Marquis of Rockingham in the spacious days of the middle-eighteenth century. The gardens and park were open-cast mined, to the tune of 20 and 90 acres respectively. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

In years to come we might once again consider Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, to be one of our majestic stately homes. ‘The largest privately-owned house in Europe is finally awaking from its slumber’ heralds the mansion’s website. After years of decline and decay, its fortunes are finally changing; restoration work is underway, the roof is being replaced, while Phase II is planned for the autumn when repairs start on the Palladian east front, the chapel and grand staircase. With millions of pounds of work outstanding it is going to be a long journey.

Wentworth Woodhouse’s problems, like many other country houses, started at the beginning of the 20th century. Too big, too expensive and with dwindling family finances, it was severely affected by two World Wars. However, in February 1946, the house reached its lowest ebb.

Newspapers of the day reported that unless top level negotiations between the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1883-1967), and Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1910-1948), 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, resulted in a settlement, Mr Emanuel Shinwell, Minister of Fuel and Power, would seize 110 acres of garden and parkland from Wentworth Woodhouse. The land would be used for open-cast mining with the total yield of coal, considered to be inferior quality, estimated to be about 345,000 tonnes.

Work had already started on the estate, but it was the rapid advance towards the mansion that caused the biggest consternation.

The Sphere - 20 April 1946 (BNA)
Earl Fitzwilliam had offered Wentworth Woodhouse to the National Trust, together with park and gardens. Meanwhile, the house had become the centre of a bitter controversy on account of the requisitioning of many acres of parkland for open-cast coal-mining. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

In 1946, the Coal Nationalisation Act was making its way through Parliament between January and May. After World War 2 the country had a coal shortage and the nationalisation of the nation’s private collieries was a way of increasing coal production. Earl Fitzwilliam had accepted that the family’s pits would soon be in Government hands, there was compensation for coal owners, but the fate of Wentworth Woodhouse bothered him.

Fitzwilliam had offered the mansion to the National Trust, but the organisation had been nervous at taking on a building that faced ‘imminent destruction’. It had accepted covenants over the park and gardens to ring-fence the house from the mining operation, but was warned off by the Government who were in no mood to listen.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 1 - 26 April 1946 (BNA)
The black tide had already swept towards the boundary walls. In the foreground are the workings, showing how the soil and subsoil were cleared, trench fashion, to expose the coal which was just below the surface. It was promised that the land would be speedily restored. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
The Sphere - 27 April 1946 1 (BNA)
Storm over Wentworth Woodhouse. An aerial view of Earl Fitzwilliam’s estate in 1946, showing how devastated it had become by open-cast mining. Earl Fitzwilliam had appealed to Clement Attlee. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

During the negotiations, James Lees-Milne from the National Trust’s Country Houses Committee had visited Wentworth Woodhouse and recorded his visit in his diaries:

‘Left at ten from King’s Cross to Doncaster. Michael (Earl of) Rosse (of the Country Houses Committee) met me and motored me to Wentworth Woodhouse. Had time to walk around the outside and other parts of the inside. It is certainly the most enormous private house I have ever beheld, I could not find my way about the interior and never once knew in what direction I was looking from a window. Strange to think that until 1939 one man lived in the whole of it. All the contents are put away or stacked in heaps in a few rooms, the pictures taken out of their frames. The dirt is appalling. Everything is pitch black and the boles of the trees like thunder. To my surprise the park is not being worked for coal systematically, but in square patches here and there. One of these patches is a walled garden. Right up to the very wall of the Vanbrugh front every tree and shrub has been uprooted, awaiting the onslaught of the bulldozers. Where the surface has been worked is waste chaos and, as Michael said, far worse than anything he saw of French battlefields after D-day. I was surprised too by the very high quality of the pre-Adam rooms and ceilings of Wentworth; by the amount of seventeenth-century work surviving; by the beautiful old wallpapers; and by the vast scale of the lay-out of the park, with ornamental temples sometimes one-and-a-half miles or more away. Lady Fitzwilliam in a pair of slacks, rather dumpy and awkward, came downstairs for a word just before we left. I fancy she is not very sensitive to the tragedy of it all.’

There was little doubt that the National Trust proposal had been rejected by Manny Shinwell himself, as he had also rejected a plan by Mr Joseph Hall, president of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association, to obtain the coal by other methods. The miners themselves, conscious of their local inheritance, had pledged themselves, to no avail, to make good the loss if the scheme could be abandoned. Their pleas fell on deaf-ear, but Shinwell was able to appease them by considering a speedy restoration of the land and possible financial assistance.

Earl Fitzwilliam had already turned to a group of experts from the Department of Fuel and Technology at Sheffield University. They quickly established that open-cast mining would produce poor quality coal and deemed Mr Shinwell’s plans as not being cost-effective.

Responding to Manny Shinwell’s thin promise of restoration after mining ceased, William Batley, a member of the group, wrote to the Secretary of the Georgian Group. ‘Effective restoration. What a cockeyed yarn. These Ministers of State must think we are a lot of simpletons – spinning us the tale. It is just bunkum, sheer bunk.’

The Sphere - 8 February 1947 (BNA)
The progress of open-cast mining. A view from 1947 showing how the excavation of the property had now reached the very doors of Earl Fitzwilliam’s historic mansion. Over ten months the open-cast workings had been extended from parkland, across the gardens and right up to the historic mansion. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
The Sphere - 20 April 1946 1 (BNA)
Wentworth No. 3 site. Manny Shinwell had visited the site and declared at the time that little could be done to reprieve the estate. Mr J.A. Hall, president of the Yorkshire Mineworkers’ Association, had stated that the gardens were among the most beautiful in the country and that it would be sheer vandalism to proceed with the scheme. In the background is the spire of Wentworth Church. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

Earl Fitzwilliam met Clement Attlee in April to appeal against further damage to the property. He urged that work could be done by less destructive methods. The meeting at Downing Street wasn’t a success. Meanwhile, excavators were at work getting out the first 300 tonnes of coal of the promised 345,000 tonnes.

There are those who believe that Manny Shinwell’s actions in 1946 were directed solely at Earl Fitzwilliam, whom he believed was part of the ‘old brigade’ – men who had run the ‘foolish, callous profit-hunting system’ which, he believed had operated before the war.

In ‘Black Diamonds – The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty’, Catherine Bailey describes what happened:

‘Peter was convinced that Shinwell’s plans for Wentworth Woodhouse were vindictive. It was the proposal to mine the formal gardens – a site directly behind the Baroque west front – that threatened the house. The magnificent 300-year-old beech avenue that ran down the Long Terrace, the raised walkway along the western edge of the gardens, the pink shale path, with its dramatic floral roundels, together with ninety-nine acres of immaculately tended lawns, shrubbery and luxuriant herbaceous borders, were scheduled to be uprooted. The over-burden from the open-cast mining – top soil, mangled plants and pieces of rubble – was to be piled fifty feet high outside the main entrance to the West front, the top of the mound directly level with Peter’s bedroom window and the guest rooms in the private apartments at the back of the house.’

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 4 - 26 April 1946 (BNA)
“Private property must be used for the benefit of the nation… There should be no department of public activity in which Labour has not got to have a finger in the pie.” (Manny Shinwell, in Leeds, April 6 1946). Gardeners are seen uprooting rhododendron bushes before replanting. Image. The British Newspaper Archive.
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 2 - 26 April 1946 (BNA)
The gardens were among the most beautiful in the country and represented years of care and labour spent in bringing them to a state of perfection. A large slice of them were to become a wilderness of grey clay, with the ever-present risk of subsidence. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

As we know, Manny Shinwell had his way and Wentworth Woodhouse suffered. In 1948, Peter Fitzwilliam was killed in the same plane crash as Kathleen Kennedy, and shortly afterwards the Ministry of Health attempted to requisition the house as ‘housing for homeless industrial families’.

The move was thwarted by Lady Mabel Fitzwilliam, sister of the 7th Earl, who brokered a deal with West Riding County Council to turn it into the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education. The college later merged with Sheffield Polytechnic who gave up the lease in 1988 due to high maintenance costs.

Wentworth Woodhouse eventually returned to private ownership, first with Wensley Grosvenor Haydon-Baillie and then Clifford Newbold, both of whom made brave restoration attempts. The house was now subject to subsidence caused by old underground mine-workings, not the 1940’s open-cast mining, but something Manny Shinwell might have taken into consideration had he known. (The Newbold family lodged an unsuccessful £100 million compensation claim with the Coal Authority).

Wentworth Woodhouse was sold to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust for £7 million in 2017. The cost of repairs to the house were estimated at £40 million, helped by a grant of £7.6 million from the Government, but this figure was reassessed earlier this year and projected restoration work is now likely to be around £100 million.

Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 1 - 4 July 1947 (BNA)
At the farmyard gate: The open-cast workings had reached almost to the buildings of this farm on the Wentworth estate. It was estimated that there was an annual loss of 126,000 gallons of milk, 300 tons of bread and 50 tons of beef against a total of 2,060,000 tons of coal obtained in three and a half years. This was taken from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in July 1947. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 2 - 4 July 1947 (BNA)
Needlessly derelict: Agricultural land at Warren Vale, which had been used as a stacking site for coal. In 1947, no coal had been placed here for two years and yet the land had not been released and these heaps still covered the ground. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 3 - 4 July 1947 (BNA)
Bog: This field at Newhill Grange Farm was requisitioned in June, 1943, and restored in summer, 1944. Drainage, water supply and the condition of the soil were some of the worries besetting tenant farmers on the estate. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 3 - 26 April 1946 (BNA)
The Doric Site: It was proposed to preserve the wall and the avenue of beeches. Mechanical diggers were brought to within 250 yards of the mansion itself, which was virtually isolated. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 4 - 4 July 1947 (BNA)
Heartbreak at Ashes Farm, where patches of mud and water lay in the field. Cropping was proving a depressing task on restored land which formerly yielded excellent results. In some instances the crops were only fit to be ploughed back in. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 4 - 5 July 1947 (BNA)
In 1947, the question was asked, how long would it take before the soil regained its previous condition? Under the arrangements only top soil was kept separate. This section of a restored site at Quarry Field showed a few inches of top soil and stone and shale below. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

 

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