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