Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England

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9780143126843: Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England

From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Secret Rooms, the extraordinary true story of the downfall of one of England’s wealthiest families

Fans of Downton Abbey now have a go-to resource for fascinating, real-life stories of the spectacular lives led by England’s aristocrats. With the novelistic flair and knack for historical detail Catherine Bailey displayed in her New York Times bestseller The Secret Rooms, Black Diamonds provides a page-turning chronicle of the Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England.

When the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902, he left behind the second largest estate in twentieth-century England, valued at more than £3 billion of today’s money—a lifeline to the tens of thousands of people who worked either in the family’s coal mines or on their expansive estate. The earl also left behind four sons, and the family line seemed assured. But was it? As Bailey retraces the Fitzwilliam family history, she uncovers a legacy riddled with bitter feuds, scandals (including Peter Fitzwilliam’s ill-fated affair with American heiress Kick Kennedy), and civil unrest as the conflict between the coal industry and its miners came to a head. Once again, Bailey has written an irresistible and brilliant narrative history.

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About the Author:

Catherine Bailey read history at Oxford University and is an award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Secret Rooms and Black Diamonds. She lives in West London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

A crowd of thousands shifted nervously on the great lawn in front of Wentworth House, waiting for the coffin to be brought out. It was the winter of 1902: ‘February,’ as one observer remarked, ‘in her worst mood.’ Two hundred servants, dressed in black, stood stiffly along the length of the façade facing the crush of mourners. Shrouds of fog enveloped the statues and pediments crowning the house; an acrid smell clung to the mist, catching in the nostrils, effluent from the pits, foundries and blast furnaces in the valley below. The fog drained everything of colour. Now and then it lifted to reveal a portion of the house: on a clear day the crowd could have counted a thousand windows, but that morning most of it was obscured.

The hearse, a glass coach, swathed in sable and crepe, was ready outside the Pillared Hall. It was drawn by four black horses: plumes of black ostrich feathers adorned their bridles and black-tasselled cloths were draped across their backs. Mutes, the customary Victorian funeral attendants, stood by them; macabre figures, veils of black crepe trailed from their tall silk hats. Bells tolled in the distance. In the nearby villages the shops were closed and the curtains in the houses drawn fast.

At the stroke of midday, three hours after the crowd had first begun to gather, the coffin, mounted on a silver bier, was carried out of the house. It was followed by a procession of housemaids and footmen bearing hundreds of wreaths of flowers. A brilliant splash of colour in the bleak scene, they drew a murmur from the crowd.

The oak coffin contained the body of William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, one of the richest men in Britain. He had left a legacy of £2.8 million pounds – more than £3 billion at today’s values. In the century to come, only one Englishman, Sir John Ellerman, the shipping magnate, would leave a larger fortune. The dead Earl was among the very wealthiest of Britain’s twentieth-century aristocrats.

His money had come from land and a spectacular stroke of luck. In the late eighteenth century, the Fitzwilliams’ Yorkshire estates – over 20,000 acres in total – were found to straddle the Barnsley seam, the main artery of the South Yorkshire coalfield. Wentworth House, situated nine miles north-east of Sheffield, lay at its heart.

The Earl was born in 1815, the year of Waterloo. Over the course of his lifetime his wealth had increased a thousandfold. Rapid technological advances, spurred by the huge demand for coal, had made it possible to sink mines deeper and deeper along the lucrative Barnsley seam. The Earl’s collieries, as one contemporary noted, were ‘within rifle shot of his ancestral seat’: by the close of the century, mines and pit villages crowded the hills and valleys around the house.

In the early 1900s, Arthur Eaglestone, a miner from Rotherham, writing under the pseudonym of Roger Dataller, described a dawn journey through the Earl’s country:

The train bored its way through the grim litter of steel manufactories, the serried heaping of coal and ironstone stocks, the multiplicity of railway metals, the drifting steam of locomotives . . . As we gobble up one hamlet after another, cottages and farmhouses loom up mere outlines, islands in the mist; but as the light becomes clearer certain chimneys and headstocks appear upon the horizon, a reminder of the vast subterranean activity with which we are connected. As one headstock falls in the distance, another rises to meet us – the inescapable, the endless chain of winding. We shall not escape the headstocks. We may vary the route as we please, but the gaunt pulley-wheels, and the by-product plant, a column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire by night, will still be in attendance.

The Earl’s death at the age of eighty-six – after he caught a sudden chill – had stunned the district. His life had been spent overseeing his vast estates and enjoying his wealth. For a man of few other achievements, the local newspaper’s coverage of his demise was extraordinary:

A feeling of awe crept over the people of this neighbourhood when it was whispered vaguely from behind the veil that he had entered the Valley of the Shadow, and was sleeping by the side of the shore of that silent sea which lies between the world and ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns’. But great and mighty is all-conquering Death, it is beyond even his sublime strength to convert the waters of the tideless sea. He was a noble lord, and moreover, a man who had the respect of all who knew him and the affection of those who knew him best. He now sleeps the sleep that knows no waking. Death the Conqueror has laid his icy hands upon him.

In 1902, tens of thousands of people across the South Yorkshire coalfield were wholly dependent on the Earl for a living. On the morning of his funeral, they were drawn to Wentworth House.

‘The workmen on the various estates were in strong force,’ the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported,

A remarkable feature of the proceedings was the great muster of miners. Genuine sorrow cannot be bought with gold or wrung from the hearts of an unwilling community. It must spring from love or admiration. Wentworth is by no means easy of access and curiosity nor a perfunctory sense of duty could never have brought together thousands of mourners under such dispiriting conditions. Through the slush and the searching rain the mourners came to the funeral. Old men who had worked for the Earl for 50 years risked serious illness for love of their noble master and trudged sorrowfully from station or neighbouring village to swell the mournful gathering.

The size and grandeur of Wentworth House were but faintly suggested through the haze of mist and fog. It was built for the Earl’s ancestor Thomas Wentworth, later Marquess of Rockingham, in the 1720s. Designed by Henry Flitcroft, it had taken more than fifteen years to complete and its façade was the longest in Europe. The house had a room for every day of the year and five miles of passageways. One guest, a Baron von Liebig, resorted to crumbling wafers along the route from his bedroom to the dining room so that he could find his way back after dinner. Thereafter, guests were presented with a crested silver casket containing different-coloured confetti.

The house lay in parkland encompassed by a nine-mile-long stone wall. Humphrey Repton, the famous eighteenth-century landscape designer, had sculpted the Park; twelve follies – towers, columns and a mausoleum built in the classical style – marked its highest points. Millions of tons of coal lay under the land but so rich was the Earl, he had no need to mine it. Yet even he could not inure Wentworth from the grime that trespassed inside the boundaries of the Park. Coal dust carried from the nearby collieries settled in the sheaves of corn grown in the fields. The streams running through them were orange: ‘ochre water’, as the locals called it, polluted by the mines that honeycombed the district.

Shortly after one o’clock, a bugler sounded the Last Post. It was the signal for the 5,000-strong cortège to begin the mile-long walk to the village church. As if on cue, the fog lifted as the mourners moved off. A thousand miners from the Earl’s pits led the procession, flanked by an escort of fifty soldiers from the Yorkshire Dragoons.

The family’s downfall was unthinkable. William, Earl Fitzwilliam, had left a great fortune. Four sons – each named William after him – survived him. The coal industry was booming: the family’s wealth and power seemed as solid and unshakeable as the foundations of their vast house.

Yet the Fitzwilliams and the thousands who worked for them were about to become the central figures in an approaching catastrophe.

What was unthinkable on that day in February 1902 happened.

Introduction

In 1902, Wentworth was the largest privately owned house in Britain. It still is today.

Its size is truly extraordinary, almost impossible to visualize. Imagine Buckingham Palace: the glorious, sweeping East Front at Wentworth is almost twice as long. Marcus Binney, the architectural historian, sees it as ‘unquestionably the finest Georgian house in England’. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote glowingly of its ‘interiors of quite exceptional interest’. But unlike the much cherished Chatsworth or Blenheim, few have heard its name and fewer still have actually seen it. It is England’s forgotten palace.

Today, the house looms blank and shuttered. The home of a reclusive figure, it is closed to the public. ‘I’ve never seen him,’ remarked a former postmistress in the nearby village. ‘And no one I know ever has.’

The baroque West Front of the house is hidden behind a screen of tall cedars, but the 600-foot-long Palladian East Front can be glimpsed from the Trans-Pennine Way, the public footpath that runs through Wentworth Park. The first impression is a familiar one: the pediments, pillars and domed pavilions the hallmarks – be they on a breathtaking scale – of a grand stately home. But look a little longer and something jars. Longer still and the image is unnerving – even chilling. It is like looking at a picture one knows intimately from which something is missing, though it is impossible to say what.

The clues can be found in the fields that sweep away from the house. Time is not written on the land as it is on the adjacent façade; there are no hedgerows, ditches or centuries-old oaks. The fields are bare and desolate, as if denuded by some unseen hand. The traces of the past have been kicked over.

An obsession with secrecy corrupts the twentieth-century history of the house. The Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments – the family and estate papers of the Earls Fitzwilliam and their ancestors, the Marquesses of Rockingham and the Earls of Strafford – form one of the most important historical archives in Britain today. Rich in correspondence, there are thousands of letters and papers dating back to medieval times. But in 1900 the transparency of centuries comes to a halt: few family papers exist in this impressive historical collection after this date.

Their absence is no accident. In July 1972 the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam ordered his employees to destroy the bulk of Wentworth’s twentieth-century records. Sixteen tons of documents were hauled by tractor from where they were stored in the Georgian Stable Block to Trawles Wood, a beech copse in the valley below Wentworth that was used in the eighteenth century as a dumping ground for the household’s refuse and rubbish. There, the documents were burnt in a bonfire that blazed, night and day, for three weeks. Other smaller fires had preceded it: in a deliberate attempt to hide from history, the private papers of the 7th, 8th and 9th Earls – the tenants of Wentworth in the first half of the twentieth century – were destroyed after their deaths. The cull even extended to the personal papers of their employees. Peter Diggle, the son of Colonel Heathcote Diggle, a Fitzwilliam family trustee and the manager of their estates, watched his father burn documents that chronicled three decades of working as an adviser to the 7th Earl: ‘The Fitzwilliams had a secret life and if you have a secret life then there are things that must be destroyed.’

The twentieth-century Fitzwilliams were obsessive in guarding their secrets, both in the systematic destruction of the family papers and in vows of silence. ‘My grandmother made me promise that I would not tell anybody about these private things that went on at Wentworth,’ Ann, Lady Bowlby, the granddaughter of Maud, Countess Fitzwilliam, who lived at Wentworth from 1902 until 1948, recalled. ‘She didn’t want it all broadcast. It was to do with the Communistic trait of the world then.’ ‘That generation of the family were very proud, very private and very destructive. It was in their blood,’ Ian Bond, another of the Fitzwilliam descendants, remembered. ‘They wanted to destroy things as they themselves had been destroyed. They lived through the downfall of the family. They had experienced a huge sea change. They saw so many sadnesses. They did not want to remember. The world had passed them by.’

The world has also passed Wentworth House by. Although it is the largest and one of the most beautiful of England’s stately homes, the story of what happened there during the twentieth century is a deep mystery because of the loss of the Fitzwilliam family’s archives. Fragments remain: a few scattered but precious collections of family papers have survived. These – and the memories of those who lived and worked at the house and in the pit villages around it – were the beginnings of this book.

The story starts at the edge of the void; at the moment when the official history of Wentworth House stops.

PART I

1

In the crush of mourners, one man walked alone behind the glass hearse.

William Charles de Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam – ‘Billy Fitzbilly’, as the miners called him, or Lord Milton, as his courtesy title styled him – was William, Earl Fitzwilliam’s grandson and heir. In addition to the main family seat and estate at Wentworth, his £2.8 million inheritance included a 100-room mansion and 90,000 acres at Coollattin in Ireland; a fifty-room house in the heart of London’s Mayfair; eighty racehorses; a further 5,000 acres of land dotted around Yorkshire; a priceless collection of paintings and books and a massive portfolio of shares. The income from his coal holdings alone would bring in more than £87,700 a year.*

‘Milton looked very tall and good-looking,’ Lord Halifax, a neighbour of the Fitzwilliams who went to the Earl’s funeral, told his sister enviously. Aged thirty in 1902, wearing the dress uniform of an officer in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, Billy cut a dashing figure. He was classically good-looking, according to the benchmarks of the Edwardian era. Even-featured, with warm, smiling eyes, he had thick dark brown hair and a sprucely clipped moustache. His face still bore the colour of the African sun: he had recently returned from the Transvaal where he had won a DSO fighting in the Boer War.

A brilliant huntsman and polo player, Billy, the heir to one of the richest aristocrats of the twentieth century, was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. From 1895 – when he was twenty-three – until he became the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, he sat as MP for Wakefield. Prior to that, in his late teens, he had served as ADC to the Viceroy of India. These are matters of record: the scant details that can be firmly established about him at this stage of his life. Little else is known. ‘He had a perfect horror of publicity of any sort or kind,’ his sister, Lady Mabel Smith, recalled. ‘It ran all through his life from when he was quite a boy. It was one of his chief characteristics.’

In a vaulted cellar beneath a large house in Southern England there are sixteen trunks containing Billy’s personal effects: the things he regarded as precious. There is a pair of black and tan hunting boots that still bear the worn creases of the chase; a set of tiger’s teeth; a miner’s lamp and helmet and a battered leather cigar case: inside it, the disintegrated flakes of a Monte Cristo that he never smoked. There are boxes of wax seals and rolls of parchment bearing grants of titl...

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