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Wentworth Woodhouse

Photograph by Sheffielder

“If you lay out your money in improving your seat, lands, gardens, etc., you beautify the country and do the work ordered by God himself.” These were the words of the 1st Marquess of Rockingham in the letter of advice he left for his son, the future Prime Minister, shortly before his death in 1750.

He had been good as his word, by his own reckoning he had spent £82,500 improving his house and grounds at Wentworth, providing it with one of the longest fronts of any English country house.

We are talking about Wentworth Woodhouse, situated within Rotherham borough, but within a stone throw of the Sheffield border, up the road from Chapeltown.

This remains one of South Yorkshire’s hidden secrets, only emerging from years of obscurity within the past few years.

Few people realise that behind the 600ft Palladian front is a second house with a grand baroque front. The difference between the two houses is blatant, but they formed a single building programme between 1724 to 1749.

Photograph by Sheffielder

The family made their fortune from coal mining, and the Fitzwilliams, descended from the Rockinghams, became well-known in Sheffield circles.

However, the 20th century wasn’t kind to the family and certainly not to Wentworth Woodhouse.

After World War Two, Manny Shimwell, Minister of Fuel and Power, told Peter Fitzwilliam, “I am going to mine right up to your bloody front door.” And he did.

Years of open-cast mining devastated the gardens and parkland and did lasting damage to the old house itself.

Unable to be maintained properly, Wentworth Woodhouse survived due to the efforts of Lady Mabel Fitzwilliam, sister of the 7th Earl, who negotiated a deal with West Riding County Council in 1949 to use it as a training college for physical education teachers. The family retained the Baroque wing.

Lady Mabel College later merged with Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University) and remained at Wentworth Woodhouse until 1988.

The house was put up for sale and bought by Wensley Haydon-Baillie, a millionaire, who, after a bad business investment in 1998, admitted debts of £13million, and the property was repossessed by the bank.

Its saviour was Clifford Newbold, a London architect, who, far from being the recluse he was originally made out to be, did what he could to save Wentworth Woodhouse.

After his death in 2015, Wentworth Woodhouse was put on the market and eventually sold to Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust for £7million in 2017.

This is undoubtedly the renaissance for Wentworth Woodhouse, with £7.2million of repairs to the roof almost complete.

Photograph by Sheffielder

In normal circumstances, the state rooms are open to the public, with plans to use parts of the house as a hotel and business centre.

Subsidence and age have contributed to its unstable condition, underlined by the recent discovery that Georgian cornices, 18 metres above the ground, were crumbling away.

The good news is that Historic England has stepped in with a grant of £224,000 to replace more than 90metres of the ornate sandstone and limestone cornice, which runs around the roofline of the mansion’s Palladian East front.

Photograph by Sheffielder
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An American tale

Photograph by The Telegraph

They say that American schoolchildren know more about Wentworth Woodhouse than their British counterparts. More astonishingly, there are far more people in Sheffield who have probably never heard of it.

Wentworth Woodhouse, just over the Sheffield border with Rotherham, is the result of building work carried out by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham (1693-1750), who built it between 1724 to 1749. It is remarkable for consisting of two houses built as one. The famous Palladian east front hides the grand Baroque west-wing behind.

His son, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), was a committed Whig and became Prime Minister of Great Britain on two occasions – between 1765-1766 and in 1782.

He spent most of his political career in opposition to George III’s Government, but Wentworth Woodhouse became a seat of political activity, where ‘The Rockingham Whigs’ including Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and the Duke of Portland met to draft policies.

He argued consistently with reconciliation with America at a time when thirteen colonies were becoming increasingly at odds with Great Britain. However, he failed to convince most of the House of Commons and as a result there was the long and bloody American War of Independence (1775-1783).

When he took office again in 1782 it was on condition that George III recognise American Independence, but Wentworth died before terms of peace could be negotiated. As one historian says, he was “a champion of a lost cause.”

But don’t think that he was a radical, initially believing that America shouldn’t be given independence. “Our object has always been to try to preserve a friendly union between the colonies and the Mother Country.”

The American War of Independence ended a year later, marking the end of British rule and the formation of the United States of America.