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Its saviour was Clifford Newbold, a London architect, who, far from being the recluse he was originally made out to be, did what he could to save Wentworth Woodhouse.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

The playboy Earl and a Kennedy

Photograph of Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam and Kick Kennedy by Turtle Bunbury

Peter Wentworth Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam (1910-1948), soldier, nobleman and peer, with a seat in the House of Lords.

He was born at Wentworth Woodhouse, just over the Sheffield border with Rotherham, married Olive Dorothea Plunket in 1933, and succeeded to the earldom in 1943.

In later years his marriage was said to be in disarray and heading for divorce.

His life was engulfed with scandal and, despite being married, he fell in love with Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (Kathleen Cavendish, Marchioness of Hartington), sister of future US President John F. Kennedy, at the end of the Second World War after meeting the 28-year-old widow at the Dorchester Hotel in London.

Kennedy patriarch Joe had been persuaded to consider them marrying, but tragedy struck in 1948 as they took a premeeting holiday, and their plane crashed in France during a storm.

He left no son and the peerage moved to his second cousin once-removed Eric Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, but his fortune, including half the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, the Coolattin estate in County Wicklow and a large part of the Fitzwilliam art collection, was inherited by his 13-year-old daughter, Lady Juliet Tadgell.

Fitzwilliam is portrayed by Thomas Gibson in the television mini-series The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1990) and by Larry Carter in the film Lives and Deaths of the Poets (2011).