Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Wentworth Woodhouse — the Death of an Estate

by | September 14, 2012 | 7 comments

Wentworth Woodhouse began as a Baroque mansion in the early eighteenth century, built in South Yorkshire, England by the 1st Marquess of Rockingham (1693 – 1750). His son, the 2nd Marquess, was a powerful Whig in politics and could not bear the fact his house was already old-fashioned.

His friends thought it more suited to a Tory. 

So, the windows looking out upon the back garden were blocked up, the rear entrances sealed against the flowers and shrubbery that had been painstakingly laid out in a formal design unique to the house. These were ripped out by the roots, the rich, moist earth of their beds excavated to expose bedrock below. And then workers arrived to fill the deep gash with the stone mix that one normally uses for a foundation.

Like a two-faced Janus, a new house was to be built against the back of the other, as if the first Wentworth Woodhouse had ceased to exist. Slowly a massive portico was raised to great height, towering over the now-despised building that would serve as its rear entrance. The monumental porch was given a pediment for a crown, as if to announce the secular power of its owner. The grand double stair ascending to the principal floor, called a piano nobile, seemed fit for the gods. It was cold and perfectly symmetrical. It was devoid of excessive ornamentation. Wentworth Woodhouse became a Power House of England.

The exquisite parkland, done in the Picturesque style, was placed before the proud mansion. Verdant, rolling lawns carefully planned so that they appeared to have been placed there by Nature herself.  Ornamental trees framed a Greek temple and lined a majestic pink driveway. But it was the sapling oaks that took root quickly, as if they had been there forever, and always would be. 

Wentworth Woodhouse – Regency print

Even in those days, erecting two mansions in the space of two generations required a great deal of cash. Happily, the estates surrounding Wentworth Woodhouse yielded that in abundance, for they covered one of the richest veins of coal in all Britain. 

By the time those oaks were centuries old, the black ore was ever more in demand. It was needed to fuel an empire and two world wars. The Earls Fitzwilliam now owned the house and as a family had a reputation for sage management. The miners they employed respected and admired them.

But Wentworth Woodhouse had inspired a terrible hatred. Maybe because it was the largest private house in the United Kingdom. Perhaps it was because its west front was the longest country house facade in Europe. Who can explain these things?

In the 1940s, the British government nationalized the country’s mines. The Fitzwilliams were stripped of their coal and the income it had brought them. To pay death duties, the family was twice forced to hold auctions, gradually depleting the great house of its many rich furnishings. But one government minister was not satisfied.  Minister Manny Shinwell, Labour’s Minister of Fuel and Power, ordered the miners once employed by the family to excavate for the precious coal in a very special place.

The miners’ union lodged a protest, horrified at the despicable nature of what they were ordered to do. But it and its members were powerless, beholden to a new authority in the land. With great reluctance and heavy hearts, they brought their lorries, their steam shovels, their excavators, their dynamite and yes, their axes to the beautiful view the proud Classical face of Wentworth Woodhouse had long looked upon.

The great oaks were felled first. The orgy of destruction must have been the inspiration for the desecration of ancient trees carried out in J. R. R. Tolkien’s high fantasy epic, Lord of the Rings. Wentworth Woodhouse’s parkland became open mining pit, the largest in England. Its vast edge came right up to the grand staircase of the house, its refuse blocking the windows of the family’s living areas.

Now the only trees and shrubs that grow at Wentworth Woodhouse are those at the back of the house. They surround the old brick entrance which had once been despised, its humble mien a refuge from changing times.

East Front- Wentworth Woodhouse
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More excursions to country houses and vanished London palaces can be found on my blog at www.angelynschmid.com.



  1. Gerri Bowen

    How horrible.

    • Angelyn

      It is horrible. There are some grainy, black and white newspaper photographs on the internet somewhere that I can’t find now showing the house looking positively defiant over the pit before it, crawling with malevolent machinery.

  2. Ella Quinn

    Criminal. The stupidity of some humans never ceases to amaze me.

    • Angelyn

      It is criminal. I did find the grainy photographs is rather better condition here at Getty Images–they are shocking, so be prepared if you decide to have a look:

  3. Katherine Bone

    This reminds me of what the north did to Arlington, the once prized home of Washington, passed on to his granddaughter and her husband, General Lee. During the battle there, it had become a hospital. And, some authorities decided that they could keep Lee from returning after the war by turning his Arlington home (Washington’s home) into a cemetary for northern soldiers.

    The things envy and jealousy and vengeance will do. It’s very sad and I hate to hear about the devastation to such a beautiful/historic property.

    Great article!

    • Angelyn

      I know all about Arlington. The irony is that such actions were believed to be useful in devastating a beaten population so they would never rise again. This philosophy made its way to Europe during the Franco-Prussian war. Bismarck was impressed with tactics the North used against the civilian population and implemented them against the French.

  4. Ally Broadfield

    Aack! I looked at the Getty photos. Perhaps it’s just the stark black and white photos, but the house actually looks sad. As well it should.



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