Clive Aslet

The house that coal built

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Black Diamonds

Catherine Bailey

Penguin/Viking, pp. 518, £

I opened this book expecting to  find the sort of volume a considerate host would place in your country- house bedroom. It is a bit more than that. Taking the decline of the Earls of Fitzwilliam and their enormous house Wentworth Woodhouse, outside Rother- ham, as her theme, Caroline Bailey evokes the social revolution that occurred in 20th- century Britain. The almost inconceivable riches of the Fitzwilliam family — coming- of-age parties were celebrated with entertainment for tens of thousands of people — are contrasted to the squalor in which local miners lived. The Fitzwilliams were not bad employers. It was unfortunate that a visit by George V and Queen Mary in 1919, made to bolster the position of the monarchy at a time of fermenting unrest, should have coincided with two explosions in Denaby Main. Billy, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, had studied mining; he had already warned the company concerned that an accident was likely to happen.  Mining was a vital industry throughout the first 70 years of the century. The rise and fall of its workforce is the history of organised labour. Remember Mrs Thatcher.

The book starts with a mystery that would have defeated most authors. In 1972, 16 tons of muniments were hauled from the big house and systematically burnt in a bonfire that lasted three weeks. It is not the only example of records being deliberately destroyed in the book. Almost every reference to George V’s visit has been expunged from the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s papers and even the Royal Library. (The inference is that nobody wanted posterity to know how close the ruling caste thought Britain had come to a revolution.) Like a detective attempting to reconstruct the identity of a villain whose fingerprints have been wiped clean, Bailey forensically reconstructs family history. It is not a pretty tale. Billy’s aunts loathed him and did everything they could to make him unwelcome. Like James II’s daughters, they were convinced, or prepared to convince others, that the heir to the dynasty was a changeling.

And in Billy’s case, he just might have been. He was born in a remote region of Canada. There were no white people for miles around other than the midwife and doctor. It was hardly normal for an English aristocrat to expect his wife to give birth in such circumstances.

But Billy’s father, Lord Milton, eldest son of the 6th Earl, was not normal, as conventionally understood. He was an epileptic. Despite Milton’s derring-do in having discovered a land route from the Atlantic to the Pacific when 24, his father, identifing his epilepsy with mental illness, brutally rejected him. Milton led a miserable life. It finds an awful parallel later in the book when a local lad, with a speech impediment, is sent to a lunatic asylum, largely for being unable to speak. He is discovered, still entombed there after half a century of abuse, by a  nurse, who, for the first time, gives him a pencil and paper. He had been perfectly able to communicate in writing and  had always been tragically sane. This man, the author implies, was one of Billy Fitzwilliam’s by-blows. Billy reigned like a feudal lord; not surprisingly, his  genes were widely disseminated in the locality.

This book is full of horrible people. The worst of all is Evie, wife of George Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, grandson of the 5th Earl. So incensed was this malevolent woman when her eldest son Toby married a chorus girl that she branded him as illegitimate. A quarter of a century after her death, a verdict was given against Toby in the High Court in 1951 and the title passed to her second son, Tom, who became the 10th Earl. (Evie herself had started life as a chorus girl; these things run in families.) Nearly as bad was Mannie Shinwell. As the newly appointed Minister of Fuel and Power, he ensured that the park of Wentworth, one of the most beautiful houses in the country, was mined out of pure spite in 1946. In 1980, one of the massive roof bosses of the House of Lords ceiling detached itself and hurtled on to the red leather bench usually occupied by the then nonagenarian Lord Shinwell. Oh, if only he’d been in his place!

The despoliation of the park, and the severance of the Fitzwilliam connection with Wentworth, was not only opposed by the aesthete James Lees-Milne of the National Trust but by the National Union of Mineworkers. Catherine Bailey might have devoted more space to an architectural description of the splendid building which forms the backdrop to this book, and which she surprisingly calls plain ‘Wentworth House’. But she is good at other details. Water in the streams flowed orange, the flowers in the park were sprinkled with coal dust, the paths were laid with red cinders from the mines. For all their grandeur, the Fitzwilliams passed their lives amongst the grime exuded by the source of their wealth. It gave them a bond with their workers, but some of the black seems to have entered their souls.

Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life.