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‘Toby fell hope­lessly in love, just like his fa­ther had’

Eng­land’s grand­est coun­try house is crum­bling, brought low by decades of feud­ing that de­stroyed the aris­to­crats who built it.

Went­worth Wood­house in South York­shire is re­puted to have more rooms than there are days in the year. Once it was staffed by hun­dreds of ser­vants but to­day much of it is empty, and a scheme to ren­o­vate it could re­quire £150m of pub­lic funds over 20 years.

Last week Week­end mag­a­zine re­vealed how the es­tate once acted al­most as an in­de­pen­dent king­dom, where the rule of Earl Fitzwilliam was law. Cus­tom even dic­tated he could sleep with his ten­ants’ daugh­ters – a tra­di­tion the Sev­enth Earl em­braced with gusto. His name was Wil­liam FitzWilliam... but the ten­ants called him Billy FitzBilly. His son Peter, the Eighth Earl, aban­doned his wife for an af­fair with a sis­ter of the fu­ture US pres­i­dent JFK. They both died in a plane crash in 1948.

But the most scan­dalous story of all, the one that ended the earl­dom and left the house a ruin, is told here – of a mother’s jeal­ousy, the love af­fair she could not pre­vent... and her ter­ri­ble re­venge.

The judge’s ver­dict was ruth­less. Ge­orge ‘Toby’ Fitzwilliam, the 63year- old heir to an an­cient earl­dom and Bri­tain’s grand­est stately home, was il­le­git­i­mate. His par­ents had been un­mar­ried when Toby was born, ruled Mr Jus­tice Pilcher at the Royal Courts of Jus­tice in 1951. At­tempts to prove other­wise were a ‘put-up job’, a ‘stage per­for­mance’, a ‘bluff by the­atri­cally-minded peo­ple’.

That lan­guage be­trayed the judge’s con­tempt for Toby’s mother, a com­mon ac­tress. And his rul­ing had cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for one of Eng­land’s rich­est fam­i­lies. The Fitzwilliams had made hun­dreds of mil­lions from their coal mines in South York­shire. They lived as se­cre­tive mon­archs in a sprawl­ing man­sion with pas­sage­ways of more than five miles.

But with Toby barred from claim­ing the an­cient ti­tle, it passed to his younger brother Tom who had no chil­dren and never would have. Toby had chil­dren, but since their fa­ther was il­le­git­i­mate they had no right to the earl­dom. When Tom died in 1979, the ti­tle died too.

It was an ig­no­min­ious end to more than 250 years of his­tory. To­day, the fam­ily’s stately home, Went­worth Wood­house near Rother­ham, is crum­bling into dere­lic­tion. All this ruin might never have hap­pened though, if a mother had not turned against her son and dis­owned him – for the crime of mar­ry­ing for love.

Toby’s mother was an ac­tress and dancer at a no­to­ri­ous West End theatre, one of the in­fa­mous ‘Gai­ety Girls’, when she met his fa­ther, nephew of the wealthy Sixth Earl Fitzwilliam. Daisy Eve­lyn Lys­ter was 20. Ge­orge Fitzwilliam, also 20, was im­pres­sion­able, bois­ter­ous and hard- drink­ing – and he fell hope­lessly in love with ‘Evie’. Though he did not ex­pect to be earl, he was heir to an­other Fitzwilliam es­tate of 23,000 acres at Mil­ton, near Barns­ley in York­shire. Ge­orge’s fam­ily saw how smit­ten he was, and his sis­ter Alice could un­der­stand it. ‘Evie was the most lovely woman I’ve ever seen,’ she said. But he was for­bid­den to marry her, not only by his fam­ily but by his reg­i­ment. If a Guards of­fi­cer wed an ac­tress, he had to re­sign his com­mis­sion. In Septem­ber 1886, just weeks af­ter they first met, Evie and Ge­orge set off for Scot­land. She was ap­pear­ing in a tour­ing mu­si­cal com­edy called The Beg­gar Stu­dent. By the time they re­turned to Eng­land, they were liv­ing to­gether as Mr and Mrs Fitzwilliam. Ge­orge, how­ever, did not re­sign his com­mis­sion, and decades later no record of any mar­riage in Scot­land could be dis­cov­ered.

A boy was born in 1888 – Toby. And that’s when ru­mours be­gan to fly. Gos­sips in the Lon­don clubs said there had never been a Scot­tish wed­ding. Ge­orge’s sis­ters were hor­ri­fied to imag­ine he had fa­thered a son with Evie. Nei­ther she nor the baby would ever be ac­cepted at Mil­ton, they said. And they were more hor­ri­fied still to learn that, in 1888, at a church in Hanover Square in West­min­ster, Ge­orge and Evie had been of­fi­cially mar­ried. Whether it was their sec­ond wed­ding or their first, they were now def­i­nitely man and wife. The Royal Horse Guards heard of it too, and Ge­orge was asked to ‘send in his pa­pers’ – to re­sign. ‘Ge­orge hasn’t one ounce of fam­ily pride or feel­ing in his con­sti­tu­tion,’ raged a cousin.

As his par­ents had died, Ge­orge and Evie had a com­fort­able in­come from the Mil­ton es­tate and, then in 1904, they had an­other son too, lit­tle Tom. Their so­cial stand­ing never re­cov­ered, how­ever. Evie was con­scious that she was not born an aris­to­crat, and that many peo­ple re­garded her as a so­cial climber. That was why she was so fu­ri­ous when she dis- cov­ered that Toby was en­gaged to marry a farmer’s daugh­ter.

Toby was 26 when he too fell hope­lessly in love, just like his fa­ther. But his sweet­heart, Beryl Mor­gan, was far from a Gai­ety Girl. Her par­ents owned a small­hold­ing in Glouces­ter­shire, and her mother’s par­ents had run a draper’s shop in Ex­eter. Beryl worked as a gov­erness in Bris­tol. She was plain, but witty and in­tel­li­gent.

Their first visit to Mil­ton was a suc­cess – Beryl made Evie laugh, and the two women had such fun that they told Toby to go and oc­cupy him­self some­where else. ‘You can’t have her all to your­self,’ chided Evie.

But then dis­as­ter struck. Toby had craftily told his mother that Beryl’s fam­ily ‘ had a bit of land’ and de­scribed her mother’s side as ‘an old Devo­nian fam­ily’. In the aris­to­cratic world, such phrases im­plied wealth and high birth. When Evie dis­cov­ered the truth, she was fu­ri­ous. She ac­cused Beryl of be­ing a ‘climber’ – ex­actly the crime she had been con­demned for her­self 25 years ear­lier.

How­ever, it was 1914, the brink of war, and Toby’s reg­i­ment, the Ter­ri­to­rial Mounted Bri­gade, would be sent

‘Evie had a vin­dic­tive, stub­born streak’

to the front. He knew he might not come back – and he and Beryl were des­per­ate to marry. Evie did ev­ery­thing she could to halt the en­gage­ment. She sent poi­sonous let­ters to her son and his fi­ancée. ‘I feel dis­gusted with the whole thing,’ she told Beryl. ‘Don’t ask me to be present at the wed­ding be­cause I have fin­ished with it all.’ To Toby, she said, ‘If you marry her now you will es­trange your­self from us for­ever.’

Toby pleaded with his fa­ther, say­ing his love was no for­tune­hunter and, ‘Were our en­gage­ment to be bro­ken off, my l i fe would be ru­ined, and for Beryl I be­lieve all the hap­pi­ness of life would be taken from her for­ever.’ Ge­orge replied, ‘I do not in­tend to dis­cuss the busi­ness any fur­ther as I am damned sick of the whole thing.’

They mar­ried any­way and Toby was sent to the West­ern Front in Novem­ber 1914. Within weeks he was blown up and in­jured. After­wards, he suf­fered from shell shock, now called post-trau­matic stress. His fa­ther vis­ited him in hos­pi­tal. His mother did not, and she for­bade any­one from men­tion­ing her son’s name. Beryl and Toby had two chil­dren, Richard and Rose­mary, in 1916 and 1918, but Evie re­fused to see them.

Dur­ing the war, with her health begin­ning to fail, Evie plot­ted how to ex­clude Toby from the fam­ily af­ter her death. Ge­orge was pow­er­less to change her mind. ‘She was a woman of very strong char­ac­ter, just as Ge­orge was very weak,’ com­mented a friend. ‘She dom­i­nated him and he gave in to her ev­ery wish. She had a very vin­dic­tive and stub­born streak.’

How vin­dic­tive, no­body could have guessed. Evie be­gan to tell neigh­bours that Toby was il­le­git­i­mate. She sum­moned the sec­re­tary of the lo­cal hunt and his wife to Mil­ton Hall, to tell them that she and Ge­orge weren’t mar­ried when he was born.

Most peo­ple didn’t be­lieve it. The row be­tween mother and son was com­mon knowl­edge, and for years Evie had pro­claimed that if any­one doubted she and Ge­orge had been mar­ried in Scot­land, years be­fore Toby was born, she had the cer­tifi­cates to prove them wrong. Now she was say­ing the op­po­site – but ev­ery­one knew what Evie was like.

Ge­orge cer­tainly did. He meekly said noth­ing, un­til Evie died in 1925, aged 59. Then he as­sured Toby that he was le­git­i­mate, and he would in­herit Mil­ton Hall. But in 1935, when his fa­ther died, Toby re­ceived a shock. The will dis­in­her­ited him, and left ev­ery­thing to his younger Black Di­a­monds by Catherine Bai­ley, Pen­guin Books, £9.99. To or­der it for £7.99 visit mail­shop. co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p free on or­ders over £15. Of­fer valid un­til 15/12/ 2018. Adapted here by Christo­pher Stevens. brother Tom. Per­haps Ge­orge had been forced by Evie to change his will, and had never got round to re­vers­ing it. Per­haps he was scared of what his wife might say in the af­ter­life. In any event, the blow was heavy. ‘I had the most fright­ful feel­ing,’ Toby said, ‘that my fa­ther had de­ceived me all my life. It was a very great shock.’

Toby ac­cepted the loss of the Mil­ton es­tate. But over the next 15 years the fam­ily suf­fered other re­ver­sals. The Eighth Earl Fitzwilliam died child­less in a plane crash over France with his lover, Kath­leen ‘Kick’ Kennedy. The Ninth Earl was an al­co­holic who died piti­fully, sur­rounded by bot­tles at Went­worth Wood­house.

And so the suc­ces­sion passed to Ge­orge and Evie’s son – but which one? Toby was de­ter­mined to prove he was the le­git­i­mate heir, and hired Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, who pros­e­cuted war crim­i­nals at the Nurem­berg tri­als, as his bar­ris­ter. His ef­forts failed. Mr Jus­tice Pilcher sided with Tom, say­ing that most of the fam­ily doubted the truth of that wed­ding in Scot­land.

The dry lan­guage of the judg­ment failed to con­ceal the fam­ily’s un­rav­el­ling. In just a few decades, the dy­nasty had been de­stroyed by love.

Daisy Eve­lyn Lys­ter, or ‘Evie’, was an ac­tress who caught the eye of Ge­orge Fitzwilliam. In­set: her son Toby, his wife Beryl and their daugh­ter Rose­mary in 1951

Ge­orge Fitzwilliam in a Van­ity Fair car­toon

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