The revival starts for Wentworth Woodhouse
want to create confidence in the area. It’s about time South Yorkshire stuck a flag in the air and said ‘come and see us’.”
Wentworth Woodhouse was built as the result of a family feud. In 1695, William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford, left the Wentworth estate to his nephew Thomas Watson, and his titles to his natural descendant Thomas Wentworth. The two men set about trying to outdo one another: Thomas Wentworth built Wentworth Castle, seven miles away, while Thomas Watson constructed the two houses that now make up Wentworth Woodhouse. The first, a Baroque-style mansion, faces west; the grander Palladian “extension” faces east.
The 20th century was not kind to Wentworth Woodhouse. On December 31 1931, the Fitzwilliams, who then owned the house, held a fabulous party for 40,000 guests. A world war later, this lavish lifestyle came to an abrupt end, when in April 1946, heavy plant machinery rolled up to the house ready to turn the grounds into the largest open cast mine in Britain. Labour minister Manny Shinwell gave instructions that the mining should take place right up to the “bloody front door”. Inside, Peter Fitzwilliam stood at a window and watched the horror unfold.
Two years later, Fitzwilliam died in a freak accident, and two further generations of the family struggled to keep the house in good order. Since 1989, Wentworth Woodhouse has been sold three times, most recently to the preservation trust for £7million. In November 2016, Chancellor Philip Hammond promised £7.6million towards its restoration. The to-do list is vast – evicting the bats from the stables, clearing the drains, and making the cellars safe – but McLeod warns that her initial priorities might not fit with public approval. “We’ve got to raise substantial amounts of money to carry out the work, so it makes sense that we should prioritise the parts of the site that generate the most income first.”
It is unlikely that the house will be restored first, but instead it will be the camellia house and the stables.
As the team have removed the roof slates, to assess which can be recycled, they have discovered graffiti drawn by estate workers marking their territory, dating back to 1820.
Now, the public will be able to add to this. As part of its new fundraising cam- paign, launched yesterday, people can write a message on a slate for £50, which will then go on the new roof above the state rooms.
McLeod is keen for the local community to join in, “so they can say what the house means to them”.
There are many myths about Wentworth Woodhouse – not least that the house has five miles of corridors: that, says McLeod, is “simply nonsense”. Another rumour is that Wentworth has 365 rooms, one for each day of the year. “What qualifies as a room? There are cupboards bigger than the ground floor of my house.” At one time, 1,000 staff were employed to work in the house and on the estate. “There were two people who just lit the candles,” McLeod adds.
She doesn’t mind if people describe Wentworth as the “most famous house you’ve never heard of ”.
“We need to use it to our advantage,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity – it’s somewhere that people have never heard of, and never seen. That’s one of its great mysteries.”
Wentworth Woodhouse was built during a family rivalry
East front of the house by R Blasson (1790), above; old graffiti, right