Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Wentworth Connections

Are connections a function of age? The kind of connections I am talking about are those chance connections of memory and experience, those synapses of daily life which interrupt your train of thought and tempt you to go wandering down some separate but connected line of thought. As I get older I seem to experience the phenomenon more and more, but this is probably due to a greater accumulation of memories : there are so many events, people, places, sounds and images filed away inside my brain that it is a more than fertile ground for connections and distractions. I am currently reading Catherine Bailey's quite excellent book "Black Diamonds : The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty", so let me use this to illustrate what I mean.


The book tells the true story of the Fitzwilliam Family of Wentworth in what is now South Yorkshire. Their family home (until  the 1980s when it was sold), Wentworth Woodhouse is a magnificent eighteenth century country house with the longest facade of any country house in Europe. The sight of this frontage is truly breathtaking and it is a sight I am slightly familiar with (Connection No. 1) as it is one of the places I used to occasionally teach at in the early 1980s. At the time, the main part of the building was being used by Sheffield Polytechnic and for an entire term I used to teach there once a week. I will never forget the first time I drove down the long driveway and saw the spectacular proportioned and columned building, only later to discover that this was merely the stables and the main house was a further half mile down the drive. I still find it rather hard to believe that I would walk those marbled corridors and deliver dull lectures in those finely proportioned drawing rooms. As I remember the house and its gardens I recall that the family of one of my close friends were gardeners on the staff at Wentworth (Connection No. 2) in the early part of the twentieth century. What I am not sure is whether they worked at Wentworth Woodhouse or Wentworth Castle which is about six or seven miles away and which was owned by another branch of the Wentworth family. I must ask her the next time I see her.


Part III of Catherine Bailey's book tells the story of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Yorkshire in July 1912. During the visit they stayed at Wentworth Woodhouse as the guests of William, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (or Billy FitzBilly as he was known locally). The intention was for the royal couple to visit what was then the industrial heartland of the British Empire, including the steelworks of nearby Sheffield and the South Yorkshire coalfield which surrounded Wentworth (and which, coincidentally, was mainly owned by Billy FitzBilly and his family). The visit was overshadowed by the dreadful mining disaster which occurred on the second day of the Royal visit at the nearby Cadeby Colliery in which 88 miners were killed. The book tells of the later investigation into the disaster and the cold-blooded attitude to the loss of life of people such as the manager of Cadeby Pit, W. H. Chambers. As soon as I saw the name, connective alarm bells begun to ring. 


At about the time I was teaching at Wentworth Woodhouse I would often stop on my way home to Sheffield at a small collectables shop in Rotherham which sold, amongst other things, old postcards. It was here that I bought a series of postcards which had been sent at the end of the nineteenth century to a certain May Chambers of Sheffield. Over the last year or so I have tried to find out a little more about May Chambers from census records, but have only discovered that she was a young school teacher and that her father - William Hoole Chambers - was a mine manager! (Connection No. 3).  Could this possibly be the same W H Chambers who was manager of Cadeby in 1912? At the time of writing it is looking as though the answer is "no" as the dates don't seem to match. But connections don't need solid evidence : speculation and possibility provide just as secure foundations.

As I read the Bailey book I couldn't help thinking of the privileged and wasteful life of the British aristocracy. The book is just as much about the fall of a dynasty as it is about its rise. Wentworth Woodhouse was eventually sold in the late 1980s (amazingly, the guide price at the auction was just £1.5 million) and the Fitzwilliam line more or less died out with the death of the 10th Earl in 1979. Perhaps the great hope for the continuation of the family had been the 8th Earl, Peter Fitzwilliam, who had died with his mistress in a plane crash in 1948. As the last book I read had been Edward Kennedy's Autobiography, True Compass, I couldn't help but compare the fortunes of the British and the American aristocracy. In terms of wealth and privilege there are many similarities between the Fitzwilliams and the Kennedys, in terms of drive, ambition and talent there seemed to be so few. If Peter had lived and gone on to have heirs it might have been different. At the time of his death he was planning to divorce his then wife and marry his mistress. But they were both killed in that plane crash. And the mistress? None other than Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F, Bobby and Ted (Connection No. 4).

14 comments:

  1. Very interesting connections indeed, especially that last one!

    Our aristocracies are similar in another way, too - the euphemisms they give their vacation/relaxation homes. Yours call their castles "country homes", while ours call their castles "summer cottages". We have a bunch of those summer cottages here in Newport; naturally they overlook the ocean. And where Capability Brown landscaped the grounds of your country homes, Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park in New York city, designed the landscaping of our country cottages. But whereas yours were built in varying eras by various architects, ours all seem to have been built at the end of the 19th Century and were designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

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  2. intriguing connections alan...yes they do spur me down trails on adventures to places i never thought i might be...yet leaving me satisfied, for a bit.

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  3. Wow...what a fascinating post! I can just see you delivering those lectures. Are you sure they were dull? haha. I think probably not. :) What interesting connections, too...and gorgeous photos to go with them. :)

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  4. ARGH! When I looked the book up at Amazon, I got a very in-your-face and frustrating message that: THIS TITLE IS NOT AVAILABLE FOR CUSTOMERS FROM THE UNITED STATES.

    I wonder why? From what deep dark horrors do we have to be spared?

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  5. AngelMay : I wonder why! Does anyone know?

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  6. Ummm....I just poked a link at Amazon and it said something about copyright restrictions. But that seems awfully odd to me.

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  7. What a fascinating series of connections! And what an imposing building, backed with a more than imposing sky!

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  8. I love those connections, and I'm very impressed that you recognized the name on the card.

    That's odd about the book. I just went to Amazon and had no problem. it shows it as being available for as little as $6.75. Very puzzling.

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  9. I was looking at the Kindle edition. Maybe that was the problem.

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  10. fascinating post. i love all the associations and connections taking place inside that creative brain of yours.

    although the first rule of ecology is 'everything is connected' pertains to the natural world.... it seems to apply here too! i guess people are part of the natural world too.

    i wonder what we'd get if we plug in these names in the kevin bacon six degrees of separation site - actually it's been a few years since i visited that site i wonder if it's still around or if it eventually was closed down....fascinating place to see all sorts of weird connections - the only requirement was the name put in had to be a public figure...

    thanks for the bd greeting to my da!

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  11. Great story of connections, Alan. You are an investigative journalist at heart. Of that, I'm sure. Fine writing and a first class post!

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  12. Fascinating - I love the way your mind works. That's some building too! I've never heard of it - will look it up.

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  13. I can't imagine any lectures of yours being dull frankly but what a wonderful place to teach. I'm sure the connections are valid, there's much to be said for six degrees of separation.

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  14. Anonymous7:36 PM

    living near wentworth i can say that the house and grounds is truly amazing and im happy that this fantastic historical place that has fascinated me since childhood is now about to be opened to the public i will be among the first inside

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