A sad tale of 17th century rivalry and 20th century neglect…..
I have recently visited two absolutely enormous houses in South Yorkshire. The first was Wentworth Woodhouse some 4 miles from Rotherham, the 600 feet long façade is the largest in Europe and twice the length of Buckingham Palace. The second was Wentworth Castle some 8 miles away near Barnsley, now the home of the Northern College for Residential and Community Education.
The name “Woodhouse” goes back to the 11th century when the forest near Rotherham was cleared, and the name “Wentworth” was added about a century later after the nearby village of Wentworth. Little happened for the next 300 years until the family began to expand the estate in the 17th century when Thomas Wentworth, the first Earl of Strafford became a wealthy supporter of Charles I. Thomas’s political career however didn’t last and he was executed to appease parliament.
The family came back into favour and when the house was started in 1724. Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the first Marquess of Rockingham and great-nephew of the Earl of Strafford, was part of one of the wealthiest families in the country. When Thomas Watson-Wentworth died in 1750, the estates passed to his son, Charles, the second Marquess of Rockingham who had a notable political career becoming the first Yorkshire Prime Minister.
Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham inherited the estate on his 21st birthday 13 May 1751. He became Lord of the Bedchamber to George II in 1752 and made a knight of the Order of the Garter in 1760. He was a renowned gambler and kept race horses but was also a champion of the poor.
When Charles died childless in July 1872 he left his whole estate to his sister’s son, his nephew William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, much to the displeasure of another Thomas Wentworth, Charles’s cousin who had expected to inherit the estate and its fortune but only inherited the title of Baron Raby. Thomas’s act of revenge was to buy Stainborough Hall near Barnsley, about 8 miles away and set about building another huge house which he called Wentworth Castle to rival Wentworth Woodhouse
Thankfully Thomas’s Wentworth Castle has remained essentially intact, the Grade 1 listed property is now the home of the Northern College (not open to the public). The gardens are open to the public and jointly in the care of the National Trust, the Northern College, and Barnsley Council. It’s grounds, a Victorian Conservatory and Stainborough Castle, built as a folly by Thomas are open to the public and well worth a visit.
The house at Wentworth Woodhouse however did not fare so well and when I visited it was shrouded in massive scaffolding for renovation by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust. After the Second World War, with a desperate need for coal the government of the day with Manny Shinwell as Minister for Fuel and Power decided to dig the Barnsley Seam as an open cast mine that went right up to the house.
After a series of family setbacks by 1989, the Fitzwilliam’s no longer needed the house, and it went through a long series of auctions. Nearly 30 years later, it was finally purchased for £7.6 million by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust. The near 300-year-old house had been saved.
Both houses are still very imposing and, in their heyday, would have rivalled those at Castle Howard, Harewood or Chatsworth and are certainly worth a visit. Wentworth Woodhouse is open during the renovation for guided tours run by the trust and there are more than 50 acres of grounds, ancient trees, 18th-century follies, and monuments to see. Wentworth Castle Gardens are open to the public by the National Trust with 500 acres of gardens and parkland.
Links to other websites for further reading
National Trust Wentworth Castle Gardens: History and Photos. Whilst Wentworth Castle is perhaps one of the finest historic houses in the country not open to the public, the beautiful formal gardens and landscaped grounds that surround it very much are. In fact, Wentworth Castle Gardens is becoming one of the most popular attractions in Yorkshire.
Wentworth Castle – the Penistone Archive: Wentworth Castle has been in the Wentworth family from 1709 until sold to Barnsley education in 1949 for £26,000 Over those years wings have been added and many changes made not only to the house but the grounds and gardens, making this a beautiful place for a visit.
The History of Wentworth Woodhouse – Historic Houses: On the outskirts of Rotherham, South Yorkshire, lies the little village of Wentworth. With a population of less than 1,500, you may be forgiven for thinking that this is merely a quiet farming or retirement village. Wentworth, however, is home to one of the most magnificent – and mysterious – buildings in all of Yorkshire.
Wentworth Woodhouse is being regenerated for the benefit of us all. In its new 21st Century life, Wentworth Woodhouse will provide world-class event spaces, overnight accommodation, retail, bar and restaurant attractions, commercial office space and most importantly, a fascinating experience for visitors.