Madness, disinheritance and a tragic affair
BOOK REVIEW: Black Diamonds: The Rise and fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey
From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations my dear old dad used to say, with grim Scottish relish.
He would have been waiting a damn sight longer than that for the downfall of the Fitzwilliam family. They had been wealthy landowners since medieval times but by the twentieth century family infighting and their own proclivities did for them in the end.
This book is an excellent read, however the tendency of the Fitzwilliam’s to call all their sons William - some of them brothers - makes the genealogy confusing.
Catherine Bailey provides a well-researched glimpse of life within the coal mining aristocracy of Britain and the appalling conditions under which the miners lived who laboured underground to provide that wealth.
She gives a good understanding of the reasons for bitterness of the class struggles which blighted the early twentieth century in Great Britain.
Wentworth House was built in the 1720s for Thomas Wentworth, later the Marquis of Rockingham. Its façade was the longest in Europe, thus illustrating the notion that vulgar excess is not just a modern weakness. The house was cold and medieval in its bathroom and sanitary arrangements even into the twentieth century.
Huge deposits of coal were mined from the late eighteenth century. By the time the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902 thousands of people in South Yorkshire was directly dependant on the Earl for a living.
Now the magnificent house is shuttered and barred and the age of coal is over.
In July 1972 the last Earl Fitzwilliam had some sixteen tons of documents consisting of the bulk of the families twentieth century records burned.
This made Bailey’s task of unravelling the family history very difficult and she had to go to great lengths to sort out the story.
Accusations of a changeling heir, madness, disinheritance and a tragic affair with a Kennedy marked the dynasty's decline over three generations.
The mother of one Fitzwilliam was so incensed with his choice of bride that she preferred to name him as illegitimate rather than allow him to inherit.
Was Billy Fitzwilliam William Earl Fitzwilliam‘s grandson and heir in his lifetime or not? This question was never really solved in his lifetime or in this book. His father, known as Milton, had epilepsy which was a family disgrace in the nineteenth century.
Milton was expected to die before he inherited the title and his parents took steps to discourage a marriage so the title would go to the much more favoured second son.
In spite of the opposition of his parents he married and took his heavily pregnant wife off into the wilds of Canada to have her baby, which was christened William but known as Billy. No sjurprises there.
An enduring mystery is why they chose to go a place where the only white people for miles around were the doctor and nurse who delivered and looked after baby Billy.
When his grandfather died Billy inherited the title. His wicked old aunts insisted the baby was a changeling, swapped for a daughter while the mother was knocked out with chloroform.
Eventually, after a massive family row, they were turfed out of Wentworth and made to return a number of trinkets they had made off with.
Billy was vehemently anti-union – he had inherited the idea of noblesse oblige and it was up to him to feed and protect his miners through good times and bad. His attitudes were a product of a bygone age.
The bitter class war between the coal-owning aristocracy and the miners, which had been a feature of the UK political landscape since the nineteenth century, culminated post World War II when the Labour government nationalised the Wentworth estate and ordered the biggest open cast mine in England to be built at the Wentworth front door.
This was seen as an act of spite by the locals, and many people including coalminers, petitioned the government to stop the desecration - without success.
Peter Fitzwilliam, the last Fitzwilliam of any note, was killed in a plane accident in the company of “Kick’ Kennedy, with whom he had been having an affair for some time.
Not a single member of the Kennedy family ever spoke of their affair and the Fitzwilliam’s waited almost forty years before they broke their silence.
The last Wentworth was an alcoholic nephew in his sixties who died in 1979.
In four decades the Fitzwilliam family and the coal industry was all but destroyed and by 1990 most of the South Yorkshire mines had closed, leaving the region afflicted with the highest numbers of unemployed in Britain.
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