141 of 148 people found the following review helpful
A local history that everyone should read,
This review is from: Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of a Great English Dynasty (Hardcover)A few miles from where I like is the small village of Wentworth and the little known (outside this area) building called Wentworth Woodhouse.
The house should be well known, as it's the largest non royal residence in Britain (I believe), and one of the largest in the world. The east front is the longest facade in Europe at 185 metres and the house covers over 2.5 acres. It's a mysterious place though. You can walk down the drive past it and be impressed by its scale, but nobody knows too much about the current owner, who apparently does live in it.
The house was built by the Wentworth family, who's members included Charles I's adviser in the lead up to the English Civil War and a British Prime Minister in the 1700's. It then passed to the Fitzwilliams, who still owned the house and large tracts of land at the beginning of the 20th century. The family wealth was sustained by coal mining.
Despite the huge historical and architectural significance of the house and its estate, it is difficult to find too much information about it. Therefore, when I found this book in a garden centre (which is actually in the grounds of the house), I had to buy it.
At first glance there was a disappointment. The book is subtitled "The Rise and Fall of a Great English Dynasty", but there is very little contained in it about the rise. The book starts in 1902 when the Fitzwilliams were at the height of their powers. They controlled the whole area, owning the mines where people worked and the houses where they lived. Thousands of people were utterly dependent on the Family for their wellbeing.
I am tempted to knock half a star off my rating because of the lack of information about how the family reached this situation, but I can't face doing that because the book itself is so well written and gripping. The story of how by the mid point of the century, the main line of the family had died out and the future of the title Earl Fitzwilliam was destined to die out (which it did in 1979), is told in a way that is very easy to read, and you feel yourself getting drawn into the story and forming opinions of the central characters which I find very rare.
Alongside the story of the family is told that of the battle between mine owners and the miners during the first half of the twentieth century. Whilst often presented as a battle of right vs wrong (the battle being won by the good guys after the second world war when the mines were nationalised), Catherine Bailey takes an admirable stand in not appearing to side with one group or the other and effectively getting across the message that both sides had their good and bad points. What was more important were the personalities of individuals within each group. Whilst many mine owners were guilty of abusing their position with their employees, there were others, such as the Fitzwilliams, who took their responsibilities seriously and were well respected by the miners. Equally, the revenge taken against the owners, as demonstrated by the desecration of Wentworth Park and near destruction of the house by the Labour Government after the war is not something that the Socialist movement can be proud of, and was fiercely opposed by the miners and unions in South Yorkshire.
The lesson we learn (and one that I strongly agree with) is that class war in itself is a damaging thing, just as we see the devastation of peoples lives caused by the battle between Protestents and Catholics. These are lessons which are still relevant today.
The supporting cast include the British Royal Family, The Kennedys, Various other British aristocratic families and thousands of ordinary Yorkshire working men and women. The story includes family tragedy and disputes, terrible accidents (affecting all classes), the devastation of war (imagine losing both your brother and husband to war in the space of weeks), conflicts caused by religion within families, and the day to day lives of ordinary people. The great hulk of Wentworth Woodhouse is always there in the shadows, just as it is in Wentworth village to this day.
One note of caution I would point out is that much of the story is based on speculation and eye witness accounts (which may be biased), due to the destruction of much of the documentary evidence by the Fitzwilliam family and others. This is acknowledged by the author and, whilst some of the speculation may be wrong, I have no doubt that the main tale is factually pretty accurate.
As a local, it is novel to read a story where places that I know and work, and the pubs that I visit are central to the story, and it is enlightening to learn more about the history of the area, but I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the social changes of the twentieth century.