Saving Wentworth Woodhouse

“Wentworth Woodhouse…is one of the great houses of England, a mighty work of architecture, a palace of beauty and art and for 300 years both a political power-house and the hub of social and economic life across a swathe of South Yorkshire.” Source: Wentworth Woodhouse Masterplan 2018, p7

* * *

Most British stately homes are big. A few of them are enormous. But the biggest beast of them all, Wentworth Woodhouse, which lies on the outskirts of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, is absolutely HUGE! The East Front (eastern façade), is 606ft (185m) long, twice the length of Buckingham Palace; Usain Bolt in his prime would have taken nearly 20 seconds to sprint past it. The building boasts over 5 miles (8km) of corridors, and more than 300 rooms. “Compact and bijou” is a description that has never been applied to Wentworth Woodhouse.

The East Front. Scaffolding on the far right indicates preservation work currently in progress.

But size isn’t everything, and in the case of Wentworth Woodhouse its size has almost been its downfall. It is simply too big to function as a domestic dwelling, and too expensive to maintain. In recent decades it has fallen into disrepair. But since 2017 it has been owned by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, a charitable organisation determined to bring this once magnificent mansion back from the brink.

East Front pediment

Dating from the second quarter of the 18th century, Wentworth Woodhouse is a Georgian gem. The mansion is an architectural oddity in that it actually comprises two grand houses built back-to-back. The so-called West Front was commissioned by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the first Marquess of Rockingham, and built of brick in the English Baroque style from 1724-28.

The Pillared Hall staircase

However, the Marquess was disappointed with his new home. It simply wasn’t grand enough for one of the wealthiest and most influential men of his age. To put it in 21st century terms, the Marquess was well up himself! Determined to give himself the home he thought he deserved, he commissioned an add-on to the rear of the West Front. Built in sandstone from 1731-50, and on a scale never seen before or since, the East Front is an imposing, classical Palladian masterpiece. So we get two houses (cleverly joined together) for the price of one, which I suppose is a bargain, but one can’t help thinking that Rockingham should have made his mind up in the first place and saved himself a few quid.

The Marble Saloon

Much of Wentworth’s interior is of exceptional quality and was built with the intention of impressing members of the social and political elite who were frequent guests of the Marquess and his family. One of the rooms – the Marble Saloon – is said by some to be one of the finest Georgian rooms in all of England.

The Whistlejack Room

The second Marquess of Rockingham was Prime Minister in 1765-66, and again in 1782. Upon his death the estate passed to the Earls Fitzwilliam, who retained ownership until the late 20th century. The family made its money primarily from coal mining, and so it comes as no surprise that the nationalisation of the coal mines in 1947 led to a decline in their fortunes. It also threatened the very existence of Wentworth, with Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power, authorising opencast mining to within a hundred yards (91 metres) of the West Front.

Barbarians at the gate! Opencast mining threatens to destroy Wentworth Woodhouse, 1947. IMAGE CREDIT: Illustrated London News, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Following the death of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1948, a greater part of the house was vacated. Between 1950 and 1986 some of it was turned over to education, first as a teacher training college and then as part of Sheffield City Polytechnic. The building fell steadily into disrepair, and was sold to a private purchaser in 1988. However the vast scale and poor condition of the once grand mansion was a problem too hot to handle, and in 1999 it was sold on again. Finally, in 2017, in the nick of time, the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust stepped in to save it.

The Preservation Trust “is committed to delivering an innovative programme of mixed-use regeneration at Wentworth Woodhouse. Using only the highest standards of conservation workmanship, the Trust will create a fully inclusive world class visitor offer of exceptional quality whilst providing training, work experience and job opportunities for the communities of South Yorkshire.”

Source: Wentworth Woodhouse Masterplan 2018, p3

The Green Room

The Preservation Trust’s Masterplan covers a period of 25 years, and recognises that a “mixed-use solution” offers the best prospect for the long-term survival of Wentworth Woodhouse. This means that some parts of the estate will be put to commercial use in order to generate an income stream which will sustain the Grade I listed mansion to the required standards. Projects being planned include transforming the garden’s derelict Grade II* listed Camellia House into a daytime café and events venue, and creating a venue capable of hosting large wedding parties and corporate events for up to 600 people in the now abandoned Stables and Riding School.

The Camellia House will be transformed into an income-generating daytime café and events venue

But these developments are for the future, When the Preservation Trust took ownership of the building the initial focus was to fix the roof. Numerous holes were allowing rainwater to pour into the building, threatening the magnificent internal fabric. Urgent remedial action was required, and a government grant of £7.6m (USD 10.5m) has enabled this to be carried out. The building is now watertight and most of the scaffolding has been removed, buying the Preservation Trust time to further develop its plans and to start generating the funds needed to restore the grand mansion to its former glory.

The Painted Drawing Room

There is still a long, long way to go, but when we visited a few weeks ago there was a buzz about the place. Wentworth Woodhouse has been saved for the nation. Mrs P and I look forward to returning in a couple of years to see how implementation of the Masterplan is progressing.

The West Front

18 comments

  1. Elizabeth · August 18

    Thank you for highlighting- another to add to my must visit list

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · August 18

      We’ve got a list too, but it just keeps getting longer and longer! Wentworth Woodhouse is definitely worth a visit, including a few huge follies scattered around the landscape which I didn’t have space to refer to in my post!

      Like

  2. Ann Mackay · August 18

    What a size – and what a massive responsibility to take on! They must be very brave!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · August 18

      Yes. I scanned through the list of trustees and they’re an impressive, multi-talented bunch. They’ve made a great start and successfully navigated the project through the Covid lockdowns, but there’s still a long, long way to go!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Laurie Graves · August 18

    Three hundred rooms! Holy cats! Too big, too big, but I do hope it can be successfully renovated.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ThoughtsBecomeWords · August 19

    Such hugely staggering wealth used for such a hugely staggering building and I hope its restoration is hugely successful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Gingold · August 19

    It boggles the mind the expense something like this represented in the creation…and the ego. I imagine it would impress most anyone and quite possibly depress a few living in squalor. But definitely worth restoring once in existence. A lot of fine craftwork involved. Thanks for the tour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · August 19

      Yes, it’s a magnificent creation, and a showcase for the skills of some highly talented craftsmen. I hope they were well paid for their efforts…I don’t imagine the Marquess ever invited them round for dinner and a beer! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. tanjabrittonwriter · August 19

    I can’t recall ever having heard of a back-to-back construction. But then I don’t know (m)any individuals who could afford a similar construction. 🙂
    The photo that shows how close the mining operation was located to the building is chilling, and I think you gave it the perfect caption. Barbarians indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · August 20

      This was a description I came across when doing research for the post, and not one I personally would have chosen…in the UK “back-to-back” generally refers to cramped, sub-standard and squalid accommodation built for the urban poor in C19 and early C20, and is therefore a million miles away from the excesses of Wentworth Woodhouse. But putting terminology to one side, I’ve never come across an arrangement like the one we visited here. Just shows what you can achieve when you combine an endless supply of money with a mountainous ego!

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · August 20

        Thank you for the language lesson, Mr. P. I have always found the differences between British and American English interesting. If you asked someone in the US to light a torch, people would be worried about a fire. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Platypus Man · 29 Days Ago

        Blogging has reminded me that idioms and terminology in common use here are not always well understood in the rest of the English-speaking world. And let’s not even talk about the variable spellings 🙂.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Adele Brand · 30 Days Ago

    Stunning. I must add that to my travel list!

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s