Catherine Bailey is the author of The Secret Rooms and Black Diamonds — both histories of the British aristocracy. She read history at Oxford University and is an award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. Bailey’s US publisher, Penguin, organised this Q&A…
In THE SECRET ROOMS, you explain what drew you to the story of the Rutland family, that you were researching a book on World War I and asked to see the Rutland archives and when there were obvious gaps in the records you decided to devote your attention on uncovering what the family was trying to hide. What brought you to write about Wentworth House and the Fitzwilliam family, and how did you discover that they also had secrets they were trying to keep buried?
I first saw Wentworth House in the late 1990s when I was researching a documentary film in Yorkshire. The size of the house – the largest in Europe – was breathtaking. Here, it seemed, was England’s forgotten palace. Unlike comparable houses, such as Chatsworth or Blenheim, it was closed to the public. Outside its locality, few knew of its existence. Seeing it for the first time, it looked empty and abandoned. The shutters were drawn; its 18th century façade was black with grime and in a poor state of repair. The image was haunting: I wanted to know what had happened there over the centuries, and what had led to its abandonment.
Over the next few years, whenever I could find the time from my work as a television producer, I researched the twentieth century story of Wentworth House. From architectural journals and newspaper articles, I was able to piece together a narrative. In 1900, the house had belonged to William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, the richest man in Britain. His fortune came from coal. Within a 30-mile radius of Wentworth, tens of thousands of men worked in mines in which he had an interest. The Fitzwilliams had powerful connections; in the first decades of the 20th century, the newspapers listed the names of guests at their lavish house parties. They included Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and politicians, famous musicians, writers and artists. Later, there was a connection to the American Kennedy family. In 1948, Peter, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, had been killed in a plane crash with Kathleen Kennedy, the sister of the President. But the details were tantalizingly sketchy; very little appeared to have been written about Wentworth or the Fitzwilliam family. Particularly intriguing, was a photograph, taken in the 1940s, which showed the landscape around the house blighted by open cast mining. Soon after, the Fitzwilliams had moved out.
In the space of just fifty years it seemed this family had unravelled. When William, the 6th Earl, died in 1902, he left a great fortune. Four sons – each named William after him – survived him. The coal industry was booming: the family’s wealth and power seemed as solid and unshakeable as the foundations of their great house. Yet what was unthinkable in 1902 happened. By 1950, the Fitzwilliams had lost their coal mines, they had been hounded from their house, and this once great aristocratic dynasty was in danger of dying out.
It was an extraordinary story, one that I wanted to write, and in the summer of 2003, I decided to give up my job in television to embark on a book. Lady Juliet Tadgell, the only child of Peter, the 8th Earl, was encouraging and offered me access to a series of private family papers that had not been published. These, I thought, would enable me to flesh out the bones of the story.
That autumn, Viking Penguin commissioned the book – my first. I had been working on it in my spare time for almost five years; to have the chance to write it was – to use a cliché – a dream come true.
But very quickly, my excitement turned to a strong feeling of unease. Soon after Penguin commissioned the book, I went up to Wentworth. Lady Juliet had suggested that I see one of the family’s old retainers, a forester called Goff Broadhead who had worked on the Fitzwilliam Estate for over 60 years. He was in his late 80s; intimately connected with the family, he had been a pallbearer at the funerals of three Earls. He was also, as it emerged, a keeper of their secrets. ‘You’ll never write your book’, he said. ‘There’s nothing left to write it with’. In 1972, he revealed, the Fitzwilliam’s 20th century archive – their letters and papers – had been destroyed. Goff had overseen their destruction. The papers were burnt on a bonfire that had blazed, night and day, for three weeks. ‘We burnt over 16 tons of documents’, he said. ‘It had to be done. The family had too many secrets’.
It was bitterly disappointing. I had set my heart on writing the book; I’d given up my job in television to do it; but without the materials I needed to write it, it looked as if I would have to abandon it.
I went back to see Lady Juliet. She had given me access to her family’s papers, yet Goff’s revelation meant that those in her possession were just a small fraction of the letters and documents that had been kept at Wentworth. I thought it odd that she had not mentioned the bonfire.
It soon became clear that her failure to mention it was for a very good reason. She had not known about it. So why had the documents been burnt without the knowledge even of the last direct Fitzwilliam descendant? Could it be that private events had played as much of a part in the Fitzwilliam’s downfall as the great political events of the twentieth century? Were their secrets in the family’s past of which even she was not aware?
I had fragments of clues gleaned from the papers in Lady Juliet’s possession and from years of research at libraries. They pointed to a host of family skeletons – every one of them a possible reason for the destruction of the papers.
Was Billy, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, who, in 1902, inherited almost £4 billion from his grandfather, an imposter – a changeling baby swapped at birth as his wicked aunts alleged?
Why had two great dynasties – the Fitzwilliams and the Kennedys – conspired to conceal the love affair between Peter, the 8th Earl, and Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, the sister of JFK, the President of the United States?
And what of Lord Milton, Billy’s putative father? An intrepid and much-celebrated explorer, he had tracked the North West Passage by land across Canada. On his return in the 1860s, the British press had hailed him a national hero. Why then – within his own family – had Milton’s name been taboo?
There were other mysteries, other scandals – an expensive court case fought between two brothers in the 1950s to determine which of them should inherit the family fortune and title, and rumours in the villages around Wentworth of numerous illegitimate sons of the twentieth century Earls.
How were you able to flesh out the Fitzwilliam family secrets, like fights over inheritance and the truth behind Peter Fitzwilliam’s death, when their archives from that time had been completely destroyed?
The challenge was to find letters and papers in other family collections – people to whom the Fitzwilliams might have written, or friends and relations of theirs who had visited Wentworth House, and who might have recorded or commented on events. It involved painstaking research. First, it was necessary to identify which collections might contain relevant material. Some were obvious – the Kennedy Papers for instance, which were bound to include letters from members of the family relating to Peter Fitzwilliam’s relationship with Kick and the plane crash in 1948. Others, less so. Contemporary lists of house parties that had taken place at Wentworth in the first decades of the century provided crucial leads. By trawling through the lists, I was able to gather the names of families and individuals who had known the Fitzwilliams. This led me to public collections of letters, as well as to private collections that had been kept by the guests’ descendants. The Royal Collection at Windsor and the National Archives at Kew also yielded some important material.
In addition to my research in historical archives, I drew on oral history. I spoke to many retired miners who had worked at the Fitzwilliams’ pits, and to former servants who had worked at Wentworth House. I also spoke to elderly members of the Fitzwilliam family whose childhoods had been spent at Wentworth before the war. These conversations were invaluable in bringing the past to life and, in many instances, filled in missing elements in the story.
Does some form of British aristocracy, like what we read in your books or see on “Downton Abbey” still exist in Britain? How has it changed?
Undoubtedly, there are still a large number of aristocratic families who live in historic houses that have been in their family’s possession for centuries. Many live in great style, surrounded by beautiful works of art and pieces of furniture that have been in situ for many hundreds of years. But the great retinues of servants, as seen in Downton Abbey, have gone. In the few cases where a family continues to employ the same number of staff as it did at the turn of the last century, there is a crucial difference. Then, the servants were employed to serve them; now, they are there to serve the public. With the exception of a very few, today’s aristocrats depend on the public to preserve their historic homes; without the revenues generated by the vast numbers who visit them, they would be impossible to maintain.
At the end of BLACK DIAMONDS, you write that Wentworth House is currently owned by a recluse and that it is not open to the public. Is that still the case? Do you think it will ever be a British landmark?
Over the past few years, Clifford Newbould, the present owner of Wentworth, has opened the house to the public. But it is only possible to see the State Rooms – and by appointment only. The rest of the house remains in a poor state of repair. Currently, there are moves a foot (under the aegis of the Wentworth House Preservation Trust, established by the present owner and the descendants of the Fitzwilliam family) to restore the house and make it accessible to a wider public. It would be wonderful if it were to become an historic landmark like Blenheim or Chatsworth, and if the Trust succeeds in its aims, there may come a day when this happens.