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. Continue reading