Secret scandals of a real Downton

Secret scandals of a real Downton: It was our grandest country pile, but the sexual proclivities, reckless spending and eccentricities of the family who owned Wentworth Woodhouse were mind-boggling

  • Wentworth Woodhouse was once the largest privately owned home in Britain
  • It would now cost £150m to restore the 365 room South Yorkshire residence 
  • Fans of Jane Austen believe the house helped to inspire several of her books 
  • Author Catherine Bailey, uncovers the secrets of the property in a new biography
  • She reveals living conditions were medieval at the start of the 20th century 
  • She recalls the last Earl Fitzwilliam attempting to destroy records in 1972  

Tucked away amid the coalfields of South Yorkshire is the British aristocracy’s most notorious secret – a sort of Dark Downton Abbey. 

Wentworth Woodhouse, once the grandest country pile in England and bigger than both Buckingham and Blenheim Palaces, is crumbling.

And it’s taking its nefarious family history with it.

Three years ago the BBC announced plans to film some of Wentworth’s 250-year history as a shocking costume drama to rival ITV’s Downton Abbey. 

It would expose the sex scandals, reckless spending and eccentricities that the owners, the Earls Fitzwilliam, struggled for centuries to hush up.

The estate, near Rotherham, was a land with its own laws, where the earl could claim the right to bed the daughters of his working-class tenants, and servants lived almost like slaves. 

The 600ft East Front at Wentworth Woodhouse (pictured) is the longest facade of any country house in England. Catherine Bailey, explores the history of the property in a new biography

But since the house’s last private owner died three years ago, Wentworth has fallen into disrepair. 

Last month, a Daily Mail investigation revealed it could cost £150m to restore the house, with its 365 rooms, to its former glory.

Plans for the BBC drama have caved in too, so would-be viewers must use their imaginations. 

And as author Catherine Bailey uncovers in her biography of the house, Black Diamonds, there’s enough wicked history to make the most vivid imagination boggle – as our riveting two-part adaptation reveals.

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History went up in flames, during three long weeks in July 1972, when the tenth and last Earl Fitzwilliam ordered the bulk of his family’s 20th-century records to be destroyed – in a maniacal attempt to hide three generations of secrets and scandal.

Sixteen tons of documents were hauled by tractor from the Georgian stable block where they were stored, to a beech copse called Trawles Wood in the valley below the Yorkshire mansion, and burned. 

It was the biggest attempt to cover up the Fitzwilliam past, but far from the first.

The private papers of the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Earls had been destroyed after their deaths – reams of embarrassing documents, letters, diaries and legal papers. 

The cull extended to letters and diaries kept by their employees. 

The Fitzwilliams (pictured: The 8th Earl) attempted to keep records about their family private with the last earl even ordering the bulk of their family documents to be destroyed

The Fitzwilliams guarded their secrets through destroying evidence and vows of silence.

One descendant of the family, Ann, Lady Bowlby, recalled how her grandmother, Countess Fitzwilliam, ‘made me promise I would not tell anyone about private things that went on. 

She didn’t want it broadcast’ – the Countess believed the world was run by Communists, who would use the family’s secrets to bring them down.

But not everything has been lost. Scattered collections of papers, and especially the memories of people who lived and worked at the house, remain. 

Most of all, Wentworth Woodhouse itself still stands. For 250 years it was the largest privately owned residence in Britain. 

Today, now the Fitzwilliam earldom has died out, it is maintained by a trust.

Many fans of Jane Austen believe the house helped to inspire several of her books: the hero of Persuasion is called Captain Wentworth, while the heroine of Emma is Miss Woodhouse. 

Wentworth Woodhouse (pictured) has been used as the backdrop for TV dramas including Victoria and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

The house may be the original model for the family estate of Pemberley, owned by dashing Mr Darcy in Pride And Prejudice. 

Television viewers may recognise it as the backdrop in costume dramas from Victoria to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. 

But no TV show could convey the vastness of the place, or the eccentricity of its owners.

It is a house of two fronts, built back-to-back in the 18th century. 

The baroque West Front is hidden behind tall cedars but the 600ft Palladian East Front can be seen from the Trans-Pennine Trail public footpath running through Wentworth Park. 

It has five miles of passageways.

One guest, a Baron von Liebig, resorted to crumbling wafers along the route from his bedroom to the dining room so he could find his way back after dinner. 

Thereafter, guests were given a crested silver casket containing different-coloured confetti.

At the start of the 20th century, living conditions at Wentworth were medieval. 

Elfrida, Countess of Wharncliffe, was five when the Sixth Earl, her great-grandfather, died in 1902. 

She described the house at the time of his death: ‘There was no electric light, no gas, no central heating. 

In our living rooms we had glorious raging fires, but the mansion was like an icehouse. 

Lady Elfrida recalls Wentworth Woodhouse having no central heating at the start of the 20th century.  She says footmen would bring tin baths into bedrooms and fill them with hot water from the kitchen. Pictured: The derelict stables and outbuildings 

In the hard winters, going downstairs to be with my mother after tea was a very chilly affair. 

We couldn’t go along passages without heavy shawls.’ Unsurprisingly, the Sixth Earl died of a chill.

There were no bathrooms. ‘Tin baths were carried into bedrooms by footmen,’ recalled Lady Elfrida. 

‘Hot water was brought up from the kitchen two floors below in large brown metal cans – filled by footmen, emptied by housemaids.’ 

If the water got cold, a bather could draw a cotton cloth over the top of the bath, to cover their modesty. 

The footman would then pour hot water under the cloth’s edge before inquiring, ‘Is there anything more, sir?’ – whether the bather was male or female.

Two men, Moses and his assistant Aaron, were employed seven days a week to light the house. 

Every morning before dawn, they walked the length of the house replacing the candles in chandeliers and wall sconces, and collecting the oil lamps they had put out the evening before. 

The heir to Wentworth Woodhouse’s earldom in 1807 celebrated his 21st birthday with a party for 10,000 guests. Pictured: The derelict servants quarters 

The wicks were trimmed and the lamps filled, cleaned and polished, then put back. ‘They did nothing else except lamps,’ recalled Lady Elfrida, ‘never had a day off, never wanted one. 

When my father [the Seventh Earl] succeeded, he insisted they each have a Sunday off. 

Moses went in tears to the head steward and said, “What have I done wrong? I’ve always worked on a Sunday, now I’ve got to do nothing.”’

But the Fitzwilliams had not always been so penny-pinching. 

A century earlier, in 1807, the heir to the earldom celebrated his 21st birthday with a party for 10,000 guests. 

Two oxen were roasted whole on the lawns, served with 26 roast sheep, 10 hams and 10,000 gallons of ale – with nearly 500 bottles of wine and more than 50 gallons of spirits. 

The local paper noted that some local peasants ‘by their gluttonous and drunken indiscretion made beasts of themselves’.

In the wild 1920s, house parties were all the rage, with guests descending for a weekend of antics. 

One guest of a Wentworth Woodhouse party recalls participating in a ‘Fox Hunt’

One remembered watching a house favourite, curling. 

‘They collected the chamberpots, sliding them across the polished marble floor. Some were prize Rockingham [porcelain] – a few shattered to pieces.’ 

Another guest described the ‘Fox Hunt’ – ‘A young man was chosen to be a fox and given ten minutes start to go anywhere in the house. 

‘Then the rest of the party hunted him. 

‘In full cry! When they caught him, they stripped him. There was a kill! They took all his clothes off. 

Scragged him, and brushed his hair up the wrong way. 

‘He came back into the dining room looking like nothing on earth.’ The austere Sixth Earl would not have approved.

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey is published by Penguin Books, £9.99. To order a copy for £7.99 visit or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until 15/12/2018. Book adapted here by Christopher Stevens. 

A forbidden affair with a racy Kennedy: How JFK’s sister’s liaison with the married Eighth Earl ended in tragedy

As a thunderstorm, the worst in living memory, raged over the Ardèche mountains in France, on 13 May 1948, a light aircraft plummeted out of the clouds, disintegrated in mid-air and crashed to the ground.

The first rescuers on the scene, a farmer and his father, found four bodies: the pilot, co-pilot and two passengers. 

One was a woman, socialite Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy – younger sister of future US president John F Kennedy. 

The other was the Eighth Earl Fitzwilliam, her married lover.

Within hours, the two families closed ranks to conceal the circumstances that led to the crash. 

The Fitzwilliams waited almost 40 years to break their silence on the Eighth Earl’s affair with Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy (pictured with brother JFK in Florida in the late 30s)

Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, a decorated war hero, and Kick, whose husband, the Marquess of Hartington, had been killed in action in 1944, had been desperately in love for two years.

Rumours swirled that, when they crashed, they were on their way to the Vatican to obtain special dispensation from the Pope to marry, if Peter divorced his wife.

The passionate affair was an open secret among their friends. 

Yet there is no official record of it: soon after their deaths came the first great bonfire of papers at Wentworth Woodhouse, and their love letters were destroyed.

None of the Kennedy family ever spoke of the affair, nor even acknowledged it. The Fitzwilliams waited almost 40 years before they broke their silence.

In fact, Kick could talk to none of her relatives except her beloved brother Jack (JFK) about her passion for Peter. 

The rest of the Kennedys wouldn’t accept it: she was Catholic, he was Protestant. 

But the autumn before the crash, she whispered to her brother, ‘I’ve found my Rhett Butler at last.’

To their friends, the affair was inexplicable. One of Kick’s pals, Janie Compton, said, ‘Peter and Kick were absolutely different personality types with different friends. She had intellectual friends. 

‘He belonged to a set where you gambled terrifically and drank a lot. He was terribly naughty, with lots of girlfriends. 

Kick’s (pictured with JFK all dressed up in 1938) love for Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam began at a ball in the Dorchester Hotel, Mayfair, in 1946

‘And that was just not Kick. He must have been a very good lover. It was the only way to explain it.’

Peter and his wife Olive, known to all as Obby, had a daughter but no sons – no male heir for Wentworth Woodhouse if he died. 

Their marriage had been ill-starred from the first. 

Peter was a philanderer; Obby an innocent, very beautiful but also frivolous and immature – a ‘flibbertigibbet’, according to Peter’s niece Lady Barbara Ricardo.

The marriage struggled on for more than a decade… until he met Kick. 

She was the daughter of Joe Kennedy, the US ambassador to the United Kingdom. And she had a magnetic effect on men. 

‘She had more sex appeal than any girl I’ve ever met,’ recalled one admirer. 

Another lamented that she had so many suitors that after he’d proposed to her one day, she’d completely forgotten it by the next. 

She told yet another besotted beau, ‘The thing about me you ought to know is that I’m like Jack – incapable of deep affection.’

Eventually the persistence of Billy Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, won her over. 

She wasn’t in love with him but he was heir to the Duke of Devonshire and would one day be the richest man in England. 

However the Marquess was shot and killed in action four months after their wedding.

The disastrous love between Peter and Kick began at a ball in the Dorchester Hotel, Mayfair, in 1946. 

It was a fundraiser for the widows of Commandos killed in the war, Peter’s old comrades. 

London society was there in force; even the future Queen Elizabeth attended. 

Kick, aged 26, was chairing the Ball Committee. That night she wore a pink taffeta gown and a pair of diamond and aquamarine clips. 

Peter, the Eighth Earl Fitzwilliam (pictured) dismissed pilots warnings before he and Kick’s death on 13 May 1948

She had buried her grief for Billy during a year immersed in working for the Red Cross. 

Life had returned to normal, a whirl of admirers and parties. Then Peter invited her to dance.

Before the end of the ball she was lovestruck. 

‘It was overnight and it was the real thing,’ remarked a friend. 

‘One got the impression that she’d discovered something she didn’t really plan to experience in life.’

Another pal, an ex-suitor, was overwhelmed by the intensity of her passion. 

‘As she talked of Fitzwilliam, the man sounded a devastatingly charming rogue,’ he recalled. 

‘Rarely do you see someone so bubbling over with love. Poor old Billy Hartington. 

‘But then again he probably would have been blown away if she’d felt that way about him. 

‘Very few people could stand that much love, the sheer blast of emotion.’

Peter and Kick’s affair scandalised London society, not simply because a titled Catholic war widow was having an affair with a Protestant married man, but because Peter was seen as the antithesis of her late husband – kind, gentle, moral Billy. 

An habitué of White’s Club in St James’s, Peter’s gambling losses were said to amount to more than £20,000, the equivalent of £820,000 today.

When Kick worked up the courage in 1948 to tell her parents Joe and Rose about her new love, they were incandescent and she was warned that if she married him Kick would be disinherited and banished from the Kennedy clan.

No one will ever know for certain what Peter and Kick were planning when they took off from Croydon airport, with enough luggage for a world cruise – including dozens of outfits, a caseful of negligees and most of Kick’s jewels. 

Such was her love of clothes, all this might really have been packed for just a long weekend – or maybe, as friend Evelyn Waugh believed, the couple were actually eloping. 

Perhaps this was a mad mission to the Vatican, or perhaps just a flying visit to Cannes.

Whatever the reason, on landing near Paris to refuel, they had a long lunch with friends at a restaurant in the city, and then insisted on continuing their journey despite the severe weather forecast. 

Peter dismissed the pilot’s warnings. 

‘Obby’ (pictured) and Peter, the Eighth Earl Fitzwilliam, had an ill-starred marriage

He’d crossed the North Sea in storm-force winds in a small motor torpedo boat, he scoffed – a little turbulence wouldn’t bother him. 

‘It was so stupid,’ said Lady Barbara. 

‘They’d been told it wasn’t safe. You see, he was spoilt by my grandmother. As a child, he always got what he wanted.’

After the tragedy their families saw to it that the pair could not be together, even in death. 

The names of the crash victims were withheld in the British press, and they were buried separately. 

Joe Kennedy, Kick’s father, was the only relative to attend her funeral. 

Kick’s mother, Rose, regarded the crash as divine retribution, an act of God to prevent Kick from marrying a divorced Protestant.

Kick’s brothers and sisters knew better than to talk about her in Rose’s presence. 

Jack did pay a visit to her housekeeper, to thank her for years of devoted service, but left saying, ‘We will not mention her again.’ 

And when Bobby Kennedy wanted to name his eldest daughter Kathleen, Rose consented – on the understanding that she should never be nicknamed ‘Kick’.

But this irrepressible young woman has not been entirely forgotten by her family. 

Actress Kathleen Kennedy, 29, is Bobby’s granddaughter… and known to her friends as ‘Kick’.

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