‘What is Wentworth Woodhouse?’: the Autumn Statement’s £7.6m question

When first built, Wentworth Woodhouse was a glittering palace of decadence in the midst of a northern coalfield. With over 300 rooms, it remains the biggest private house in the United Kingdom.

This has always made it a source of contention locally. In the 1940s, Labour government commissioned coal mining that destroyed part of the estate, in an attempt to kick back at the long line of aristocracy the swanky building represented. 132,000 tonnes of coal were removed from the gardens alone.

Yesterday, the chancellor of the exchequer announced that a huge £7.6m of taxpayers’ money is to be given to the luxurious manor, commonly referred to as the ‘greatest historic house that nobody has ever heard of”.

But with a history including a five decade-long family feud, a two-time British Prime Minister, and the consumption of 336st. of oxen in one night, it is a wonder it is so little-known.

The first noteworthy resident of Wentworth Woodhouse was 1st Earl of Strafford Thomas Wentworth, an administrator to Charles I who met the same unfortunate fate as the beheaded king.

The house was then passed to his son, also Earl Thomas Wentworth. But when he died without issue in 1695, he disinherited his son (meet Thomas Wentworth III, aka Baron Raby), and instead passed Wentworth Woodhouse to his wife’s nephew Thomas Watson.

And thus began an incredibly long family feud.

Bitter at having lost his birth right, Baron Raby bought nearby Stainborough Castle, now Wentworth Castle, in an attempt to outdo the Watsons in grandeur. This move spurred Gulliver’s Travels author Johnathan Swift to label him “proud as Hell”.

Watson, meanwhile, busied himself by reconstructing Wentworth Woodhouse, building it into the house we now know. He commissioned a new West wing to be built in the baroque style. By the time this was completed however, the style was outdated and frowned upon by the Whig coterie the family strove to impress.

Watson swiftly ordered a new East front to be built, in the more fashionable and opulent Paladdian style.

The house passed down the family line, eventually falling into the hands of Thomas Watson’s grandson Charles Watson-Wentworth, who went on to be both the 9th and 13th Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Wentworth Woodhouse was then passed on to the Fitzwilliam (or Wentworth Fitzwilliam) family.

The house has long been rumoured to be the real-life inspiration for Pemberley House, the setting of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This is an appealing theory; in the novel, Pemberley is fittingly described as ‘a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of woody hills’. And surely it can be no coincidence that it is owned by a Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy?

In 1807, a coming-of-age party was thrown for the fifth Earl of Fitzwilliam (Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam- the son, believe it or not, of a William Fitzwilliam). There were 10,000 guests from the South Yorkshire area, who managed to get through “473 bottles of good wine; 23 gallons of rum; and three roasted oxen, 336 stone in weight”.

Since 1979, when the last Earl of Fitzwilliam died, the house has privately been owned by the Newbold family, who said in a statement yesterday: “We are very happy that the Government has at last pledged its support for the restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse. This is a cause close to our hearts, for which we have been battling since we purchased the house in 1999.”