The Country House Revealed – Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire - east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire – east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)

If asked to name the largest and grandest country houses in Britain, many would list obvious candidates; Chatsworth, Belvoir, Castle Howard, Petworth, but few would name Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, the house featured in the next episode of Dan Cruickshank’s ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Tuesday 31 May – 21:00 – BBC2]. One of the largest private homes in Europe, this leviathan slowly slipped into obscurity since family feuds and a vindictive Socialist minister caused the house to decline from being the greatest to being neglected.  Now, after ten years of hard work by the current owner, the house makes its first steps back towards the public stage – but is the price of the resurrection perhaps too high?

Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the triumphs of Wentworth Woodhouse is that the design of the house is coherent and powerful despite its size – extending to 606ft from tower-to-tower, to create the longest front in the country*.  Yet, the house is also one of two sides, the grand Classical east front, and the earlier, Baroque west front.  To have a house of such contrasting styles might indicate very separate plans of construction, yet a plan of proposed works dating from before 1725 and possibly as early as 1716, shows that the Earls Fitzwilliam had every intention to build on such a scale, with just the design itself changing.  The west side, the luxurious, decorated Baroque face, was raised between 1724-28 was long thought to be to a design by Ralph Tunnicliffe, a local architect who had worked on Wortley Hall and Calke Abbey, Derbyshire (1722). Yet, his work bears more familiarity with the Classical east front – so who designed the first stage?

Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)
Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)

Richard Hewlings in an article in Country Life magazine (17 February 2010) makes a solid case for the work being by the very well-regarded York architect, William Thornton (b. c.1670 – d.1721), who had previously worked on the joinery at Castle Howard, and designed Beningborough Hall. The latter of these (according to Colvin) showed a familiarity with Roman Baroque architecture as shown in Rossi’s ‘Studio d’architecttura civile‘ (pub. 1702-21).  Hewlings argues that because Beningbrough can be attributed to Thornton and that the same Rossi-inspired architectural elements can be seen in both houses, it makes Thornton (having definitely owned a copy of Rossi) the one most likely to have designed Wentworth Woodhouse – with his early death contributing towards his obscurity.

Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'
Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'

So Tunnicliffe designed the east front. Well, mostly. His 1734 design can very clearly be seen as derived from that most important of Palladian houses, Wanstead House, in Essex (built 1715 – dem. 1822).  The original architect of Wanstead, Colen Campbell, produced three designs (known as I, II, and III) which drew on the form of Castle Howard but stripped of much of the architectural verbosity which so offended the more austere Palladians. This design was to form the backbone for several generations of large country houses particularly in the boom years of the 1730s and -40s.  Yet, even though work started in 1731, in 1735 the Earl of Malton thought it best to have Tunnicliffe’s design reviewed by a greater authority, that of Lord Burlington, the ‘chief’ Palladian.  This proved timely as Tunnicliffe died in 1736 and so responsibility passed to Henry Flitcroft, a Burlington protege.  Flitcroft’s external alterations were relatively minor; adding pedestals to the portico columns, changing the shape of the attic windows, (he also provided designs for several rooms) but his engagement there was to last until work finished in 1770.

One obvious question is just why the house was so large? Beyond the usual demonstration of the scale of the family’s wealth and status, the house also had to be of such a size to accommodate the vast entertainments which the Watson-Wentworth’s needed to hold occasionally as part of their seduction of such a large and sparsely populated county.  Up to a 1,000 locals – nobles, gentry and simple gentleman alike – might be invited, with each given a ticket indicating which room they were to go to (and, by implication, their social status).  Another, seemingly more petty, reason was that Lord Malton’s father had inherited the estate in 1695; much to the shock and annoyance of another (politically opposed) relative, Thomas Wentworth, who lived nearby at Stainborough.  He responded by enlarging his own seat, Wentworth Castle (now a sadly much altered training college), in a grand style, ensuring that Lord Malton couldn’t be seen to ‘lose’.

The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)
The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)

One of the most breath-taking aspects of this need to impress are the interiors; boasting 25 ‘fine’ rooms of the highest quality, whereas by comparison, Buckingham Palace has 20 of a similar standard, Blenheim around eight, Castle Howard perhaps three or four.  These rooms are centred around the glorious central Marble Hall; 60ft square, 40ft high, with rooms leading off to the left and right including the Great Dining Room, the Van Dyck Room, the State Dressing Room and the Long Gallery.

That the Fitzwilliam family no longer live in Wentworth Woodhouse is one of the great sadnesses of the many families forced from their ancestral homes.   At one point this grand house boasted some of the finest furniture, a priceless collection of art including statues  and many paintings by such artists as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Mytens, Hoppner, Lawrence, Claude Lorraine, and a major collection of Stubbs’s work.  Yet, for all the wealth and power, it was founded on primogeniture and coal – both of which undermined the house in their own way.

The births of previous Earls Fitzwilliam had usually taken place in Wentworth Woodhouse and had been witnessed.  However the birth of the 7th Earl in the 1890s took place in the wilds of Canada for reasons which have never been fully explained, leading to members of the family levelling allegations that a settlers son had been swapped at birth for the daughter the Countess was thought to have really given birth to.  This eventually led to a split in the family as to where the title and the vast inheritance should descend.  With primogeniture determining it must go to the eldest legitimate male heir, this was only settled with a court case in 1952 between two brothers.  The ‘winner’ was the younger son who subsequently married an older lady, and therefore never producing an heir. On his death in 1979, the long title of the Earls Fitzwilliam died out – though not before the last Earl had a huge bonfire of 16 tonnes of family papers to permanently cloak their history.  The estate is now held by Lady Juliet Tadgell nee Wentworth-Fitzwilliam with the family still owning 80,000-acres of Yorkshire and 50,000-acres of Cambridgeshire – and the art collection.

Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)
Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)

It was the coal that physically undermined the house – both above ground and below. The post-war Socialist government was determined to break-up what it saw as the privileged elite.  One particularly bigoted ideologue was Manny Shinwell, then the Minister for Fuel and Power, decided that as part of his campaign of class warfare he would mine the coal under the park and house – even when told it was low-grade and not worth the effort.  He also ignored the pleas of the local miners and their representatives who had always enjoyed excellent relations with the Fitzwilliams who were widely regarded as one of the best mine owners in the country.  Shinwell’s workers destroyed the park which the miners had enjoyed for years and also dumped the spoil to within yards of the house.  Rather than live there the family moved out – though not before securing the use of the house as a teacher training college which no doubt saved the house from demolition.

However, the mining might yet save the house – though the proposed solution contains considerable risk.  Part of the mining deep underground left a column to support the house – but it wasn’t large enough leading to subsidence which has caused parts of the house to sink by up to 3ft. The house was bought for just £1.5m (£7 per sq ft!) by London architect Clifford Newbold in 1999 and he and his family have spent the last decade carefully restoring the house in conjunction with the conservation architects Purcell Triton Miller and engineers Arup.  Now the family are ready to launch legal action to secure £100m in compensation for the negligent mining under the house.  Using this money, they will obtain further funding to develop the huge stables (built by John Carr in 1768) as office space and also “...two new contemporary buildings that replace the former college accommodation and will support the Stables office building through provision of further office accommodation. These sunken ‘green roofed’ buildings will be designed so that they do not have any detrimental visual impact on the open spaces of the landscape of Wentworth Woodhouse.” (from the official press release).  This can be understood and can be supported so long as the commitment to the minimise the impact to the estate (which is now just 90-acres) is successful.

What gives some concern are the plans for the main house as a “…publicly accessible restored museum to the central and grandest rooms, as well as a 70 suite luxury hotel and spa to the remainder.“. This will necessarily have a significant impact on the structure of the house – and I’m not convinced it’s the entirely right plan.  This house should be the Chatsworth of Yorkshire – a grand house, filled with art and life – and though the plans for the museum will be put into action, there is no word as to whether the rooms will be furnished?  If so, by who?  Will the V&A have an outpost? Perhaps I miss the idea of a family living there, using these rooms – though where to find a family able to take on such a monumental task? Just imagine if the Fitzwilliams had been able to move back in? I do wish the Newbold family every possible success but only if the plans respect the history and importance of the house and it’s not just used as an architectural prop for a multi-use residential, hotel and office space development.


* – that it was the longest was the subject of an amusing bet in 1750 between Sir John Bland of Kippax Park and Lord Rockingham (as the Watson-Wentworths had now become) as to whose house was longest – Sir John lost by just 6ft.  Kippax Park was later demolished and the area open-cast mined.

Many more images of the house, grounds and stables can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [countrylifeimages]

More about the house and estate: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [wikipedia]

Official website: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

More about life in Wentworth Woodhouse: Part 1 and Part 2 [countryhousereader]

Local news report: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse: Newbold family bagged mansion for just £1.5m‘ [thestar]

28 thoughts on “The Country House Revealed – Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire

  1. ldm May 30, 2011 / 22:41

    Thanks for another excellent post.

    The acreage figures you cite are amazing. (I assume they came from Wikipedia?) They are especially amazing given that Bateman’s Great Landowners (based on the 2nd Domesday survey done in the 1870s) shows that the Fitzwilliams then owned 22,192 acres in Yorkshire and 23,318 acres in Huntingdonshire and Northhamptonshire.

    Perhaps there’s some hyperbole in the Wikipedia figures for which no source is given that i can see.

    • countryhouses May 30, 2011 / 23:20

      Hi ldm

      I was a little sceptical but hoped it would prompt someone to correct them if they had better info! The Coollattin estate in Ireland was definitely about 90,000-acres according to Catherine Bailey in ‘Black Diamonds’ but she doesn’t give a figure for the main Wentworth estate which I thought I had read was about 80,000-acres – but of course I now can’t find the reference. The Cambridgeshire figure did seem particularly high but possible considering the size of Milton Hall ( I just wonder how much changed between 1870 -> today – but to increase by nearly 60,000-acres in Yorkshire and 30,000 elsewhere does seem ambitious.



      • ldm May 31, 2011 / 00:32


        The only reference to 80,000 acres that i have seen is in Wikipedia as I mentioned earlier.

        The Irish acreage according to Batemen was 89,891 acres in Co. Wicklow, 1,532 acres in Kildare and 325 acres in Waterford. I assume it was all sold many years ago.

        PS Bateman has been reprinted and can be purchased on

      • countryhouses May 31, 2011 / 23:57

        According to the 2011 Sunday Times Rich List, Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland is worth £120m including 25,000-acres near Peterborough, and in Yorkshire and Wales. This makes him joint 583-rd richest with other landowners including the Duke of Beaufort (52,000-acres in Gloucestershire), the Marquess of Northampton (total not given), and the Earl of Pembroke (14,000-acres).

      • Judy Popley March 6, 2013 / 23:51

        Matthew – not all the Yorkshire estate relates to around Wentworth. The family have huge tracts of land all around Malton and indeed, own many of the most significant properties in Malton.
        Great piece though! Met you on our Georgian Society visit there and going again in May. Can’t wait.

      • Jerry Cassidy July 25, 2013 / 23:34

        Idim is correct in the Irish acreage but the 325 acres were in Co.Wexford ( next Co. to Co. Wicklow) not Co. Waterford

  2. Yavanna Hague May 31, 2011 / 08:25

    i think you should open wentworth woodhouse to the publlic so they can see what it is like inside and so the art students can take picture for their work i have walked down plent of times to see it and it is a lovely house it is such a waste it being sat there doing nothing when it could be put to use so please open it to the public thank you

  3. James Canning May 31, 2011 / 23:17

    Perhaps some combination of part-museum and part-hotel is the best way forward for this magnificent house. Not a trendy hotel, one hopes.

  4. Ian June 1, 2011 / 13:20

    Manny Shinwell’s actions are beneath contempt and indicative of a myopic view many politicians of his day held. Indeed I imagine quite a few still hold such blinkered views. I say myopic and blinkered because as a result of punitive taxes, death duties and other similarly ideologically driven policies, many of the country’s ‘great estates’ were driven to virtual bankruptcy and cultural ruin. The sad irony is that once these great estates were hacked up in the name of egalitarianism the costs of their subsequent restoration and upkeep continue to be born by the public purse via quasi-quangos like the National Trust, English Heritage et. al.

    Whilst acknowledging that some estates were naturally time limited and perhaps flawed from the outset it is never the less a national tragedy that many, thriving, working estates were sacrificed by the post-war labour government in a misguided attempt to create a more equal, enfranchised Britain. If one needed a salutary lesson in how to undermine and squander a nation’s heritage this might be it.

  5. AJ June 1, 2011 / 17:34

    What a sad story. I agree – it would be wonderful to have the opportunity to visit the house before it is turned into a hotel. Although I imagine if the owner is worth £120,000,000 this isn’t a pressing need. Well done him for saving the building – let’s hope something fitting may be done with it and many of the original rooms kept as is.

    Part hotel and part museum – great idea.

  6. Leonard G.Newman June 4, 2011 / 17:41

    What absolutely brilliant and fascinatingly informative programme.

    I revelled in every detail that was revealed.
    I think Dan Cruickshand should be nominated for an award. He presents intricate and detailed information in a manner that is easy to assimilate and does so without any sign of a pretensiousness.
    Of course one cannot fail to mention the bravery of Clifford Newbold in taking on the restoration for which I offer warm congratulations and every success.

  7. steve ellis August 15, 2011 / 20:36

    peter fitzwilliam the 8th earl is known to have expanded the yorkshire estate.The milton estate has also grown with additional purchases in cambridgeshire.It has some fifty tenanted farms.Hope this helps

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat August 15, 2011 / 21:38

      Thanks Steve. It seems that land quietly changes hands which makes it a challenge to keep track of the size of estates.


  8. Jonathan Kennedy October 7, 2011 / 20:28

    Apologies for coming to the post so late, but I’m puzzled by your reference to Lady Juliet Tadgell.

    I’m pretty sure that it’s Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland who now owns the Fitzwilliam-Wentworth estates in South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and at Milton in Cambridgeshire (his mother was stepdaughter of the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam). Confusingly, no matter where one looks there seems to be contradictory information on who inherited what from the Fitzwilliam spoils.

    But after a bit of research I believe the correct version of events is that following the death in 1948 of her father, the 8th Earl, a charitable trust was established to look after the many priceless contents of Wentworth Woodhouse, which Lady Juliet and her family has benefited from, whilst the house itself was leased to the local authority for some years before finally being sold. It would be my guess that the remaining estates at Wentworth and at Milton, in hindsight worth much more than mere houses, passed along clumsily with the earldom until its extinction in 1979 with the 10th Earl, when they were inherited by Sir Philip.

    Can anyone corroborate this?

    • Judy Popley May 16, 2013 / 21:46

      I’ve been told via several HHA members that Lady Juliet still owns many of the WW treasures – particularly the art treasures.
      Having visited the house the other week (I’m organising a plant fair in the stables in July) I was told by Giles Newbold (son of Clifford Newbold) that there has been considerable interest and assistance given to them to bring back many of the WW treasures – being leased on an indefinite contract – including Whistlejacket.
      Personally I would like to see Black Tom’s magical portrait by Van Dyke returned from its rather inferior position in Petworth House. Likewise so should the magnificent Turner painting of Tabley House, Cheshire be returned to its rightful home!
      The family has come against some surprising resistance from the Fitzwilliam (Wentworth) Trust Fund as they still retain and own all the park and adjoining land. Very sad.

  9. Dawn Baker August 14, 2012 / 23:43

    To the locals who lived in the villages owned by the Fitwilliam family the last Earl was affectionally known as Earl FitzBilly. Just thought I would mention this

  10. Jane Morgan March 6, 2013 / 22:11

    I wish the owners the very best of luck and as a nation, we should protect what little we have left in this country, of what is truly British! We are losing our identity in this country now, but if houses like this can survive, it will be a true memento of what this country, and the people in it, were truly like. Good luck and I do hope it survives.

    • john May 16, 2013 / 17:04

      I agrree with you jane, such a lot more to be saved throughout our great country.

  11. Dawn Baker March 8, 2013 / 14:36

    Some local news. The house is now open for viewing but has to be booked in advance.

  12. Judy Popley May 16, 2013 / 21:49

    I’m booked on a HHA tour of the house at the end of the May and will report back on any news, etc, and also my impressions of the Great House. I’ve visited before with the Georgian Society but this visit is billed as “the full monty”. What a privilege to wander through one of the greatest power houses in Europe.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat May 17, 2013 / 20:14

      Hi Judy – thanks, what a fascinating pleasure it will be to see the house again. I do hope that the many plans all come to fruition as there seems to be real support for such a grand house to play an important role in the region. I look forward to hearing any further updates.



  13. Bob Wilson August 10, 2013 / 19:30

    Three different tours now available :-
    Wentworth Tour – Strafford Tour and Fitzwilliam tour but as one would imagine booked well in advance. The last tour being the most interesting at Two hours and fifteen minutes – The full experience. All in all this tour includes 23 rooms, 3 staircases, 2 corridors, & 57 acres of private garden well worth booking I feel

  14. George V Stewart August 21, 2014 / 21:20

    As part of the Wentworth Fitzwilliam estates the Coollattin House in Co. Wicklow is now open for toiurs. It is now owned by the Coollattin golf club along with partof the original grounds. for those wishing to view the house booking are necessary. Contact the Golf club on 00353 539429125

  15. June Sole March 2, 2015 / 11:55

    Absolutely fascinating ! I live not far from Milton Hall and camped as a guide in the grounds by the lake. There were many local functions held in the grounds including the local Tory party Gala. The bungalow I live in is built on land that originally belonged to the Milton Estate and strangely enough my ancestors in the 1800’s lived in Swinton and Mexborough working as Potters.

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