Book Review: Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty (Catherine Bailey, Viking, £20)

The ‘black diamonds’ of the title are coal the mainstay of the Fitzwilliam family’s fortunes, as their Yorkshire estates were found in the 18th century to straddle ‘the Barnsley seam’.

Yet, in the mid 20th century, coal was to prove the Fitzwilliams’ undoing, when the spiteful Socialist politician ‘Manny’ Shinwell deliberately ruined the beautiful setting of the family seat of Wentworth Woodhouse with open-cast mining.

Catherine Bailey writes of ‘England’s forgotten palace’, eventually sold by the family in 1989, that ‘few have heard its name’ although I can think of several country house buffs for whom Wentworth remains the ultimate fantasy. James Lees-Milne noted in his diary that it was ‘certainly the most enormous private house I have ever beheld’ and that he was ‘surprised by the very high quality of the pre-Adams rooms and ceilings’.

In its heyday, guests were presented with a silver casket containing different-coloured confetti sprinkling this along the five miles of passageways was the only way to find one’s way around.

The book begins with the death of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1902. His eldest son, Viscount Milton, an epileptic explorer, had been exiled to the wilds of Canada, where his own son, Billy, was born in 1872. Billy’s Aunt Alice (who was said to make ‘the milk go sour just by looking at it’) claimed that he was a ‘changeling’, yet he succeeded as the 7th Earl and presided over a golden age at Wentworth. Unlike some colliery owners, ‘Billy Fitzbilly’ (as he was affectionately known) was a model employer.

Billy’s son, Peter, the 8th Earl, won the DSO in the Second World War for his missions with motor gunboats in the North Sea. In 1948, he was tragically killed in an aircraft crash in France, together with his American lover, Kathleen (‘Kick’), widow of the Marquess of Hartington and sister of the future President Kennedy.

The Earldom was then inherited by a cousin known as ‘Bottle by Bottle’, before a court case over illegitimacy resulted in the title passing not to another cousin, Toby (shamefully disowned by his snobbish mother, herself a former chorus girl, for marrying a governess), but to Toby’s brother, Tom, the 10th and last Earl, who died in 1979.

It is a fascinating story, well pieced together by the author. However, I do wish that she had spent half an hour with someone who could have put her straight on styles and titles. (It does not inspire confidence when Lady Sybil Middleton is called ‘Lady Middleton’.) She also goes off on too many tangents, although her researches into one tragic case of illegitimacy the spectre that stalks the whole saga yields a scoop that breaks the heart and haunts the memory.