A Brief History of Wentworth
The history of Wentworth village is inextricably linked with the history of the great aristocratic families – the Wentworths, Watsons and Fitzwilliams – who presided over it for generations. Only recently, following the end of the Fitzwilliam family line in 1979, has the village started to lead a more independent existence.
The village itself dates back to at least 1066, when lands in the area were given to Adam de Newmarch and William le Flemming, later passing to the Canons of Bolton Abbey. It is not known how the Wentworth family came into the lands, but around 1300 they united by marriage with the Woodhouse family who lived outside the village on the site of what is now Wentworth Woodhouse. The Woodhouse lands were originally part of the manor of “frerehouse” which also included the sites of the modern Friars House, Friars Cottages and Boltons Yard. The combined Wentworth family went on to dominate the area for centuries, slowly acquiring more land, money and influence.
The first Wentworth family member to achieve national fame was Thomas Wentworth (b. 1593), 1st Earl of Strafford (pictured). He entered parliament and progressed rapidly through the ranks, becoming Lord President of the Council of the North and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and no doubt acquiring a lot more land and money along the way. Unfortunately he must also have acquired a lot of enemies in the House of Commons because he was tried and beheaded for treason in 1641. His remains are buried under the Old Church in Wentworth.
The Earl’s son, William (they all seem to have been called either Thomas or William!) inherited his father’s title, but died without an heir and the estate passed to the Watson (later Watson-Wentworth) family. It was the Watson-Wentworths (who later became the Marquises of Rockingham) who built many of the grandest structures in the area, including the magnificent East Front of Wentworth Woodhouse and the Hoober Stand and Keppel’s Column follies. They also gave the village some of its first public buildings such as the Barrow school and the former windmill on Clayfields Lane. The 2nd Marquis of Rockingham even found time between the building work to become Prime Minister on two occassions. Unfortunately he didn’t find time to produce an heir and so the estate changed hands yet again.
The Earl Fitzwilliams (or Wentworth-Fitzwilliams) took over in 1782 and were responsible for much of the early industrial development in the area, establishing numerous mines and factories in the surrounding towns and villages (not too close to their house of course!). This made the family even richer, and by the mid-nineteenth century they were reckoned to be the 6th wealthiest landowners in the country. They didn’t lose touch with the village though and gave money to establish the Mechanics Institute and the girls school (now Wentworth C of E school) for the benefit of their tenants. They also built cottages for their workers in Wentworth and Elsecar, most of which exist to this day.
The 6th Earl gave us the magnificent Holy Trinity Church (the “new” church), the 7th Earl started a factory in Sheffield which produced one of the first motor cars (the Simplex), the 8th Earl sadly died in a plane crash along with Kathleen Kennedy, sister of J. F. Kennedy, who he was seeing at the time. And so it goes on…
The Fitzwilliam reign continued until the death of the 10th Earl in 1979, again tragically without issue. Since the death of the last Earl much of the property in the village has been managed by a trust which does an excellent job of preserving the character of the village and continues to make charitable donations for the benefit of residents. Wentworth Woodhouse is now under separate private ownership, and little is known about future plans for the building. The rest of the estate, which still has significant land holdings in the area, lives on under the stewardship of Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland.
Please visit our online Wentworth/Fitzwilliam Family Tree for detailed information about the Wentworth, Watson and Fitzwilliam families who dominated Wentworth Village for generations from the stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse. It brings together hundreds of individuals dating back to the reign of Henry II.
The above are just edited highlights of the history of the village and estate. For more comprehensive and scholarly coverage you may wish to read Roy Young’s excellent “The Big House and The Little Village”, which you may be able to obtain from shops in the village.
A new book by Catherine Bailey about the history of the Fitzwilliam family and Wentworth Woodhouse is now available. It can be purchased on line from Amazon.co.uk – click the link below for details.