In 1817 the Rev. Lionel Berguer published “Trifles in Verse”, a collection of [to put it politely] turgid amateur poetry. The first of these almost unreadable pieces is dedicated to his friend Frederick Vernon Wentworth. It conjures up a gentle Arcadian landscape whereas the reality was that Frederick had inherited a magnificent Georgian mansion, complete with art collection, extensive parkland and enough coal mines and farmland to make him an extremely wealthy man…. and all at the age of 9.
This is my third post about Wentworth Castle near Barnsley, an amazing living archive of a house, garden and landscape. The first post looked at the work of Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford [ catch up on that here ] , and the second at the work of his son William, the second earl. [catch upon that here ]
This one takes the story from Frederick’s inheritance in 1804, through the estate’s 19thc heyday to its rapid decline, and slow but sure restoration by the Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust.
When Frederick eventually came of age he set about restoring the estate and developing the gardens. It was a huge task but luckily for him there was coal on the estate and the mining ensured that he had sufficient income to be able to do it in style.
In 1826 he married Lady Ann Brudenell Bruce, daughter of the Marquis of Ailesbury and began to take his part in county life, serving as sheriff and standing for Parliament.
Some small part of the rivalry with his Fitzwilliam cousins at Wentworth Woodhouse still survived, but at least part of this seems to have been diverted into horticulture. In September 1836, for example, his gardener, William Batley won 1st prize for his vegetables at the Sheffield Horticultural Show held in the Botanic Gardens in front of “a brilliant assemblage of beauty and fashion”, beating Earl Fitzwilliam into 3rd place. The Earl in his turn swept the board in the fruit classes, particularly with a tray of nearly 30 varieties of fruit lauded as “one of the richest specimens of the kind ever seen at public exhibition” and beating Frederick’s gardener into 3rd place. The Earl also snatched the prize for a display of 6 orchids from under the nose of the Duke of Devonshire and his gardener Joseph Paxton. [Yorkshire Gazette – 17 Sept 1836].
Frederick’s wealth also enabled him to take full advantage of the discoveries of plant hunters like Robert Fortune, Augustine Henry and the Lobb brothers. In particular he caught orchidmania, growing these exotic imports in a new range of glasshouses heated by hot water pipework.However William Batley was obviously a top rate gardener because in 1847, for example, he won as many as 26 prizes at the Barnsley Horticultural Show. He died in 1852 and was succeeded by his son James who was to remain in place for more than 50 years and prizes continued to roll in across the board for all kinds of fruit and vegetables but also exotic and greenhouse plants. One of Batley’s awards was for “a singular plant called the Chinese air plant, which carried off first prize among the orchids.” [Leeds Intelligencer – 22 Sept 1855]
Frederick obviously took a great interest in the gardens and carried out a lot of improvements and innovations. Amongst them was the creation of what is now known as the Victorian Flower Garden. This was on the site of the bowling green and where the second earl had installed the Chinese seat. In the 1890s after Frederick’s death it was redesigned as an Italian garden, which were then extremely fashionable, and then again in the early 20thc as a rose garden. The present layout dates from the 1980s and is a recreation based based on archival photographs.
Another of Frederick’s passions seems to have been rhododendrons, and he began planting large numbers of newly discovered species. The gardens now hold the National Collection of both species and hardy hybrid rhododendrons, of williamsii hybrid camellias and that of species magnolias. These grow in several areas of the garden, particularly in the Middle Garden, informal wilderness and shrubberies [8,14,15 and 16 on the map]
Frederick also seems to have altered the use of some other garden areas, since, when the Union Jack garden was being restored, it became clear that at some stage it must have been used for the display of bedding plants. This was only realised when the clearance of overgrown trees and shrubs allowed the germination of dormant seeds of plants like calceolaria and nemesia which sprang up all over the place!
The informal wilderness and shrubberies below Stainborough Castle, although originally planted as a setting for the castle in the 18thc were also probably altered and added to by Frederick. There are now fine stumperies and groups of ferns and tree-ferns, as well as some nice Victorian fern pattern seats in this area.
Although Frederick took some part in public life in his earlier days at Wentworth, serving as sheriff and standing for Parliament, he later seems to have preferred a more private and less visible public role. He was a generous donor to good causes, giving money for new churches, public buildings, and emergency appeals as well land to extend a public park in Barnsley. He was happy to open the house on request so that visitors could see the extensive collection of paintings, and to allow access to Stainborough Park for the enjoyment of workers from the neighbouring towns on special holidays such as the Barnsley Feast.
Frederick was to be the owner of Wentworth Castle for 80 years, as he did not die until 1885 just 8 days short of his 90th birthday. However several years before that he had left Wentworth and moved to Hastings where he died. As a result his death attracted surprisingly little local news coverage, although his funeral in Worsborough attracted a few mentions. He left a personal fortune of nearly a million pounds in his will which made his son Thomas one of the wealthiest commoners in England.
Like his father Thomas was a retiring man but he was also a moderniser. In 1885 he began installing electric lighting in the Castle, making Wentworth one of the earliest great houses to have it. [Leeds Times 15 Aug 1885]. There was, of course, no National Grid and electricity had to be generated on site, which required two steam boiler engines and two dynamos to be put in as well. Much of the work was done by Colonel Rooke Crompton, an electrical pioneer, whose company, Crompton and Fawkes, also designed and built the amazing conservatory, with its underfloor heating and electric lighting. “The Iron Winter Garden” was used by the company as the first featured building in their lavishly illustrated catalogue. [Crompton & Fawkes will be the subject of the next post]
The construction of such a technically advanced building was apparently part of a campaign to attract a royal visit – and it succeeded because Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the throne, stayed for a month at Christmas 1888 and later again in 1889.
The conservatory was planted with an enormous array of tropical plants, in open ground but also in hundreds of pots ranged along its stone shelving for display, although they were actually grown and ‘stored’ when not in flower in other greenhouses nearby.
The Journal of Horticulture reported in 1887 that “the roof throughout is gracefully festooned with healthy and well-flowered specimens of Passifloras, Tacsonias, Cobea scandens and other suitable plants. When lit up by means of the electric light, with which this fine house as well as the whole of the establishment is furnished, the effect must be charming and fairy-like in its nature.”
Another feature thought to have been put in place for a possible royal visit was the azalea garden cut into the slope uphill between the conservatory and the Union Jack garden. Laid out symmetrically along gravel paths it is carefully terraced and one part has now been partly developed into a rock garden planted with bulbs and alpines.One of the great things about Wentworth is the enormous archive of information about the gardens, and especially about its gardeners. There is a nice display in the new lobby to restored conservatory about them. During the 19thc it was a Batley family affair – with 3 generations succeeding to the post of head gardener in turn, starting with William in 1826 and ending with George in 1915. It was James Batley who ran the gardens for almost 50 years who was the head gardener at the time the conservatory opened. He then had a staff of 12, divided into 3 teams who looked after the pleasure gardens, the glasshouses and the kitchen garden.
Thomas Vernon-Wentworth died “much beloved” in 1902 at Aldeburgh on the family’s Suffolk estates. He was succeeded by his son Bruce, who had been a Captain in Grenadier Guards before being elected Tory MP for Brighton. He continued the enhancement of the estate, adding the balustraded terrace in front of the Baroque wing of the house in 1911. The pillars of the ironwork gates have armorial supporters made by John Nost in about 1720, which make them contemporary with this part of the house. Bruce also replanted the narrow lime avenue, known as Lady Lucy’s walk, that runs behind the house to the wilderness area.
But, despite this, Bruce seemed to prefer the Suffolk and Scottish estates to Yorkshire, and in 1919 he abandoned Wentworth completely, auctioned much of the house’s contents at Christie’s, and moved to Aldeburgh permanently.
The house was mothballed for twenty years but during the Second World War it was used by the military and for housing prisoners of war. As so often happened its condition deteriorated drastically, and complete demolition was seriously considered. However, in 1948 the castle and its immediate surrounds of 60 acres were sold to Barnsley Council, for £26,000, about twice the sum paid for the whole estate in 1708 when it was bought by the first earl.
They restored the house and turned it into a teacher training college, which it remained until 1978 when it became the Northern College of Residential Adult Education education college who remain the occupants today. To find out more about them and the courses they offer check out:
Despite being in public hands it was featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition “The Country House in Danger”. The great landscape that Walpole praised in 1780 was described in 1986 as now “disturbed and ruinous”,and the the second earl’s sinuous river excavated in the 1730s had been reduced to a series of muddy ponds.
In 2002 the grounds were acquired by The Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust which aims to carry out a phased programme of restoration and development works. By 2003 they had managed to buy the park from the Vernon-Wentworth Trusts and won funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to begin essential repairs. Although there is still a lot of work to do, judging by what they have achieved already the estate is entering another great, if very different, stage in its history & I’m looking forward to a return visit soon to see how this progress.