‘Posh girl’ digs deep to cop bestseller

Catherine Bailey and Martyn Johnson
Catherine Bailey and Martyn Johnson
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A POSH accent. An Oxford education. And a London address...

Of course Catherine Bailey was going to meet resistance when she visited South Yorkshire to speak to local miners!

Wentworth Woodhouse. Picture by Alan Goodison

Wentworth Woodhouse. Picture by Alan Goodison

But she found a secret weapon in former Sheffield copper Martyn Johnson who has journeyed through life with the pledge to do somebody a favour every day.

On this occasion he sized up Catherine when she came to ask for help and decided he liked her. More to the point, he came to the conclusion that he could trust her.

And that was the start of a long and sometimes seemingly impossible journey which led to the publication of Catherine’s book Black Diamonds, a bestseller which brought her to Sheffield for the Off The Sheffield mini festival where she gave a rare public talk on the background to the book.

It tells of the Fitzwilliam family of Wentworth, near Rotherham, who amassed a great wealth from a string of South Yorkshire collieries, the Fitz-Billy Pits.

Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse

The book also delves deep into the dark secrets of the aristocratic family and, by contrast, their relationship with the men who worked in their mines and their families.

And that was the sticking point.

For, even generations after the pits had been nationalised and then closed, there remains a deep loyalty towards the landed gentry who sent men underground to toil for coal.

They were, simply put, inspirational employers, looking after their workers like no others did in those days.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Wentworth.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Wentworth.

For instance, after the 1926 General Strike, the miners remained on strike for months.

But while colliery owners elsewhere were evicting their striking colliers from the company homes they rented, the Fitzwilliams continued to provide three square meals a day for the men, women and children whose livelihood depended on the idle Fitz-Billy Pits.

Admiration for the land owners has filtered down through the years and local people still will hear no ill spoken of them.

Catherine could sense the suspicion as she began asking questions in Wentworth and surrounding pit villages. She told her audience in Sheffield: “A lot of people would not talk to me. I think they were frightened what I might learn.

Black Diamonds, by Catherine Bailey

Black Diamonds, by Catherine Bailey

“They were very loyal and the Fitzwilliam family is held in high regard to this day.”

But Martyn, who shared the stage with Catherine, was on hand with his blunt South Yorkshire manner to break down barriers and assure people that Catherine wasn’t out to blacken the Fitzwilliam memory.

With Martyn’s cajoling, they warmed to Catherine and began to tell the stories of the hardship endured by their families in pre-nationalised collieries.

And Martyn also began to help turn up documents which they feared had been lost.

Catherine said: “When I first arrived, I very nearly turned round and went back to London. I was told that all the family’s 20th century documents, some 16 tons of them, had been burned.”

It had taken weeks for a fleet of lorries to ferry the material to the bonfire at Wentworth, which smouldered for years after.

But Wentworth folk had secretly rescued some volumes from the embers and these have been passed down through generations. Some came Martyn’s way to be passed on to Catherine, helping piece together a story which has captivated readers since it was written four years ago.

She confided that the BBC had once bought the rights to dramatise the story but the costs had outweighed this option. However, she remains hopeful that one day the fascinating story may be taken up by a TV company.

Meanwhile, Catherine Bailey has two books underway.

The first involves a ‘dark and mysterious’ death at Belvoir Castle, near Leicester, at the turn of the century.

Then she will piece together the story of the Devonshire family and Chatsworth from the abdication in 1936 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. “It’s a fascinating period when the house stood on a knife edge and could have gone under,” she said.

THOUGH he retired from the police many years ago, Martyn Johnson still hears snippets from the underworld.

And one story made his hair stand on end.

There were rumours of plans to burgle Wentworth Woodhouse, the stately ancestral home of the Fitzwilliam family.

It had been used as a teacher training college but latterly stood idle and still stored some of its treasures.

Martyn told the Sheffield audience: “I went to the authorities and told them what I had heard but they wouldn’t listen.

“They told me it was alarmed and nobody could get in.”

He said it would be child’s play to bypass its defences and eventually was issued with a written permit to burgle the house.

“And I stole a painting to prove that they should do something about the burglar alarm.

“I gave it back, of course!”

As a result the alarm system was upgraded and South Yorkshire was spared a daring burglary on its forgotten stately home.