Restorations - 'People's Pile' mining the past for a new identity
“This house was built on the blood, sweat and tears of miners and while I’m chief executive it won’t be cleaned.”
Soot-stained Wentworth Woodhouse is still the colour of buildings in the age of coal. But while most have had a clean up since then, this mansion will continue to wear its black with pride, according to Sarah McLeod, chief executive of the charity that runs it.
She said: “The soot is part of its DNA, I don’t want to see it shiny. People are proud of that story. Their ancestors worked to make the wealth that built this place and they are finally getting some benefit.
“This is not Chatsworth, with a family sharing their home. Wentworth is a community project, it belongs to you.”
Much about the place is excessive, grotesque in some ways, like the wealth of the Fitzwilliams who were the richest people in the country at the turn of the 20th century, after the royal family.
The Grade I listed 18th century house has a ridiculous 365 rooms, its frontage is the longest in England and at one time it boasted 1,000 staff.
Today it is in the hands of a trust raising money to pay for restorations – it is the biggest project in Britain except for the Palace of Westminster. Some £15m has been spent so far.
It also aims to be a visitor attraction that writes its identity into people’s hearts.
Sarah added: “There is something about it that is really northern. I’m not trying to turn it into something that it is not. But it has come full circle from the miners who generated the money for the aristocrats to build it. Now it’s owned by the people for the people. It’s a great story: the aristocrats were unable to keep it, but actually, the working man will sort it out.”
Creating a connection is important because awareness of the house is low, even in Rotherham. Even fewer have visited.
People in Sheffield have the additional, psychological, barrier of the M1, Sarah admits.
“It’s a real challenge for us, a lot of people in Rotherham don’t even know we are here. But it’s a real opportunity. Every other country house has been done to death.
“Our job, now we have had a chance to restore it and employ people, is to put in something really exciting and cutting edge for people to see. It is not a treasure house, the rooms are empty, it is a blank canvas.”
The last resident, Giles Newbold, lived alone with his whippets, one phone and one Hoover in just six rooms. The rest were unused, some had rain pouring in, Stephen King would have loved it.
The Trust snapped it up in 2016, and just in time, for £7m. It received a boost later that year with a grant of £7.6 million from then chancellor Philip Hammond.
Sarah added: “Thank God we came when we did. Even now, the stables we’re working on at the moment are propped up all over the place.”
A chrysalis of scaffolding enveloped the house for a long time, much of that is gone and the remainder, on the North Pavilion, was being removed this week.
Today, the house and gardens are open to visitors. The next project is the Grade II* listed Camellia House, a large old greenhouse some distance from the mansion. It will become a cafe and events space set to open next year. The business plan includes a 100-year maintenance fund.
Sarah added: “Wentworth is not one big project, it’s a hundred little ones. What you don’t do is the roof, then all the windows (there are 1,000) then the stone, because you would go bust. Each project includes a 100-year maintenance plan so someone doesn’t have the same problem I have got.”
The trust also raises money from business lets, weddings, event, television and film. Although the income is welcome, juggling them all can be a headache.
Gentleman Jack, Victoria and the Downtown Abbey movie were all filmed there, closing off large areas to the public. Netflix production The Irregulars brought 500 people, Sarah said.
“The more visitors we have the more difficult and expensive it is to close down.”
Future projects could see guests attending - via augmented reality glasses - a Georgian ball in the famous tiled Marble Saloon, or fine art shows.
Today the trust employs 50 and has 200 volunteers, who are not just free labour. It’s a two-way deal, especially after Covid which has taken away some of the team’s ‘groove’, she believes.
Sarah added: “Volunteers come because they want to be part of something and make friends. If not, we’re not doing it right, they need something special in return.”
It may be well supported but life is not easy. There is much money to raise, much to do - ‘like painting the Forth bridge’ - the danger of ‘funding fatigue’ before it is self-sufficient for income and intense competition from all the other stately homes in ‘history land’.
“It’s a lot of money and people say, ‘is it worth it?’ Well, it’s about the restoration of a Grade I listed building and a significant architectural treasure for this country that creates jobs and engages with the community. It’s an economic driver for Yorkshire.”
In the search for a story, the trust hired branding experts who came up with the slogan ‘People’s Palace’, she adds.
But the staff didn’t like the word ’palace’ because it sounded too royal. Perhaps ‘People’s Pile’ would be better.