Retro: rivalry that built two great South Yorks houses

Wentworth Castle Gardeners c 1897
Wentworth Castle Gardeners c 1897
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Today it is impossible to imagine how distraught Sir Thomas Wentworth must have been on discovering he would not inherit the family fortune and ancestral seat at Wentworth Woodhouse.

This was following the death of the Second Earl of Strafford who died without an heir in 1695.

Quite unexpectedly, the inheritance meandered its way down through the female line to the Second Earl’s sister’s son, Thomas Watson. While the latter gentleman adopted the name Watson-Wentworth, Sir Thomas Wentworth only gained the title Lord Raby.

Although devastating for Sir Thomas, this unhappy sequence of events seemingly injected him with new life.

Purchasing Stainborough Hall in 1708, which was only six miles from Wentworth Woodhouse, he embarked on an ambitious rebuilding programme.

Was he devilishly trying his damnedest to build a more impressive pile than at Wentworth Woodhouse? Some people firmly believe so and even argue he succeeded.

Stainborough Hall was formerly owned by the Everinghams who sold it in 1610 to the Cutler family and it passed to Sir Thomas in 1708 for £14,150.

As a soldier and diplomat Sir Thomas was a great success and he was rewarded by two monarchs, William III and Queen Anne.

Thus, it was estimated that he had £18,739 tucked away to acquire and begin developing Stainborough as a viable rival to Wentworth Woodhouse.

Additionally, ownership of the Stainborough estate was essential to the success of Sir Thomas’s bid to revive the title Earl of Strafford, which had been extinct from 1695.

When this was granted in 1711 he became the First Earl of Strafford (second creation), much to the chagrin of his rival cousins at Wentworth Woodhouse.

In subsequent years he received handsome salaries from government posts, such as the First Lord of the Admiralty and ambassador to the Dutch Republic in The Hague.

This was augmented by a dowry acquired through marriage in 1712 to Ann Johnson, daughter of the shipping magnate Sir Henry Johnson.

Inheritances of approximately £51,000 from his wife’s family, returns on investments and rents from additional estates substantially swelled his wealth.

Rebuilt by the Cutler family in around 1672-73, Stainborough Hall, later to become more commonly known as Wentworth Castle, was extended by Sir Thomas in the Baroque style between 1710 and 1714.

Facing east, the extension was influenced by styles he had seen whilst serving as ambassador to Prussia.

The grand building project was supervised by Twickenham architect Edward Reeves. Designs for the interiors were supplied by architect James Gibbs from around 1718.

The elaborate woodwork was undertaken by Charles Griffiths from London, William Thornton of York and the local craftsman John Goodyear.

The 180-foot Long Gallery emulated galleries in Berlin and Rome and was devoted to sculptures and paintings bought in Italy.

The mansion interior was completed with the painting of Morpheus and Endymion by Giacomo Amiconi in the centre of the Great Hall ceiling.

Royal gardener George London designed a series of formal gardens and waterworks, adorned with statues. Work began in 1726 on building a marvellous miniature medieval castle comprising a battlemented gatehouse and bailey wall with four turrets.

It is among the first examples of the Gothic folly later to become so popular with Georgian landowners.

As soon as the son of Thomas Watson-Wentworth, who was also called Thomas, inherited Wentworth Woodhouse in 1723, he launched a cultural counter-attack on Wentworth Castle by lavishly developing his property and renaming it Wentworth House.

A new baroque front was his first riposte in 1724-28 and shortly after that a grand Palladian mansion was erected, which at 606 feet is considered the longest front of any country house in Britain.

Following Sir Thomas’s death in 1739, his son William continued the rivalry with the Wentworth Woodhouse neighbours.

He added a Palladian wing to Wentworth Castle and embellished the grounds with a swaggering display of theatrical follies.

The design of the Palladian wing, probably by William himself, was tailored to the existing Baroque structure.

Although supervised by the London architect Charles Ross, it is thought to have been built in 1760 to 65 by John Platt of Rotherham. He carved the griffin crest on the pediment and erected the Corinthian Temple above the south lawn.

Preferring his country estate to a political career, William transformed the formal avenues and woods of the park into the naturalistic composition of woodland and greenswards, water and monuments so favoured by the English landscape movement.

When William died childless in 1791, the Wentworth Castle estate went through 15 years of financial hardship which was complicated by the death of three elderly owners in quick succession.

After a special Act of Parliament in 1795 and acrimonious feuds among the families of William’s three sisters, Wentworth Castle passed in 1804 to the descendants of the youngest, Lady Harriet.

Eventually taking control was Frederick Vernon-Wentworth who, as a young man committed to Wentworth Castle, set about restoring the estate and developing the gardens.

He was succeeded by his son, Thomas Vernon-Wentworth, and grandson, Captain Bruce Vernon-Wentworth.

Thomas installed electricity and built the remarkable conservatory in about 1885.

The Captain erected the terrace in front of the Baroque extension in 1912 and enclosed it with a new balustrade and ironwork gates with pillars.

These were topped with 18th-century armorial supporters made by John Nost II. Bruce Vernon-Wentworth also replanted the avenue of lime trees known as Lady Lucy’s Walk in 1919.

Sadly, many of the sumptuous furnishings and furniture were sold off at a sequence of sales in 1911, 1918 and 1948. It would appear that by the 1930s the Vernon-Wentworths preferred their other properties.

During the Second World War, the War Office Inventory recorded a rundown mansion and estate.

The change of use of estates and demolition of mansions was a sorry chain of events occurred too frequently across South Yorkshire and indeed the rest of the country during the first half of the 20th century.

Yet both Wentworth Castle and Wentworth Woodhouse, if not their contents, managed to survive.

To their, credit Barnsley Council saved Wentworth Castle and the 60-acre garden in 1948 through a purchase from Captain Vernon-Wentworth for £26,000, almost twice the sum paid for the estate in 1708.

The mansion was converted into a training college for women specialising in nursery and primary school teaching.

When the college moved to Sheffield Polytechnic in 1978, Wentworth Castle became the home of the Northern College of Residential Adult Education.

Wentworth Castle Gardens opened to the public in 2007. The site is operated by an independent charitable trust, the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust.

The trust was established in 2001 with the following aims: “To undertake a phased programme of restoration and development works which will provide benefit to the general public by providing extensive access to the parkland and gardens and the built heritage, conserving these important heritage assets for future generations.”

Claire Herring, director of the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust, said the estate’s Grade 1-listed landscape and formal gardens are nationally significant for their extensive monuments, housing some of the UK’s earliest gothic follies.

“The Pleasure Ground displays layers of garden design characteristic of different periods and fashions, including an early 18th-century Union Jack garden, a Victorian flower garden and 20th-century collections of rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias,” said Claire.

n If readers have any old pictures of Wentworth Castle or Wentworth Woodhouse, please let us know.