Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England

by Catherine Bailey

Paperback, 2014




Penguin Books (2014), Edition: 1st, 544 pages


"From the New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Rooms, the extraordinary true story of the downfall of one of England's wealthiest families. Fans of Downton Abbey now have a go-to resource for fascinating, real-life stories of the spectacular lives led by England's aristocrats. With the novelistic flair and knack for historical detail Catherine Bailey displayed in her New York Times bestseller The Secret Rooms, Black Diamonds provides a page-turning chronicle of the Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England. When the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902, he left behind the second largest estate in twentieth-century England, valued at more than [ ] billion of today's money--a lifeline to the tens of thousands of people who worked either in the family's coal mines or on their expansive estate. The earl also left behind four sons, and the family line seemed assured. But was it? As Bailey retraces the Fitzwilliam family history, she uncovers a legacy riddled with bitter feuds, scandals (including Peter Fitzwilliam's ill-fated affair with American heiress Kick Kennedy), and civil unrest as the conflict between the coal industry and its miners came to a head. Once again, Bailey has written an irresistible and brilliant narrative history"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member KeithJenner
A few miles from where I like is the small village of Wentworth and the little known (outside this area) building called Wentworth Woodhouse.

The house should be well known, as it's the largest non royal residence in Britain (I believe), and one of the largest in the world. The east front is the longest facade in Europe at 185 metres and the house covers over 2.5 acres. It's a mysterious place though. You can walk down the drive past it and be impressed by its scale, but nobody knows too much about the current owner, who apparently does live in it.

The house was built by the Wentworth family, who's members included Charles I's adviser in the lead up to the English Civil War and a British Prime Minister in the 1700's. It then passed to the Fitzwilliams, who still owned the house and large tracts of land at the beginning of the 20th century. The family wealth was sustained by coal mining.

Despite the huge historical and architectural significance of the house and its estate, it is difficult to find too much information about it. Therefore, when I found this book in a garden centre (which is actually in the grounds of the house), I had to buy it.

At first glance there was a disappointment. The book is subtitled "The Rise and Fall of a Great English Dynasty", but there is very little contained in it about the rise. The book starts in 1902 when the Fitzwilliams were at the height of their powers. They controlled the whole area, owning the mines where people worked and the houses where they lived. Thousands of people were utterly dependent on the Family for their wellbeing.

I am tempted to knock half a star off my rating because of the lack of information about how the family reached this situation, but I can't face doing that because the book itself is so well written and gripping. The story of how by the mid point of the century, the main line of the family had died out and the future of the title Earl Fitzwilliam was destined to die out (which it did in 1979), is told in a way that is very easy to read, and you feel yourself getting drawn into the story and forming opinions of the central characters which I find very rare.

Alongside the story of the family is told that of the battle between mine owners and the miners during the first half of the twentieth century. Whilst often presented as a battle of right vs wrong (the battle being won by the good guys after the second world war when the mines were nationalised), Catherine Bailey takes an admirable stand in not appearing to side with one group or the other and effectively getting across the message that both sides had their good and bad points. What was more important were the personalities of individuals within each group. Whilst many mine owners were guilty of abusing their position with their employees, there were others, such as the Fitzwilliams, who took their responsibilities seriously and were well respected by the miners. Equally, the revenge taken against the owners, as demonstrated by the desecration of Wentworth Park and near destruction of the house by the Labour Government after the war is not something that the Socialist movement can be proud of, and was fiercely opposed by the miners and unions in South Yorkshire.

The lesson we learn (and one that I strongly agree with) is that class war in itself is a damaging thing, just as we see the devastation of peoples lives caused by the battle between Protestents and Catholics. These are lessons which are still relevant today.

The supporting cast include the British Royal Family, The Kennedys, Various other British aristocratic families and thousands of ordinary Yorkshire working men and women. The story includes family tragedy and disputes, terrible accidents (affecting all classes), the devastation of war (imagine losing both your brother and husband to war in the space of weeks), conflicts caused by religion within families, and the day to day lives of ordinary people. The great hulk of Wentworth Woodhouse is always there in the shadows, just as it is in Wentworth village to this day.

One note of caution I would point out is that much of the story is based on speculation and eye witness accounts (which may be biased), due to the destruction of much of the documentary evidence by the Fitzwilliam family and others. This is acknowledged by the author and, whilst some of the speculation may be wrong, I have no doubt that the main tale is factually pretty accurate.

As a local, it is novel to read a story where places that I know and work, and the pubs that I visit are central to the story, and it is enlightening to learn more about the history of the area, but I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the social changes of the twentieth century.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
Catherine Bailey's done it again. I loved her earlier book, The Secret Rooms, and this new one, Black Diamonds (Penguin), is just as good. Bailey's subject this time is another aristocratic English family and their home (the Earls Fitzwilliam and Wentworth House), but unlike her previous book, this time she's not faced with a surfeit of family records, but rather a severe shortage of them, since the Fitzwilliams have consciously destroyed many of their own papers and records. And not without cause, it would seem: Bailey chronicles the astounding family dramas of the Fitzwilliam clan, and if you think "Downton Abbey" has gotten soapy, those folks have nothing on this crowd! It's almost unbelievable to think that all the things Bailey recounts could possibly all have happened to the same family over just a few generations, and naturally it all makes for riveting reading.

Even as the family members treated each other pretty terribly, though, Bailey makes clear their quite enlightened attitudes toward their leaseholders and those who worked in the coal mines owned by the estate. I'm sure I won't be the only one pleasantly surprised at this.

I do wish that Bailey had gone into a bit more depth about the rise of the Fitzwilliam family, and also that she had spent some more time on the later period, which feels just a bit rushed. But this is a fantastic read and I recommend it very highly.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
Fans of "Downton Abbey" are led to believe that the Crawley family wealth comes from the earnings of the bucolic farms that surround Downton Abbey. However, if Julian Fellowes were more honest, he'd let viewers know that, in all probability, their large income was derived from coal just as it was for the Carnavon family in whose Highclere Castle the show is set. This book is the story of an even wealthier aristocratic family, the Fitzwilliams, who at the beginning of the twentieth century were the wealthiest family in England and whose wealth was derived from the labor of men and boys (some as young as eleven) who toiled underground for twelve to fifteen hours a day. Their county estate in south Yorkshire was called Wentworth and it was England’s largest private home, with 1,000 windows, and its park wall running for nine miles. When the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902 he left four sons and his dynasty and fortune seemed secure. But the class war of the twentieth century combined with the family's own follies, brought it all crashing down around them.

The book gives a vivid picture of the yawning gap between the wealthy aristocracy and the workers who supported their lifestyle. Although the FItzwilliams were beneficent mine owners (unlike some of the purely corporate mining interests) the gap between the family and the miners was vast, and beginning in the 1920's with the rise of the Labour party, no amount of kindly charity from the big house was going to satisfy the workers' demands for a better life. Although the family survived the General Strike in 1926, the Depression and then World War II spelled the end of their financial empire.

The eighth Earl, Peter, was the last person of consequence to hold the title. He was a dashing war hero who today is largely remembered for being Kathleen Kennedy;s married lover who died with her in a plane crash in 1948. The book spends altogether too much time discussing Ms Kennedy's history and her relationship with Peter (about 100 pages!) that lends little to the understanding of the story of the family and its wealth. I can only guess it was included to appeal to the seemingly endless fascination with everything Kennedy on both sides of the Atlantic.

After his death the title went to Peters alcoholic uncle and then to a distant cousin who died without producing any sons, thus the title is today extinct. After a long decline into semi-ruin, Wentworth House is now owned by someone unrelated to the family and is open for tours costing from $15 to $38 per head and for rental as a wedding venue.

The book does an excellent job of detailing both the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy as well as the grinding poverty of the mineworkers and the glee with which Labour party officials confiscated the mines - even to the point of strip mining on the grounds of Wentworth. It would be nice to say that as a result, the workers in the area are living better life today, thanks to the mas closing of collieries in the 1980's by Margaret Thatcher, the area has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Britain today.
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LibraryThing member susanj67
I bought this book expecting it to be a Mitfordesque country house-type saga (albeit a true one), and I couldn't have been more wrong. It does have a family (and their huge house) at its heart, but it also includes a vast amount of material on the social history of Britain during the early part of the 20th century, and it is beautifully written, combining official documents and memoirs with the recollections of people who worked in the house and lived in the nearby village. I loved it and was sorry when I finished it and didn't have it to read any more.… (more)
LibraryThing member pierthinker
History often reflects the sweep of great events in the tiniest of details. The study of historical niches can reveal lives and events in all their great absurd and weird glory. Catherine Bailey’s book shines a light on one of the strangest, richest and, at its most kindly, unfortunate families in British history.

Subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty’ and mostly concentrating on the fall, this is the history of the final few generations of the Earls Fitzwilliam. Having made their fortune from coal under their huge Midlands estates (when the 6th Earl died in 1902 he left the equivalent of $5 Billion in 2010 money) they proceeded to allow eccentricity, love, hate and every other emotion to drive them to lose everything in little more than half a century.

Bailey has woven the story of the Fitzwilliams with the huge changes in the coal industry in the 20th century that drove their fortune. By the time nationalisation came in 1948 the Fitzwilliams had exhausted their financial and emotional capital and could little other than watch the final components of their dynasty crumble to dust.

When I started this book it seemed it would be a hard read with little to interest or excite. As the book progresses it becomes pacier, more compelling, certainly more lurid and more like a soap opera. Watching this family destroy itself is horrible, but you cannot look away.

As history this is well researched using many eyewitness accounts; as entertainment, who can resist a family that names all five brothers in one generation William Fitzwilliam?
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LibraryThing member lexieconyngham
I still don't like this writer's style, but I preferred this to the second one, The Secret Rooms, which I expected to enjoy more. She still dots about a good bit and puts in far, far too much detail (I honestly don't think I need to know the colour of the ink on the map used by the German navigator in the plane that just missed bombing the big house); she's completely money-obsessed; and she persists in writing narratives that pretend to know what was going on in the heads of the historical characters. I know, plenty of people do it, but somehow her style always makes me stop and think - 'So how does she know that, then?' Still, I read it with interest and learned a good deal that was more generally useful and interesting than the colour of Luftwaffe maps.… (more)
LibraryThing member canalrat
Fascinating insight into the end of an era
LibraryThing member briandrewz
A look at the history of coal mining and the downfall of the Fitzwilliam family. This book is definitely more about the former than the latter. Of course, the Fitzwilliams are woven into this tapestry of superb storytelling. For me, the most interesting part of the book was Peter, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam. He seemed to invigorate the story where it needed it most. His romance with Kathleen Kennedy, sister of the late President of the USA, was tragic and heartbreaking. The sections about coal and the lives led by the coal miners seemed to drag on.

Still, an interesting look for those who love to read about the titled British families.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
I don't think I have ever learned so much about so many different aspects of English social history from one book before! Ostensibly about Wentworth Woodhouse, a magnificent 300-room country house near Rotherham, and the Earls of Fitzwilliam who lived there for two hundred and fifty years, Catherine Bailey also manages to include scandal, mining, two World Wars and the Kennedys in her riveting history.

I was also torn between two opposing factions while reading - sympathy for the South Yorkshire miners, who worked in dangerous, inhuman conditions for a pittance while the 'mineral owners' reaped billions for nothing more than inheriting land, and heart-rending horror over the final fate of such a beautiful house and grounds (I was wishing that 'Manny' Shinwell suffered for his spiteful crime, but the miserable old bugger lived to 101!) Yes, the pre-war imbalance of power and wealth was revolting - although I don't think we have advanced all that much - but destroying such an immense site of local and historic worth out of bitter envy was hardly the answer. I am so glad that Wentworth survived both family and foes to grace the landscape today - and the house is finally open to visitors! Yay!

Back to the book, Catherine Bailey's account of the Fitzwilliams - who destroyed over sixteen tons of family papers to hide a murky family secret - and the local history surrounding Wentworth is both fascinating and and engaging. Nothing is superfluous, from the life of 'Kick' Kennedy who died in mysterious circumstances with Peter Fitzwilliam to the Sankey Commission of 1919 and the first attempt to nationalise mining, and every last detail is worth knowing. Yes, I spent a whole week just on this one book, but I don't begrudge a single second!
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LibraryThing member sallysvenson
An original history of the relationship between one aristocratic English family and the source of its wealth: coal. The book does a first-rate job of delineating for the general reader the trajectory of the coal-mining industry in Yorkshire from the turn of the twentieth century through its nationalization, making superb use of first-person accounts.

The book is uneven, however, when it comes to the history of the noble family on which it is focused. The earl who bore the family title throughout most of the period covered comes off as a shadowy figure, and although it is often repeated that as coal-owners and employers the family was generous to its miners in contrast to others in its position, it would have been interesting to know how. The author's tendency to throw in detailed tangential material because she had it was a bit annoying, as was the absence of a map, since many collieries and villages were mentioned in the narrative but it wasn't always easy to know which of them were connected to the family. If it weren't for these drawbacks, the book would have received five stars from this reviewer, for it turned a complicated subject into a compulsive page-turner. Well-researched and well-written, it is a great read.
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