The biggest semi-detached house in Britain

Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire:  west front

Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire: west front

I wrote about the rivalry between the descendants of the 2nd Earl of Strafford that littered eighteenth-century South Yorkshire with mansions, temples, obelisks and columns in an article about Wentworth Castle.

The race to amass the most and best titles and houses was ultimately won by Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1693-1750) who became Baron Malton (1726), 1st Earl of Malton (1734) and then 1st Marquis of Rockingham (1746), and built not one but two magnificent houses, consecutively, back-to-back.

He began what is now the west wing of Wentworth Woodhouse, a fine but not entirely symmetrical baroque house in brick, in 1726.

The gentleman-architect, Sir Thomas Robinson, disciple of the pioneer of the Palladian style, Lord Burlington, thought little of it:  “…partly patchwork of the old house…little can be said in its praise…”

Even before this brick house was finished in 1734, Lord Malton turned his back on it and began the vast east wing, designed by Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington’s Harry.”

A plan dated 1725 proves that an east wing was always intended, but Flitcroft’s beautifully proportioned design was a gigantic version of the long-gone Wanstead House in Essex, stretched to 606 feet.

By this means Wentworth Woodhouse became the largest and grandest semi-detached house in Britain.

After the Second World War this vast place became impossible to maintain, especially when the Minister of Power, Emmanuel Shimwell, insisted on bringing opencast coal mining to within sixteen feet of the west wing.  The 8th Earl Fitzwilliam’s aunt, the Labour councillor Lady Mabel Smith, arranged for the East Wing to be leased to West Riding County Council as a teacher-training college.

After the death of the tenth and last Earl in 1979 and the closure of the college some years later the two houses were reunited and now belong to Mr Clifford Newbold who is gradually restoring the buildings and grounds.

At last it’s possible to visit Wentworth Woodhouse, and to marvel at the way it’s being brought back from the brink.

And wherever you step from the East Wing to the West Wing and back again, there are always a couple of steps, because the two parts of the house are on different levels.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  It includes chapters on Aston Hall, Brodsworth Hall, Cannon Hall, Cusworth Hall, Hickleton Hall, Renishaw Hall, Wentworth Castle, Wentworth Woodhouse and Wortley Hall.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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