It’s spring when thoughts turn to home repairs and redecorating and we groan at the prospect of the upheaval and expense. So, spare a thought for Julie Kenny, who has just totted up the restoration costs for Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, and arrived at £50m. It’s an eye-watering sum but after pulling off the seemingly impossible task of raising the £7m needed to buy the gargantuan grade I-listed property, there is every reason to believe that the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust will achieve its goal of turning it into the “Chatsworth of South Yorkshire”.
First though is an awareness-raising campaign to let people know it exists and is open to the public. You may think it would be hard to miss. Built by the Marquesses of Rockingham between 1725 and 1750, it is Britain’s largest privately owned home with 365 rooms, five miles of corridors and a 606ft facade.
Its roof stretches to two-and-a-half acres and you can probably see it from space but it is well hidden from the road running through the pretty village of Wentworth.
Even Kenny, chair of the preservation trust and a long-term Rotherham resident, had no idea it was there until she went to a reception in 2012 as High Sheriff of South Yorkshire. “It blew my mind. It was the same feeling you get when you see Chatsworth. I just thought ‘this is in Rotherham and I didn’t know about it’.”
She met the inspirational owner, architect Clifford Newbold, who bought the mansion in 1999 with the intention of restoring it and opening it to the public. He died in 2015 aged 89 and the property was put on the market with Savills.
Businesswoman Kenny, who recently sold her manufacturing firm Pyronix, agreed to join forces with Marcus Binney, the executive president of Save Britain’s Heritage. He launched the preservation trust with the aim of buying the house and finishing what Newbold started.
Even though it has serious issues, including subsidence, there were other interested parties, including a Hong Kong investment firm and there was talk of conversion into a hotel or apartments.
Binney marshalled an impressive board of trustees. The Duke of Devonshire, Lady Juliet Tadgell, Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, Timothy Cooke, Martin Drury and Merlin Waterson helped cajole donations from wealthy individuals, charities and the John Paul Getty trust, while lobbying the Government to help.
The arguments for public money received cross- party support as many of the structural problems were caused by mining. In 1946, the Minister of Fuel, Manny Shinwell, carried out a threat to owner Earl Fitzwilliam to “mine right up to your bloody front door”, despite the coal stock having been described as “not worth the getting”.
Joe Hall, president of the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, wrote to Clement Attlee, declaring it “against all common sense”.
A long fight for compensation by Clifford Newbold ended in failure but last November the Chancellor announced £7.6m towards repairs. A grant of £3.5m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund along with donations enabled the trust to seal the deal. The sold sign went up a couple of weeks ago, which is why Julie Kenny is both elated and exhausted.
“It’s consumed my life for four months. The trust has no paid staff at the moment so I and my PA Shirley have worked to push the sale through. It’s been complex and stressful but worth it.”
A genuine love for the magnificent building, said to be the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, is a driving force but so too is the revival of Rotherham. It is a town that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons and the stench from the child abuse scandal lingers.
“Rotherham is a great place with fantastic people. I live there, I built my business but it has a poor reputation. I think Wentworth Woodhouse will help change that. It will be a catalyst for bringing pride back to the town and it will be a place that families can visit and enjoy,” says Kenny, who adds that it will also create employment for tradespeople, artisans and apprentices.
“This house will be a national treasure attracting people from all over the world, especially from America. The Wentworths have a strong connection there as Charles Watson-Wentworth helped negotiate American independence.”
Entrepreneur Kenny is planning to give one-and-a-half days a week to the house and has already started interviews for staff. The property will continue to open to the public, with the National Trust providing support and guidance for the next three years. It will also host weddings and events.
Work will start on urgent repairs and “If we run out of money then we’ll just have to put tarpaulin over some of the holes in the roof,” says Kenny, who admits that the subsidence may never be remedied.
Income-generating plans and fundraising will help shore it up. The trust’s rescue plan for the house has been drawn up with the help of Kit Martin, known for his country house transformations, and Roger Tempest, who has pioneered the use of estate buildings for office use and holiday lets at Broughton Hall, near Skipton. A copycat scheme is planned for Wentworth Woodhouse.
There will also be an annual Clifford Newbold memorial lecture to honour the part he played in preserving this important piece of English heritage. He helped design London’s Millbank Tower and in the 1960s and 70s he saved several Victorian and Georgian properties from the bulldozer.
Wentworth Woodhouse was his greatest challenge. He bought it for over £2m and told The Yorkshire Post: “I’d retired to Guernsey and thought I’d buy a country cottage to restore. I found this advertised in a Sunday paper. It’s bigger and further away than I planned. We moved in because you have to see how it works and you have to be on site every day to oversee a project like this.”
He was fascinated by the building’s history. Wentworth Woodhouse was the Northern seat of the Fitzwilliam family – one of the richest and most powerful aristocratic dynasties in England. It was given its massive Palladian front in 1734 by the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, twice prime minister. He also created what are said to be the finest early 18th century interiors in England.
After the Second World War, much of it was let to the local authority, and the family sold it 1989. It was bought by Wensley Haydon-Baillie, before being sold to the Newbold family.
Kenny is the perfect person to take the baton. Hers is a rags-to-riches success story. She escaped a poverty-stricken and deeply troubled childhood thanks to her intellect, charm and immense determination; all the ingredients needed to tackle an enormous property project.
“Raising that enormous amount of money for repairs is going to be a massive job but it is a joy to be involved,” she says. “I’m just sad that Clifford Newbold didn’t get the chance to see it through.”
Crispin Holborow, of Savills, which marketed the property, quotes the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”