For Christmas my sister gave me, amongst other lovely things, Black diamonds: the rise and fall of an English dynasty by Catherine Bailey. I only got round to reading it in February and was utterly gripped. It’s marketed as being about an English dynasty and in some ways it is, but it is really, and more interestingly, a fascinating social history of coal mining in Yorkshire. I was particularly interested in this having spent some time living in Sheffield and as half of my partner’s family come from the small mining village of Grimethorpe, both of which are not far away at all from where this book is set in a grand country house near Rotherham.
The book follows the fortunes of the Fitzwilliam family of Wentworth Wooodhouse, who in fifty years manage to go from one of the richest and most influential families in Britain to one left with no heir, no money and no grand estate. Alongside various family feuds, and a death involving the Kennedys of all people, one of the key reasons for its downfall was the decision by the post World War Two Labour government to mine right up to the house itself. An extraordinary decision and one I cannot imagine happening today. But it is also the story of those working in the mines and living in the pit villages and of their labour struggles for better pay and conditions through the twentieth century.
This is a really fascinating book about the experiences of those whose lives and livelihoods revolved around coal and I would really recommend it. I was astonished to find out that Wentworth is the largest private Georgian house in Britain and has the longest country house façade in Europe, and yet is quietly tucked away and barely visited.
I also only realised when writing this blog that I have read and blogged on Catherine Bailey before – having really enjoyed The Secret Rooms a couple of years ago. I’d recommend that too. She is clearly excellent at rooting out a family history mystery and exploring it.