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

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

by Catherine Bailey


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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 £3 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143126843
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/30/2014
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 180,800
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Catherine Bailey read history at Oxford University and is an award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Secret Rooms and Black Diamonds. She lives in West London.

Read an Excerpt


A crowd of thousands shifted nervously on the great lawn in front of Wentworth House, waiting for the coffin to be brought out. It was the winter of 1902: ‘February,’ as one observer remarked, ‘in her worst mood.’ Two hundred servants, dressed in black, stood stiffly along the length of the façade facing the crush of mourners. Shrouds of fog enveloped the statues and pediments crowning the house; an acrid smell clung to the mist, catching in the nostrils, effluent from the pits, foundries and blast furnaces in the valley below. The fog drained everything of colour. Now and then it lifted to reveal a portion of the house: on a clear day the crowd could have counted a thousand windows, but that morning most of it was obscured.

The hearse, a glass coach, swathed in sable and crepe, was ready outside the Pillared Hall. It was drawn by four black horses: plumes of black ostrich feathers adorned their bridles and black-tasselled cloths were draped across their backs. Mutes, the customary Victorian funeral attendants, stood by them; macabre figures, veils of black crepe trailed from their tall silk hats. Bells tolled in the distance. In the nearby villages the shops were closed and the curtains in the houses drawn fast.

At the stroke of midday, three hours after the crowd had first begun to gather, the coffin, mounted on a silver bier, was carried out of the house. It was followed by a procession of housemaids and footmen bearing hundreds of wreaths of flowers. A brilliant splash of colour in the bleak scene, they drew a murmur from the crowd.

The oak coffin contained the body of William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, one of the richest men in Britain. He had left a legacy of £2.8 million pounds – more than £3 billion at today’s values. In the century to come, only one Englishman, Sir John Ellerman, the shipping magnate, would leave a larger fortune. The dead Earl was among the very wealthiest of Britain’s twentieth-century aristocrats.

His money had come from land and a spectacular stroke of luck. In the late eighteenth century, the Fitzwilliams’ Yorkshire estates – over 20,000 acres in total – were found to straddle the Barnsley seam, the main artery of the South Yorkshire coalfield. Wentworth House, situated nine miles north-east of Sheffield, lay at its heart.

The Earl was born in 1815, the year of Waterloo. Over the course of his lifetime his wealth had increased a thousandfold. Rapid technological advances, spurred by the huge demand for coal, had made it possible to sink mines deeper and deeper along the lucrative Barnsley seam. The Earl’s collieries, as one contemporary noted, were ‘within rifle shot of his ancestral seat’: by the close of the century, mines and pit villages crowded the hills and valleys around the house.

In the early 1900s, Arthur Eaglestone, a miner from Rotherham, writing under the pseudonym of Roger Dataller, described a dawn journey through the Earl’s country:

The train bored its way through the grim litter of steel manufactories, the serried heaping of coal and ironstone stocks, the multiplicity of railway metals, the drifting steam of locomotives . . . As we gobble up one hamlet after another, cottages and farmhouses loom up mere outlines, islands in the mist; but as the light becomes clearer certain chimneys and headstocks appear upon the horizon, a reminder of the vast subterranean activity with which we are connected. As one headstock falls in the distance, another rises to meet us – the inescapable, the endless chain of winding. We shall not escape the headstocks. We may vary the route as we please, but the gaunt pulley-wheels, and the by-product plant, a column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire by night, will still be in attendance.

The Earl’s death at the age of eighty-six – after he caught a sudden chill – had stunned the district. His life had been spent overseeing his vast estates and enjoying his wealth. For a man of few other achievements, the local newspaper’s coverage of his demise was extraordinary:

A feeling of awe crept over the people of this neighbourhood when it was whispered vaguely from behind the veil that he had entered the Valley of the Shadow, and was sleeping by the side of the shore of that silent sea which lies between the world and ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns’. But great and mighty is all-conquering Death, it is beyond even his sublime strength to convert the waters of the tideless sea. He was a noble lord, and moreover, a man who had the respect of all who knew him and the affection of those who knew him best. He now sleeps the sleep that knows no waking. Death the Conqueror has laid his icy hands upon him.

In 1902, tens of thousands of people across the South Yorkshire coalfield were wholly dependent on the Earl for a living. On the morning of his funeral, they were drawn to Wentworth House.

‘The workmen on the various estates were in strong force,’ the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported,

A remarkable feature of the proceedings was the great muster of miners. Genuine sorrow cannot be bought with gold or wrung from the hearts of an unwilling community. It must spring from love or admiration. Wentworth is by no means easy of access and curiosity nor a perfunctory sense of duty could never have brought together thousands of mourners under such dispiriting conditions. Through the slush and the searching rain the mourners came to the funeral. Old men who had worked for the Earl for 50 years risked serious illness for love of their noble master and trudged sorrowfully from station or neighbouring village to swell the mournful gathering.

The size and grandeur of Wentworth House were but faintly suggested through the haze of mist and fog. It was built for the Earl’s ancestor Thomas Wentworth, later Marquess of Rockingham, in the 1720s. Designed by Henry Flitcroft, it had taken more than fifteen years to complete and its façade was the longest in Europe. The house had a room for every day of the year and five miles of passageways. One guest, a Baron von Liebig, resorted to crumbling wafers along the route from his bedroom to the dining room so that he could find his way back after dinner. Thereafter, guests were presented with a crested silver casket containing different-coloured confetti.

The house lay in parkland encompassed by a nine-mile-long stone wall. Humphrey Repton, the famous eighteenth-century landscape designer, had sculpted the Park; twelve follies – towers, columns and a mausoleum built in the classical style – marked its highest points. Millions of tons of coal lay under the land but so rich was the Earl, he had no need to mine it. Yet even he could not inure Wentworth from the grime that trespassed inside the boundaries of the Park. Coal dust carried from the nearby collieries settled in the sheaves of corn grown in the fields. The streams running through them were orange: ‘ochre water’, as the locals called it, polluted by the mines that honeycombed the district.

Shortly after one o’clock, a bugler sounded the Last Post. It was the signal for the 5,000-strong cortège to begin the mile-long walk to the village church. As if on cue, the fog lifted as the mourners moved off. A thousand miners from the Earl’s pits led the procession, flanked by an escort of fifty soldiers from the Yorkshire Dragoons.

The family’s downfall was unthinkable. William, Earl Fitzwilliam, had left a great fortune. Four sons – each named William after him – survived him. The coal industry was booming: the family’s wealth and power seemed as solid and unshakeable as the foundations of their vast house.

Yet the Fitzwilliams and the thousands who worked for them were about to become the central figures in an approaching catastrophe.

What was unthinkable on that day in February 1902 happened.


In 1902, Wentworth was the largest privately owned house in Britain. It still is today.

Its size is truly extraordinary, almost impossible to visualize. Imagine Buckingham Palace: the glorious, sweeping East Front at Wentworth is almost twice as long. Marcus Binney, the architectural historian, sees it as ‘unquestionably the finest Georgian house in England’. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote glowingly of its ‘interiors of quite exceptional interest’. But unlike the much cherished Chatsworth or Blenheim, few have heard its name and fewer still have actually seen it. It is England’s forgotten palace.

Today, the house looms blank and shuttered. The home of a reclusive figure, it is closed to the public. ‘I’ve never seen him,’ remarked a former postmistress in the nearby village. ‘And no one I know ever has.’

The baroque West Front of the house is hidden behind a screen of tall cedars, but the 600-foot-long Palladian East Front can be glimpsed from the Trans-Pennine Way, the public footpath that runs through Wentworth Park. The first impression is a familiar one: the pediments, pillars and domed pavilions the hallmarks – be they on a breathtaking scale – of a grand stately home. But look a little longer and something jars. Longer still and the image is unnerving – even chilling. It is like looking at a picture one knows intimately from which something is missing, though it is impossible to say what.

The clues can be found in the fields that sweep away from the house. Time is not written on the land as it is on the adjacent façade; there are no hedgerows, ditches or centuries-old oaks. The fields are bare and desolate, as if denuded by some unseen hand. The traces of the past have been kicked over.

An obsession with secrecy corrupts the twentieth-century history of the house. The Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments – the family and estate papers of the Earls Fitzwilliam and their ancestors, the Marquesses of Rockingham and the Earls of Strafford – form one of the most important historical archives in Britain today. Rich in correspondence, there are thousands of letters and papers dating back to medieval times. But in 1900 the transparency of centuries comes to a halt: few family papers exist in this impressive historical collection after this date.

Their absence is no accident. In July 1972 the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam ordered his employees to destroy the bulk of Wentworth’s twentieth-century records. Sixteen tons of documents were hauled by tractor from where they were stored in the Georgian Stable Block to Trawles Wood, a beech copse in the valley below Wentworth that was used in the eighteenth century as a dumping ground for the household’s refuse and rubbish. There, the documents were burnt in a bonfire that blazed, night and day, for three weeks. Other smaller fires had preceded it: in a deliberate attempt to hide from history, the private papers of the 7th, 8th and 9th Earls – the tenants of Wentworth in the first half of the twentieth century – were destroyed after their deaths. The cull even extended to the personal papers of their employees. Peter Diggle, the son of Colonel Heathcote Diggle, a Fitzwilliam family trustee and the manager of their estates, watched his father burn documents that chronicled three decades of working as an adviser to the 7th Earl: ‘The Fitzwilliams had a secret life and if you have a secret life then there are things that must be destroyed.’

The twentieth-century Fitzwilliams were obsessive in guarding their secrets, both in the systematic destruction of the family papers and in vows of silence. ‘My grandmother made me promise that I would not tell anybody about these private things that went on at Wentworth,’ Ann, Lady Bowlby, the granddaughter of Maud, Countess Fitzwilliam, who lived at Wentworth from 1902 until 1948, recalled. ‘She didn’t want it all broadcast. It was to do with the Communistic trait of the world then.’ ‘That generation of the family were very proud, very private and very destructive. It was in their blood,’ Ian Bond, another of the Fitzwilliam descendants, remembered. ‘They wanted to destroy things as they themselves had been destroyed. They lived through the downfall of the family. They had experienced a huge sea change. They saw so many sadnesses. They did not want to remember. The world had passed them by.’

The world has also passed Wentworth House by. Although it is the largest and one of the most beautiful of England’s stately homes, the story of what happened there during the twentieth century is a deep mystery because of the loss of the Fitzwilliam family’s archives. Fragments remain: a few scattered but precious collections of family papers have survived. These – and the memories of those who lived and worked at the house and in the pit villages around it – were the beginnings of this book.

The story starts at the edge of the void; at the moment when the official history of Wentworth House stops.

In the crush of mourners, one man walked alone behind the glass hearse.

William Charles de Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam – ‘Billy Fitzbilly’, as the miners called him, or Lord Milton, as his courtesy title styled him – was William, Earl Fitzwilliam’s grandson and heir. In addition to the main family seat and estate at Wentworth, his £2.8 million inheritance included a 100-room mansion and 90,000 acres at Coollattin in Ireland; a fifty-room house in the heart of London’s Mayfair; eighty racehorses; a further 5,000 acres of land dotted around Yorkshire; a priceless collection of paintings and books and a massive portfolio of shares. The income from his coal holdings alone would bring in more than £87,700 a year.*

‘Milton looked very tall and good-looking,’ Lord Halifax, a neighbour of the Fitzwilliams who went to the Earl’s funeral, told his sister enviously. Aged thirty in 1902, wearing the dress uniform of an officer in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, Billy cut a dashing figure. He was classically good-looking, according to the benchmarks of the Edwardian era. Even-featured, with warm, smiling eyes, he had thick dark brown hair and a sprucely clipped moustache. His face still bore the colour of the African sun: he had recently returned from the Transvaal where he had won a DSO fighting in the Boer War.

A brilliant huntsman and polo player, Billy, the heir to one of the richest aristocrats of the twentieth century, was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. From 1895 – when he was twenty-three – until he became the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, he sat as MP for Wakefield. Prior to that, in his late teens, he had served as ADC to the Viceroy of India. These are matters of record: the scant details that can be firmly established about him at this stage of his life. Little else is known. ‘He had a perfect horror of publicity of any sort or kind,’ his sister, Lady Mabel Smith, recalled. ‘It ran all through his life from when he was quite a boy. It was one of his chief characteristics.’

In a vaulted cellar beneath a large house in Southern England there are sixteen trunks containing Billy’s personal effects: the things he regarded as precious. There is a pair of black and tan hunting boots that still bear the worn creases of the chase; a set of tiger’s teeth; a miner’s lamp and helmet and a battered leather cigar case: inside it, the disintegrated flakes of a Monte Cristo that he never smoked. There are boxes of wax seals and rolls of parchment bearing grants of title. The things Billy was proud of are also there: the DSO awarded during the Boer War; the plumed hat and ceremonial robes he wore for his inauguration as Mayor of Sheffield in 1909, and a handwritten letter from King George V, dated July 1912. At the bottom of one trunk there are hundreds of silver buttons stamped with the Fitzwilliam crest – a winged griffin and two coronets. Some are as small as a 5-pence piece, others the size of an old half crown: the spare buttons for Billy’s shooting and hunting jackets, they were also the tokens of livery, worn by his servants on the breasts and sleeves of their tailcoats.

Things, not words, are all that remain. The trunks contain few papers. There are no letters written by Billy, or copies of letters that he received, although, tantalizingly, the paraphernalia of writing has been kept. One trunk, stamped with a coronet and Billy’s initials, contains monogrammed letter folders and notepaper holders, and the large blotting pad that once lay on his desk. Framed in dark green leather, it is stained with use. The imprint of hundreds of back-to-front words, hieroglyphs impossible to decipher, are scattered across it.

The true identity of Billy Fitzwilliam is the first of the Wentworth mysteries. If his spiteful, meddlesome aunts are to be believed, we cannot be absolutely sure who he really was.

On the eve of his grandfather’s funeral, the scandal and controversy that were to dog his succession had ignited behind the walls of Wentworth House.


It had been raining for days; torrents of water, blackened by coal dust, cascaded from the roof gutters. Squalls of wind, blowing straight off the moors, whipped across the Park, driving the rain horizontally against the thousand windows, as if tiny fragments from the gravel drive around the house were being hurled from outside. The clock in the North Tower at the furthest end of the East Front struck three, the signal on a dark winter afternoon for the lampmen to begin their evening round.

Upstairs, in the ‘Duchess of Kent’, the state bedroom reserved for royalty and other important guests, the body of the dead Earl lay in a four-poster bed that was crowned by a cornice of gold. A pistachio-coloured silk valance ran beneath it, trailing luxurious hangings and thick braided tassels. Gold and green were the primary colours of the state bedroom; the principal items of furniture – the intricately carved mahogany Louis Quinze bed and a pair of Sheraton cabinets, eight feet tall – were formal and austere. The hand-painted wallpaper, a heavy yew-green, embossed with tiny clusters of silk flowers, added to the room’s sombre tone.

The body had been there for five days. Even in death, the retinues of staff at Wentworth continued to serve the Earl. His servants had washed and dressed his corpse, and a plain oak coffin, made by the Estate carpenters from one of the oaks in the Park, chosen by the Earl some years before he died, stood ready for the following morning’s burial.

The temperature in the room was as cold as the dead Earl; deliberately so, the chill necessary to slow the process of decomposition. A ring of white and gold oval-backed chairs formed a crescent around the bed, carefully positioned by footmen for the succession of visitors – members of the family, senior servants and the local nobility – who had come to pay their last respects.

It was a world away from the pit villages nearby, where the Earl’s miners stood up their family corpses in the corner of their front parlour rooms to make way for the crush of mourners, and where, in the overcrowded cottages, dead relatives frequently shared the family’s beds. As late as the 1920s, a boy from Greasbrough, one of the Fitzwilliams’ villages, told his teacher, ‘Please, Miss, they’re goin’ ter bury our Ernest tomorrow, he’s in t’ big bed in t’room now. Our Jimmy wouldn’t sleep wi’ him last night – ’e wor frightened – but I worn’t, ’e carn’t hurt ya, ’e’s dead and wrapped in a sheet, so I sleep next ’im and our Alice next to me, an’ our Joe at t’ bottom.’

The Fitzwilliam household accounts for February 1902 show that eighty-five servants were on duty to serve the twenty house guests staying at Wentworth for the funeral.

Aside from the senior servants – the house steward, the butler, the groom of chambers, the chef, the housekeeper, and Lord Fitzwilliam’s personal valet – there were four kitchenmaids, four still-room maids, eight charwomen, one steward’s room boy, two confectioners, six under-chefs, two brewers, six housemen, two lampmen, seven footmen, three scullery maids, nine housemaids, two under-butlers and one clockman.

Almost all the house guests were members of the Fitzwilliam family; the Earl’s children and grandchildren, and his cousins, nephews and nieces. They brought their own valets and ladies’ maids, adding a further twenty-two servants to the total.

By comparison to the outdoor staff at Wentworth, the number of indoor servants was small. More than 300 workers were required for the upkeep of the grounds, stables and Home Farm. There were gardeners and groundsmen, park keepers, gamekeepers, deer keepers, a bear keeper, forestry workers, mole catchers, millers, grooms, coachmen, stable lads, farm hands, huntsmen, kennel men, carpenters, slaughtermen and mechanics. The Fitzwilliams’ annual wage bill for the Estate and household staff at Wentworth came to more than £1 million in today’s money. It did not include the wages of the thousands who worked at their collieries and chemical factory, and on the family’s other estates in Yorkshire and Ireland.

Yet living conditions at Wentworth were medieval. The 6th Earl had made few concessions to the modern world; the servants of the great feudal overlords would have slotted easily into its daily routine.

The house had five miles of corridors: coal, wood, water, food and light all had to be carried great distances by hand.

Elfrida, Countess of Wharncliffe, Billy’s eldest daughter, who was five when the 6th Earl, her great-grandfather, died, described the house as it was at the time of his death. ‘There was no electric light, no gas, no central heating. In our living rooms we had glorious raging fires, so the bedrooms and day nurseries were warm, but otherwise the entire mansion was like an icehouse. In the hard winters that we used to have then, going downstairs to be with my mother after tea was a very chilly affair, we could never go along the passages without heavy shawls and spencers.’

‘Spencers’, short, close-fitting woollen jackets, woven in the Fitzwilliam tweed, were also issued to servants and guests to wear when moving from room to room.

There was no hot or cold running water at Wentworth. One water pump – hand-pumped and cold water only – served each of the four floors. Hot water was heated in vast cauldrons on the stoves in the kitchen in the basement. There were no toilets or bathrooms. ‘Baths – carried into the bedrooms by footmen – were tin baths,’ recalled Lady Elfrida. ‘The hot water was brought up from the kitchen two floors below. Depending on the location of the bedroom it was sometimes over a furlong away. The servants carried the water in large brown metal cans. The baths were filled by the footmen and emptied by the housemaids. A cotton cover hung over the side of the bath. You only used the cloth if you wanted a soak. The footman would come in and pour fresh hot water under the edge of it before inquiring, “Is there anything more, Sir?”, regardless of the sex of the bather.’

Even human waste had to be carried by hand. The 6th Earl had installed one flushing toilet for his personal use; aside from this, there were no other toilets, flushing or otherwise, in the guest and family apartments at Wentworth. Close-stools were used; a detachable porcelain bowl mounted in a wooden box. To empty the bowls, the servants covered them with a cloth and carried them through the corridors down to the basement where they were washed out before being returned to the rooms.

The lighting at Wentworth in 1902 was equally arcane. Two men, Moses and his assistant – known as Aaron by the family – were employed seven days a week to light the house. Their day began before dawn. Oil lamps, with large glass funnels, and candles were the only source of artificial light. Every morning, Moses and Aaron walked the length of the house blowing out and replacing the candles they had lit in the chandeliers and wall sconces, and collecting the oil lamps they had put out the evening before. The lamps required a great deal of maintenance; Moses and Aaron had their own room, the lamproom, located in the basement. The wicks had to be trimmed and the lamps filled, cleaned and polished, before being put back in place around the house. ‘They did nothing else except lamps,’ recalled Lady Elfrida, ‘never had a day off, never wanted one. When my father succeeded, he insisted that Moses and Aaron should each have a Sunday off and a day off in the week. Moses couldn’t understand this and went in tears to the head steward and said, “What have I done wrong, I’ve always worked on a Sunday, now I’ve got to do nothing, what have I done?”’

On the afternoon of the 6th Earl’s funeral, Moses and Aaron began their round earlier than usual. With twenty members of the Fitzwilliam family staying, together with their personal valets and ladies’ maids, the two men had further to travel – to the bedrooms in the outer reaches of the East and West fronts.

Beginning shortly after lunch, it took the lampmen as long to light the house as it did for the sky outside to turn from day to night. Although at Wentworth the night was never black, it was red; a reflection of the glow from the after-burn from the hundreds of chimneys that ringed the Park.

Moving slowly through the house, on reaching the Duchess of Kent room, Moses and Aaron were required to place a lamp on the ebony and gilt pedestal by the dead Earl’s bed, and to light the candle branches of the cheval mirror on the wall next to it – in preparation, so they assumed, for the family’s last farewell.

Yet, contrary to late Victorian custom, there was to be no final gathering of the clan at the Earl’s bedside that night. The House Steward’s Book for 24 February 1902 records that most of the family took supper on trays in their rooms; the few letters that survive in the Fitzwilliam archives reveal that they were not only avoiding one another, they were barely speaking. When they did communicate, it was in the heat of blazing rows, or via hurriedly scrawled and acrimonious notes.

The tension at Wentworth, as reported by friends and neighbours of the Fitzwilliams who visited the house in the days before and after the 6th Earl’s funeral, was unbearable. The Halifax family, who lived a few miles away at Hickelton Hall, were frequent callers. ‘Agnes and I were over at Wentworth again yesterday where we saw most of them,’ wrote Lord Halifax to his sister Emily. ‘They one and all looked greater wrecks than you can conceive. I feel sure Lady Mary has really been odious to poor Lady Alice, really tormenting her and making herself, and stirring up others to be, thoroughly disagreeable.’ Lady Mary Sutton, Lord Halifax’s daughter, writing to her brother, said, ‘Affairs at Wentworth seem in a most wretched state – none of the aunts speak to Billy – one of the trustees, Mr Doyne, is ill with scarlet fever, and the other, Lord Zetland, being Maud’s father won’t act alone so nothing can be done – and it is said that Lady Alice is trying to appropriate everything she can.’ Ten days after the funeral, Lord Halifax, who was due to meet his sister in London, and reluctant to commit the latest news to paper, sent her a cryptic note, ‘Agnes tells me the rows at Wentworth are portentous and of this more on the day.’

The rows were between Billy Fitzwilliam and his uncles and aunts. Billy was the only son of Viscount Milton, the late Earl’s eldest son, who had died twenty-five years earlier in 1877. The Earl had produced fourteen children: eight boys and six girls. Five had died in his lifetime: those who survived him, gathered at Wentworth for the funeral, were in their late fifties and sixties.

With the exception of two of them, there was little love lost between the aunts and uncles and their nephew. Billy had been estranged from them for many years, leaving them to hold sway over the elderly and fragile Earl, and to dictate the running of the house and the Estate. Billy had been at Coollattin, the family’s seat in Ireland, when he heard the news of his grandfather’s death. Some indication of the deep divisions within the family can be found in a letter written by his favourite cousin, Kathleen Doyne, to another family member. ‘I think in my yesterday’s note I told you we had just had a wire from Billy to say that poor old Grandpapa had passed away. It seems that the dear old man had bronchitis and had been ill for a week or more but no one until just the last let Billy know.’ The ‘reptiles’, as Kathleen refers to the aunts and uncles, had deliberately denied Billy the chance to see his grandfather before he died. ‘As to the funeral,’ she wrote, ‘Billy was dreading the ordeal more than he could say, and no wonder.’

A clue to the tensions at Wentworth lay within the fabric of the house itself.

There was one wing that Moses and Aaron did not visit on their lamp round: the nursery wing, an important part of any great country house. Staffed by posses of nursery maids and governesses, this was where the blood line was raised; the sons who would carry on the title, the daughters who might bring wealth and prestige to the family by marrying well.

In 1896, when he was twenty-four years old, Billy had married Maud Dundas, the eldest daughter of the Marquess of Zetland. They had three young daughters and were hoping for a son and heir. Yet, as Elfrida, Countess of Wharncliffe, remembered, the nursery wing at Wentworth in 1902 was all but derelict. No instructions had been given by the 6th Earl to renovate it; the wing had not been touched for nearly fifty years. ‘They’d done nothing for Billy Fitzwilliam’s family to come into – nothing! You wouldn’t believe it, the nurseries that we were put into with the peacock paper – it was falling down on to the floor. Damp! It was in the most desperate state. The windows were falling out of the frames, there was glass out of the window frames themselves. They’d done nothing to it, nothing, not a bit.’

It was as if Billy and his family did not exist.

Early that evening, the tense atmosphere in the house escalated with the arrival of Lady Alice. She had travelled by train from London, where she had been ill for some days with an attack of flu, carried on a day bed, accompanied by a doctor and two nurses.

Of all the Earl’s children, Alice had been closest to her father. A dominant character, she had run her father’s affairs for more than three decades. She was a shrewish-looking spinster in her late fifties, with mouse-brown hair and a pale pinched face. Wentworth had been her home since birth. In the last ten years of the Earl’s life, aside from a few old family retainers, ancient wet nurses and governesses, Alice, her unmarried sister, Charlotte, and their elderly father were the only occupants of the house.

Billy loathed his Aunt Alice – as his daughter, Elfrida, remembered, ‘She made the milk go sour just by looking at it’ – and he loathed her for good reason. Lady Alice was the chief conspirator in a plot hatched by Billy’s uncles and aunts to oust him. They believed their nephew was an impostor, a fraudulent claimant to their father’s fortune and to the Fitzwilliam title.

Elfrida put it bluntly: ‘They wanted to kick him out.’


A century on, much of what lay behind the impostor allegation is obscure; perhaps deliberately obscured. The trail is almost cold: the fire that burnt for three weeks at Wentworth in 1972, consuming sixteen tons of the Fitzwilliams’ correspondence, had been preceded by others. The private papers of all but two of the conspirators have been destroyed; a systematic destruction that extended across collateral branches of the family, as well as along the main line.

Earl Fitzwilliam’s letters, Billy’s and Maud’s, and the correspondence of eight out of ten of the aunts and uncles who conspired against Billy, or who were privy to the conspiracy, have not survived.

Only two of the protagonists’ papers have been preserved: those of William Henry Wentworth-Fitzwilliam and Lady Frances Doyne, who in 1902 were the eldest son and daughter of the dead Earl. Conceivably, their letters could focus the things that have been blurred: the personalities and motives of the conspirators, the evidence they had to support their charge against Billy. Potentially, they could transform into words the powerful currents of emotional static that we know, from the household records and the reports of neighbours, crackled along the corridors on the eve of the Earl’s funeral.

Frances Doyne was born at Wentworth, and grew up there during the 1850s and 1860s, before marrying Robert Doyne in 1867 and moving to Ireland. Her letters are stored in a large black chest in a garage in Yorkshire.

The chest, the type of patrician travelling trunk that would have taken two footmen to carry, dates from the mid-nineteenth century and contains over a thousand letters, densely packed in tight bundles. Covering the years 1840–1910, the letters have been kept inside their original envelopes. Each bears a stamp, a postmark, and the embossed crests of countless aristocratic families, fashioned in a myriad of colours, or the stencilled name of a famous or forgotten stately home.

The letters are revealing in what they do not reveal. For the years spanning the impostor affair, there are no letters at all. But chillingly, there are scores of empty envelopes. The dates, the postmarks, the family crests, the houses from which they were sent, show that the letters, written by members of the Fitzwilliam family to Lady Frances and her children, could have told the story of this controversial episode in the family’s history. But someone, at some point, has removed them.

Only one letter from the period – a tantalizing handwritten note delivered by a servant at Wentworth on the eve of the late Earl’s funeral – survives in William Henry Fitzwilliam’s otherwise extensive collection. If there was a dark secret behind Billy’s identity, it is one that his generation of the family seemed determined to take to their graves.

Hundreds of millions of pounds rested on the truth about who Billy really was. If, in 1902, when he succeeded his grandfather, it had been proved that he was an impostor, the Fitzwilliam title and fortune, the great estates, the industrial interests and the priceless art treasures would have passed down a different line. As long as a paper trail existed, if Billy really was the Earl who never should have been, as his aunt, Lady Alice, the chief conspirator, believed, his – and his descendants’ – phenomenal wealth would remain vulnerable to other family contenders who could prove that he was not the man he claimed to be.

Here, perhaps, lies the answer to the gaping void in the family papers – the systematic destruction in bonfire after bonfire of the Fitzwilliams’ twentieth-century history.

To find the truth about who Billy really was, or at least his version of it, it is necessary to look at a small bundle of papers – among the very few to have survived – that Billy kept securely in a safe at his house at Coollattin until the day he died.

Tied with a pink silk ribbon, marked with a handwritten label, ‘Controversial correspondence regarding the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam’s Inheritance’, the documents originate from Johnson and Long, the firm of solicitors Billy appointed to defend him against Lady Alice’s attack. The collection, numbering about ten documents, represents only a fraction of what must have been an extensive correspondence. Strict criteria appear to have governed which documents were deemed important enough to be kept. They shed no light on the evidence against Billy; they tell only his side of the story: they are the crucial testimonies of proof he needed to demonstrate that he really was who he claimed to be.

Their interest lies in what they say about the impostor allegation and in what kind of truth they tell.


According to Lady Alice, Billy Fitzwilliam was ‘a spurious child’ that had been substituted at birth.

It was an old ruse, one that had been around for centuries. There was even a word for such babies: changelings. In aristocratic and royal circles, precautions to guard against the danger of a substitution had long been in place. The Home Secretary was required to attend all royal births – a practice that continued until 1930, when the late Princess Margaret was born. Aristocrats were equally cautious; at births where the devolution of prestigious titles, great fortunes and vast tracts of land were at stake, interested parties from tangential branches of the family, or their representatives, were in attendance to ensure that a changeling was not introduced.

Convention was broken at Billy’s birth. He was born thousands of miles from Wentworth in the wilds of Canada; there were no other members of the Fitzwilliam family present. Tucked among the bundle of documents Billy kept in his safe is a tattered fragment of newspaper, torn from the pages of The Times, dated 5 September 1872, some six weeks after the event. The circumstances of his birth, as the report reveals, were bizarre:

. . . near Fort William and on the borders of civilization – but it may well be confessed, of an uncouth and uncomfortable civilization, it may be mentioned that a son and heir to the noble house of Fitzwilliam has been born on the banks of the Kaministiquia River, on the north shores of Lake Superior.

The report continued:

An Ontario paper, in mentioning the birth of the infant, remarks that ‘the cries of the young stranger will be echoed by those of Indian papooses, and the tender sympathy of the tawny squaws in their wigwams with the coroneted mother in her tent, will show a touch of nature which makes the whole world kin. Unless the waves of the democratic revolution surge over England, or this last shoot of an ancient tree be untimely cut off, a native Canadian will succeed to one of the noblest titles, most princely estates, most honourable and honoured names in England and England’s history.’

A ‘stranger’ indeed – a cuckoo in their nest, so Lady Alice and her brothers and sisters believed. Lord Milton, their elder brother, they alleged, had been guilty of a fraudulent and criminal act. Moments after giving birth, and on his instructions, Lady Milton, the ‘coroneted mother’, had been knocked unconscious by chloroform, so that Billy, the son of a white settler, could be substituted for the couple’s newborn baby girl.

Billy’s documents reveal the substance of the conspirators’ allegation, but in the process of selecting which were kept, any letters or legal briefs containing details of the evidence his accusers held to corroborate their charge were deliberately destroyed. It is clear, however, that in 1896, the year the aunts and uncles first alleged that he was an impostor, Billy had no means of refuting it. It seems he himself did not know who he really was; all traces of his entry into the world appeared to have been lost.

His parents had been dead for many years; Laura, Viscountess Milton, had died in 1886, and Lord Milton almost ten years before her. Billy’s birth certificate, a key piece of evidence in his defence, had disappeared. If he was to prove that he was not the changeling his aunts and uncles believed him to be, witnesses to his birth, and his birth certificate, had to be found.

Billy knew he would receive no help from the Fitzwilliam family. From the outset, they had refused to credit his existence. Traditionally, the Fitzwilliams had celebrated the arrival of a new heir with lavish parties for tens of thousands of their tenants and employees. When Billy was born, there was silence from Wentworth: no announcement, no acknowledgement even. The British Press limited itself to carrying extracts from Canadian and American newspapers. Clearly the Fitzwilliams’ response had been ‘no comment’; it was as if Billy was being wiped from the family history even as his life began.

In 1896, at the age of twenty-four, Billy, Viscount Milton, was compelled to search for the proof he needed behind his family’s back. He hired a solicitor who also practised as a special investigator – the early-twentieth-century equivalent of a private detective. His name was Thomas Bayliss.

Some years later, Bayliss described his brief. ‘Certain members of the family said the Viscount was not the son of the late Viscount and Viscountess Milton, suggesting that he was a spurious child introduced into the bed of the Viscountess . . . My work as a specialist extended over a period of several years – from 1896 to 1900 inclusive. I was not allowed to make inquiries from members of Viscount Milton’s family, and inquiries had to be made in Canada, the United States and abroad. I wrote many hundreds of letters and consulted very many documents in various parts of the country, with the object of tracing the pedigree of Viscount Milton, and of procuring evidence of his legitimacy.’

Five people, as Bayliss discovered, had been present at Billy’s birth: his parents, Lord and Lady Milton; a midwife called Hannah Boyce; Dr Thomas Millar; and a nursemaid named Tilly Kingdon. In 1900, Bayliss, after a four-year investigation, finally succeeded in tracking down two of them: the doctor and the midwife. Both were asked by Johnson and Long, Billy’s solicitors, to make a statement about the circumstances surrounding his birth.

‘Gentlemen,’ wrote Dr Millar in response to the lawyers, ‘the indisputable facts connected with the birth of Viscount Milton are as follows’:

Sometime in July 1872 – I forget the exact date and have no means of verifying it – the late Viscountess Milton was delivered of a son (the present Viscount Milton), about 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock in the evening at Pointe de Meuron the head of navigation of the Kaministiquia River in a little wooden shanty, 12 miles from Fort William, a Hudson Bay post situated at the mouth of the above-named river in the province or department of Alghany, Canada.

The late Lord Milton, the nurse brought out especially for the purpose of attending her ladyship, and myself as medical attendant, were the only persons present, and no other person except the children’s nurse attended and then only occasionally during the convalescence of her ladyship. As mentioned by you, chloroform was administered, but not to the point of producing complete unconsciousness, only for the mitigation of pain (I add this detail, for I know nothing of the purport or import of your inquiries on this point, so have thought it better to be quite explicit).

The child’s name, date of birth, parentage and other particulars etc were recorded by the Governor of the Fort in the district court, and the birth was also made the subject of an article in the Toronto Globe. My intercourse with Lord and Lady Milton extended over a course of 4 or 5 years during which time, with few intermissions they were under my daily observation. Excepting a Catholic priest and the household of the fort, there were no white people for many miles around, consequently no white women or children ever visited us, our only visitors were Indians – for the most part patients of mine – black flies and mosquitoes and plenty of them.

Hannah Boyce’s statement, sworn before a Commissioner of Oaths in London, concurs with Dr Millar’s:

While we were at Pointe de Meuron Lady Milton on the 25th [sic] of July 1872 gave birth to a son. I delivered her. Just at the last pains Dr Millar came into the room and gave her a little chloroform. I was the first who saw and handled the child and there is absolutely no doubt it was a male child. While we were at Pointe de Meuron there were no other white people there, only Indians.

Both Boyce and Millar categorically refute each of Lady Alice’s allegations: Viscountess Milton had given birth to a boy, not a girl; she had not been chloroformed to the point of unconsciousness at any point during, or after, labour; a ‘changeling’ could never have been substituted because, in an area populated by Indians, there were no other white babies for miles around.

The two testimonies leave no room for doubt. Billy was clearly who he claimed to be: the legitimate heir to the 6th Earl’s title and fortune. His case seems cut and dried.

But was it?

There are some strange anomalies in Billy’s documents.

In January 1901, after Hannah Boyce had made her statement in London, she sent Mr Barker, Billy’s solicitor, a ‘small cutting’ from, as she claimed, ‘an old diary written on the day of Lord Milton’s birth’. The entry, just one sentence, read:

1872 July 26 – the first cry from a lovely boy gave joy to each of our little party in the lonely forest where no other white persons ever live.

How fortuitous that a line written thirty years previously should so succinctly inform the reader of two of the points Billy’s lawyers were so anxious to hear. The handwriting is shaky and spidery, more obviously that of a sixty-eight-year-old than that of the thirty-eight-year-old Boyce would have been in 1872. The diary entry is dated 26 July, yet oddly, and evidently written with the same pen and at the same time, ‘1872’ is scrawled above it. It is curious that the year was recorded six months into the diary: on the original document, someone has put a large cross in pencil beside ‘1872’, as if they too found it odd. Was Hannah Boyce telling the truth or was she perhaps a little too eager to please?

Among Billy’s documents there is a letter from Hannah Boyce to Billy’s solicitor, Mr Barker, which shows that she was paid £5 for her testimony; not personally by Billy, but through Barker. It was a lot of money to a village midwife, as she then was – the equivalent of a year’s wages.

Twelve years later – in 1913 – Billy would pay her again. More than a decade after he had become the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, Hannah, who had fallen on hard times after a street hawker had swindled her of her life savings, sent his wife, Maud, a letter, begging for her help:

Dear Lady Countess Fitzwilliam will you please excuse me being the old nurse of Lady Milton I trust you will pardon the liberty I am taking writing. It is now very many years I well remember being sent to 4 Grosvenor Square to see the Countess Fitzwilliam, she that engaged me to travel to Canada with Lady Milton as her nurse and midwife. Neither shall I ever forget the joy of Lord and Lady Milton at the birth of a son. As you do not know who I am I will remind you of my calling on you at the Castle Ryde. I gave you an advertisement I had cut from a Canadian paper of the birth of the present Lord Fitzwilliam. Mr Raymond Barker seen me several times as I went to London and signed an affidavit for which he gave me five pounds at that time. I never thought I should ever require help I am now over 80 years old I have been ill for several months I am getting better but cannot get strength. I have worked very hard helping the poor mothers in the village over their confinement. Four years ago I lost all our life savings leaving us with only the old age pension to depend on. I can only appeal to your sympathy if you could help me a little just now I should be most grateful. Again apologizing for writing to you it is the first time I ever wrote a letter asking any one to give me help I am very sorry to do so now. I remain your humbl [sic] servant, Hannah Boyce.

Maud showed the letter to Billy; wary of sending money directly to Hannah, he wrote a short note to Mr Barker: ‘Lady Fitzwilliam has received the enclosed from Mrs Boyce, I have not allowed her to send anything as I thought it safe to leave that matter in your hands. Will you send £5 or £10 on my behalf.’

Quite why Billy ‘thought it safe’ to leave the transaction to Mr Barker is unclear. Perhaps it was because he doubted the credibility of her original statement, and did not want to be seen to be paying her, as if she were a bought witness.

One further inference remains to be drawn from Billy’s documents.

On 10 March 1902, Thomas Bayliss, the solicitor and special investigator hired by Billy between 1896 and 1900, appeared before the Lord Chief Justice at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, charged with professional misconduct. Billy, who three weeks earlier had succeeded to his grandfather’s title and fortune, had instigated proceedings to have Bayliss struck off the rolls.

There had been a serious falling-out between the peer and his private detective. On the face of it, the dispute appears to have been about money. Billy accused Bayliss of embezzling £1,500, claiming he had submitted ‘fictitious’ invoices to account for the stolen money. Bayliss argued that the invoices, far from being fabricated, represented his charges for the special investigation into Billy’s legitimacy, conducted over a period of four years.

The judge ruled that Bayliss had submitted a ‘fictitious claim’ for his work. Bayliss lost the case; he was found guilty of serious professional misconduct and struck off the rolls. The assumption, from the published court report, and the verdict in the case, is that Bayliss was corrupt; more crucially, the implication in the judge’s ruling was that the ‘strange allegations as to Earl Fitzwilliam’s identity’, as one newspaper referred to the case, were a figment of Bayliss’s imagination.

Bayliss may have been guilty of some form of embezzlement, but Billy’s documents show that what he said in court was true. He had investigated Billy’s legitimacy, and he had played an important part in procuring the evidence necessary to rebut the impostor charge: moreover, a letter from Johnson and Long shows that in 1900, Bayliss was the lawyer responsible for coordinating Billy’s defence in anticipation of a legal challenge by the Fitzwilliam family. Bayliss had, as he claimed in court, submitted a detailed brief to Billy’s barrister, Mr Butcher. Writing in November 1900, Billy’s solicitor attached a note to the brief: ‘In lieu of the questions submitted by Mr Bayliss’s case, Counsel is requested to advise Lord Milton what steps he should take in order to guard against any attack such as is suggested on the part of certain members of his family.’ Intriguingly, neither Bayliss’s brief nor Mr Butcher’s response has survived among Billy’s collection of documents; they have been pruned. The supposition has to be that both documents contained negative information, possibly details of the evidence on which Lady Alice’s allegation was based.

Oddly, the £1,500 pounds at issue (the equivalent of around £105,000 today) was money that Billy had already made available to Bayliss. It is unlikely that he would have advanced such a large sum had he not been anticipating a costly and difficult investigation, involving inquiries abroad. Though a sizeable figure, it was not a huge amount to a man who had recently inherited £2.8 million, or £3.3 billion at today’s values; so why would Billy want to quibble, and so publicly, over what for him was a relatively small sum?

It seems that Bayliss possessed information that Billy wanted to suppress; a breach of confidence, or the fear of it, was what drove him to bring the case.

The two men had parted company at the end of 1900. Shortly after, Billy served a Writ of Attachment on the solicitor to recover the £1,500 he claimed he owed him. Bayliss responded angrily; an extract from the letter he sent to Billy was read out during his trial:

You cannot be surprised that I intend to hit out hard. By your underhand shuffling I consider you have forfeited all claims to the confidence about your affairs that I scrupulously observed. I have been interviewed by a representative of the Press to whom I have given information of your dealings with me.

The precise nature of Billy’s ‘underhand shuffling’ was not specified in court. Nor did anything ever appear in the Press. What is clear, though, is that Billy, after receiving the solicitor’s threatening letter, wanted to silence him – and for good. If it had been simply a matter of money, he could have pursued the debt recovery action via the Writ of Attachment. Instead, he chose to lodge a complaint with the Law Society, the solicitors’ governing body. To seek to have Bayliss struck off the solicitors’ rolls was a more vitriolic way to proceed; if successful, it ensured censure and humiliation, and an end to Bayliss’s legal career.

Yet Bayliss was nearing seventy: in 1902, his career was almost over. It seems that Billy’s true aim in discrediting his professional integrity was to destroy the credibility of the information his solicitor had threatened to reveal.

Billy’s documents cannot be regarded as conclusive. In offering a resolution to the mystery of his identity, they raise more questions than they answer. That the heir to one of Victorian England’s greatest industrial fortunes was born in a wooden shack in an Indian camp, miles from anywhere, in a region plagued by mosquitoes and black flies is in itself mysterious.

As vouched for by his sister, Lady Mabel Smith, Billy had a ‘perfect horror of publicity’: an obsession with secrecy, as she remembered, had been one of his chief characteristics from childhood. But why, from such an early age, had he been so secretive? Was it because he knew he was not his father’s son? Or was there something else he wanted to hide?

Billy’s documents point to his father, William, Viscount Milton. He, if Lady Alice is to be believed, was the guilty party; a man so desperate to produce a son and heir that he was prepared to abandon his newborn baby daughter and replace her with Billy.


William, Viscount Milton, the eldest son of William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, was born in July 1839. He died just thirty-eight years later. It was beginning to look as if the family was cursed: he was the second of three successive heirs to die before reaching the age of forty.

In William’s case, the Fitzwilliams were doubly cursed. His death, in 1877, came as a relief.

‘One of the hard lessons one has to learn, one which I fear I have been rebellious about, is to trust one’s children cheerfully to God when they suffer,’ wrote his mother, Harriet, Countess Fitzwilliam, on the afternoon he died. ‘I have been a long time learning it – but I hope I know it now. I call to mind so often now the time when my dear William seemed to stand very near to death as a little boy – how I prayed for his life to be spared! And could not say “Thy Will Be Done” and now I remember how much sooner he might perhaps have been with his God had I been more submissive, how much suffering he and others might have been spared and now I do most earnestly hope that his sufferings may not have been in vain and that we may all learn all that God in His mercy designed us to learn from it.’

To the British public, in the course of his short life, William Milton became a hero – one of the most famous and feted of the nineteenth-century explorers. At the age of twenty-four, after an epic and hazardous journey across the Rocky Mountains, he discovered a land route that linked the Atlantic to the Pacific. On his return to England in 1864 he received a rapturous response from the Press. ‘Lord Milton is something better than a Lord; he has proved himself to be a fine, heroic young man, of true English pluck and daring,’ wrote The Ilustrated Times. ‘Lord Milton,’ the panegyric continued, ‘is no shiftless Lord Dundreary, neither is he a mere pleasure-hunter, but a genuine Englishman – a splinter off the old Hartzrock – brave, tough, wise, energetic.’ Milton’s book, The North-West Passage by Land, an account of his journey published in 1865, ran into five editions in eight months and was still in print at the end of the century.

Yet he was no hero to the family. After his death, his name was taboo.

‘My grandfather never spoke about his father,’ recalls Billy’s granddaughter, Lady Barbara Ricardo. ‘We never knew anything about him. Were never told anything. Never knew about the book he wrote of his great adventures in Canada. There wasn’t even a copy of it in the library at Wentworth. There were tens of thousands of books there – not one single copy!’

More than a century after Milton’s death, his great-grandson, Michael Bond, set out to retrace his journey across North America and Canada. ‘I couldn’t believe there was so little to go on. It was like trying to build an ancient invertebrate from its trace fossils. He has all but been blanked from the family records. Remarkably for the heir to an Earldom, even his will has disappeared.’

Bond had touched the edge of the void in the family archives; it is from the mid-nineteenth century, around the time of Milton’s birth, that the destruction of the Fitzwilliam papers begins. ‘I imagined that the family would have been proud of its explorer son,’ Bond wrote. ‘So where were the biographies, the photograph albums, the archived letters, the gilt-framed portraits and the relics of the Wild West?’

Was he an embarrassment, Bond wondered. Had he done something inexcusable? Searching through the family archives, at the bottom of one meagre file containing rough drafts of Milton’s speeches, a few scraps of letters, and some notes from his secretary, Bond made a significant discovery, one that accounts for the mystery surrounding Milton’s life and explains why his name was taboo. ‘I found a small bundle of papers that would transform the way I looked at Milton,’ he wrote. ‘At first they resembled unpaid bills: lists of products and a signature, some numbers, his name at the top. But they turned out to be prescriptions for medicines, and not for the common cold: opium, lavender oil, belladonna, orange rind, chloral hydrate, strychnine, potassium bromide. Such sedatives and stimulants were common remedies at that time for epilepsy.’

The bad blood of a man who appeared to be among the most blessed in mid-Victorian England gives the impostor affair a fresh twist.


‘Fits are treated as madness and madness constitutes a right as it were to treat people as vermin,’ Lord Shaftesbury, whose son, Maurice, was an epileptic, remarked in 1851.

In the mid-nineteenth century, epilepsy was tragically misunderstood. Doctors diagnosed it as a form of madness: there was no cure for it, and no understanding of what caused it. Deriving from the Greek word epilepsis, meaning ‘a taking hold of’, a state of being seized by some power of a mysterious nature, even its name supported the belief that it had some supernatural cause.

A terrifying and stigmatizing mythology had formed around the disease, still lodged in the popular consciousness centuries after it had been created. Islamic lore attributed epileptic fits to the blow of a ghost; in the Ottoman Empire, they were said to betray an illicit sexual love affair, brought on by a jealous spirit’s attempt to choke the guilty party. But in mid-Victorian England, to devout Christians like Earl Fitzwilliam, it was the verdict of the Bible that was the most damning. When Christ healed a child suffering convulsions, the episode was represented as the casting out of a demon: ‘a spirit taketh him and he suddenly crieth out; and it teareth him that he foameth again’ (Luke 9:39).

Over the centuries, the treatment for epilepsy had been as barbarous as the views attributed to its cause. In the first century, at the Colosseum in Rome, epileptics waited to drink the blood of mutilated gladiators: ‘They think it most valuable to sip the blood, still warm, still flowing, from the wounded themselves and thus to imbibe the breath of life immediately from the fresh opening,’ Pliny recorded. In later centuries, various body parts were prescribed to treat the disease: the sixteenth-century Parisian physician Jean Fernel recommended a mixture of mistletoe, powdered human skull and peony seeds gathered when the moon was waning. When Milton was growing up, miners in the pit villages around Wentworth used an old folk remedy to treat epileptic fits: a dried calf’s tongue was tied with a piece of string and placed around the afflicted person’s neck.

The ingredients of Milton’s prescriptions and the few letters that survive from his doctors indicate that he was sent to the top medical specialists of the day. From the onset of his illness, his parents spared no expense in the search for a cure for their eldest son and heir. Milton was treated by Sir Alexander Morrison, a prominent Edinburgh physician, and a disciple of a group of French doctors, based at the notorious Paris lunatic asylum, Salpetrière. Though widely regarded as the leading experts of their day, their views were almost as malevolent as the Ancients’, serving only to heighten the stigma and shame attached to the illness. Dr Beau, who conducted a study of sixty-seven epileptics at the Salpetrière asylum in 1833, concluded that his patients’ epilepsy had been caused by sorrow, morbid terror and masturbation. Dr Beau’s findings were replicated in further experiments conducted by other experts during the 1830s and 1840s. Even as late as the 1880s, the British neurologist Sir William Gowers was still attributing epilepsy to excessive masturbation.

Demons, self-abuse, fear; it was hardly surprising the Fitzwilliams themselves took fright.

During much of Milton’s childhood, their solution, which was typical of their class, was to keep him out of sight. Like other wealthy ‘lunatics’, he was exiled from his family from an early age, funnelled into the shadowy network of ‘madhouses’ that offered a cloak of secrecy: the private asylums and single-lodging establishments, both at home and abroad, that had proliferated in the first half of the nineteenth century.

His fits began before he was eleven years old. In 1850, Milton’s father sent a letter to his father, the 5th Earl, from the Fitzwilliams’ estate in Ireland.

William may have to remain here longer than I had anticipated, as his health is not very settled, and he has had many but only slight attacks of unconsciousness. The Edinburgh doctors recommend quiet, and no amusement of an exciting tendency.

Shortly after, Milton was sent to Avignon in France. Writing home to his mother at Wentworth, his anxiety about the long, enforced periods of separation from his family is painfully clear:

Please do let me know as soon as possible when you want me to come home for certain, and when and where we shall all be the next coming and midsummer holidays, if you knew how I long for an answer I am sure you would send one directly. On 15th April I shall have been here 3 months which was the greatest time you said I should stay and as I abominate being away here most thoroughly I really must come home then, and not go away again anywhere for an awfull long time except to Eton.

In their search for a cure, to the consternation of the round of specialists they consulted, the Fitzwilliams tried everything. An undated letter from one doctor mysteriously contains a lock of Milton’s hair: ‘I see no prospect of all this business finishing,’ he wrote. ‘Dr Willis saying that he can cure the thing appears to me very extraordinary.’

Dr Willis was the notorious proprietor of an asylum called Shillingthorpe. In 1847, the Medical Practitioner ran the following advertisement:

This Asylum for the Insane was established by the celebrated Dr Francis Willis, who had the happiness of restoring his Majesty George the Third from the serious malady with which he was afflicted in 1788. It is now conducted by his grandson, Dr Francis Willis, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, in the style of a country gentleman’s residence. It is exclusively adapted for persons moving in the upper ranks of society. The Invalids are separately provided for in their own private apartments, and do not associate with each other, unless they are capable of joining Dr Willis’s family. The numbers are very limited.

Shillingthorpe was one of several ‘aristocratic’ asylums that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century. Modelled on grand country houses, they boasted aviaries and bowling greens, cricket pavilions and pagodas. One establishment, Ticehurst, even had its own hunting pack. Catering exclusively for the sons and daughters of the well-born, the intention was to mimic ‘Society’: dances, billiards, Latin and Greek lessons, cards and concerts were among the many forms of activity on the curriculum.

When Milton was at Shillingthorpe, Dr Willis was known as a strong disciplinarian. His excessive fondness for the use of mechanical restraints – strait-waistcoats, handcuffs, hobbles, leg-locks and the ‘coercion chair’ – was criticized by the Lunacy Commissioner in 1854: ‘It is painful to know that such views are entertained by a few physicians, who are men of education, but apparently proud of adhering to ancient severities.’

Despite Dr Willis’s severity, Shillingthorpe’s royal imprimatur lent it an extra cachet. Yet the luxurious comforts on offer at the aristocrats’ asylums rendered them the more grotesque. They were desperate places. Many of the patients were not insane; like Milton, some were epileptics, others had been incarcerated by their families simply for falling in love beneath their class. At Ticehurst, in April 1847, one patient, Augustus Gawen, was admitted for proposing marriage to a fisherwoman, and another, Henrietta Golding, was confined after ‘she had shewn strong inclinations to form an improper connection with a Person of very inferior grade.’ The psychological scars inflicted on patients like these must have been considerable. The availability of private apartments meant that the patients did not live cheek by jowl, as they did in the paupers’ asylums, but Milton, and men and women like Augustus Gawen and Henrietta Golding, would have had some exposure to the other inmates – patients who were clinically mad. In 1857, lifting the veil of secrecy that shrouded the asylums tailored for ‘persons moving in the upper ranks of society’, William Browne, the Superintendent of Crichton Royal, was keen to stress that high birth did not diminish the ravages of madness. The ‘manic glorying in obscenity and filth’ was by no means confined to the working classes: ‘They are encountered in victims from the refined and polished portions of society, of the purest life, the most exquisite sensibility . . . Females of birth drink their urine . . . outlines of high artistic pretensions have been painted in excrement; poetry has been written in blood, or more revolting media . . . Patients are met with who daub and drench the walls as hideously as their disturbed fancy suggests; who wash or plaster their bodies, fill every crevice in the room, their ears, noses, hair, with ordure; who conceal these precious pigments in their mattresses, gloves, shoes, and will wage battle to defend their property.’

This, then, was the hinterland of Milton’s childhood.

During his teenage years there were times when he appeared to be better; he was well enough to go to Eton and from there to Trinity College, Cambridge, although his attendance was often interrupted by his illness. When he was sixteen his father, writing to his grandfather, told him, ‘I am sorry to say that William has had another attack like those he has had, but it was very much slighter, and there was only one, whereas he has had two on the previous occasions.’ And in another letter, when Milton was eighteen: ‘William, I am happy to say, is much better than when I left here 3 weeks ago, and I believe has had very little tendency towards a reversal of his old attacks and although he had tendencies when he first came here from London still those tendencies appear to be diminishing. He is evidently much stronger, and his face is fatter, and he does with far less medicine.’

Milton’s grandfather replied: ‘I hope the ups tendency to illness in William will go on – in medicine I have no great faith but I have great faith in diet which I hope will be enforced upon him systematically and perseveringly.’

But the ‘ups tendency’ the family longed for did not continue. Milton’s illness, and the profound feelings of guilt and shame that accompanied it, dogged every step of his life. In a letter to his parents, written when he was thirty-two, he begged to be forgiven. ‘Dear Father and Mother will you forgive me for all the pain and trouble I have caused you. When you know what I have suffered I know you will. Pray for me dear Father and Mother. Your loving and repentant son.’

His father was unforgiving. Pride and ignorance led him to treat his son, to use Lord Shaftesbury’s words, ‘like vermin’. William, 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, moulded in the cast of the Victorian patriarch, was a figure who inspired fear and awe among his family and his employees. After his death, one society writer said, ‘It is almost impossible to make a stranger realize the tone and style of the late Earl Fitzwilliam’s method of life at his Yorkshire seat, Wentworth. It must have been the nearest approach to the baronial splendour of the Middle Ages which the modern aristocracy can furnish.’ When his yellow coach, ‘horsed by four prancing chestnuts’, flanked by outriders and running-men dressed in the Fitzwilliam livery, travelled through the pit villages and the streets of Rotherham and Sheffield, women curtseyed, and the men removed their caps and bowed.

The 6th Earl was a man of few words. Evelyn Dundas, who sat next to him at a dinner at Wentworth in the 1890s, described him as the most difficult and ‘silent of hosts’. Throughout the meal she struggled to find conversation. When it reached a standstill, at a loss as to what to say though determined to elicit some response, she asked him ‘which reflection of himself in his spoon he preferred – the convex or concave’. Privately, his reticence translated into relationships with his children and grandchildren that were formal and cold. ‘A good many of them were frightened of him,’ said his granddaughter Lady Mabel Smith. He used his wealth as a weapon of control; letters that survive in the Fitzwilliam archives show that he advanced or withheld money depending on his children’s behaviour and continuously altered the amounts he planned to leave them in his will. Family to the 6th Earl meant duty, power, prestige and position; where these precepts were challenged, love and loyalty did not count.

Increasingly, as the Earl’s hopes for a cure for his son faded, he realized that his illness placed the family in jeopardy. The stigma of lunacy threatened the Fitzwilliams’ fortune and position – their potential for alliances through marriage with other great noble houses. It also threatened their social omnipotence. Endemic to epilepsy was the risk of public humiliation – an eventuality of which members of the aristocracy were particularly fearful. Even Lord Shaftesbury, the great Whig reformer and philanthropist, expressed horror at the thought of being humiliated in front of his tenants and employees when his son suffered a fit in public: ‘Maurice fell yesterday in the Park. I trembled lest a vast crowd should be gathered. Sent away the children and sat by his side as though we were lying on the grass, and by degrees he recovered and walked home.’

In the early 1860s, new research determined that what had previously been a minority view among doctors had become medical fact: mental illness, including epilepsy, was hereditary, sending shivers through the aristocracy for whom pedigree was everything. Milton’s illness had corrupted the Fitzwilliams’ blood.

That the Earl had reached this view became evident on 27 July 1860, Milton’s twenty-first birthday.

At Wentworth, the coming of age of the eldest son had traditionally been celebrated on a lavish scale. In 1807, when Milton’s grandfather, the 5th Earl Fitzwilliam, came of age, the family gave a party for 10,000 guests. The Iris, a Sheffield newspaper, carried a report:

May 5th 1807

Yesterday being the 21st anniversary of the birthday of Lord Milton, the only son and heir of Earl Fitzwilliam, the day was most munificently celebrated at Wentworth House. Two oxen weighing together 240 stone were roasted whole on the lawn, in sheds erected for the purpose; these had been feeding for upwards of three years past, and are supposed to have been the finest and fattest beasts ever grazed in this county. Twenty sheep had also been previously roasted in quarters, which with the beef, bread, etc and more than 10,000 gallons of strong ale, principally brewed several years ago for this festival, were distributed among the multitudes who assembled in the park, and whose numbers, notwithstanding the wetness of the day, have been estimated at 10,000.

During the forenoon and in the evening the roads on every side of Wentworth were darkened with crowds of people on foot, on horseback, in gigs, in chaises, coaches, carts and wagons. Yet rainy and unfavourable as the day was, none who travelled to Wentworth had occasion to complain of the fare – except those who by their gluttonous and drunken indiscretion made beasts of themselves and converted the bounty of Lord Fitzwilliam and his son at once in the means and the punishment of sinning. About a thousand of the tenants and others were entertained most sumptuously in the House itself.

The household accounts show precisely what the crowds consumed:

3 roasted oxen, 336 stone in weight

2 Scotch bullocks, 130 stone

26 roasted sheep, 177 stone 6 pounds

3 lambs

3 calves

10 hams

54 fowls

240 bushels of wheat

555 eggs

75 hogsheads of ale

6 hogsheads of small beer

473 bottles of good wine

23 gallons of rum

18 gallons of brandy

13 gallons of rum shrub [sic]

Viscount Milton’s party, half a century later, was a very different affair. He was not even there. Nor was his family. Instead, it was quietly celebrated by 180 tenants, who drank toasts to the young Lord with specially brewed ale, while the house masons and carpenters played cricket on the lawn.

It was a crushing snub to Milton, proof that his father refused to recognize him for who he was – the heir to his title and fortune. Yet again, it seems he had been sent away. Only one member of his family appears to have given the occasion any thought: his younger brother, William Henry, the Earl’s second son. ‘I have been thinking as William is just 21 that we ought to give him a birthday present; there is plenty of time to think of it before he comes home’, Henry, as he was known in the family, wrote to his older sister, Frances. ‘I should like to give him something really worth having, and if all of us brothers and sisters were to subscribe together we might get something very good, and if you can not spare much now, I am quite sure Mama will forward you some money. I know he often thinks that we do not care for him and he would very much like to have something from us all. I will give five pound but I do not mean that I want you to give the same, for I know you have more things to buy than I have. If we could get up between us £10 or £15 it would be very nice. He will never be 21 again you know.’

William Henry was Milton’s favourite brother; he was also his father’s favourite son. De facto, the Earl regarded Henry as his heir. Yet problematically, primogeniture dictated that Milton would succeed to the title and estates. Disinheriting an eldest son was a complex and all too public procedure; in light of the low life expectancy of epileptics in mid-nineteenth century England, the Earl decided to ride the matter out. As long as Milton died before he did, Henry, his second son, would succeed.

Some months after his twenty-first birthday, in April 1861, Milton blew his father’s strategy apart; without consulting him, he announced his engagement to Miss Dorcas Chichester, the daughter of Lord Chichester, and the niece of the Marquess of Donegal. On hearing the news the Earl took to his bed, unable to cope with the strain of the whole affair. What horrified him above all else was the thought that his eldest son might now produce an heir. If he were to do so, Milton’s bad blood would feed into the direct Fitzwilliam line.

In the days after the announcement, letters flew back and forth from Wentworth, as Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam connived with close family members to stop the marriage from going ahead. ‘There appears some reason to fear an immediate marriage,’ Milton’s mother wrote to his Uncle George. ‘My head is so weary I cannot judge of anything or write clearly either I fear.’

The situation came to a head when the Earl received a threatening letter from Lord Chichester, Dorcas’s father. Sharply reminding the Earl that both his daughter and Milton were of age and therefore did not need the Earl’s permission to marry, Chichester accused him of slighting his family by objecting to the marriage.

Behind Milton’s back, the Earl replied to Lord Chichester’s letter, knowing that what he had to tell him would bring the engagement to an end:

My son’s conduct has been so unsteady and his health so bad that I do not feel justified in consenting to his taking upon himself the serious responsibility of a married life. I feel sure you will think with me that I should not be doing right in withholding from you these facts, a knowledge of which will probably drastically alter your judgement as to your daughter’s prospects of happiness. My son suffers from fits which cause at times great mental excitement sometimes followed by considerable depression of spirits.

Three days later the engagement was called off.

The Earl had not consulted his son before sending the letter; nor was he prepared to discuss it after it had been sent. Lady Fitzwilliam, writing on behalf of her husband, sent Milton’s Uncle George a copy of the letter to Lord Chichester, with the following instructions. ‘He wishes you to read the enclosed letter and consider when it should be given to William or if it should be withheld.’

No letters survive to reveal Milton’s feelings for Dorcas Chichester, or what he felt about the way his father had behaved. Within a few months, relations between them were destined to get worse. In the spring of 1862, the Earl’s patience finally snapped.


On the morning of 26 May 1862, Milton stood in the dock at the Police Courts in Bow Street in London, as the magistrate delivered his verdict. He had been charged with fraudulently obtaining a pair of diamond earrings from a pawnbroker:

With respect to the charge before me, I can assure you, Lord Milton, if I had come to the conclusion that Your Lordship had any guilty intention with reference to the possession of the earrings, I should have sent you at once for trial, but my belief is there was no guilty intention. You are young and inexperienced, and evidently require good guidance, and I wish to remind you that considering your station, you are pre-eminently bound to obey the law, as your station will not protect you from the consequences of violating the law. The earrings will of course be given up to the pawnbroker. The act was the act of a foolish person, and therefore you, Lord Milton, are discharged.

In the weeks following his broken engagement, Milton, in deliberate defiance of his father, had been mixing with bad company in gaming houses and brothels in London’s West End. The diamond earrings had been deposited at a pawnbroker’s in Bond Street by Madame Rachel, a second-rate courtesan, who, according to police reports, traded as an ‘enameller of women’s faces’. She had won the earrings, which belonged to a ‘ladyfriend’ of Milton’s, at a game of cards. Milton, wanting to please his ‘ladyfriend’ by returning the earrings to her, went to the pawnbroker’s shop to redeem them. He offered the broker a cheque for £200, which he declined, saying ‘it was too much; the earrings were only worth £65’. At which point, Milton put them into his pocket and walked out of the shop.

In his defence, Milton argued that he had simply intended to take care of the earrings until their legal title was established. His lawyers, pleading that he suffered from ‘ill health’, said that he had been acting under the influence of a ‘woman much older than himself’.

His acquittal did not assuage his father. Angered by the negative publicity and the embarrassment to the family, the Earl ordered Milton out of England. Rather than send his frail son to a spa resort in Europe, he chose to banish him to the wilds of Canada. Making only the smallest of concessions to Milton’s fragile health, he paid for a young doctor, twenty-nine-year-old William Cheadle, to accompany him into exile.

Cheadle recorded their departure on 19 June 1862 from Liverpool Docks on the steamship Anglo-Saxon, bound for Quebec.

Sailed at 5, only 25 Cabin passengers as yet. Weather very drizzling on leaving in the tender but soon became fine though cloudy. Had the temerity to smoke two pipes immediately on the ship’s getting under way. About 6 o’clock 3 little devils found stowed away amongst the coals, hauled out, ship brought to, and the boat from a pilot vessel signalled to come alongside, when they were quickly sent over the side with a bag of biscuits from the Captain. They did not appear at all disconcerted at being discovered, but went away grinning, one waving a biscuit in farewell.

As Milton watched the vanishing wake of the pilot vessel returning the stowaways to shore, he must have longed to go with them. Yet again, as he had experienced throughout his childhood, he was being sent away against his will. Only one member of his family – his brother Henry – had waved him off from the quayside. ‘I am sorry I did not look up at the last moment I saw you,’ wrote Milton later that evening, ‘but I could not manage it I felt so unhappy at going away. Please give my love to all the little ones and remember me to all other people at home, with best love your affectionate brother, Milton.’

The weather, during what became a horrendous crossing, can only have heightened Milton’s despair. Two days off the coast of Ireland the ship ran into a violent storm. ‘Weather blowing stormy very,’ Cheadle noted in his journal.

A gale of wind and sea during the night and still continuing. Turned out to breakfast. Lord Milton wisely taking his repast in his berth. I got through a little breakfast but had to bolt downstairs, was sick and expected to have to endure frightful tortures, but recovered in a few minutes. Hardly anyone at table. Felt seedy and spent most of the day in my berth.

The following day, the storm continued, a day Cheadle describes as ‘certainly one of the longest days I ever passed’. And the next day:

Turned out towards 11, and shortly after Lord Milton put in his first appearance for two days. Both felt very uncertain. No catastrophe however occurred. Still very rough wind dead ahead, the vessel pitching tremendously, being very lightly laden – cargo tea. Everyone appears to have suffered and several passengers who have crossed the Atlantic several times agree that they never suffered so much before. Take the precaution however of having our meals in the passage, or on deck.

At night, phosphorescence made the heavy seas look angrier still; the crest of each wave ‘breaking in light’ and the wake of the ship ‘a path of brilliant scintillation’. And on the fifth day when the storm began to subside, eerily, at intervals through the morning, they saw joists of timber swirling past the boat. Later in the day, the source of the wreckage became evident.

About 1 o’clock, the Captain whilst talking with us on deck suddenly exclaimed: ‘By Jove, there’s the wreck of a vessel.’ After some little time we discovered a small object on the horizon, which by the help of glasses we made out to be the hull of a ship, dismasted and no one on board and almost directly in our course. We altered our course a little N. so as to pass under her stern which was towards us, and at about 2 yards distance read her name ‘Ruby’. She was completely waterlogged, the waves which were not very high washing over her. The masts (2, a schooner) had evidently been cut away, and her sides down to the level of the deck were broken up so that only the skeleton beams were left. The bowsprit was carried away, and the boats had either been the refuge of the crew, or washed away and the men drowned. They had evidently made a good struggle for life, but from the dreadfully battered state of the hull it would seem doubtful whether the boats could live in such a sea as there must have been.

On the eighth day, a thick fog descended. The ship slowed to half speed, its whistle blowing in short bursts.

Very cold and raw. Now in the region of ice about 100 miles from Cape Race. Great caution used. 2 lookouts in the bows, two officers on the bridge. The Captain had the ‘Canadian’ when she was lost, struck on a piece of ice which was under water and not seen. Shock so light that he standing on the bridge did not perceive it. Keel torn out so that she filled rapidly about 40 lost. Stop the engines every few hours to sound.

As the steamship crept through the dense fog, it was a grim foreshadowing of Milton and Cheadle’s next journey into the unknown. Determined to prove himself to his father, Milton refused to allow his health to encumber their plans. The two men had mapped an ambitious expedition across Canada: to find the most direct route through British territory to the gold regions of Cariboo and from there to explore the little-known country on the western flank of the Rocky Mountains.

It was wild and dangerous country, populated largely by tribes of Indians. Writing in the 1850s, Robert Ballantyne, a Hudson Bay Trader, had warned,

When starving, the Indians will not hesitate to appease the cravings of hunger by resorting to cannibalism; and there were some old dames with whom I was myself acquainted, who had at different periods eaten several of their children. Indeed, some of them, it was said, had also eaten their husbands.

Prejudice led many Europeans to exaggerate, but in the 1860s, in the remote fur-trading regions north of the Great Lakes, cannibalism was still prevalent among the tribes, and Indians were continuing to claim the scalps of white settlers.

While Cheadle, a Cambridge graduate and an accomplished oarsman, was stockily built and physically strong, Milton was weak and of slight physique, and frequently debilitated by epileptic attacks. His health posed a considerable handicap over the terrain they planned to cross. Yet, over distances of hundreds of miles, much of it on foot or on horseback, sleeping in tents in the open at night, Milton would endure some of the most hostile country in the world.

Their journey took them along precipitous mountain trails, often in driving blizzards of snow; across barely navigable rivers that had claimed many lives; through dense, unmapped forests, where paths had to be hacked with axes and many a traveller had been lost. And always, in these remote and wild regions, there was the danger of starvation, the travellers’ only source of food coming from whatever they could shoot or carry. There were other dangers too: from diseases such as smallpox, which had ripped through some of the small communities along their route, from wild bears and wolves, and from the hostile indigenous tribes.

It would be nearly two years before Milton saw his family again; for nine months of that time, he had no contact at all with them. Yet despite his unhappiness at the outset, the expedition to Canada was the making of him. In the rugged and inhospitable landscape he found peace and tranquillity, a ballast against, and refuge from, the pressures and prejudice at home. He was fascinated by the people he met, developing a particular affinity with the Indians and becoming fluent in Cree. His empathy with the tribesmen is apparent in his book, The North-West Passage by Land, where he describes his first sighting of an Indian:


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