The survival of Wentworth Castle

In 1817 the Rev. Lionel Berguer published “Trifles in Verse”, a collection of  [to put it politely] turgid amateur poetry. The first of these almost unreadable pieces  is dedicated to his friend Frederick Vernon Wentworth. It conjures up a gentle Arcadian landscape whereas the reality was  that Frederick had inherited a magnificent Georgian mansion, complete with art collection, extensive parkland and enough coal mines and farmland to make him an extremely wealthy man…. and all at the age of 9.

This is my third post about Wentworth Castle near Barnsley, an amazing living archive of a house, garden and landscape. The first post   looked at the work of Thomas Wentworth, first  Earl of Strafford [ catch up on that here ] , and the second  at the work of his son William, the second earl.  [catch upon that  here ]

This one takes the story from Frederick’s inheritance in 1804, through the estate’s 19thc heyday to its rapid decline, and slow but sure restoration by the Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust.


Frederick Vernon-Wentworth, from the guidebook

Frederick Vernon-Wentworth, from the guidebook

When Frederick eventually came of age he set about restoring the estate and developing the gardens. It was a huge task  but luckily for him there was coal on the estate and the mining  ensured that he had sufficient income to be able to do it in style.

In 1826 he married Lady Ann Brudenell Bruce, daughter of the Marquis of Ailesbury and began to take his part in county life, serving as sheriff and standing for Parliament.

Some small part of the rivalry with his Fitzwilliam cousins at Wentworth Woodhouse still survived, but at least part of this seems to have been diverted into horticulture.  In September 1836, for example, his gardener, William Batley won 1st prize for his vegetables at the Sheffield Horticultural Show held in the Botanic Gardens in front of “a brilliant assemblage of beauty and fashion”, beating Earl Fitzwilliam into 3rd place. The Earl in his turn swept the board in the fruit classes, particularly with a tray of nearly 30 varieties of fruit lauded as  “one of the richest specimens of the kind ever seen at public exhibition” and beating Frederick’s gardener into 3rd place. The Earl also snatched  the prize for a display of 6 orchids from under the nose of the Duke of Devonshire and his gardener Joseph Paxton. [Yorkshire Gazette – 17 Sept 1836].  

from The Sheffield Independent, and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser (Sheffield, England), Saturday, July 07, 1838; pg. 6; Issue 891. (5498 words)

from The Sheffield Independent, July 07, 1838

Frederick’s wealth also enabled him to take full advantage of the discoveries of  plant hunters like Robert Fortune, Augustine Henry and the Lobb brothers. In particular he caught orchidmania,  growing these exotic imports  in a new range of glasshouses heated by hot water pipework.

Renanthera coccinea Lour. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, t. 2956-3038, vol. 57 [ser. 2, vol. 4]: t. 2997 (1830) [W.J. Hooker]

The Chinese Air Plant or           Renanthera coccinea 
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, t. 2956-3038, vol. 57 [ser. 2, vol. 4]: t. 2997 (1830) [W.J. Hooker]

However William Batley was obviously a top rate gardener because in 1847, for example, he won as many as 26 prizes at the Barnsley Horticultural Show. He died in 1852 and was succeeded  by his son James who was to remain in place for more than 50 years and  prizes continued to roll in across the board for all kinds of fruit and vegetables but also exotic and greenhouse plants.  One of Batley’s  awards was for “a singular plant called the Chinese air plant, which carried off first prize among the orchids.” [Leeds Intelligencer – 22 Sept 1855]

Frederick obviously took a great interest in the gardens and carried out a lot of improvements and innovations. Amongst them was the creation of what is now known as the Victorian Flower Garden. This was  on the site of the bowling green and where the second earl had installed the Chinese seat. In the 1890s after Frederick’s death it was redesigned as an Italian garden, which were then extremely fashionable, and then again in the early 20thc as a rose garden. The present layout dates from the 1980s and is a recreation based based on archival photographs.

David Marsh, April 2016

David Marsh, April 2016


Rhododendron maccabeanum, David Marsh, April 2016

Rhododendron maccabeanum, David Marsh, April 2016

Another of Frederick’s passions seems to have been rhododendrons, and he began planting large numbers of newly discovered species. The gardens now hold the National Collection of both species and hardy hybrid rhododendrons,  of williamsii hybrid camellias and that of species magnolias.  These grow in several areas of the garden, particularly in the Middle Garden, informal wilderness and shrubberies [8,14,15 and 16 on the map]DSCF3873

The informal wilderness, David Marsh, April 2016

The informal wilderness, David Marsh, April 2016

Frederick also seems to have altered the use of some other garden areas, since, when the Union Jack garden was being restored,  it became clear that at some stage it must have been used for the display of bedding plants. This was only realised when the clearance of overgrown trees and shrubs allowed the germination of dormant seeds of plants like calceolaria and nemesia which sprang up all over the place!

One of the Victorian fern-pattern seats in the wilderness, david Marsh, April 2016

One of the Victorian fern-pattern seats in the wilderness, David Marsh, April 2016

The informal wilderness and shrubberies below Stainborough Castle, although originally planted as a setting for the castle in the 18thc were also probably altered and added to by Frederick.  There are now fine stumperies and  groups of ferns and tree-ferns, as well as some nice Victorian fern pattern seats in this area.


Although Frederick took some part in public life in his earlier days at Wentworth, serving as sheriff and standing for Parliament, he later seems to have preferred a more private and less visible public  role.  He was a generous donor to good causes, giving money for new churches, public buildings, and emergency appeals as well land to extend a public park in Barnsley. He was happy to open the house  on request so that visitors could see the extensive collection of paintings, and to allow access to Stainborough Park  for the enjoyment of workers from the neighbouring towns on special holidays such as the Barnsley Feast.

Looking down into Stainborough Park from near Archers Hill Gate David Marsh, April 2016

Looking down into Stainborough Park from near Archers Hill Gate
David Marsh, April 2016

Sheffield Independent - Saturday 24 August 1850

Frederick was to be the owner of Wentworth Castle for  80 years, as he did not die until 1885 just 8 days short of his 90th birthday. However several years before that he had left Wentworth and  moved  to Hastings where he died. As a result  his death attracted surprisingly little local news coverage, although his funeral in Worsborough attracted a few  mentions. He left  a personal fortune of nearly a million pounds in his will which made his son  Thomas one of the wealthiest commoners in England.

Thomas Vernon-Wentworth. image from the guide book

Thomas Vernon-Wentworth. image from the guide book

Like his father Thomas was a retiring man but he was also a moderniser. In 1885 he began installing electric lighting in the Castle, making Wentworth one of the earliest great houses to have it. [Leeds Times 15 Aug 1885].  There was, of course, no National Grid and electricity  had to be generated on site, which required two steam boiler engines and two dynamos to be put in as well. Much of the work was done by Colonel Rooke Crompton, an electrical pioneer, whose company, Crompton and Fawkes,  also designed and built the amazing conservatory, with its underfloor heating and electric lighting.  “The Iron Winter Garden” was  used by the company as the first featured building in their lavishly illustrated catalogue.  [Crompton & Fawkes will be the subject of the next post]

Horticultural buildings and their fittings : by Crompton & Fawkes, Chelmsford, 1899

from Horticultural Buildings and their Fittings : by Crompton & Fawkes, Chelmsford, 1899

Portrait of Prince Albert Victor of Wales, by Bassano, c.1888 National POrtrait Gallery

Portrait of Prince Albert Victor of Wales, by Bassano, c.1888 National Portrait Gallery

The construction of such a technically advanced building was apparently part of a campaign to attract a royal visit – and it succeeded because Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the throne, stayed for a month at Christmas 1888 and later again in 1889.

David Marsh, April 2016

David Marsh, April 2016


from Horticultural buildings and their fittings , the catalogue of Crompton & Fawkes, 1899







The conservatory was planted with an enormous array of tropical plants, in open ground but also in hundreds of pots ranged along its stone shelving for display, although they were actually grown and ‘stored’ when not in flower in other greenhouses nearby.

A 1910 photo by J.Batley showing the conservatory in its full splendour from

A 1910 photo by James Batley, the head gardener showing the conservatory in its full splendour from

David Marsh, April 2016

David Marsh, April 2016

The Journal of Horticulture reported in 1887 that “the roof throughout is gracefully festooned with healthy and well-flowered specimens of Passifloras, Tacsonias, Cobea scandens and other suitable plants. When lit up by means of the electric light, with which this fine house as well as the whole of the establishment is furnished, the effect must be charming and fairy-like in its nature.”

Another feature thought to have been put in place for a possible royal visit was the azalea garden cut into the slope uphill between  the conservatory and the Union Jack garden. Laid out symmetrically along gravel paths it is carefully terraced and one part has now been partly developed into a rock garden planted with bulbs and alpines.

James Batley [standing 3rd from right] and his staff including his son and successor George [2nd left]. Image taken from the guidebook

James Batley [standing 3rd from right] and his staff including his son and successor George [2nd left]. Image taken from the guidebook

One of the great things about Wentworth is the enormous archive of information about the gardens, and especially about its gardeners. There is a nice display in the new lobby to restored conservatory about them. During the 19thc it was a Batley family affair – with 3 generations succeeding to the post of head gardener in turn, starting with William in 1826 and ending with  George in 1915.  It was James Batley who ran the gardens for almost 50 years who was the head gardener at the time the conservatory opened. He then had a staff of 12, divided into 3 teams who looked after the pleasure gardens, the glasshouses and the kitchen garden.

Lady Lucy's Walk,

Lady Lucy’s Walk,

The Times, 2nd Jan 1902

From the obituary of Thomas Vernon Wentworth,  The Times, 2nd Jan 1902

Thomas Vernon-Wentworth died “much beloved” in 1902 at Aldeburgh on the family’s Suffolk estates. He was succeeded by his son Bruce, who had been a Captain in Grenadier Guards before being elected Tory MP for Brighton.  He continued the enhancement of the estate, adding  the balustraded terrace in front of the Baroque wing of the house in 1911. The pillars of  the ironwork gates have armorial supporters made by John Nost in about 1720, which make them contemporary with this part of the house.  Bruce also replanted the narrow lime avenue, known as Lady Lucy’s walk, that runs  behind the house  to the wilderness area.

Bruce Canning Vernon-Wentworth from "Black & White" Parliamentary Album 1895,

Bruce Canning Vernon-Wentworth from “Black & White” Parliamentary Album 1895,

But, despite this, Bruce seemed to prefer the Suffolk and Scottish estates to Yorkshire, and in 1919 he abandoned Wentworth completely, auctioned much of the house’s contents at Christie’s, and moved to Aldeburgh permanently.

The Times, 13th Nov 1919

The Times, 13th Nov 1919

The house was mothballed for twenty years but during the Second World War it was used by the military and for housing prisoners of war. As so often happened  its condition deteriorated drastically, and complete demolition was seriously considered. However, in 1948  the castle and its immediate surrounds  of 60 acres were sold to Barnsley Council,  for £26,000, about twice the sum paid for the whole estate in 1708 when it was bought by the first earl.

They restored the house and turned it into a teacher training college, which it remained until 1978 when it became  the Northern College of Residential Adult Education education college who remain the occupants today. To find out more about them and the courses they offer check out:

Despite being in public hands it was featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition “The Country House in Danger”. The great landscape that Walpole praised in 1780 was described in 1986 as now “disturbed and ruinous”,and the  the second earl’s sinuous river excavated in the 1730s had been reduced to a series of muddy ponds.

In 2002 the grounds were acquired by The Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust which aims to carry out a phased programme of restoration and development works. By 2003 they had managed to buy the park from the Vernon-Wentworth Trusts and won funding  from the Heritage Lottery Fund to begin essential repairs. Although there is still a lot of work to do, judging by what they have achieved already the estate is entering another great, if very different, stage in its history & I’m looking forward to a return visit soon to see how this progress.

David Marsh, April 2016

David Marsh, April 2016


About The Gardens Trust

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