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Minxminnie

Black Diamonds

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This has been on my mental TBR for a long time, since I read Bailey's other book, The Secret Rooms. While that one was a fascinating story about dysfunctional aristocrats (one of my favourite subjects!), this was a much more important and multi layered story and, rightly, better known.

 

It deals with the Fitzwilliam family, a mining dynasty from South Yorkshire, and how their wealth and influence declined over the course of the early 20th Century. It is in part a story about industrial relations and economic policy as well as about the family and their enormous house, Wentworth.

My one criticism is that she often goes off into long digressions about topics or people whose relevance isn't immediately obvious, and the reader needs a bit of patience and trust in the writer to know it will eventually become clear, which it always does. 

I enjoyed it particularly because it's quite similar to the story of where I live. This used to be the land of the Dukes of Hamilton and their relatives. Like Wentworth, Hamilton Palace was an enormous, ostentatious private residence, built purely to show off their wealth. But, to maintain that wealth, they had to mine their land, and this created a population boom and industrialisation of their pastoral idyll. The Hamiltons weren't as benevolent as the Fitzwilliams and sold the mining rights (and, eventually, the rights to the coal underneath their house, leading to its demolition) whereas the "Fitzbilly" pits were directly owned by the family, and they looked after their miners well. But the story of the various disputes really helped me to understand the mining heritage where I live.

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2 hours ago, lunababymoonchild said:

That sounds very interesting indeed MM and I did not know that about the Dukes of Hamilton! 

Luna, the locals will tell you a story of a beautiful house brought down by mining, but the truth is a bit more complicated. It's told in Low Parks Museum but someone should write a book like this! I went to a talk a few weeks ago given by the museum curator. Much of the lavish interior was sold off in the late 19th C to pay gambling debts, and they eventually sold the coal seam under the house having been told that the house would survive. It didn't. An interesting postscript was that the first council housing in Scotland was built in Hamilton, and while it was being built on the site of the newly demolished tenements, the inhabitants were rehoused in the abandoned and now perilous Palace! 

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35 minutes ago, Minxminnie said:

Luna, the locals will tell you a story of a beautiful house brought down by mining, but the truth is a bit more complicated. It's told in Low Parks Museum but someone should write a book like this! I went to a talk a few weeks ago given by the museum curator. Much of the lavish interior was sold off in the late 19th C to pay gambling debts, and they eventually sold the coal seam under the house having been told that the house would survive. It didn't. An interesting postscript was that the first council housing in Scotland was built in Hamilton, and while it was being built on the site of the newly demolished tenements, the inhabitants were rehoused in the abandoned and now perilous Palace! 

 

That's incredible!  I was only ever aware of the sand quarry, stated on the notice at the front of the dog-house at the top of what is now a hill.  We can see the Mausoleum from there and imagine that the house was "somewhere over there" to the left of the Mausoleum.  Certainly didn't know about Low Parks Museum so will seek it out. 

 

And yes, someone should write a book about it.

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2 minutes ago, lunababymoonchild said:

 

That's incredible!  I was only ever aware of the sand quarry, stated on the notice at the front of the dog-house at the top of what is now a hill.  We can see the Mausoleum from there and imagine that the house was "somewhere over there" to the left of the Mausoleum.  Certainly didn't know about Low Parks Museum so will seek it out. 

I was thinking about Chatelherault when the book looked at open mining at Wentworth. (For everyone else, Chatelherault was the Duke's hunting lodge and kennels, now centre of a a country park where Luna and I both like a walk.)

The house was down where the gym/bowling greens are near the museum. The museum itself is the oldest building in Hamilton. It was a coaching inn and then became part of the estate. Have you seen the mausoleum keepers house? Approaching the mausoleum, stay on the road as it veers left, then walk down the path into the woods on the right just before the road goes into Hamilton Services. It's been called the finest working man's house in Scotland, but it's now a ruin.

All a bit off topic, but it just shows how many stories are waiting to be told. I wish I had the knowledge and the leisure time to find out more about it all.

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9 hours ago, Minxminnie said:

I was thinking about Chatelherault when the book looked at open mining at Wentworth. (For everyone else, Chatelherault was the Duke's hunting lodge and kennels, now centre of a a country park where Luna and I both like a walk.)

The house was down where the gym/bowling greens are near the museum. The museum itself is the oldest building in Hamilton. It was a coaching inn and then became part of the estate. Have you seen the mausoleum keepers house? Approaching the mausoleum, stay on the road as it veers left, then walk down the path into the woods on the right just before the road goes into Hamilton Services. It's been called the finest working man's house in Scotland, but it's now a ruin.

All a bit off topic, but it just shows how many stories are waiting to be told. I wish I had the knowledge and the leisure time to find out more about it all.

 

No, I did not know about the mausoleum keeper's house, so will check that out too.  My father worked in Hamilton for many years and we tended to drive there and then drive back.

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My book group had this as our book for this month's meeting.  Generally, it was very much enjoyed with some minor caveats (mostly from me!).  Catherine Bailey's depth of research is probably the most impressive aspect of the book (as it is for her other tome, The Secret Rooms), and she uses this to full effect.  In fact, this was thought to be both strength and weakness, as it appeared she could not resist including as much of that research as possible, extending the coverage of her book well beyond the scope of its claimed aims. This isn't just a book about "the rise and fall of an aristocratic family" (although 'decline and fall' would have been a better description, as the rise happens well before the period Bailey covers), but a deep dive into the social history of the area, including digressions into national coal mining history and national politics.  Some of this was valuable as background, but, frankly, it at times felt rather self-indulgent, and would have benefited from some fairly strong-minded editing.  However, by way of compensation, it was always interesting, and the author's writing is very readable, so it wasn't overly hard work travelling down these diversions.

One interesting point that came up in discussion (well it was interesting to me!), was that Catherine Bailey was originally a TV producer, which, as one member said, meant that she was used to dealing with pictures and images.  This was reflected in the structure of her writing: pretty much every chapter started off with a detailed picture being word painted.  Mostly, this added colour, but at times, for one or two members, it proved mildly irritating - imagination appearing to take over from history.  But, given this background, it certainly made it clearer why this route was chosen, and made it easier to take on board! 

Overall, this was felt to be a fascinating slice of social history, telling a nationally relevant story through the life and times of one of the most extraordinary, if widely unknown, buildings in the country and the family who owned it.  A tighter focus might have made it even better, but still a very worthwhile read.

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