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Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey

Updated on November 28, 2016
Black Diamonds - a shocking hisotry of coalmining in Britain.
Black Diamonds - a shocking hisotry of coalmining in Britain. | Source

Review of Black Diamonds - The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey

Black diamonds. Coal. In this book, 'Black Diamonds, the Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty', Catherine Bailey takes you on a walk through the history of coal in twentieth century England and a walk through the lives of the members of an English land owning family made rich by coal.

In 1902 a fortune worth the equivalent of 3 billion was left to the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam and from this point the story follows the generations of the Fitzwilliam family, one of Britains richest aristocratic families, as they progress from power to crisis. It also tells of the demise of their once magnificent stately home, Wentworth Wood House, now a forgotten pile in the depths of south Yorkshire.

This is no dry history book, but an emotional as well as a political roller-coaster that will introduce you to the extravagances of the English landowning classes, the misery of the miners who produced that wealth and a host of famous and infamous characters along the way. It's an octopus of a book, with tentacles that reach into history, politics, the social order and personal lives.

There's much to make you gasp as Bailey outlines the stories, intrigues, loves and crises of people who are the players in this tale, from earls and marquesses, to poor village girls and to the tragic connection of Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy to this doomed family.

It makes Dallas look plausible and positively tame - no wonder Roy Hattersley balked at it's lack of literary cohesion!

Wentworth Wood House, Yorkshire, the Seat of the Marquis of Rockingham

Front of Wentworth Woodhouse Courtesy of Wikimedia ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)
Front of Wentworth Woodhouse Courtesy of Wikimedia ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license) | Source

Black Diamonds

Black Diamonds: The Rise And Fall Of A Great English Dynasty
Black Diamonds: The Rise And Fall Of A Great English Dynasty

This is 'Gone With The Wind,' transformed from the Southern American cotton fields to the coal mines of South Yorkshire, England UK. You'll be surprised at the similarities.


Two world wars changed lives forever. Thanks to this book, you can relive a little of this history.

William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam

The book begins with the funeral of of William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, and the hundreds of sevants and miners who congregated outside the massive facade of Wentworth House on a cold, winters day in February 1902.

The Earl was one of the richest men in Britain, leaving a legacy of 2.8 million pounds, (this would be more than 3 billion today). He owned Wentworth Wood House and its estate of over 20,000 acres, situated near Sheffield and Rotherham. Within the boundaries of the estate lay the Barnsley coal seam, one of the most lucrative deposits in the South Yorkshire coalfield, and the source of the main part of the Fitzwilliam family's fabulous wealth.

The house itself was the largest privately owned house in Britain in 1902, and it remains so today. The book begins with a description of the five miles of freezing corridors along which everything had to be transported into the house, and out by hand. There were no toilets or modern plumbing and the house and its inhabitants required an army of servants to service their needs.

The book ends with the vindictive despoilation of both house and grounds by a vindictive, socialist, post-war government. Ironically this act of gross vandalism brought miners and overlords together again in a futile battle to save the beauty that had been admired, enjoyed and shared by owners and tenants alike. The story is not a simple tale of good and evil.

Modern codecil: The rich owners of the house, the wife of Jacob Rees-Mogg inherited it from her mother, are now to get a £7.6m state handout at a time when the government are reducing disability allowance and waging war on the poor. Nothing changes!

'Black Diamonds' - But At What Cost? - Coal mining at the turn of the 19th century was not only hard but dangerous

Child coal miners around 1908 This mine is in America, but it is a powerful depiction of the life that Bailey outlines in Black Diamonds. Creative Commons This photo is copyrighted but also licensed for further reuse without restrictions
Child coal miners around 1908 This mine is in America, but it is a powerful depiction of the life that Bailey outlines in Black Diamonds. Creative Commons This photo is copyrighted but also licensed for further reuse without restrictions | Source

The early chapters contrast wealth and poverty: a Royal visit to Wentworth house by the King and Queen of England, with the misery and danger of the lives of the miners as they and their families struggle to survive on starvation wages. During the visit there is a terrible accident in the mines which leaves many miners dead or injured, and their families homeless and without means. The wealth from the mines was created for the landowners, and at the expense of the working people who were absolutely dependent on the 'Lords'. The class war is pursued by Bailey through local strikes, the General Strike of 1926 and the constant struggle of the miners to secure decent working conditions and a living wage against the land owners struggle to maintain the status quo.

Despite all the privations of their work force, the Fitzwilliam family was one of the better employers taking its duties as 'Lords of the Manor' seriously.The Fitzwilliams cared for their servants and miners sufficiently to inspire loyalty and gratitude. It's strange to read of the games that Billy Fitzwilliam organised in the grounds of Wentworth during the strikes for the miners and their families to enjoy. The relationships were nothing if not complex.

At the bottom of all this was fear of revolution in Britain.

Misery of Mining Those Black Diamonds in France - Read the classic novel 'Germinal' by Emile Zola

I think you'll find chilling similarities between the pictures painted in this novel and those in Black Diamonds. This novel describes the life of miners in the second half of the 19th century - in graphic detail.

"Often considered Zola's masterpiece and one of the most significant novels in the French tradition, the novel - an uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers' strike in northern France in the 1860s - has been published and translated in over one hundred countries as well as inspiring five film adaptations and two television productions." Wikipedia

Germinal is a story about coal mining in France

Germinal (English Subtitled)
Germinal (English Subtitled)

A riveting novel about the ills of coal mining at the turn of the 19th century in France. I remember reading this when I was younger and being both horified and enthralled. A wonderful book, a gripping read and 'terribly' educational. I look forward to perfecting my French sufficiently to be able to read this in the original language.


In just five decades, the dynasty had been destroyed by love.

Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy and Peter Fitzwilliam

Kathleen Kennedy to marry into the Fitzwilliam family - Truth is stranger than fiction!

Throughout the book Bailey tells the amazing personal stories of the Fitzwilliam family and those touched by association. It is true that this book lurches from social history, to politics, to war and on to tales of changelings and cruelty straight out of fairy stories. Truth, in this case, really is stranger than fiction. An heir to the fortune born in the wilds of Canada, secrecy and the destruction of documents and letters, madness, illness and asylums.

The family comes into contact with the rich and powerful Kennedy family. The Kennedys were devout catholics with an Irish background and the marriage of Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy to stoutly protestant Billy, Marquess of Hartington, son of the Duchess of Devonshire, rocked society. Good and evil, earthly delights and sins, the Catholic Church versus the protestant aristocracy. After his death in the second World War, Kick Kennedy became the mistress of Peter Fitzwilliam. This would make unlikely reading in a work of fiction and leads to unbelievable tradgedy.

The then Duchess of Devonshire chose the wording on Kick Kennedy's grave.

You might like to take a peak at the shocking goings on in the Devonshire family by reading Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman.

Finally, the right to the title and ownership of the Fitzwilliam family fortunes is fought out by two brothers through the courts of England. All life is here!

The Story of the Kennedy Family's Hidden Daughter - Brought to life in a Radio Play

This Radio 4 play about Rosemary Kennedy, Kick Kennedy's sister is moving and powerful. Told partly through the words of Rosemary, this play brings Kathleen, Billy and other members of the family to life and explores Kick's marriage and death as well as the life and death of Rosemary Kennedy.

Step Back a Century or Two and See How The Fitzwilliam Family Lived Then - Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire By Amanda Foreman

Discover the story lives of the ancestors of the Fitzwilliams and the English aristocracy long before the time that Catherine Bailey covers. Georgiana was a woman who moved in the same circles as the Fitzwilliam family of Black Diamonds in the eighteenth century and it's fascinating to compare her life with the lives of the Fitzwilliams over a century later.

This book is, for the most part, a good read and you'll be absolutely amazed at what these fabulously rich people got up to. There is love and hate and heartbreak by the bucket - I highly recommend it.

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

Amanda Foreman won the Whitbread Prize for Biography with this book.

Paperback with 454 pages

Published by Random House; Book Club edition (1998)

This book was given 4.7 Stars in customer ratings.


The End of the Family Stately Home and the End of Coal Mining in Britain?

Mrs Thatcher comes to power

In 1988 Lady Elizabeth Anne Hastings put Wentworth House on the market, and, by a coincidence that would be ridiculed and derided in a work of fiction, it was in 1988 that many of the South Yorkshire coal pits were finally closed down by the newly elected Tory government of Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

The dynasty was not destroyed by love alone. It was destroyed by a number of powerful shifts in politics and global coal production much too complex to distill into a line or two here. Read Bailey's account for yourself, but the miners strike of 1884 was a last ditch attempt to save coal mining in Thatcher's Britain.

The miner's strike London UK

I can remember the miners' strikes of the 1980s. I was working in London at the time and remember the miners standing at the entrances of the London Underground stations holding buckets and collecting money to support the striking miners. London commuters gave. The country supported the miners. Almost every Londoner, in Ealing and Chiswick at least, threw pound coins into the buckets day in and day out for months.

It was all to no avail. The miners were finally crushed, a few men went back to coal mining but most would never work again as pits were closed down wholesale. The Sheffield steel industry was similarly destroyed and marked the turning of Britain from a nation of producers to a nation of service providers. Ironically, it was the financial service providers that created the current 'credit crunch' and ushered in the greatest depression since the Great Crash and depression of the 1930s. Not surprisingly, the problem is being placed at the door of the unemployed. See any patterns emerging?

There are one or two other interesting links here. The Devonshire family, into which Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy married, owned the small but beautiful Chiswick House - I used to sketch and paint in the grounds when I lived in Chiswick. The other interesting link is the poster that was widely disseminated around this time of Margaret Thatcher in the arms of Ronald Reagan in brilliant parody of the poster for 'Gone With the Wind'.

See Meryl Streep as Mrs Thatcher in the Film - The Iron Lady - The resemblance is unsettling

Protests at 'Iron Lady' Thatcher Film in Wentworth House Country, Barnsley 2012 - Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher

On Friday 6th January 2012 trade unionists held protests outside a Chesterfield cinema showing the new film 'The Iron Lady', about the life of Margaret Thatcher. Meryl Streep has a haunting resemblance to the ex-Prime Minister, and it's clear that the bad feeling generated in the south Yorkshire coal fields by the miners strikes are alive and kicking. Banners read 'The Real Iron Ladies' Women's Action Group Miners' Strike 1984/85'.

A group of veterans of the Women's Action Groups from miners' strike and their supporters will make their protest against 'Hollywood rewriting of history'.

The Iron Lady
The Iron Lady

Catch up on the history of this period and enjoy a d**n good film, (As Rhett Butler would have said).


And The Womens Action Group Miners' Strike 1984/85 - Who is telling the truth?

The best line ever:

"I've found my Rhett Butler at Last"

The best line in Black Diamonds?

How could I choose just one line from a book as rich and diverse as this? In the end I chose this one, spoken by Kick Kennedy about Peter Fitzwilliam towards the end of the book, because Gone With The Wind had been at the back of my mind as I read Black Diamonds. Of course, both stories follow the same plot, the decline of the landed aristocracy as war tears down the old order and the values of the Brave New World take over, changing a whole way of life on each side of the atlantic.

The similarity was not lost on the political activists of the '80s. One of the most potent images of the time was a spoof on the Gone With The Wind anti-nuclear war poster showing Mrs Thatcher in the arms of the American President, Ronald Regan in front of a nuclear mushroom cloud.

The Novel by Margaret Mitchell - The stories are hauntingly similar

Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-winning novel of 1936 tells the story of a house, not unlike Wentworth House, on a large cotton plantation called Tara in rural Georgia, 1861. It takes place on the eve of the American Civil War is a romantic account of the American Civil War and aftermath seen through the eyes of the Southerners.

Gone With The Wind
Gone With The Wind

If you haven't read this book then you're missing a block-busting treat. Now that book really did have a key line, spoken by Rhett Butler and which ran something like this, "Quite frankly, my Dear, I don't give a damn."


The Film of the Book - Just so Romantic

Until they bring out the film of Black Diamonds, quench your thirst for unadulterated romance with these films: 'Gone with the Wind', 'Germinal' and 'Georgiana', Duchess of Devonshire.

King Coal - Roy Hattersley Reviews Black Diamonds

Roy Hattersley sifts through the romance to find the reality of a miner's life between the wars in Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds. Here you will find a much more balanced and cerebral, not to say more eloquent review of the book, (but no pictures!).

Hattersley own life is interesting in the context of Black Diamonds. He was a socialist and Labour supporter from his youth, starting his political career in 1945 at the age of 12. He worked through the ranks to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992.

His mother, Enid Hattersley, kept the fact that Hattersley's father, who died an atheist, had been a Roman Catholic priest, and had renounced the Church to marry her.

Image: Roy Hattersley, Courtesy of Phil Guest and Creative CommonsThis file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Rate it, if you dare...

On a scale of 1-7, what did you REALLY think?

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© 2011 Barbara Walton

Any thoughts on coal or coalmining? - I'd love to hear from you

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    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      5 years ago from France

      @anonymous: Thank you so much for leaving this kind comment Tipi. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      You book review of Black Diamonds is pretty engaging in itself. Thank you so much for all the excitement and enthusiasm you put into this. I must read it! ~ Blessed!

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @julieannbrady: Thanks, Julie, it certainly is wide-ranging and a complete eye-opener.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @anonymous: Many thanks for your comment, but I can't take any credit for the layout - it's automatically generated by Squidoo in Squidlit.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @BobZau: Many thanks, winlin, for leaving a comment. It is a great read, on the whole, although there is a section in the middle that will only appeal to historians!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      You have presented an excellent view of 'Black Diamonds' that make it a compelling and must-read.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Love the content of this lens, especially the black and white design.

    • BobZau profile image

      Bob Zau 

      6 years ago

      Quite interesting , very in depth lens.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @gottaloveit2: I'm sorry you found an article about the history of coal! I was so taken up with the idea of 'black diamonds' that I just had to add a bit about the jewelry as well. Send a picture of the neclace, or better still, write an article about it and send me a link by e-mail! Thanks for message.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image


      6 years ago

      Funny! I just received a black and white diamond necklace and was so excited to see "black diamonds" as the title of this lens! Great book review nonetheless.


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