David Behrens: Our past is enshrined in communities and should be preserved

Clifford Newbold at Wentworth Woodhouse.
Clifford Newbold at Wentworth Woodhouse.

Often, it takes the benefit of a generation’s hindsight to understand just how misguided we have been. At other times, it ought to be obvious from the get-go.

Last week, a woman was killed when she crossed the road in the south-west US and was knocked down by a driverless Uber taxi.

This was a tragedy but it was one we all knew was coming. Just how much in thrall to the technology industry do you have to be to think that cars without drivers are a good idea? It’s easy to be seduced by science fiction, but only rarely does it pass the litmus test of applying a drop of common sense. This is not one of those times.

It has taken much longer to appreciate the scale of a folly perpetrated closer to home. We may not have fully learned its lessons still.

A public consultation is taking place this week on the repairs that will be necessary to restore the magnificent but decaying country mansion of Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham.

With 365 rooms and five miles of corridors, it was Britain’s biggest privately owned house. Its façade is twice the length of Buckingham Palace.

What caught my attention about it was not the cost of the work being undertaken by the trust that now owns it, but how it got into such a state in the first place.

Country piles were out of fashion after the Second World War. The heritage tourism market didn’t exist, unless you count the Victorian piers of the seaside resorts, and crippling death duties that could be as high as 90 per cent made demolition the only viable option for some of their owners. Dozens of stately homes were lost in Yorkshire alone.

The post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, swept into power by the understandable desire of a war-weary public to level the playing field marked out by the class system, was hostile, and never more so than in the person of its Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell. It was on his orders that lorries and bulldozers were sent into the grounds of Wentworth so that coal from the abundant Barnsley seam could be produced. “I’ll bring seven mines right up to your bloody front door,” Shinwell told the owner, Earl Fitzwilliam.

There were two principles at play here, and both have been turned entirely on their heads in the generations since. The first was that the past was unworthy of preservation; the second that Yorkshire’s coal industry took precedence over almost everything.

Only four decades separate Manny Shinwell from Margaret Thatcher – that’s all the time it took to wipe coal off the face of the industrial landscape. Environmental considerations alone do not explain its descent from pre-eminence to redundancy.

In Sheffield at the moment, they are putting together a book to mark the 25th anniversary of the women’s “pit camps” that were convened to fight the closure of 31 deep mines – these on top of the 125 that had already gone since the 1985 miners’ strike. The camps were little noticed in many quarters because Thatcherist Britain was a divided land of haves and have-nots.

It was like the class system all over again except that this time the beneficiaries were young and upwardly mobile, not old and titled.

I remember going to one former pit village at the time and being blindsided by the effort that had gone into rehabilitating the community deprived of its wealth. There had been none at all.

The place had simply been abandoned to its fate. There were rows of houses still but no shops, no amenities and now no pit. Hope, like jobs, had been left blowing in the wind.

Future generations will judge us on what we did to those communities, and their judgment will be the same as ours on our ancestors who sent five-year-old children down the pits.

I’m glad that Manny Shinwell did not succeed in bulldozing Wentworth Woodhouse – though the subsidence he set in motion is the likely cause of many of the repairs it now needs. The preservation of our past is important, but it’s a past enshrined in communities as much as in bricks and mortar – and the work of those in Sheffield to memorialise the campaign to save the pits is no less important than that of the conservationists in those 365 stately rooms just a few miles away.