Local historians and authors June and Vernon Bull uncover the history of some of Peterborough and the region’s iconic buildings
Milton Hall is the largest private house near Peterborough, and it’s said that Daphne DuMaurier was inspired to create the brooding mansion of Manderley, featured in her novel Rebecca, whilst remembering her visits as a child to the Hall. It’s certainly true that if the walls and grounds of Milton Hall could speak, they would tell a fine story of Britain’s aristocracy, socialites, politicians and war time secrets, all as thrilling as any novel…
Milton Estate originally consisted of 23,300 acres extending along the Nene Valley roughly between Peterborough and Irthlingborough. The founder was Sir William Fitzwilliam, a Merchant Taylor, a Merchant of the Staple of Calais and an Alderman of the City of London, who was knighted in about 1515. The oldest part of Milton Hall is the north front, probably built in the period c1590-1610 either for Sir William IV or V Fitzwilliam (both courtiers). It was not until the mid-18th century that the 3rd Earl was able to enlarge the Hall by commissioning the architect Henry Flitcroft to design the imposing south front in the Palladian style.
The Fitzwilliams also owned Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire – a 365-room house that is twice the size of Buckingham Palace. They had it built in the early 18th century and owned it up until 1989 when it was bought by Clifford Newbold and his sons Paul, Marcus and Giles. In addition to the Wentworth estate, which was financed largely by the Fitzwilliams’ ownership of coalfields – dubbed ‘black diamonds’ in Yorkshire – they also owned most of the land in the Irish counties of Wicklow and Tyrone, and more recently Bourne Park Estate near Canterbury.
The Fitzwilliams can trace their ancestry back to William the Conqueror and today’s Tory MP and prominent Catholic The Right Honorable Jacob Rees-Mogg (MP for North East Somerset) is married to Helena de Chair, daughter of Lady Tadgell (only child of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam).
As a family the Fitzwilliams were the subject of numerous scandals and it’s said that letters and other paperwork were placed on a huge bonfire at Wentworth and involved three weeks of continuous burning!
The 7th Earl was accused of being swapped with an unwanted Fitzwilliam girl at birth. William ‘Billy’ Fitzwilliam had to defend his rights to the estate in court. Furthermore, his son Peter, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, did nothing to respect his father’s struggle to keep the properties and land in the family. In fact, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam spent most of his time on the French Riviera womanising with his best friend Aly Khan, the son of the Aga Khan.
Peter married Olive ‘Obby’ Plunket (daughter of the Archbishop of Dublin) in 1933 but due to her dependence on alcohol the marriage soon started to flounder and Peter (a Protestant) found himself drawn to the glamorous and enchanting Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy – younger sister of the future 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy. Kathleen was at this time the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Kick’s parents Joe and Rose Kennedy, being staunch Catholics, found it hard to accept Peter. Joe Kennedy, once US Ambassador to the UK (1938-1940), whilst not overly keen on the marriage of his daughter to a Protestant, was far more understanding than his wife Rose.
Kick knew that if Peter were to divorce Obby then it would mean an irreparable break with her family. It seems she was prepared to elope with Peter but tragically she and Peter died in a plane crash during a violent storm in the Cevennes Mountains in France. The Dove plane piloted by Townhend and co-pilot Freeman was on its way from Cannes to Paris on 13 May 1948, with only Peter and Kick as passengers. They were scheduled to meet Kick’s father at the George V hotel in Paris to discuss marriage plans. Tragically, all the crew and passengers died.
Thus the only male person to inherit Milton Hall, Wentworth and other lands and estates was Peter’s cousin Eric Wentworth Fitzwilliam, becoming 9th Earl.
When the 9th Earl died in 1952 without children, the title came back again to the branch of the family at Milton. Four years later the 10th (and last) Earl, Tom Fitzwilliam married Lady FitzAlan-Howard, but they had no children either. Following the Earl’s death in 1979, Milton Estates descended through the Countess’s family from her first marriage, initially to her daughter Lady Elizabeth Anne Hastings and then to her grandson, Sir Phillip Naylor-Leyland.
Philip Vivyan Naylor-Leyland (b. 9 Aug 1953) succeeded his father as Baronet in 1987. He married Lady Isabella Lambton in 1980 and they have three sons and a daughter.
During the Second World War, the Czech army occupied part of the house and stable block and towards the end of 1942, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) trained in the grounds of Milton Hall as part of an important covert operation in 1943 codenamed ‘Jedburgh’. Less than a year before D-Day the ‘Jeds’ launched a stunningly effective guerilla campaign against the Germans in preparation for the Normandy invasion. In fact Peter, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, served with distinction in the Commandos and later for SOE, gaining a Distinguished Service Order.
June and Vernon Bull are authors of Peterborough Then & Now in colour, published price £14.99, published by the History Press. It is available in all local bookshops and online.