A crowd of thousands shifted nervously on the great lawn in front of Wentworth House, waiting for the coffin to be brought out. It was the winter of 1902: "February," as one observer remarked, "in her worst mood." Two hundred servants, dressed in black, stood stiffly along the length of the facade facing the crush of mourners. Shrouds of fog enveloped the statues and pediments crowning the house; an acrid smell clung to the mist, catching in the nostrils, effluent from the pits, foundries and blast furnaces in the valley below. The fog drained everything of color. Now and then it lifted to reveal a portion of the house: on a clear day the crowd could have counted a thousand windows, but that morning most of it was obscured.
The hearse, a glass coach, swathed in sable and crepe, was ready outside the Pillared Hall. It was drawn by four black horses: plumes of black ostrich feathers adorned their bridles and black-tasselled cloths were draped across their backs. Mutes, the customary Victorian funeral attendants, stood by them; macabre figures, veils of black crepe trailed from their tall silk hats. Bells tolled in the distance. In the nearby villages the shops were closed and the curtains in the houses drawn fast.
At the stroke of midday, three hours after the crowd had first begun to gather, the coffin, mounted on a silver bier, was carried out of the house. It was followed by a procession of housemaids and footmen bearing hundreds of wreaths of flowers. A brilliant splash of color in the bleak scene, they drew a murmur from the crowd.
The oak coffin contained the body of William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, one of the richest men in Britain. He had left a legacy of £2.8 million -- more than £3 billion at today's values. In the century to come, only one Englishman, Sir John Ellerman, the shipping magnate, would leave a larger fortune. The dead Earl was among the very wealthiest of Britain's twentieth-century aristocrats.
His money had come from land and a spectacular stroke of luck. In the late eighteenth century, the Fitzwilliams' Yorkshire estates -- over 20,000 acres in total -- were found to straddle the Barnsley seam, the main artery of the South Yorkshire coalfield. Wentworth House, situated nine miles northeast of Sheffield, lay at its heart.
The Earl was born in 1815, the year of Waterloo. Over the course of his lifetime his wealth had increased a thousandfold. Rapid technological advances, spurred by the huge demand for coal, had made it possible to sink mines deeper and deeper along the lucrative Barnsley seam. The Earl's collieries, as one contemporary noted, were "within rifle shot of his ancestral seat": by the close of the century, mines and pit villages crowded the hills and valleys around the house.
In the early 1900s, Arthur Eaglestone, a miner from Rotherham, writing under the pseudonym of Roger Dataller, described a dawn journey through the Earl's country:
"The train bored its way through the grim litter of steel manufactories, the serried heaping of coal and ironstone stocks, the multiplicity of railway metals, the drifting steam of locomotives . . . As we gobble up one hamlet after another, cottages and farmhouses loom up mere outlines, islands in the mist; but as the light becomes clearer certain chimneys and headstocks appear upon the horizon, a reminder of the vast subterranean activity with which we are connected. As one headstock falls in the distance, another rises to meet us -- the inescapable, the endless chain of winding. We shall not escape the headstocks. We may vary the route as we please, but the gaunt pulley-wheels, and the by-product plant, a column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire by night, will still be in attendance."
The Earl's death at the age of 86 -- after he caught a sudden chill -- had stunned the district. His life had been spent overseeing his vast estates and enjoying his wealth. For a man of few other achievements, the local newspaper's coverage of his demise was extraordinary:
"A feeling of awe crept over the people of this neighbourhood when it was whispered vaguely from behind the veil that he had entered the Valley of the Shadow, and was sleeping by the side of the shore of that silent sea which lies between the world and 'that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.' But great and mighty is all-conquering Death, it is beyond even his sublime strength to convert the waters of the tideless sea. He was a noble lord, and moreover, a man who had the respect of all who knew him and the affection of those who knew him best. He now sleeps the sleep that knows no waking. Death the Conqueror has laid his icy hands upon him."
In 1902, tens of thousands of people across the South Yorkshire coalfield were wholly dependent on the Earl for a living. On the morning of his funeral, they were drawn to Wentworth House.
"The workmen on the various estates were in strong force," the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported. "A remarkable feature of the proceedings was the great muster of miners. Genuine sorrow cannot be bought with gold or wrung from the hearts of an unwilling community. It must spring from love or admiration. Wentworth is by no means easy of access and curiosity nor a perfunctory sense of duty could never have brought together thousands of mourners under such dispiriting conditions. Through the slush and the searching rain the mourners came to the funeral. Old men who had worked for the Earl for 50 years risked serious illness for love of their noble master and trudged sorrowfully from station or neighboring village to swell the mournful gathering."
The size and grandeur of Wentworth House were but faintly suggested through the haze of mist and fog. It was built for the Earl's ancestor Thomas Wentworth, later Marquess of Rockingham, in the 1720s. Designed by Henry Flitcroft, it had taken more than 15 years to complete and its facade was the longest in Europe. The house had a room for every day of the year and five miles of passageways. One guest, a Baron von Liebig, resorted to crumbling wafers along the route from his bedroom to the dining room so that he could find his way back after dinner. Thereafter, guests were presented with a crested silver casket containing different-coloured confetti.
The house lay in parkland encompassed by a nine-mile-long stone wall. Humphrey Repton, the famous 18-century landscape designer, had sculpted the Park; 12 follies -- towers, columns and a mausoleum built in the classical style -- marked its highest points. Millions of tons of coal lay under the land but so rich was the Earl, he had no need to mine it. Yet even he could not inure Wentworth from the grime that trespassed inside the boundaries of the Park. Coal dust carried from the nearby collieries settled in the sheaves of corn grown in the fields. The streams running through them were orange: "ocher water," as the locals called it, polluted by the mines that honeycombed the district.
Shortly after one o'clock, a bugler sounded the Last Post. It was the signal for the 5,000-strong cortège to begin the mile-long walk to the village church. As if on cue, the fog lifted as the mourners moved off. A thousand miners from the Earl's pits led the procession, flanked by an escort of 50 soldiers from the Yorkshire Dragoons.
The family's downfall was unthinkable. William, Earl Fitzwilliam, had left a great fortune. Four sons -- each named William after him -- survived him. The coal industry was booming: the family's wealth and power seemed as solid and unshakable as the foundations of their vast house.
Yet the Fitzwilliams and the thousands who worked for them were about to become the central figures in an approaching catastrophe.
What was unthinkable on that day in February 1902 happened.
From "Black Diamonds" by Catherine Bailey. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright © Catherine Bailey, 2014.