Extract from : Black Diamonds
In the crush of mourners, one man walked alone behind the glass hearse.
William Charles de Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam – ‘Billy Fitzbilly’, as the miners called him, or Lord Milton, as his courtesy title styled him – was William, Earl Fitzwilliam’s grandson and heir. In addition to the main family seat and estate at Wentworth, his £2.8 million inheritance included a 100-rooom mansion and 90,000 acres at Coollattin in Ireland; a fifty-room house in the heart of London’s Mayfair; eighty racehorses; a further 5,000 acres of land dotted around Yorkshire; a priceless collection of paintings and books and a massive portfolio of shares. The income from his coal holdings alone would bring in more £87,700 a year.
‘Milton looked very tall and good-looking,’ Lord Halifax, a neighbour of the Fitzwilliams who went to the Earl’s funeral, told his sister enviously. Aged thirty in 1902, wearing the dress uniform of an officer in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, Billy cut a dashing figure. He was classically good-looking, according to the benchmarks of the Edwardian era. Even-featured, with warm, smiling eyes, he had thick dark brown hair and a sprucely clipped moustache. His face still bore the colour of the African sun: he had recently returned from the Transvaal where he had won a DSO fighting in the Boer War.
A brilliant huntsman and polo player, Billy, the heir to one of the richest aristocrats of the twentieth century, was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. From 1895 – when he was twenty-three- until he became the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, he sat as MP for Wakefield. Prior to that, in his late teens, he had served as ADC to the Viceroy of India. These are matter of record: the scant details that can be firmly established about him at this stage of his life. Little else is known. ‘He had a perfect horror of publicity of any sort or kind,’ his sister, Lady Mabel Smith, recalled. ‘It ran all through his life from when he was quite a boy. It was one of his chief characteristics.’
In a vaulted cellar beneath a large house in Southern England there are sixteen trunks containing Billy’s personal effects: the things he regarded as precious. There is a pair of black and tan hunting boots that still bear the worn creases of the chase; a set of tiger’s teeth; a miner’s lamp and helmet and a battered leather cigar case: inside it, the disintegrated flakes of a Monte Cristo that he never smoked. There are boxes of wax seals and rolls of parchment bearing grants of title. The things Billy was proud of are also there: the DSO awarded during the Boer War; the plumed hat and ceremonial robes he wore for his inauguration as Mayor of Sheffield in 1909, and a handwritten letter form King George V, dated July 1912. At the bottom of one trunk there are hundreds of silver buttons stamped with the Fitzwilliam crest – a winged griffin and two coronets. Some are as small as a 5-pence piece, others the size of an old half crown: the spare buttons for Billy’s shooting and hunting jackets, they were also the tokens of livery, worn by his servants on the breasts and sleeves of their tailcoats.
Things, not words, are all that remain. The trunks contain few papers. There are no letters written by Billy, or copies of letters that he received, although, tantalizingly, the paraphernalia of writing has been kept. One trunk, stamped with a coronet and Billy’s initials, contains monogrammed letter folders and notepaper holders, and the large blotting pad that once lay on his desk. Framed in dark green leather, it is stained with use. The imprint of hundreds of back-to-front words, hieroglyphs impossible to decipher are scattered across it.
The true identity of Billy Fitzwilliam is the first of the Wentworth mysteries. If his spiteful, meddlesome aunts are to be believed, we cannot be absolutely sure who he really was.
On the eve of his grandfather’s funeral, the scandal and controversy that were to dog his succession had ignited behind the walls of Wentworth House.