If you thought Alan Bennett’s “People” was a bit far-fetched you haven’t been to Brodsworth. His dowager sitting by an unplugged electric fire and catching rainwater from the leaking roof in buckets was only the beginning. The descendant of a family that had been able to see the coal mine on its land but ended without any kind of heating in one room of her dozens was less Alan Bennet than Samuel Beckett. Her late husband had installed a lift but it worked so infrequently she had a desk and chair placed in it so she could read while waiting for the last family retainer to crank it up or down by hand.
English Heritage was given the property and initially decided to keep it as found but after a few years had to admit the need of some restoration. Visiting the house today one is met by an English Heritage officer who explains why much of it is behind screens or looks as though waiting for the removal men. That is part of the fascination: the state of it is, on a far grander scale of course, the state of all our houses. It also represents the state of the nation: part shored up, part boarded up and the rest operating in low gear. Only the gardens represent South Yorkshire at its most impressive.
The restoration is aimed to do no more than keep the house much as it was in its final years as a private residence. A few family possessions have been returned or even repurchased. These include a solid brass bedstead and a grand piano. Generosity verging on the profligate meant that anyone expressing admiration for something or a specific need was often given it. Hence the bedstead sent to a four-bedroomed house in the neighbourhood and a grand piano somehow being squeezed into a domestic setting, or pieces of Crown Derby slowly being returned from various recipients to complete what had been a magnificent set. In other cases there are non-functioning appliances: four heaters one behind another and none plugged in.
Lack of use within the building gave free reign to all the pests and forms of decay. The furniture, carpets and wallpaper are being painstaking restored, piece by piece. In a sense any visit has to be depressing, yet it is also heart-warming to see how much skill and dedication is restoring things to life. It will never be a simple museum but always a living and, like each of us, decaying entity.
I have to say there are houses almost on this scale still being lived in and decaying at perhaps a slower rate. Whether they will become English Heritage properties only time will tell. The most living parts of Brodsworth are the former kitchens, now back in use to provide refreshments for the many visitors. Where today’s refreshment staff differ from their predecessors is that they go home after work rather than into the uncomfortable attic quarters of the live-in staff of a few generations ago. There are also events, such as the swing band concert on the afternoon of our visit.
The most heartening feature of a visit is the dedication of the volunteer guides: not only are they a fount of information on the house, estate and family, but also devoted to all that Brodsworth represents. It would not be difficult to spend hours talking to any one of them, and it would be time well spent.
We had no time for gardens or grounds on our visit but will try to find time for them on another occasion. It will be a visit to repeat.