Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years That Changed England

Written by Catherine Bailey
Review by Juliet Waldron

Beginning during the 19th century and ending in the 21st, Black Diamonds is the story of the end of an era and of the back-to-the-Conqueror Fitzwilliam dynasty. “Black Diamonds” are coal, and it is upon land and mineral wealth that their immense family fortune rested. In every generation the “upstairs” story is well-larded with secrets, personal vendettas, madness and scandals. The glittery gossip parallels a story of class, the exploitation of thousands of North Country yeomen who worked and died in the mines. This social history, a description of the miners’ lives, was, for me, the most engaging section. When the story enters the ‘30s, the details of a tragic affair between a married Fitzwilliam and a Kennedy sister (Kathleen) took far too long in the telling, although the religious intolerance which kept the lovers apart provided a sour insight into that other “royal” family. As social history in the narrative gave way to soap opera, my enthusiasm waned, although respect for the author’s eminently readable prose and heroic detective work (Fitzwilliam servants were instructed to burn literally tons of family papers during the ‘70s) remained continuously high.