Previously Sometimes Interesting featured the story of a twenty-first century swindler and the spoils of his deception. In this post we examine a nineteenth-century offender who similarly executed outlandish ideas for his homestead.
Our subject is Whitaker Wright, an enterprising salesman who made, then lost, then made again millions defrauding mining investors in two continents. His thirst for bravado drove lavish spending on his estate, Witley Park, in the South of England.
Witley Park was eventually lost to a fire in 1952. Fortunately, the estate’s most fascinating piece – the conservatory under a lake – survived.
Whitaker might have lacked a moral compass, but he was a consummate salesman. In 1896 he raised £250,000 ($373k) – or about £24.8M ($36.98M) in 2015 – to purchase shares of a company established to dig mines in Western Australia. Investors were lured by Wright’s sly use of the word “consol” in the name of the opportunity, thus creating the impression of a reliable investment.
[Consol:British government security without a maturity date. The name is a shortened version of “consolidated annuities.” This form of stock originated in 1751 and was generally considered to be one of the safer investments at the time. ]
Whitaker Wright’s deception would not go unpunished. But before he would face judgement, he created Witley Park.
In 1890 Whitaker Wright purchased the Le Ley Estate and Lea Park manor home in Surrey, England. His purchase price of £250,000 (or £24M in 2015) bought him a Georgian manor home with origins dating to the Norman Conquest.
Wright also purchased the adjacent South Park Farm, at the time owned by the Earl of Derby.
[ For a more complete history of the home’s ownership before Whitaker Wright, an article on this sitehas compiled a good history. ]
The properties were combined into a single 9,000-acre estate(36 km2; 14 sq mi) before another £400,000 was spent expanding the homes into a 32-room, 11-bath mansion.
The Neo-Tudor home included two dining rooms, a drawing-room, a library, a palm court, and its own private hospital. It also contained an observatory, stabling for up to 50 horses, a theater, and a velodrome. Italian art and statues adorned the interior halls, and furnishings were finished in gold.
From villager’s reactions to Wright, we can determine that terrain alteration is not the preferred method to ingratiate oneself to the neighborhood. During the 1890s an army of men re-graded the terrain and permanently altered the landscape, much to the chagrin of the community.
Added to the grounds were three lakes, known today as Thursley, Stable, and Upper. The largest, Thursley Lake, displaced fifty acres of farmland.
A thirty-foot cascading waterfall separates Thursley Lake from Upper Lake; the former also joins Stable Lake, where water passed through a giant dolphin’s head carved from a solid block of marble weighing eighty tons(note: the dolphin’s head was sold after Whitaker’s death).
[ Note: It is understandable to confuse Witley Park withWitley Court, but both are actually very different estates. ]
At times Wright’s creativity seemed to blur the lines between madness and brilliance. Beneath the estate, a series of underground tunnels leads to a magnificent domed room under Lake Thursley.
About 150 meters (500 ft) from the house, by the lakeside, a round metal grate hides view into a tunnel.
This is just an air vent; proper access is reached via a door protruding from the ground and covered by trees just south of the main lawn (pictured above). There, an unwelcoming locked door guards what looks like a bunker built-in to the earth.
On the other end of the passage is a room originally designed as a conservatory under a lake. The dome reaches nine meters (30 ft.) in height and is walled by more than 100 individual panes of three-inch thick glass.
Whitaker Wright used a dondrous mosaic floor, settees, palms, and tables. He later added billiard and card tables, and had used the architectural marvel as a lounge and smoking room.
These illustrations taken from a 1920’s British periodical demonstrate the dome’s appearance when the lake is drained and the inside of the underwater room during its heyday:
On other side of room is short tunnel to another spiral staircase, this one leading up to a stone platform at lake-level (pictured at left) offering views of the estate, lake, island, and statue.
Over time the un-maintained dome has acquired algae and other growth. When the sun allows, the windows cast a green curtain of light in the room, which flickers with the movement of the water.
On the top of the dome sat a statue of Neptune, which protrudes from the lake’s surface and appears to “float” on the water. At night the well-lit room created a brilliant display in the water underneath Neptune.
Today the dome stands as a testament to the architects and engineers who designed it. Over the years the glass has been covered by algae, moss, and other debris, yet the structure has remained intact for over 100 years.
The battle versus time has not been without casualties; oxidation has taken hold of the frame, decorating the structure with rust trails which seem to point to sources of the penetrations. Water has seeped in, only exacerbating the problem.
Wright’s outlandish designs were no small feat for the era. Reports varied on how many jobs were created by the construction: Either four hundred or six hundred men spent seven years to finish the lakes, tunnels, and underground room, depending on which source one refers.
Initially Whitaker’s London and Globe flourished with issues floated on the London stock exchange such as the Ivanhoe goldmine in Western Australia, which raised £1 million for the man with the silver tongue.
Wright was operating at the peak of his game. His reputation of flamboyance brought spectators who followed his every move. Observers didn’t know what he was going to do next, but they knew it would be spectacular.
But as is wont to happen with any arrangement not founded in honesty, it eventually came crashing to a close.
Things started to unravel in June of 1898 when Whitaker assumed the contract to construct the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway(today known as the Underground’sBakerloo line).
The line was costly to build and difficult to construct. Making matters worse the bond issue was a disaster; few subscribers appeared and the financing strained Wright’s resources.
By 1900 it had been discovered Wright had manipulated the share price and sliding assets and debts from one company to the next in a series of loans. These accounting shenanigans had worked for years, but they failed to hide a disastrous £600,000 loss in the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway.
Official bankruptcy for the Whitaker Wright estate was declared on January 13th, 1903.
Investors pushed for prosecution and asked why he wasn’t already in jail.
According to government law officers, it was hard to place such punishment without being able to reasonably demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that Wright had broken any laws. After all, he had not created the market exuberance which led to the run-up of stock prices nor did he create the resulting market crash. It was an odd deflection of the fact the underlying enterprises held little-to-no value; the debate had shifted from fraud to responsibility of market movement.
Fortunately for investors, the prosecution was led by one of England’s rising star barristers in Rufus Isaacs. Throughout January of 1904 ruthless Rufus broke down Wright’s books and exposed the fraud in the famed case of The King v Whitaker Wright.
On January 26th, Wright was convicted of fraud and given a seven-year prison sentence. Immediately after sentencing, the defendant left the courtroom with his council. In the anteroom, Wright turned to his associate and said “I will not need this where I am going.” He then retreated to the bathroom before returning and smoking a cigar. After a few puffs Whitaker staggered and fell. Within minutes, Wright was dead.
After Wright’s death the estate sat for almost two years before it was offered for sale in October of 1905. The asking price for the entire property – including lakes, mansion, and underwater conservatory – was £500,000. No buyers came forth, forcing the estate to parcel out the property in auction.
In an unusual twist, the local community banded together in 1906 to purchase parcels of the property and donate them to the National Trust. Whitaker Wright’s arrival in the neighborhood years earlier had initially sparked furor among locals, but Wright’s exotic spending created a regional employment boost for nearly a decade.
There is an irony in the economic dichotomy that was Wright the swindler in London, but Wright the provider in Witley Park. Despite the appearances, he was no Robin Hood.
Witley Park was purchased in 1909 by Irish businessman William Pirrie(pictured at right), the chairman of Harland and Wolff(shipbuilders of the RMS Titanic.Pirrie’s nephew, Thomas Andrews, designed the Titanic and perished on its maiden voyage).
Under Pirrie’s watch, farmsteads were cleared to create a deer park.
Pirrie’s manor overlooking Thursley Lake
Pirrie ballroom, circa 1920s. The purported location where the 1952 fire originated.
Pirrie breakfast room, circa 1920s
Pirrie drawing room, circa 1920s
Lady Pirrie’s room
Pirrie owned Witley until his death in 1924. Afterward newspaper baron and cotton industrialist Sir John Leigh called the estate home, until 1951 when he sold it to Ronald Huggett. Ronald’s legacy is that of liquidating the art and sculptures the previous owners spent over fifty years accumulating.
Destroyed by Fire
In 1952 the Witley Park mansion burned to the ground after a fire broke out in the ballroom, however the underwater conservatory and its tunnels were spared (and largely forgotten). Designs to rebuild on the old site were approved in 2004, and today the site is undergoing redevelopment.