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The Conservatory Under a Lake

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.

cover photo courtesy cybergibbons


J. Whitaker Wright

Whitaker Wright

The story of the underwater conservatory at Witley Park begins with James Whitaker Wright (1846-1904). Wright was a former printer, Methodist minister, and a company promoter and swindler.

Wright’s family immigrated to Toronto, Canada after his father died in 1870. From there Whitaker found his way to Philadelphia, where he found a lucrative career promoting silver mines.

However in Wright deals, only the promoters appeared to be making money. Mines in Leadville, Colorado and Lake Valley, New Mexico failed to yield the promised dividends or returns to investors.

For Wright the short-term success yielded short-term pleasure. With the great gains came great losses; he was left penniless after his interest in Gunnison Iron & Coal collapsed in 1889.

Whitaker was undeterred, as performance of his American investments were simply a means to an end. His greatest desire was to make a name for himself in the vaunted English Victorian Society.

He returned to England in 1889 and continued the schemes of promoting mines, this time on the London market. To this end he formed the London and Globe Company in 1890, to float stock and bond issues for his mines in Australia and Canada. Also propped up by Wright were the British and American Corporation and the Standard Exploration Company.

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.


Witley Park

witley-park-mapIn 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 site has 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.

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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).

Thursley Lake is the centerpiece (map) of the estate and boasted an artificial island, a boathouse commissioned from Lutyens, a walking pier, and the famed underground conservatory room.

[ Note: It is understandable to confuse Witley Park with Witley Court, but both are actually very different estates. ]


Underground Room

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.

courtesy cybergibbons

About 150 meters (500 ft) from the house, by the lakeside, a round metal grate hides view into a tunnel.

courtesy cybergibbons
courtesy cybergibbons

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.

Behind the door a spiral staircase leads guests down to a 400-foot arched tunnel lit by rows of electric lamps. Today the lamps are no longer, leaving the tunnels dark. In photos flashes and long-exposure photography help create the appearance otherwise.

courtesy rookinella4
courtesy rookinella4

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:

courtesy Hugh Thurrall-Clarke

Maintenance was of course necessary. Wright regularly hired divers to clean algae from the dome’s windows so he and his guests could sit and watch the goldo fish come and press their noses against the glass.

A lounge with an aquarium for a ceiling which cost £20,000 to build (or £1.9M today): Madness, or brilliance? The press embraced the latter.

courtesy large pig
courtesy large pig

“Everything was swagger. The whole thing was a gorgeous vulgarity – a magnificent burlesque of business.”

– Blackwood Magazine

courtesy cybergibbons
courtesy cybergibbons

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.

courtesy large pig
walking pier courtesy large pig

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.

Reports estimated Wright spent over £1,250,000 (£120M in 2015) on the transformation.

photo set courtesy large pig


Beginning of the End

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.

courtesy rookinella4
courtesy rookinella4

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.

“For a time, everything he touched turned – or seemed to turn – to gold. The name of Whitaker Wright became a synonym for success and magnificence.”

– The Daily Telegraph

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’s Bakerloo 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.

courtesy cybergibbons
courtesy cybergibbons

It was discovered assets he valued at £7 million were found to be worth just £1.5 million. Perhaps less surprising, the mining prospects in Australia had simultaneously been exhausted.

On December 28th, 1900, Whitaker’s empire collapsed. London and Globe became insolvent, which started a bankruptcy domino-effect across several members of the London stock exchange.

Wright initially sought refuge in his manor’s icehouse before fleeing to Paris, then New York. Amusingly his chosen means for escape was to flee in one of “the best suites on the French Transatlantic vessel La Lorraine.” Who would think to look for him in such a place? Perhaps this part was madness.


Arraignment & Suicide

courtesy sophos9/talkurbex
courtesy sophos9/talkurbex

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.

Whitaker Wright
Whitaker Wright

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.

photos courtesy cybergibbons

Authorities later discovered Wright had ingested a cyanide pill during his restroom break. Wright had smuggled a revolver as well, perhaps a backup plan to the cyanide. Definite madness.

At the time the conducting of suicide funerals inside of churches was frowned upon. Wright’s funeral was thus held outside in a freezing churchyard in Witley. Whitaker Wright’s black granite tomb can still be seen, alongside that of his wife, in the Witley churchyard.


Fate of Witley Park

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.

witley park lake thursley
courtesy sophos9/talkurbex

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.

william-pirrieWitley 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 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

courtesy cybergibbons
walking pier courtesy cybergibbons

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.

In the years since another estate has been built on the property and the stables were recently used as a conference center. The site’s ownership history after 1952 is unclear, but as recently as 2011 entrepreneur Gary Steele was reported as the owner.

Today the conservatory under a lake is still there, however it is private property and not accessible to the public. Urban explorers should be warned: Tunnel access has been padlocked and alarmed.

courtesy sophos9/talkurbex
courtesy sophos9/talkurbex