Image: Dan Raven
Image: Dan Raven
After a quick trip down the twisting stairway, Whitaker Wright is almost ready to show his guests the masterpiece of his country estate in Surrey, England. And, once they have braved a 400-foot-long tunnel, they see it: a domed glass structure completely submersed in water. Inside, Wright’s nearest and dearest can smoke on plush sofas 40 feet underground, protected from the lake by just three inches of glass. Meanwhile, fish circulate on the other side of the pane, minding the secrets of the spectacular subaquatic ballroom within. The whole magnificent spectacle acts as a private underwater playground for one of Victorian England’s most notorious scoundrels.
Image: Mars Lander
And the story of the rise and fall of Wright’s life is just as enthralling as his unusual creation, beginning as it does with his interests in silver and ending with a mouthful of cyanide. As a 21-year-old in 1866 the Englishman departed his homeland for the U.S. with little to his name; just a decade later, though, he was a self-made millionaire.
The charismatic fraudster cashed in on the contemporary mining boom, making his initial fortune promoting ventures in the silver mines of Leadville, Colorado and Lake Valley, New Mexico. It was to be the start of a rollercoaster career, albeit one often wrought out of shady dealings; for while Wright reaped magnificent profits during this time, his shareholders were left out of pocket.
However, Wright himself was left without a dime in 1889 following the failure of his Gunnison Iron and Coal Company. Undefeated, the enterprising Englishman returned to his homeland that same year, broke but just as brazen.
Seemingly undeterred by his previous bad luck, Wright’s attention then turned from silver to gold. And, incredibly, his fortunes turned around again: in fact, as the end of the 19th century approached, Wright had persuaded many investors to pour incredible amounts of money into his companies exploring gold mining opportunities in Western Australia and British Columbia.
Image: Dan Raven
Wright’s gold companies themselves were actually lucrative in these early days, even if they were exceedingly ill-managed behind the scenes. Nevertheless, the businesses’ apparent success meant that Wright – if not his investors – was once more a millionaire.
His fortune restored, Wright set about building a grand country home to show off his wealth. To do this, he had purchased Lea Park, an estate near Godalming, in 1890 – simultaneously taking ownership of two areas called Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punchbowl to boot.
In the colossal redevelopment scheme that followed, 600 workers carved a trio of lakes into the ground and even raked hills out of the way. Wright’s ruthless landscaping plan for the sprawling 9,000-acre complex, which was given the new name of Witley Park, eventually attracted the attention of the local press and the concern of the locals.
And the estate’s inventory was, even by today’s standards, a grandiose display of wealth and excess. As well as a hospital and a theatre, Witley Park boasted an observatory, a velodrome and stables fit for 50 steeds.
Meanwhile, a huge 32-room Tudor-style mansion provided deluxe accommodation, decked out with fine art and the occasional sculpture flown in from Italy. But the estate’s star attraction indulged the biggest Whittaker whim of all: a subterranean saloon shrouded in water.
And guests to Witley Park traveled beneath land and lake to enter the venue’s extraordinary ballroom. To reach it, they had to make their way through a stone doorway at the mouth of a lake, down a steep corkscrew staircase and along the spherical, raindrop-shaped tunnel, lamps here illuminating the path to the opulent, underground room.
When inside, they were greeted with an exclusive underwater world decorated with palm trees and plush furnishings. The sun, when it appeared, would pierce the water’s surface and flood the chamber with light.
Certainly, Wright’s subaquatic secret would surely have revealed itself as quite the party piece to impress even the most discerning guest. By the end of 1900, however, the party was over for the fraudster.
That year, and through his company the London and Globe Finance Corporation, Wright decided to heavily finance the construction of what is now the Bakerloo line of the London Underground. It was part of a line of disastrous investments and speculations that, combined with the unfavorable economic climate at the time, led to the swindler’s final undoing. Wright’s company tanked, and Wright effectively went down with it, along with several members of the stock exchange.
And soon after, Wright was – rightly – suspected of mishandling shareholders’ investments. In fact, he may have embezzled as much as $627 million in today’s money, some of which was used to finance Witley Park.
Perhaps fittingly, Wright’s fall from glory was to be just as spectacular as his rise. After a warrant was granted for his arrest, he absconded: seeking refuge first in his estate’s icehouse, then in Paris, France, before finally setting sail for New York. From there he lost an extradition battle, and was eventually brought back to London in the summer of 1903.
On January 26, 1904 Wright was found guilty of fraud and, following the verdict, he stepped into a private room at the Royal Courts of Justice to await his shackles. Not a single day of his seven-year sentence was served, however.
While still at the court, the great swindler gave away his watch, lit up a cigar one last time and – excessive until the end – swallowed enough cyanide to end the life of more than one man. He was dead within minutes. A silver pistol, later retrieved from his pocket, was presumably Plan B.
After Wright’s death, then, Witley Park was parceled up and sold at auction – Titanic shipbuilder Lord William Pirrie claimed the estate’s magnificent mansion. Unfortunately, in 1952 a fire wreaked havoc on the home, and today little remains of the original Wright design.
Wright’s body is buried at All Saints Church in Witley. Meanwhile, the ballroom – now privately owned – sits in its own damp grave at the bottom of the lake, a yellow-green light streaking through algae-tinted windows into a deserted Victorian chamber. And while it’s been over a century since it first received its underwater guests, Wright’s secret treasure remains extraordinarily intriguing: an abandoned monument to a sunken glory.