The Gentleman of the Lake

| February 13, 2011 | 12 Comments

It’s a rags to riches tale twice and then there’s a twist.

Yes, Whitaker Wright made and lost fortunes.

And developed a truly extraordinary landscape along the way.

Born in Prestbury, Cheshire in 1845, he was left penniless by his father.

 Undaunted Whitaker Wright uppped and off to the States.

He made his money there in the mining boom of the 1870’s and 80’s and then lost the lot aged 31.

He returned to UK  in 1889with an American wife and engaged in promotion of Australian and Canadian mining companies. Once again the good times rolled.

The 1890’s were his Midas years.

By 1897 he was one of six millionaires described by the Financial Times as ‘The Men of Millions’. He had a house in London on Park Lane, a racing yacht called the Sybarita.

And he made this:

The ordinary georgian mansion of ‘Lea Park’ near Godalming, Surrey he transformed into ‘Witley Park’ at the cost of some £60 million in today’s terms.

Apart from anything you might expect like 32 bedrooms, two dining rooms and a ballroom, it had a palm court, a theatre, a velodrome and its own private hospital. The decor was extravagant!

Outside, Whitaker Wright, using 600 labourers, created lakes, demolished hills and rebuilt them elsewhere as he chose. Aggressive land purchases created an estate in excess of 1,400 acres, which he surrounded with a wall.

But the harsh realities of the world could not be shut out. As the economic climate grew harsher, his speculations grew wilder  and in 1900 his ‘London and Globe’ financial empire collapsed. Many were bankrupted, but not Wright, who had cashed in his holdings to pay for his stately pile. The public smelt a rat and in 1904 he was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude for fraud.

But Whitaker Wright evaded them.

He managed to swallow a cyanide capsule right under their noses in the Law Courts!  He had taken enough to kill several men twice over. His pocket contained a loaded gun. So, no half measures then!

The estate was broken up. Later owners of Witley Park Mansion included Viscount Pirrie who had designed the Titanic and was Chairman of Harland and Wolff, the ship builders. Ultimately it fell prey to asset strippers and once there was little of value in the house, it suspiciously caught fire.

So there was about Witley Park a whiff of the dramatic and the doomed.

Last heard of, the stables, big enough for Wright to have housed 50 horses, were a conference centre. Sad.

There are still some grade 11 listed garden buildings.

But it is out in the lake that Whitaker Wright’s genius for ‘far out’ excess must be most tangible.

I say ‘must be’ because I haven’t seen it. Its not open to the public.

But you can see it!

Google satellite shows the T shaped albeit green lake with its eye-like densely treed island. A pale line slanting upward from right to left and with an ‘o’ at its centre takes you from where the mansion would have been to the lakeside and is directly aligned with a pale mark in the water off shore: 


 The pale mark is an oblong stone island 50 metres off shore. In the image below you will see a small pale mark the shore side of the stone island.

That is a statue in the lake:



And if I haven’t lost you yet, click on:…

Wacky and genius!

Beneath the statue is a glass vaulted room set within the waters of the lake.  So the statue is lit by a room below. I’ve read it described as ballroom or billiard room. 

It matters not.

You reach it by a complex of tunnels and even an underground boat journey.

Once in the room, Wright and guests could watch the fish or the swimmers or dance or play billards or whatever.

Intrepid individuals make it their business to explore such sites.

Here are the links to some more of their extraordinary images and more about Witley Park and Wright himself: 

Witley Park, Surrey – a set on Flickr

Witley ParkUrban Exploration : Talk Urbex 

Unusual ballroom underwater in Goldalming, Surrey | Life…/sets/72157619012523939/

If the link fail, just google Witley Park on flickr and click on images.




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  1. James Todman says:

    Absolutely fascinating- thanks for telling us about that Robert.

    Amazing photographs inside the dome underneath the lake. And this was built in the 19th century- a truly stunning piece of architectural engineering.

    Hope it can be restored or looked after as has real historical significance.

  2. Robert says:

    Thanks for your comment, James.
    Yes its such a shame that that is not seen publicly!
    3 cheers for these kind of ‘guerilla garden visitors’ who do at least allow us to feel what it might all be like!

  3. Alice Joyce says:

    I have enjoyed!
    Witley Park – not on my radar. Thank you for opening my eyes… and perhaps I should say thank you to Google for the satellite view.
    I trust you’ll keep me informed of future developments;)

  4. Thanks for the engaging story and photos!

  5. Robert says:

    Dear Alice,
    Thanks for reading.
    Glad you enjoyed!
    Of course if I hear anything I will post.
    Best Wishes

  6. Robert says:

    Dear Susan,
    Thanks for your comments which are always appreciated.
    Its quite a tale, that seemed worth recording and you want more people to see the traces that are left somehow!
    Best Wishes

  7. Derek Wright says:

    I have visited the house about 8 or 9 years ago, including the underground room. I knocked on the door of the owners as WW was my great-great uncle!

  8. Robert says:

    Dear Derek Wright,
    I hope I got nothing wrong with the story.
    It seemed to me to be such an extraordinary tale as to be well worth the telling.
    It must have been absolutely fascinating for you to go there and for them to have a relative of its former owner there.
    Glad you got to go underground too!
    Thanks for responding!
    Best Wishes

  9. Derek Wright says:

    I’m not too bothered about inaccuracies to the story – suffice it to say that it is a fascinating one. I met with the BBC about 5 years ago as they were considering a programme comparing fraudsters of the 1990s with fraudsters of the 1890s, but the project came to nothing. I wish I was a direct descendant of WW as I wouldn’t have to work for a living!


  10. Robert says:

    What a pity the project never came off!
    Yes, having to work can be tiresome.
    Thanks for your comments.
    Best Wishes

  11. Oliver Grocholewski says:

    Hi, I have been doing some research on Witley park as I often drive past on my way to Godalming college which triggered me to have a look online and see what is behind that never-ending brick wall! I cannot believe what I have found and would absolutely love to visit. I don’t suppose anybody would be able to help in suggesting a way of contacting the owners? Many thanks, Oliver.

  12. Robert says:

    Can anyone help? Sadly I can’t!