Witley Park’s Underwater Ballroom

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Between Godalming and Haslemere, in Surrey, near the English village of Witley, once stood one of the most lavish private residences in the world —the Witley Park. Originally called Lea Park, it belonged to a man named Whitaker Wright who made his fortune by defrauding shareholders of hundreds of million pounds —not once, but twice in two different continents. At the peak of his financial crimes, Wright bought the vast 1,400-acre Victorian estate from the 15th Earl of Derby and built an extravagant 32-bedroom mansion, among other things like a racecourse, a theater and a private hospital.

The grounds also includes three interconnected artificial lakes. One of these lakes hides a secret —a secret that nobody is allowed to see today, but until a few years ago, one could go down a set of spiraling concrete steps, walk down a 400-feet long corridor and emerge inside a 30-foot tall glass-paneled domed room built directly beneath the lake’s surface. This is the famed underwater aquarium and smoking room, also called the ‘ballroom’ because of its shape, that Whitaker Wright built to entertain his guests.

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The ‘ballroom’ under the lake at Witley Park. Photo credit: Dan Raven/Flickr

James Whitaker Wright was born in Stafford, in 1846. After the death of his father in 1870, he moved to the United States and made his money there by promoting a number of mining companies. Despite the profits his companies made, Wright never paid back a penny to his investors. The good times were short lived though. Wright made some bad decisions and lost all of his fortunes.

Wright returned back to England, and once again began promoting mining companies on the London market, just like he did in the United States. And once again the greens started rolling in.

Wright bought the estate of Lea Park in 1890. He began aggressively acquiring the surrounding land until his estate in the Haslemere and Hindhead area approached 9,000 acres. Being the owner of such vast land earned him the title of Lordship of the Manor and control of Hindhead Common, as well as that of the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a beauty spot naturally carved into an enormous amphitheater.

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Lea Park estate. Photo credit: www.lostheritage.org.uk

Disregarding complaints from his neighbors about damaging the Surrey landscape, Wright built on his estate a sumptuous mansion complete with thirty two bedrooms, eleven bathrooms, landscaped gardens, a private theatre, an observatory, stables and a velodrome. Rumor has it that he had more than 500 men move immense amount of earth as he prepared three lakes, the largest of which —Lake Thursley— was 50 acres big. In the middle of this lake, and just below the water’s surface, was his proudest creation—the ballroom. Built out of iron and concrete, and fitted with three-inches thick glass, the aquarium-cum-smoking room allowed his guests to puff cigars and play billiards in the warm, greenish-yellow light that filtered down through the murky waters above. When they got tired of playing, they pressed their faces against the glass and admired at the passing fish.

At the top of the dome, stands a large statue of Neptune that poke out of the water. At night, when the room lit up it created a brilliant display in the water underneath Neptune.

The magnificent mansion burned down in 1952, but the lake and the ballroom remains intact, although lack of maintenance has caused rust to caught hold of the frame, and the glass panes are covered with algae and silt from the lake.

And what happened to the man who built this? Wright’s fraud were discovered and he was brought to trial, but before justice could be served, Wright committed a dramatic suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill.

After his death, Lea Park was purchased by Lord Pirrie, the designer and builder of the famous SS Titanic, and had its name changed to Witley Park. The remainder of the estate was divided into plots and sold off. The estate is currently owned by Sir Raymond and Lady Brown.

Witley Park Construction

Witley Park Underwater Room

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Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

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Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

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Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

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Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

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Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

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Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

All seeing eye

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Photo credit: www.unexposed.photography

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Photo credit: Msemmett/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: www.unexposed.photography

Sources: Daily Mail / Wikipedia / BBC / Sometimes Interesting

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3 comments:

  1. This is fabulous! Imagine to live in that time!

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's a real shame that it has not been renovated.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Don't just believe the random assertions littered around the internet. The building is listed, grade II*, and maintained. You can't avoid a bit of condensation and staining in the circumstances.

    ReplyDelete

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