A secret Underwater Ballroom, built in the 1800s, tells a story of a doomed Victorian fraudster
The narrative begins in 1890, when then-owner JP J.W. Stone sold a vast estate called Lea Park to an Anglo-American named J. Whitaker Wright, a corporate promoter and swindler.
Wright renamed the entire estate Witley Park and transformed Lea Park into a luxury home with thirty-two bedrooms, eleven baths, manicured gardens, a private theatre, an observatory, 450 acres of land, and a domed glass and steel chamber with a billiard table under the artificial lakes.
He installed something very extraordinary beneath one of the ponds: it was called the “Underwater Ballroom,” but in reality, it was a subterranean smoking room built beneath a roof aquarium with an epic statue of Neptune seemingly rising out of the manufactured lake on the underwater dome that gave the glorious below-ground room a ballroom-like appearance. According to legend, he had almost 500 workers working on the estate’s modifications, which included excavating and filling the three lakes.
Wright, who was born in England in 1846, traveled North America in the 1870s and earned a fortune by marketing silver-mining firms in Leadville, Colorado, and Lake Valley, New Mexico, despite the fact that none of the enterprises profited the stockholders. Wright returned to England in 1889 and pushed a slew of Australian and Canadian mining firms on the London market. The London and Globe Company issued shares and bonds in the mining sector, and Whitaker’s business actions were initially deceptive but not unlawful. When things went wrong, straining his resources, he crossed the line into blatant swindling after floating a massive, cumbersome bond issuance for the Waterloo Railway (an costly enterprise much outside his typical comfort zone).Wright was shifting thousands of pounds from one of his firms to another in a succession of “loans” to preserve an illusion of stability and success and to discourage investors from seeing him suffer. This resulted in several balance-sheet misrepresentations. Unable to keep things afloat, he departed in 1900, leaving his floundering investors in a frenzy and scaring London’s exchange. He was apprehended, though, and brought back to stand trial.
Wright was found guilty of fraud and condemned to seven years in penal servitude by London’s Royal Courts of Justice on January 26, 1904. Wright excused himself to the antechamber, handed one of his attorneys his watch, and requested a drink of whiskey and a cigar. He died suddenly after a few drinks and a brief puff of tobacco. He committed suicide via ingestion of cyanide. The inquiry also discovered that he was carrying a handgun in his pocket, probably as a backup plan in case the cyanide didn’t work. He was never searched since security at the Royal Courts was laxer.
Five years after Wright’s death, the famed SS Titanic designer and builder Lord Pirrie paid $1,000,000 for Whitaker’s home at Witley Park, and the name was changed to Witley Park. A devastating fire devastated the home in 1952, and the charred ruins were razed. Later, a new contemporary residence was constructed elsewhere on the land. The beautiful park, lakes, run-down boat homes, and secret ballroom are still there. Permission to see it is rarely given, although determined tourists occasionally make their way in nonetheless.