The Folly of Whitaker Wright

Statue of Neptune at Whitaker Wright's Witley Park
A view of the statue of Neptune above the underwater ballroom at Whitaker Wright’s Whitley Park

(I’m going to be developing some neat stuff about Whitaker Wright later! Research!!)

The tale of Whitaker Wright begins in Stafford, England, and ends in Surrey about a hundred and fifty miles away. But this is not a small tale. While Whitaker Wright was born the eldest child of a humble clergyman, he rose to fame and became a wealthy man in the Americas, then once again in the United Kingdom. He died a ruined man, sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude, but left behind a country house worth (at the time) over $50 million in today’s US dollars.

Wright started out in business running a printing press, and briefly served as a Methodist preacher before starting another printing business with his brother, John Joseph Wright, inventor of the reversible trolley pole—the pole that transfers electricity from the overhead live wires to trolley cars.

That business failed as well; following the death of their father, the entire family packed up and moved to Canada, which perhaps speaks of the financial straits they were in, or of a reputation that needed to be left behind. Wright also left behind his attempts at running a profitable printing press per se, and instead began hustling business for silver-mining companies for the Denver City mine in Leadville, Colorado, and then again in Lake Valley, New Mexico, where he picked up knowledge about mining and engineering.

The companies he promoted made him a lot of money, but suspiciously, none for the shareholders.

In 1878, he married Anna Edith Weightman, age seventeen, when he was thirty-two.

By the 1890s, he was back in England, promoting American and Canadian mines to English stock and bond purchasers, apparently supported by titled men like the Marquess of Dufferin, a man who had served as the Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India. Some of these mining companies were not, and would never have been profitable; others tapped rich veins but were run more to drive up the value of the stock than to profit the shareholders.

Wright might not have been able to run an honest business, but he had no trouble extracting profits from the shareholders. In 1890, he purchased Lea Park (later known as Whitley Park) and began excavating an entire hillside to “improve the view” and establish three lakes, as well as expanding the exiting Tudor-style house to a 32-bedrom mansion.

The country house included a theater, ballroom, glass-roofed conservatory, velodrome, fifty-horse stable, several lodges and farms, and other modest amenities.

But is Whitaker Wright’s folly for which the house is known.

In architectural terms, a folly is an ornamental building or structure constructed primarily as a conversation piece or to add ambiance. Other follies include fake “ruined” castles, a pineapple-shaped roof in Scotland, and even the modern-day Bishop’s Castle in Custer County, Colorado.

Whitaker Wright’s folly was an underground smoking lounge or “ballroom,” so called because the underwater dome looked like the upper half of a ball! It was built at the bottom of the largest of the three lakes, with an underwater path leading from the house to the entrance of the folly.

To get to the folly, visitors take a spiral staircase from the surface downward to a sunken, curved metal doorway; below that, another forty feet of steps take visitors to a tunnel, then to the underwater conservatory itself, made of metal framework and thick panes of glass.

Outside, in daylight, the light that reaches the bottom of the small lake is somewhat green and murky; the lake was been stocked with carp that liked to goggle in through the windows at the guests whenever the inner lights were on. The floor was covered with mosaic tilework, held a potted palm tree in the center, and was lined with long, curved velvet benches along the walls—an elegant retreat.

To top the folly, a statue of Neptune was added, one that remains today, appearing to stand effortlessly atop the surface of the water.

Wright’s fame and fortune seemed impressive, but they didn’t last for long. In 1900, he tried to issue a bond to build a rail line in London, the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (now called the Bakerloo Line). The project was plagued by construction issues, and no one wanted to buy the bond. (Once again, Wright struggled as he attempted to pull off a project that was intended to do more than look impressive on paper.)

When the bond flopped, Whitaker began moving money between his different companies in an attempt to prop up his fortune. However, the money he was moving around was the money intended to pay customer dividends.

When no dividends appeared in December of 1890s, shareholders began to become suspicious and eventually called for an investigation into his finances.

It is said that at the exact moment that Whitaker Wright’s finances failed, one of the stones of Stonehenge toppled. The collapse of his companies certainly caused a panic at the stock exchange, and many of his wealthy investors lost large sums of money.

The Government declined to pursue the matter, not believing they would be able to bring charges to bear on the man (the fact that a few high-ranking members of Parliament were caught up in the scheme might have had something to do with that). However, a civil suit was brought against Wright by his stockholders; he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years of penal servitude.

Having been sentenced, he stepped out of the court to an antechamber with his lawyer, asked for a glass of whiskey and a cigar, then excused himself to the restroom, where he took a cyanide capsule. He was not searched upon being brought into the courtroom, as he was in a civil court; he also had a silver revolver in his pocket, just in case the cyanide didn’t work.

He had a few sips of whiskey, took a few drags from the cigar—then fell down dead.

After Wright’s death, Lea Park was sold to Viscount William Pirrie, the man who helped build the RMS Titanic, and who famously said that the new Olympic-Class ships were unsinkable and the lifeboats were only there to save the survivors of other wrecks they might encounter. The viscount eventually sold Lea Park in 1950 to a butcher who had risen from a humble background to wealth; this new owner, Ronald Hugget, was always just about to move into his mansion, but never did; the construction necessary to make the building habitable still hadn’t been completed.

Hugget mainly lived with his wife in one of the lodge houses at the edge of the property, selling off furnishings and other materials from the house, until one day in 1952 a fire began (or was set) in the aboveground ballroom of the main house and burned it to the ground.

The larger property, originally thousands of acres, has been split up, part of it becoming an event center and other parts becoming farms and apartment houses. Still, the lodge houses, the folly, and several other original buildings remain.

Recently, a stately new country house has been built on the property by the new owners, who are very private, and don’t take kindly to “urban explorers” coming onto the property to explore it—or even flying drones over it. The grounds are overgrown, a wilderness of trees and rhododendrons. Construction is ongoing as, once again, the house is being expanded, the grounds landscaped, and the older lodge houses restored.

The folly remains locked, however, and not even a drone can get inside.

A collection of images of the original house exterior and interior.

Images of the new house, designed by architect Robert Adam.

Daily Mail article with lots of great photos of the folly.

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