A Swindler’s Folly: The Underwater Ballroom of Whitaker Wright

Sculpture of Neptune at Witley Park
Witley Park underwater ballroom
Witley Park underwater ballroom, Photo credit: Large Pig/Flickr

Near the English village of Witley, a sprawling, 9,000-acre estate plays host to one of Britain’s most unique structures. Hidden beneath one of the property’s three artificial lakes, lies an ornate underwater smoking room and parlor with an elaborate “ballroom” dome as its focal point. The only indication that something may rest below the surface is an ornate statue of Neptune that stands guard above the hidden structure.

Statue of Neptune at Witley Park
Statue of Neptune at Witley Park

Once known as Lea Park, the estate initially belonged to Britain’s Stone family. It was sold to wealthy businessman J. Whitaker Wright in 1890. Wright immediately began renovations on the estate, updating its 32 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms. His most notable addition, however, was undoubtedly the underwater ballroom, complete with billiard tables and luxury furnishings.

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

J. Whitaker Wright was a native Englishman who traveled North America in the 1870s, pushing shares for silver mining companies in New Mexico and Colorado. None of the companies ever produced a profit for shareholders. Wright then turned his sights on England, promoting countless mining companies to unsuspecting shareholders in London. Eventually, Wright’s dubious business practices morphed directly into illegal activities. To save himself from financial hardship, he began issuing bonds and loans to himself, swindling investors, and wreaking havoc on the London exchange.

Whitaker Wright drawing
James Whitaker Wright (1846-1904) drawing, February 1904

Convicted of fraud in 1904, Wright swallowed a cyanide pill outside of the court’s chambers, shortly after he was sentenced. After his death, Wright’s ostentatious estate was auctioned off and purchased by a shipbuilder, who renamed it Witley Park. Wright’s fellow citizens viewed the property with contempt for its shocking waste of resources. The mansion burned down in 1952, but the garish underwater ballroom remains. While it isn’t open to the public, tours are offered occasionally for curious visitors to take in Wright’s puzzling and extravagant underwater folly.