See A Victorian Scoundrel's Hidden Underwater Ballroom

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Jan. 21 2014 9:18 AM

Swindles, Cyanide, and the Underwater Ballroom: The Story of a Doomed Victorian Scoundrel

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Whitaker Wright's life story is one of great wealth, greater deception, a subterranean smoking room, and a dramatic demise.

Born in England in 1846, Wright travelled North America in the 1870s and amassed a fortune by promoting mining companies. In 1889, Wright returned to England along with his American wife and three children. There he formed multiple companies which floated stocks and bonds for the mining industry.  

Advertisement

Wright also purchased a massive estate, Lea Park in Surrey, and set about creating a lavish 32-bedroom, 11-bathroom home surrounded by lush gardens and tranquil lakes. Beneath one of the ponds he installed something very special: an underwater ballroom

On August 11, 1903, Australian newspaper The West Gippsland Gazette described the subterranean room thusly:

Descending the stairs one comes to a subway, 400 feet long, lighted by rows of electric lamps. The passage leads into a great chamber of glass thirty feet in height — a beautiful conservatory with a wondrous mosaic floor, settees and chairs, palms, and little tables. Outside the clear crystal glass is a curtain of green water, and goldfish come and press their noses against the glass. This submerged fairy-room with appendages cost fully £20,000. It was built, of course, with the utmost care for if one of the square panes of three-inch glass should break, the place would be filled with water within five minutes.

With his network of corporations and a palatial estate complete with secret chambers, everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Whitaker Wright. But unbeknown to his investors, the millionaire magnate was slowly drowning.

At the turn of the century, one of Wright's companies, the London & Globe Finance Corporation, helped finance the construction of what is now the London Underground's Bakerloo line. But Wright couldn't actually afford to be spending so much money. Unable to pay back his investors and increasingly desperate to maintain his high-flying image, he issued himself a series of loans and shunted funds between his companies. Ultimately, creative accounting could not rescue him — at the end of 1900, Wright's empire collapsed.

To avoid police detection, the disgraced former millionaire spent a week sequestered in the icehouse at his sprawling manor. In search of a more long-term hidey hole, Wright then fled to New York under a false name, but was captured and extradited to England to stand trial.

In 1904, London's Royal Courts of Justice found Wright guilty of fraud and sentenced him to seven years of penal servitude. Wright excused himself to the antechamber, handed his watch to one of his lawyers, and asked for a glass of whiskey and a cigar. After a few sips of single malt and a quick puff of tobacco, he promptly dropped dead — his counsel had not noticed him swallow a cyanide capsule along with his drink. Police later found a loaded revolver on Wright, which presumably constituted Plan B.

Wright's estate, renamed Whitley Park, is now privately owned. His mansion burned down in 1952, but the underground ballroom remains — the hidden legacy of a man whose secrets destroyed him.

See more grottoes and follies:


View Witley Park in a larger map

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.