The Rotting Underwater Ballroom. Photo by Dan Raven

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Witley Park

All seeing eye

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Beneath the lake of a once lavish Victorian estate built by a flamboyant mining tycoon, a secret awaits… At the murkey water’s edge, a stone structure being overtaken by greenery hides a locked door. At murkey water’s edge, a stone structure being overtaken by greenery hides a locked door. standing inside the abandoned underwater leisure room built by mining magnate Whitaker Wright who made his fortune in America before returning to England. The circular domed room, about 20 feet in diameter, was one of his last lavish projects installed at his ostentatious Surrey estate, which also boasted a theatre, observatory, velodrome, private hospital and stables to accommodate more than 50 horses. On the apex of the dome, stands the statue of Neptune, through which historians say a pipe led up to the surface for expelling excess cigar smoke. A smoking room, a billiards room, a ballroom– there are varying opinions on what exactly Wright used the room for, but whatever its official purpose, it would no doubt have been very useful for impressing guests.

The domed room is depicted as a smoking lounge, with mosaic flooring and a deep-buttoned seating bench that curves with the room. Today, the room is bathed in yellow light during the day from the build-up of algae on the glass and metal dome. In its heydey, Wright brought in trainee divers to clean the outside of the glass. It’s the belief of some historians that the tunnel leading to the dome might be the very same tunnel from London’s Bakerloo line stations. Whitaker himself was involved in the financing of the Bakerloo line and it’s highly possible that these were bits of tunnelling from the construction of Bakerloo that were excess to requirements at the time. Notice the similarities in shape…

Despite the clues left behind of an extravagant show piece, this secret aquarium hasn’t entertained for many decades, and the scent of Whitaker’s exotic brand of cigars hasn’t lingered here since 1908 when he took his own life to avoid his doomed fate. A Victorian “Bernie Madoff”, Wright was convicted of fraud and faced a seven-year imprisonment after a career of fooling trusting investors to back non-existent mining projects while he poured their money into his estates and follies (like underwater ballrooms). Immediately after he was sentenced, he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide in a court anteroom. A revolver was also found in his pocked, presumably as a backup in case the cyanide failed. In spite of his career as a swindler, there was a great outburst of grief at his funeral at his estate, where he is buried.

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