On this day in history : 9th February 1846 – The birth of fraudster James Whitaker Wright – who took his own life at the Royal Courts of Justice, immediately following his conviction for fraud….

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James Whitaker Wright – Drawing 1904 – Public domain

Whitaker Wright was the son of Methodist minister James Wright and tailor’s daughter Matilda Whitaker…. He was born in Stafford, the eldest of five children…. From a young age he was sent to boarding school in Birmingham – where he learned to operate a printing press…. By 1861 he was working in Ripon as a printer and after a brief period between 1866 and 1868 (when he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a Methodist preacher) he started a printing business in Halifax with his brother John Joseph Wright…. They set up business in 1868 – but by the following year it had failed….

Whitaker Wright’s father died in 1870 and the family emigrated to Toronto, Canada…. It was in 1878 that he met and married Anna Edith Weightman – he then went on to make his fortune, becoming a millionaire by the age of 31, by promoting silver mines in Colorado and New Mexico….

Returning to England Whitaker Wright continued to promote Canadian and Australian mining companies…. It was the height of the Australian gold boom….and the Midas touch appeared to be rubbing off on to Whitaker Wright….

In 1889 he bought Le Ley Estate in Brook, near to Witley, Surrey – and then in 1894 he added to it by acquiring Lea Park House…. Ownership of the vast estate gave him the rights as Lord of the Manor and control over Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punch Bowl…. It was said he could make his way all the way to Haslemere station without once leaving his own land….

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Devil’s Punch Bowl, Hindhead Common – Photo credit : Don Cload CC BY-SA 2.0

By spending millions Whitaker Wright transformed his estate into something extraordinary…. He built three artificial lakes in the grounds, the largest of which, Thursley Lake, covering 50 acres of farmland…. He imported marble from Italy to have grand statues made for his newly landscaped gardens…. There were stables for 50 horses…. The house itself was virtually rebuilt, a palm house was added, along with a theatre and a ballroom…. But the piece de resistance had to be the underground ballroom….this he had constructed underneath Thursley Lake, reached by tunnels it had a glass dome rising into the lake…. A further tunnel led to an artificial island….

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Thursley Lodge Gatehouse, Le Ley Estate (now Witley Park) – Photo credit Shazz CC BY-SA 2.0
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Thursley Lake, Witley Park

During the 1890s Whitaker Wright formed various companies including the London and Globe Company, floating stocks and bonds of a variety of mining companies…. However, he was falsifying statements and in 1899 the London and Globe Company went into receivership – and Whitaker Wright himself was declared bankrupt on the 13th of January 1903…. Shareholders of London and Globe brought a prosecution against him – he fled to France and then made his way to New York, only to be arrested on his arrival…. After his extradition back to London his trial began at the Royal Courts of Justice and on the 26th of January 1904 he was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment….

It was immediately afterwards, whilst waiting in a court anteroom that Whitaker Wright swallowed a cyanide pill…. He was also found to have a revolver hidden upon his person….

His funeral took place in the churchyard of All Saints in Witley – (the church building itself was not able to be used as he had committed suicide)…. Villagers lined the route to watch his glass hearse go by – he had been a popular man in the neighbourhood, having provided employment for some 600 local people…. A further 500 gathered in the churchyard to pay their last respects….

Lea Park was bought in 1909 by Viscount William James Pirrie, Chairman of Harland & Wolff – the shipbuilders who built the Titanic….and he changed the name to Witley Park…. Tragically the house was destroyed by fire in 1952….

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