WITLEY (OR LEA) PARK ESTATE

Godalming Museum, ref: NN249.1.7

 

This is one of a series of sepia photographs held in two albums in the library store at the Museum. All the photographs are scenes taken within the Witley Park (earlier known as Lea Park) estate. There are no dates on the albums or the photographs, but, as one of the pictures is titled 'Sir John's Dressing Room', it seems likely that they date from the period when the estate was owned by Sir John Leigh, after 1924.

The majority of the buildings, lakes, terraces, fountains and statues, as well as the main house, that feature in the album were the results of the dreams of the man who brought the estate into being, James Whitaker Wright. He formed the estate through a number of land purchases between 1889 and 1897. The house (Lea Park House) shown here had been a much smaller mock-Tudor building (where the central italianate section is shown): This was first extended and then was being replaced by Whitaker Wright when he died. On the left hand side of the picture is a palm house. The scale and grandeur of the project can only be guessed at today from various clues around the edges of the property (much of which has been sold off). Gatehouses, lodges and a large stone wall still exist. There is no public access to the heart of the old estate and the main house, but Godalming Museum does photographs of the key features in 2000, together with photographs of some of the dispersed elements (the fountain and cascade).

Whitaker Wright made a considerable fortune in mining - at first in America and then later speculating on Australian mining businesses. He ended up owning a number of companies, including the London and Globe Finance Corporation, all of which ventured into many and diverse projects (the financing and building of London's Bakerloo underground line was one of these). These companies became disastrously over-extended and eventually crashed, causing huge financial losses to shareholders, employees and other companies. However, during the more prosperous period in which Whitaker Wright threw himself into developing his estate, he behaved as though his wealth was endless. Italian sculptors were brought over to carve marble statues and fountains and, underneath one of his artificial lakes a submerged room was built, with a glass-domed ceiling. He commissioned Paxton Watson to carry out the work on the buildings and grounds, and they used designs by the young Edwin Lutyens for the boathouse and bathing house, When there was a period of high unemployment in the Witley area, he instructed that local men should be hired to build a fourteen foot high wall around part of the estate (the wall is still standing). An account of 1927 states, "...it would be no exaggeration to say that it was easily the finest private residence in the world. Half the aristocracy in England and even royalty were his guests." (Felstead, S. and Lady Muir, Sir Richard Muir - The Memoirs of a Public Prosecutor, pp. 29-30.)

By 1903, the demise of Whitaker Wright's companies led to pressure for a fraud trial and on 26th August at the Guildhall, in London, he was found guilty. After leaving the courtroom, he asked to be left alone to go to the lavatory, where he took poison (probably cyanide). On returning to the company of his friends and legal team, he collapsed and died. The news of Whitaker Wright's death was greeted with shock and sadness in the area around the estate. In an interview given after the inquest into his death a "local tradesman" from Witley said,

"...he was a very good man in the district. He employed a lot of labour, and it made it better for everyone in the neighbourhood. I daresay Godalming people feel it much - quite as much as we do here....Mr Wright was a very good man for the working classes, and no doubt he would continue to have been so...."

Map of the Estate in 1905
Sale particulars in Godalming Museum


In 1905, the estate was bought by William James (Lord) Pirrie, Chairman and Managing Director of the Belfast shipbuilding company, Harland and Wolff and partner in the White Star Line, which owned and ran ocean-going liners. Pirrie made additions of his own, including a Greek style temple on Hindhead Common, which also features in the Museum's photograph albums. Pirrie features in another Godalming tragedy - that of the death of Jack Phillips, wireless operator on the doomed liner Titanic. Not only was he co-owner of the company that put Titanic to sea in April 1912, he was also heavily involved in the design and building of the ship. Despite being on the guest list, Pirrie was not aboard when disaster struck, as he was ill when the ship left Southampton. Not only did he escape the shipwreck, he also appears to have been the only major player in the Titanic enquiry to have escaped criticism or public anger. He later went on to be showered with honours and public appointments, but died at sea in 1924, leaving large debts.

After Pirrie's death, the estate was sold to the Pall Mall Trust, a large part of which was owned by Sir John Leigh. Sir John moved to Lea Park house with his family and it is possible that this was the time when the name of the estate changed to Witley Park. Leigh moved to Mickleham in 1952 and the new owner Ronald J Huggett (owner of a food manufacturing company) had not yet moved in when much of the house was destroyed by fire. A new house was built nearby in the 1960s by a new owner. In 1981 Witley Park was bought by head of Racal electronics, Sir Raymond Brown. Brown set about returning the estate to productivity, through farming, horticulture and fishing enterprises. He also started a conference centre just before his death in 1991. The remainder of the estate today is owned by a conference company.

In Whitaker Wright's time, Lea Park Estate covered about 3000 acres. Much of this land has been sold off and some now belongs to the National Trust.

 


SOURCES

Eaton, John, P and Haas Charles, Titanic - Triumph and Tragedy (London:Butler and Tanner, 1995)

Felstead, S,T and Lady Muir, Sir Richard Muir - The Memoirs of a Public Prosecutor (London:Bodley Head, 1927)

Gardiner, Robin and Van Der Vat, Dan, Riddle of the Titanic (London:Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1995)

Subject Files - Godalming Museum's Local Studies Library, 'Whitaker Wright' and 'Witley Park'

 


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