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24 September 2014

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Whitaker Wright

You are in: Southern Counties > Features > Strange South > Whitaker Wright > Underwater billiards and burning

Witley Park

Witley Park. Photo: Richard Cross

Underwater billiards and burning

As you travel south from Milford to Haslemere, you may spot Milford Lodge Gatehouse. This building marks an entrance to Witley Park, a 500 acre estate which once included a country mansion known as Lea Park. So just who did live in a house like this?

The history of the Witley Park estate dates back to Elizabeth I, but our story begins in 1890, when a house called Lea Park, was sold by then owner JP J.W.Stone, to an Anglo American called J.Whitaker Wright.

Whitaker bought both Lea Park and a large farm the south of the estate, called South Park Farm, which was owned by the Earl of Derby, who used it for his weekend shooting guests.


Image reproduced: permission of Ordnance Survey

The sale meant Whitaker had acquired the Manor of Witley, which included Hindhead Common and the Devil's Punchbowl.

He renamed the whole estate Witley Park and turned Lea Park into a sumptious mansion, complete with thirty two bedrooms, eleven bathrooms, landscaped gardens, a private theatre, an observatory, 450 acres of land and a domed glass and steel room complete with billiard table, under the artificial lakes!

Rumour has it that he had more than 500 men working on the changes he made to the estate, which included digging and filling the three lakes.

But by 1899, the District and Parish Council were getting worried about what was happening on the estate.

On the 13th May, the Surrey Times ran an article headed "Despoiling Hindhead Common" and stated that "many residents of Hindhead are not a little annoyed, and certainly very much grieved, at the poor respect which the new lord of the manor is apparently showing for the natural beauty and adornments of Hindhead Common and the Punch Bowl." 

Witley Park

The landscaped Park and house

The Times also suggested that local residents had seen gangs of workmen using an "infernal machine" to dig up and remove holly bushes along with surrounding earth. 

This was taken to landscape Wright's new park, although it was never certain that he knew what what the workmen were doing, or not. And there is no record of whether they stopped once it was discovered.

However, work did end when, five years later, Whitaker sensationally committed suicide, and Witley Park was put up for sale in an auction of fifty lots at Godalming.

The most important Lot for the local community was number 47. This consisted of the "manorial rights over Hindhead commons, including Devil's Punch Bowl and Gibbet Hill" including 750 acres of woodland.

Devils Punchbowl

Devil's Punchbowl. Photo:National Trust

The national press reported: "It was to be anticipated that such an opportunity would not be allowed to pass by those who are interested in the preservation of open spaces ... the Commons Preservation Society appealed to the neighbourhood and their appeal met with a warm and ready response." 

A local committee was formed to raise the funds to purchase the Lot and on Thursday 26th October 1905, the day of the auction, there was just over £2,200 pledged.

They were successful and won with a bid of £3,625, which was a little over £4 10s per acre, and the land was turned over to them on the 30th December 1905. 

It had always been their intention to pass the land onto the newly formed National Trust and it was in March 1906. The land was the first Trust property in the country to be managed by a local committee. 

Lord Pirrie

Lord Pirrie

In 1909, the famous SS Titanic designer and builder Lord Pirrie, bought Whitaker's mansion at Witley Park for $1,000,000.

He and his wife, Lady Margaret Montgomery Carlise made it their main residence and enclosed the estate with an iron fence which echoed the boundaries of the original medieval deer park.

Sadly, Whitaker Wright's Witley (Lea Park) burned down in 1952 and the buildings were demolished. The South Park Farm building (now known as Witley Park) does still remain, in private hands.

last updated: 29/08/07

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