He was the man who seemed to have it all. Shedloads of cash, a 9,000-acre country estate, a six-storey town house, two ocean-going yachts, 80 servants, an adoring wife, and an exotic French mistress.
When it came to making money – and spending it – there has never been anyone to touch Whitaker Wright. He made today’s oligarchs, dot.com millionaires and oil-rich sheikhs look tame by comparison.
His mansion boasted a theatre, a vast palm house, an observatory with a revolving copper roof and Britain’s first private velodrome.
His proudest embellishment was a glass underwater smoking room, sitting like a giant igloo at the bottom of a lake.
On both sides of the Atlantic he was portrayed as a god-like figure dextrously pulling the strings in a dazzling puppet show of high finance. Yet this larger-than-life tycoon ended up swallowing cyanide and dying in agony on a basement floor.
Wright’s tale has intrigued me ever since I visited his underwater hideaway – still intact and watertight after 120 years – while researching architectural follies. What kind of man would build such a place, I wondered?
The answer, it turned out, was an out-and-out rogue whom the Victorians called the Napoleon of Finance, and whose riveting and adventurous life is the subject of my new biography, Ultimate Folly.
Born in Stafford in 1846, Wright was the son of a poor Methodist minister. He went briefly into the church himself but quickly realised it would never make him rich.
Crossing the Atlantic, he prospected for gold and silver in the Rockies. Life was tough and dangerous. In Idaho he was the sole survivor of a Native American massacre. With a nose for a good deal, he began buying up mines and floating them on the stock exchanges.
He was a persuasive salesman and investors flocked to buy shares in his companies, making him a millionaire at 32.
The fact that many of his mines were duds didn’t bother him. “The people want to be skinned, and I am going to skin them,” he told a friend. He acquired a mansion in Philadelphia, a beachside holiday home, a yacht, and a 16-year-old wife, Anna.
In the late 1880s his American business empire crashed, and furious creditors tried to have him jailed.
Always one step ahead of the law, he fled back to England and started again.
This time Australian gold was his route to riches. Floating numerous mines on the London market he became the richest man in Britain, and possibly the world.
With a love of the good life, he splashed out on every conceivable luxury. At his vast Lea Park estate in Witley, Surrey, he tried to “emulate the life of the Roman emperors”, according to one observer.
The mansion had 32 bedrooms and seven reception rooms decorated with gold leaf and priceless art treasures. It took several minutes to walk from one end of the house to another.
The cedar-panelled ballroom could accommodate hundreds of dancers and boasted a pipe organ, a minstrel’s gallery and a ceiling based on the Sistine chapel in Rome. The mansion’s huge glass conservatory rivalled Kew Gardens for splendour. The sole job of one servant was to tend to Wright’s orchids.
Out in the grounds, the 600 workmen at his permanent disposal attended to his every whim.
On one notorious occasion he told them to move a hill because it was blocking his view. They cut it down in slices and rebuilt it on another part of his land.
Taking a fancy to a 30-ton marble dolphin’s head while in Italy, Wright shipped it to Southampton. It was too big to go through railway tunnels, so he had it hauled to his estate on a traction engine, widening the highway where necessary and digging out the road beneath bridges.
He put up a palatial stable block for 50 horses, complete with central heating and an equine hospital. He had his initials WW carved in stone above the stable entrance. “The whole thing was a blatant sumptuousness which must have embarrassed the horses,” noted one critic.
A team of Italian boatmen were on hand to take Wright and his pals on “journeys of adventure” across his three lakes in electric launches, sailing craft and row-boats. The first port of call was a subterranean water-filled passageway, its entranceway half-concealed by trees and shrubs in the grounds.
Guests were encouraged to imagine themselves in the Blue Grotto at Capri as they floated past caves bathed in blue light.
Wright’s pride and joy was his electrically lit underwater smoking room.
Costing the modern equivalent of £2 million, the dome-shaped retreat was reached by a 350ft tunnel which led directly out into the lake.
More than 200 panes of glass, each 3in thick, were used in the room’s construction. Here, in what he called his “crystal cavern”, with the fish peering in from outside, he drank champagne with his cronies and regaled them with tales of his adventures in the Wild West.
To ensure clear views through the glass, he hired divers to keep the dome algae-free.
It was not just on his estate that Wright led a life of unparalleled excess.
His Park Lane town house was one of the most magnificent residences in London, and one of the first to have lifts. He filled it with paintings from the French Rococo period.
He also acquired two vast yachts. One of these, Sybarite, weighed more than 900 tons and was manned by a crew of 33.
Wright had her painted white for Mediterranean cruises and added numerous flamboyant touches, including the installation of two cannon which he liked to fire while out at sea.
Though happily married with three children, he had a secret mistress – a French woman named Rosalie – on whom he showered money and gifts.
He was so smitten that he had a private staircase built at his City headquarters so that she could enter his office unobserved.
Rosalie was partly responsible for his downfall. He was so enraptured with her that he took his eye off the ball and his businesses ran into trouble. On the last trading day of the 19th century his empire crashed, ruining thousands of people.
He fled to America, but Scotland Yard caught up with him and brought him back to face trial.
In January 1904 he was jailed for seven years for fraud but never served a day of his sentence, opting instead to swallow poison in a room below the court.
- Ultimate Folly The Rise and Falls of Whitaker Wright, the World’s Most Shameless Swindler by Henry Macrory is published by Biteback, London, bitebackpublishing.com/books/ultimate-folly
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