It's usually the houses which make dramatic exits, however, in the case of Witley Park, it was a later owners departure which brought a certain notoriety to this huge mansion.
The manor of Witley has had many royal connections and dates back from before the Norman Conquest, when it was owned by Earl Godwin. Following the Norman Conquest they passed to Gilbert, son of Richer (Richerius) de Aquila. They passed through various branches of his family, then to the Earls of Pembroke, before reverting to the King before being given to Peter of Savoy in 1241. Peter was unpopular with his tenants, who refused to pay homage to him, so he took his revenge by raising their rents. In 1264, Peter of Savoy having fled the country, they were given to the Earls of Gloucester, but he regained them again before bequeathing them to his niece, Queen Eleanor, in 1268 who granted it to her son Edward. The ownership passed through many different and illustrious owners including Kings, Queens, Earls, Lords and Baronets until 1613 when the manor was sold to Henry Bell of Rake, who settled it on his great-nephew Anthony Smith the younger. It stayed in the Smith family until it passed by marriage in 1763 to the Carteret Web family who eventually sold it to Mr Whitaker Wright in 1890.
It was Whitaker Wright - considered a Midas-like figure in the 1890s - who developed the large house at Witley Park but who also ensured that its name would become infamous. Wright was a colourful character who moved to America in 1866 aged 21 and made a fortune in mining. However he lost it all aged 31, returned to England in 1889 and promptly set to work creating a second fortune. He did this by using his mining knowledge to push a series of Australian and Canadian mining companies on the London market, and by the early 1890s, he was a millionaire again. As befits a man of such wealth he required a country estate - though not too far from London. In 1890 he paid £250,000 (approx. £12m - 2006 value) for the Lea Park estate near Witley and the adjacent South Park Farm estate of the Earl of Derby. This second purchase gave him the ceremonial Lordship of the Manor and also Hindhead Common and the Devil's Punch Bowl.
The combined estate, now called Witley Park, totalled about 1,400 acres and Wright set to work creating both house and grounds he could be proud of - and used much of his fortune to do so, spending nearly £1.15m in total (approx. £56m - 2006 value). Little is known about the original Georgian Lea Park mansion however it was quickly subsumed into a much larger house which cost Wright a further £400,000 (approx. £19.2m - 2006 value). To say the house was well equipped is an understatement. Though it was not all completed by the time of Wright's death - the South Wing with its bedrooms were unfinished - in total, it had 32 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, a drawing room, two dining rooms, a library, a theatre, a palm court, an observatory, a velodrome, stabling for fifty horses and even its own private hospital. Inside, statues had been imported from Italy and expensive paintings adorned the walls.
But building a large house wasn't enough for Wright. At a cost of approximately £500,000 (£24m - 2006) he set a small army of 600 labourers to work reshaping the landscape - much to the concern of local residents. Hills which obstructed his views were levelled, others created, a wall encircling all 1,400 acres was built and three artificial lakes were constructed. The lakes boasted a boathouse by Lutyens, an articifial island and, under one, a spectacular underwater billiards room - which still exists to this day.
However, it wasn't to last. The financial dealings which had provided the funds for this grand building programme dramatically dried up with the collapse of Wright's London and Globe Financial Corporation in December 1900. This collapse caused other companies in his group to fail, bankrupting many people - though not Whitaker who had already cashed in his holdings to spend on Witley Park. A series of trials in 1904 culminated in his being sentenced to seven years imprisonment for fraud - though he always claimed he was innocent. After sentencing he was allowed a private meeting with his lawyers. He gave his watch to one of them saying that "I will not need this where I am going" and after requesting a whisky and cigar, swallowed a cyanide capsule he had smuggled into court. He died minutes later and was buried at All Saints Church, Witley.
Following Wright's dramatic exit his estate was parcelled up and sold off. The locals who had been concerned about his landscaping efforts banded together and bought the sections of the estate which included the Devil's Punch Bowl and Hindhead Common at auction in 1905. The locals then donated the land to the National Trust in 1906, becoming in the process the first Trust property to be managed by a local commitee.
In 1909 the house was bought by William James Pirrie (Viscount Pirrie) - famous as the designer of the SS Titanic and chairman of 'Harland and Wolff' the shipbuilders. He lived there with his wife until his death in 1924. The house was then bought by Sir John Leigh, created Baron Leigh of Altrincham in 1918, who was a wealthy newspaper owner, cotton industrialist and property financier. Photos of the house and interiors - possibly dated to around 1948 - show the fine and elegant style in which the house was kept. Sir John was considered a good owner and used his wealth to keep the estate and house in the style to which it was accustomed.
Sir John was not to end his days at Witley Park. Sometime, probably around the early 1950s, he sold the estate and moved to Juniper Hill in Surrey where he died in 1959. Following the sale, the fortunes of the house now declined markedly. The new owner, one Ronald Huggett, bought the house and quickly held a sale to auction off anything possible, significantly stripping the house and leaving it a shadow of its former self. The die appeared to be cast for its eventual demise as was to be the fate of many houses in the 1950s.
However, the end for Witley Park was almost as sudden as that of its former owner. In October 1952 a fire broke out (or was possibly started deliberately) in the ballroom and swiftly destroyed the house. What remained was levelled by another property speculator - by 1956 all that remained were the domestic buildings, stables and the extensive parkland including the lakes with their now Grade-II listed buildings. The stables eventually became a conference centre - and even have a meeting room named Whitaker - with the grounds maintained as parkland. However, this might be about to change. In 2003 a planning application was submitted and approved to build a house "...of classical design, with a main axis and two forward projecting bays at each end. A full height portico marks the front entrance and the garden elevation includes a projecting domed semi-rotunda, centrally set in this elevation.". So there may yet be a large house to grace and provide a focus for this beautiful estate once again.
Credit: this page was compiled and revised with the help of Sandra Gilpin - many thanks