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David Nightingale: J. Paxton, Gardener

Sir Joseph Paxton
Public Domain
Sir Joseph Paxton

For many gardeners today a greenhouse may be made of plastic, perhaps with aluminum framing.

However, in the 1830s, one builder of greenhouses was Joe Paxton, the relatively young head gardener for the Chatsworth Estate, owned by the Duke of Devonshire. By 1840 Paxton had already designed and been responsible for building a huge greenhouse there, a structure not much smaller in ground area than the area of a football field [ref.3]. Despite the known existence of alum for thousands of years, aluminum did not become a usable cheap metal until the 1880s, and Paxton’s greenhouse used cast iron for framework. Nor was it possible in the 1840s to make big sheets of glass, the maximum size of a glass pane then being only about 4 ft. by 1 ft.  So his football-field-sized greenhouse utilized many thousands of these small panes.

In the 1840s Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had been elected President of the Society of Arts, and one of his suggestions, which came to fruition in 1851, had been to make a huge international exhibition showing mankind’s developments in the arts and manufacturing.

London’s population in those days was severely stratified, and social classes ranged from high class elegance to abject poverty. Children as young as six could be seen grubbing for bones and rags in the streets, as well as looking for the odd lump of coal or a copper nail or a bit of iron in the low-tide mud of the river Thames [ref 2, Ch.7] .

However, although many of the architects submitting plans were upper-class, Paxton’s emerging reputation as a greenhouse-maker caused the board of planners to invite him to submit a design. Over 200 designs – using brick, concrete and so on – had all been rejected as too expensive and/or too ugly. Paxton’s, modeled after his huge greenhouse at Chatsworth, used glass and cast iron, was simpler, and considerably cheaper than the price tags that came with the other submissions.

Final dimensions were 456 ft. by 1,848 ft.  – or many football fields. The structure would be high enough to enclose three full-size elm trees in Hyde Park that there had been an outcry about when the other designs had involved cutting them down.

The planners were obviously worried about heavy rain collapsing a flat roof, but Paxton’s design used ridges and furrows, where rain would slide down numerous small depressions into cast iron gutters, which would then empty into the tubular cast iron support columns. (Pictures of Paxton’s method can be found in many reference works [ref.1] )

The Exhibition was on three floors, and was a financial success, with visitors from all over the world. Because Parliament had offered the use of Hyde Park on only a temporary basis, the Crystal Palace was taken down the following year, and re-erected six miles away at Sydenham Hill in northwest Kent, where it stood for 82 years before being destroyed by fire.

Paxton’s glass and iron structure also inspired others, and in 1853 a crystal palace was erected on what is now Manhattan’s Bryant Park, and a similarly inspired Crystal Palace was also built in Munich, Germany, lasting until 1931.

After the 1851 Exhibition, Paxton the gardener became Sir Joseph Paxton, architect, dying 10 years later.


1. “Palace of the People”, by J.R.Piggott;  Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 53711.  (This book is actually of the ‘moved’ Crystal Palace of 1853.)

2.  “Victorian London”, by Liza Picard; St Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Ave,  NY 10010.

3.  Of base dimensions 277 ft x 132 ft., compared to football field 360 x 160ft.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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