08 03 joseph paxton 1Today is the birthday of Joseph Paxton who was born in 1803. Some sources say he was born in 1801 but that’s because he once lied about his age to get a gardening job he wanted. Paxton was all about gardening. When he was only twenty he was offered a job as head gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He was so excited about it that he set off immediately by coach from London. He arrived at Chatsworth at 4.30 in the morning. He set about exploring the gardens, eventually climbing over the wall into the kitchen garden and setting the staff to work. He then went and had a bit of breakfast and also met his future wife, Sarah Brown, the niece of the housekeeper there. He did all this before nine o’clock in the morning.

08 03 joseph paxton 2As well as being in charge of the gardens at Chatsworth, he also built an enormous fountain that required a whole lake to be dug in order to supply it. What he really became interested in though were greenhouses. In 1849 he was given a seedling of the Regina Lily (which is the water lily with really massive leaves) by Kew Gardens. They had acquired the first seeds to come from the Amazon and although they had grown some, they weren’t doing very well. At Chatsworth the leaves were soon four and a half feet across and later flowered. The picture above shows Paxton’s daughter standing on one of the leaves. The plant grew so big that he had to build a larger greenhouse to put it in. He was inspired by the veins that gave the lily leaf it’s strength to build its glass roof with radiating ribs and cross pieces.

It was his experiments with this structure that later helped him in his design of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. The organisers of the Exhibition wanted a non-permanent structure, they wanted it big and they wanted it soon. They had launched an international competition for the design of the building and had loads of entries but nothing that would work. In truth, they had left it rather late. When Paxton arrived in London for a board meeting , in his capacity as director of the Midlands Railway, there were less that ten months until the Exhibition was scheduled to open. He happened to mention that he had an idea for the building to the chairman who was also an MP. Paxton was encouraged to produce plans if he could do so in only nine days. He was really supposed to be busy with his meetings but instead he was doodling his first design on a piece of pink blotting paper. He was able to submit detailed plans, calculations and costs within two weeks.

08 03 joseph paxton 3The building was completed in only eight months, on time and on budget. It was 1,851 feet (564 metres) long, 408 feet (124 metres) wide and 128 feet (39 metres) high. A barrel vault in the centre was added so that several elm trees could be safely enclosed that would otherwise have been felled. He also installed external canvas shades that could be drawn across the top of the roof. They helped keep the building cool and also softened the light inside. They could also be sprayed with water to act as an evaporative cooling system. At a time when there wasn’t even any mains electricity let alone air conditioning, heat could be a problem in what was essentially a massive greenhouse with thousands of people inside. He also fitted louvres in the walls which could be opened and left gaps between the floorboards so that the air could circulate. The added advantage of the gaps meant that it was easier to sweep up at the end of the day. In fact, Paxton had also designed cleaning machines for sweeping the floor, but in practice, it was found that the long, trailing skirts of female visitors did the job for them.


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