Sir Joseph Paxton (3 August 1803 – 8 June 1865) was an English gardener, architect and Member of Parliament, best known for designing The Crystal Palace.
Paxton was born in 1803, the seventh son of a farming family, at Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire. Some references, incorrectly, list his birth year as 1801. This is, as he admitted in later life, a result of misinformation he provided in his teens, which enabled him to enrol at Chiswick Gardens. He became a garden boy at the age of fifteen for Sir Gregory Osborne Page-Turner at Battlesden Park, near Woburn. After several moves, he obtained a position in 1823 at the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens.
He had a number of gardening jobs until in 1823 he began working at Chiswick Gardens which was leased by the Horticultural Society from the Duke of Devonshire. Impressed with his abilities, in 1826, the duke appointed Paxton head gardener at Chatsworth House, the Devonshire family’s large country house in Derbyshire. At Chatsworth, Paxton designed gardens, fountains, a model village and an arboretum. He also built a conservatory – known as the Great Conservatory – and a lily house, specially designed for a giant lily with a design based on the leaves of the plant. He also married the Chatsworth housekeeper’s niece, Sarah Bown.
In 1832, Paxton developed an interest in greenhouses at Chatsworth where he designed a series of buildings with “forcing frames” for espalier trees. At the time the principles of using glass houses was in its infancy and those at Chatsworth were dilapidated. After some experimentation, he designed a ridge and furrow roof that would be at right angles to the morning and evening sun, with an ingenious frame design that would admit maximum light: the forerunner of the modern greenhouse.
Fame came with the 1851 Great Exhibition. All of the 245 plans for the main Exhibition Hall in Hyde Park had been examined and rejected. Paxton was visiting London at the time and heard about these difficulties. Within a few days he delivered a design – a vastly magnified version of his lily house at Chatsworth. It was cheap, simple to erect and remove and could be ready quickly. Its novelty was its revolutionary, modular, prefabricated design and the extensive use of glass. It took 2,000 men eight months to build the ‘Crystal Palace’, which was more than 500m long and nearly 140m wide.
Despite widespread cynicism amongst press and public, when the Great Exhibition opened in May 1851 it was an enormous success. In October, Paxton was knighted by Victoria. When the exhibition finished, the Crystal Palace was re-erected in Sydenham in south London, where it remained until it burned down in 1936.
Paxton stayed in his post as head gardener at Chatsworth, but took on a large number of other projects, working on the layout of public parks, helping with suggested improvements for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and designing a country house, Mentmore Towers for Baron Mayer de Rothschild.
He became wealthy through successful speculation in the booming railway industry and died on 8 June 1865 in Sydenham.
Source: BBC Historic Figures
Category: Local History