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1803 August 3rd. Born, 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.
1818 He became a garden boy at the age of fifteen for Sir Gregory Osborne Page-Turner at Battlesden Park, near Woburn.
1823 After several moves, he obtained a position at the Horticultural Society's Chiswick Gardens. These were close to the gardens of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick House who would frequently meet the young gardener as he strolled in his gardens and became impressed with his skill and enthusiasm. The Duke offered the 23-year-old Paxton the position of Head Gardener at Chatsworth, which was considered one of the finest landscaped gardens of the time.
Although the Duke was in Russia at the time, Paxton set off for Chatsworth on the Chesterfield coach forthwith, arriving at Chatsworth at half past four in the morning. By his account he had explored the gardens, scaling the kitchen garden wall in the process, and set the staff to work, then ate breakfast with the housekeeper and met his future wife, Sarah Bown, the housekeeper's niece, as he later put it, completing his first morning's work before nine o'clock. They later married, and she proved to be supremely capable of managing his affairs, leaving him free to pursue his ideas. He enjoyed a very friendly relationship with his employer who recognised his diverse talents and facilitated his rise to prominence.
One of his first projects was to redesign the garden around the new north wing of the house and to set up a 'pinetum', a collection of conifers which developed into a forty acre arboretum which still exists. In the process he became skilled in moving even mature trees. The largest, weighing about eight tons, was moved from Kedleston Road in Derby. Among several other large projects at Chatsworth, such as the Rock Garden, the Emperor Fountain and the rebuilding of Edensor village, he is best remembered for his glass houses.
1831 Paxton published a monthly magazine, The Horticultural Register. This was followed in 1834 by the Magazine of Botany. There followed in 1840 the Pocket Botanical Dictionary, The Flower Garden in 1850 and the Calendar of Gardening Operations. In addition to these titles he also, in 1841, co-founded perhaps the most famous horticultural periodical, The Gardeners' Chronicle along with John Lindley, Charles Wentworth Dilke and William Bradbury and later became its editor.
1832, Paxton developed an interest in glasshouses, designing a series of buildings for Chatsworth with "forcing frames" for espalier trees. Known up to then as a landscape gardener, Paxton's superiority in conservatory design earned him recognition as an innovative architect.
While at Chatsworth, he also built enormous fountains - one twice the height of Nelson's Column - as well as an arboretum, a 300ft conservatory, and a model village.
Between 1835 and 1839, he organised plant-hunting expeditions, one of which ended in tragedy. Tragedy also struck at home when his eldest son died.
1837 Paxton started the Great Conservatory or Stove, a huge cast-iron heated glasshouse. At the time of its construction, the Conservatory was the largest glass building in the world. The architect Decimus Burton drew up the plans . The largest sheet glass available, that by Chance Brothers and Co, was three feet long. Chance managed to produce four foot sheets for Paxton's benefit. The conservatory was heated by eight boilers using seven miles of iron pipe and cost over £30,000. There was a central carriageway and, when the Queen was driven through, it was lit with twelve thousand lamps.
With a cheap and light wooden frame, the conservatory design had a ridge-and-furrow roof at right angles to the morning and evening sun to let in more light and drain rainwater away. Cunningly, Paxton used hollow pillars to double up as drain pipes and designed a special rafter that also acted as an internal and external gutter. All of these elements were prefabricated and, like modular buildings, could be produced in vast numbers and assembled into buildings of varied design.
The next great building at Chatsworth was as a result of the first seeds of the Victoria Regia lily being sent to Kew from the Amazon in 1837. Although the lily had grown, it had not flowered and in 1849 it was given to Paxton to try out at Chatsworth. Within two months the leaves were four and a half feet in diameter, and a month later it flowered. It continued growing and it became necessary to build a much larger house — the Lily House — the design of which was inspired by the lily itself, 'a natural feat of engineering', which he tested by floating his daughter Annie on one leaf. The secret was in the rigidity provided by the radiating ribs connecting with flexible cross-ribs. He developed a flat roof version of the ridge and furrow glazing, and a curtain wall system of hanging vertical bays of glass from cantilevered beams. The combination of these techniques — the glazing methods and the batch-production of components — led directly to the design of Crystal Palace. Both conservatories were demolished in 1923 .
Although Paxton remained the Head Gardener at Chatsworth, the Duke allowed him to undertake outside work - like the Crystal Palace and his directorship of the Midland Railway. He worked on public parks in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Glasgow, Halifax and the grounds of the Spa Buildings at Scarborough.
1845 He was invited to lay out one of the country's first municipal burial grounds in Coventry. This became the London Road Cemetery.
1850 Paxton was commissioned by Baron Mayer de Rothschild to design Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. This was to be one of the greatest country houses built during the Victorian Era. Following the completion of Mentmore, Baron James de Rothschild, one of Baron de Rothschild's French cousins, commissioned Château de Ferrières at Ferrières-en-Brie near Paris to be "Another Mentmore, but twice the size". Both buildings still stand today.
The Great Conservatory was the test-bed for the prefabricated glass and iron structural techniques which Paxton pioneered and would employ for his masterpiece: The Crystal Palace of the 1851 Great Exhibition. These techniques were made physically possible by recent technological advances in the manufacture of both glass and cast iron, and financially possible by the dropping of a tax on glass.
In 1850 the Royal Commission which had been appointed to organise the Great Exhibition was in a quandary. An international competition for a building had produced 245 designs, of which only two were remotely suitable, and all would take too long to build and would be too permanent. There was an outcry by the public and in Parliament against the desecration of Hyde Park. Paxton was visiting London in his capacity as a director of the Midland Railway to meet the chairman John Ellis and happened to mention an idea he had for the hall; Ellis promptly encouraged him to produce some plans, provided they could be ready in nine days. Unfortunately Paxton was committed for the next few days, but at a board meeting of the railway in Derby, it is said he appeared to be spending much of his time doodling on a sheet of blotting paper. At the end of the meeting he held up his first sketch of the Crystal Palace, very much inspired by the Lily House. The sketch is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
He completed the plans and presented them to the Commission, but there was opposition from some members, since another design was well into its planning stage. Paxton decided to by-pass the Commission and published the design in the Illustrated London News to universal acclaim.
Its novelty was its revolutionary modular, prefabricated design, and use of glass. Glazing was carried out from special trolleys, and was fast: one man managed to fix 108 panes in a single day. The Palace was 1,848 feet long, 408 feet wide and 108 feet high. It required 4,500 tons of iron, 60,000 cubic feet of timber and needed over 293,000 panes of glass. Yet it took 2,000 men just eight months to build, and cost just £79,800. Quite unlike any other building, it was itself a demonstration of British technology in iron and glass. In its construction, Paxton was assisted by Charles Fox, also of Derby for the iron framework, and William Cubitt Chairman of the Building Committee. All three were knighted. After the exhibition they were employed by the Crystal Palace Co to move it to Sydenham.
Paxton also designed another country house, a smaller version of Mentmore at Battlesden near Woburn in Bedfordshire. This house was bought by the Duke of Bedford thirty years after its completion, and demolished, because the Duke wanted no other mansion close to Woburn Abbey.
Paxton was honoured by being made a member of the Kew Commission which was to suggest improvements for Royal Botanic Gardens, and by being considered for the post of Head Gardener at Windsor Castle.
He became affluent, not so much through his Chatsworth job, but by successful speculation in the railway industry.
1854 He became a Liberal Member of Parliament for Coventry, a seat he held until his death in 1865. His position in the House of Commons allowed Paxton to dedicate his later years to urban planning projects.
1858 Paxton retired from Chatsworth when the Duke died but carried on working at various projects such as the Thames Graving Dock, while Sarah remained at their house on the Chatsworth Estate.
1865 June 8th. Died.
1865 Obituary