Sir Joseph Paxton

February 27, 2017 | 0 Comments | Filed under: 2017, March 2017

The life of this hugely energetic Victorian was the subject of a fascinating talk to the February meeting of the History Club by Danny Wells. Starting out from humble beginnings as the seventh child of a Bedfordshire farmer, Paxton became as Charles Dickens described – the “Busiest Man in England”.

In 1826, aged just 23 he was set on as head gardener at Chatsworth by William Spencer Cavendish the 36 year old son of the famous Georgiana. Arriving overnight by coach into Chesterfield he walked over the moors to Chatsworth, climbed over the garden walls, set the men to work, then had breakfast whereupon he met his future wife!

He kept up this breathtaking pace of work in re-designing the gardens plus the Arboretum, and in building the Emperor Fountain, the rock garden and the conservatory. Until this time, the gardens of great houses had been very formal and geometric as if the occupants “didn’t trust nature”. However, it later became a status symbol to have landscaped parks and Paxton’s arboretum was said to contain 1670 different specimens. One of his most famous works was that of designing the “Great Stove”, a huge glasshouse 227 feet long and 67 feet high, which indeed did have several stoves inside to keep it heated. (Chatsworth as a whole was burning 380 tons of coal per year at this time). In between all this, he found time to be the first person in Britain to cultivate the “Cavendish Banana”, the descendants of which are now sold in supermarkets all over the western world.

As a shrewd investor in the newly introduced railway system, he travelled a great deal. He designed Birkenhead Park and became the winner out of 245 entrants to design the building that was later nick-named the “Crystal Palace” for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He had doodled up the design on a sheet of blotting paper during a meeting! Using cast iron, wrought iron and 293 thousand panes of glass, this revolutionary building even enclosed a fully grown tree. Amusingly, this tree attracted the attention of a flock of sparrows to which nuisance the Duke of Wellington suggested the use of a sparrowhawk in order to rid them.

Paxton stood as a reforming liberal M.P. for Coventry and also founded a daily newspaper with Charles Dickens as the editor and then even found time to go to the Crimean War to organise infrastructure for the forces. Sadly,this, the “Busiest Man in England” died aged only 61 (possibly from overwork) and is buried in Edensor churchyard.

Thanks very much Danny for a very informative talk. Everyone is welcome to come and join us in the Institute on March 9th at 8pm when Robert Mee will be explaining about the “Wheels of Industry”.

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