Joseph Paxton

Joseph Paxton was an English gardener, designer, writer and creator of one of most famous buildings of Queen Victoria's reign, the Crystal Palace. At the end of his life he would be described as the greatest gardener of his time and a man of genius.


JOSEPH PAXTON   The Prince of Gardeners’ and Creator of Princes’ Park

Paxton was the youngest of nine children born into a poor tenant farming family in Bedfordshire on 3rd August 1803. His father died when he was a young child and the family were left poorer than ever. His year of birth marked the foundation of the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain and there was a huge growth of interest in the study of the new plants that were being found around the world.

As a teenager Paxton became a garden boy for the Duke of Bedford whose garden was widely known as a centre for innovation. Here the botanical treasures being introduced excited his interest and he learnt all that he could about them. Many species needed better, heated green houses and technologies to support this were being developed. The young Paxton started to think of ways in which glasshouses could be improved.

In 1823 his skill and enthusiasm were noticed by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who offered him a position as Superintendent of the Gardens at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Although the Duke was away in Russia at that time, Paxton arrived in Chatsworth at daybreak, explored the gardens, set staff to work, had eaten breakfast with the housekeeper and met his future wife, Sarah Brown, the housekeeper’s niece, completing his first morning’s work before 9am. He married Brown in 1827 and she proved to be a very capable partner who could manage his affairs leaving him free to pursue his ideas.

The landscaped gardens at Chatsworth ranked among finest of the time and together the Duke and Paxton set to work on designing new features and developing better and larger greenhouses for the cultivation of exotic plants. His fame and prosperity were growing. The Duke was happy to generously fund new projects and they travelled together widely in Europe looking for new inspirations. A strong friendship developed between them.

Before long Paxton was being sought for projects further afield and in 1842 Richard Vaughan Yates invited him to visit Liverpool. Yates had bought 97 acres of land from the Earl of Sefton. It had formerly been farmland and part of the Ancient Toxteth Deer Park. Paxton was to develop his first park here which would become known as Prince’s Park in honour of the birth of the Prince of Wales in 1841.

Working together with his architectural assistants John Robertson and George Henry Stokes the plans were completed and work started straight away. Features included a perimeter carriage drive, impressive entrances and footpaths which bring a surprise on every turn. Swiss inspired elements were also introduced through the use of rockworks and conifers. Some older trees were brought in from neighbouring estates, a new skill that Paxton had developed. Princes Park would become the forerunner of later Victorian parks and the prototype of his future park design.

Paxton worked relentlessly for the next twenty years. Charles Dickens called him the “busiest man in England”. He was a persuasive but unassuming character with boundless energy who over decades was happy to devote himself to many complex projects at the same time. This prevented him from taking his health seriously and he died in 1865 aged 61. He was buried at Edensor church a short distance from his friend the Duke.

Paxton’s most notable achievements at Chatsworth

1830-31

The Pinetum

This plantation of was one of the first collections of pine trees or other conifers in England. It contained some of the new varieties being discovered in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Covering 8 acres it enabled the Duke and Paxton to indulge their passion for collecting on a grand scale. The trees included in the collection amongst many others were Cedar of Lebanon, a Giant Redwood and a Monkey Puzzle.

1834

Paxton's Glasshouse

The glasshouses at Chatsworth were dilapidated when Paxton took on his job there. To replace them he designed a series of buildings for the cultivation of exotic plants and fruits such as the pineapple. He continually improved his designs and achieved a frame design that would admit maximum light and was the forerunner of the modern greenhouse.

1836-1840

The Great Conservatory

  Spurred on by his success with greenhouse technology Paxton moved on to a new far bigger project.

The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was 84m long, 37m wide and 19m high. Inside there was room for two carriages to pass on the main thoroughfare and stairs led to a gallery from which people could inspect the high branches of exotic trees. There were ponds full of aquatic plants, rocks, mosses, ferns and brilliantly coloured flowers in a tropical climate. Underground boilers and seven miles of hot water pipes created this climate. There was no other building in the world like it and when Queen Victoria came to see it the carriageway was lit with twelve thousand lamps to celebrate her drive through.  

1838

Edensor village

In 1750s much of Edensor village had been demolished because it was visible from Chatsworth House. The 6th Duke decided to demolish the rest of the village and to rebuild it in a more picturesque style on a nearby site. Joseph Paxton was called upon to design a completely new estate village. A selection of house designs were drawn by John Robertson for the Duke to select from. It is said that the Duke could not make up his mind so chose to use them all. As a result Edensor included every type of house style and Paxton arranged them for maximum picturesque effects to create a truly beautiful village.

1842-48

The Rock Garden

Having gained much inspiration after visits to Switzerland and Italy the Duke and Paxton created a garden of massive boulders with a maze of paths threading round and beneath the rocks. The largest construction, the Wellington Rock, is nearly 14m high and has a waterfall running down it and exists today.

1844

The Emperor Fountain

Joseph Paxton engineered the Emperor Fountain to replace an existing Great Fountain. It was to be the highest fountain in the world. The Duke hoped it would impress royalty and dignitaries visiting Chatsworth. An eight acre lake was dug on moors above the house to supply the natural water pressure. Work was finished in just six months and the resulting water jet reached a new record height of 90m. The water power was later put to use generating Chatsworth’s electricity from 1893- 1936.

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Other Paxton achievements in Britain

1850-51   Crystal Palace

The organisers of the Great Exhibition of 1851 examined and rejected 245 plans for the Main Exhibition Hall before accepting Paxton’s designs. He used a vastly magnified version of the lily house at Chatsworth as his starting point. It was 500m long and 140m wide and took 2000 men eight months to build the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. It was cheap, simple to erect and remove and was ready quickly. Despite widespread cynicism the exhibition proved an enormous success and Paxton was knighted for his contribution by Queen Victoria. When the exhibition was over, the Crystal Palace was re-erected in Sydenham in south London, where it remained until it burnt down in 1936.

1843   Parks after Princes’ Park

The success of Princes’ Park led Paxton to take on further design commissions and the first to be built was Birkenhead Park. This led to other commissions such as The People’s Park in Halifax, West End Park in Glasgow and the Spa Gardens in Scarborough. In 1850, across the Atlantic, plans for Central Park in Manhattan were commissioned. The chosen design was directly inspired by Birkenhead Park and many of its features were copied.

1834 – 49   Paxton Journalist and MP

Although his education had been meagre Paxton developed remarkable fluency in writing and public speaking. For eleven years he was Liberal MP for Coventry and within the range of his own experience as a director of great public works and an employer of labour gave the benefit of his sagacity and special knowledge. In 1855 he submitted a solution to London’s growing traffic congestion.

He published many essays and extended his interests to journalism to became one of the founders of “The Gardeners Chronicle” in 1841. He published a little book, The Cultivation of the Dahlia, which was translated into French, German and Swedish. Paxton’s Magazine of Botany ran for sixteen years and was very popular. His last magazine was Paxton’s Flower Garden. In his magazines he described many of his plants and innovations at Chatsworth. 

1849   The Victoria Regia Water Lily

In 1828 a giant waterlily was first noticed by European botanists exploring the Amazon basin and collected specimens were sent to London. The plant was named in honour of Britain’s new young monarch Queen Victoria. A seedling was given to Paxton to try out at Chatsworth where he had prepared a specially designed tank. Within two months the leaves were 1.4m in diameter and a month later it produced its first flower. It continued growing and became necessary to build a much larger house to accommodate it. Paxton was fascinated by the huge leaves calling them “a natural feat of engineering”. He tested their strength by successfully floating his nine year old daughter Annie on a leaf and realised that the radiating connecting ribs were the secret of their rigidity. He used this structural concept as the basis for the future designs of his glasshouses, including the Crystal palace.

Celebrating Joseph Paxton, designer of Princes Park 

This autumn Friends of Princes Park and Friends of Birkenhead Park are planning to plant a tulip tree in each park to celebrate the life of Joseph Paxton, and the 180th and 175th anniversaries, respectively, of our parks.

The trees will have a stone plaque by them commemorating Paxton and our tree will have ornamental tree protection.

We hope that the Duke of Devonshire, from Chatsworth where Paxton was head gardener, will come to plant the trees. Which he is kindly donating.

We also want to put up a Blue Plaque to Paxton near the main park gates.

The total cost for Princes Park will be, for the stone plaque, the blue plaque and the tree protection: approx £2000. We already have some donations and will be applying for funding, but if you can help at all: anything from £5 upwards it will really, really help. If you know anyone who might be able to contribute, please pass this message on or let the Friends know. (See Contact us)  

On the day, although the group planting the tree will be limited in number, we will let you know so that if you are free you are very welcome to come to the park and watch.


Paxton Memorial Fund

If you would like to donate to our Paxton Memorial Fund you can do so by:

   1. Bank transfer and put “FOPP JPM” as the reference. By doing this your donation will be ring fenced for the Joseph Paxton Memorial.

Friends of Princes Park      Sort Code 089299     Account Number   65156708     (Co-op Bank)

     2. To pay be cheque, make your cheque payable to "Friends of Princes Park" and write JPM on the rear. Please post to:

FOPP JPM, c/o Katy Gardner 11, Devonshire Road,  Liverpool,  L8 3TX

If you are able to Gift Aid your donation we would be really grateful if you will sign the form on our Donate page, print a copy and send to the above address.

Thank you for your support!