Sir Joseph Paxton (1803–1865) was an English gardener and architect of The Crystal Palace.
He was born on 3 August 1803, the seventh son of a farming family, at Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire. (Some references, incorrectly, list his birth date as 3 August 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 Page-Turner at Battlesden Park, near Woburn. After several moves, he obtained a position in 1823 at the Horticultural Society's Chiswick Gardens. These were close to the gardens of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick House. The latter would frequently meet the young gardener as he strolled in his gardens and became impressed witth 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.
Born into poverty, Paxton left school when he was fifteen to work at his brother's farm. Starved and beaten, he eventually ran away. He found employment as a gardener in Woburn and became an expert botanist. His date of birth in 1801 is still controversial as he may have lied about his age to get the job. By 1824 he was foreman at Chiswick Gardens Arboretum, leased by the Horticultural Society from the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Their paths crossed, and in 1826 he was appointed superintendent at Chatsworth House.
Here he built enormous fountains - one twice the height of Nelson's Column - as well as an arboretum, a 300ft conservatory, and a model village. In 1837 he secured a cutting of a new lily found in Guyana, and designed a heated pool that enabled him to breed the lily successfully: within three months its leaves were almost twelve feet wide.
However, the lily was too big for any normal conservatory. Inspired by the huge leaves of the lily - 'a natural feat of engineering' - and tested by floating his daughter Annie on one leaf, he found his structure. The secret was in the rigidity provided by the radiating ribs connecting with flexible cross-ribs. Constant experimentation over a number of years led him to devise his glasshouse design that inspired the Crystal Palace.
With a cheap and light wooden frame, the conservatory design had a ridge-and-furrow roof 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 pre-fabricated and, like modular buildings, could be produced in vast numbers and assembled into buildings of varied design.
By the age of forty he was a close friend of the Duke and was making a fortune as manager of his six estates and as a director of several rail companies. In his spare time he set up the Daily News, appointing Charles Dickens as editor, and accompanied the Duke around the world. However, real fame came with the 1851 Great Exhibition. Every one of the 245 plans for the Exhibition Hall had been examined and rejected, and the Committee's own design had met with public disdain. Paxton thought he could do better, and delivered his design - a vastly magnified version of his lily house at Chatsworth - within nine days. It was cheap, simple to erect and remove, ready for immediate use, and would not scar the Park.
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.
Although the Crystal Palace was initially the Millennium Dome of its time, attracting widespread cynicism from the public and the press, when it opened the Exhibition was an enormous success, the Palace a major attraction, and Paxton was knighted.
Joseph Paxton was born in Milton Bryan, England in 1801. A farmer's son, he was apprenticed as a gardener to the Chatsworth estate where he eventually attained the position of head gardener. In 1832,
Paxton developed an interest in glasshouses at Chatsworth where he designed a series of buildings with "forcing frames" for espalier trees. Generally considered a landscape gardener, Paxton's superiority in conservatory design earned him recognition as an innovative architect. His position in the House of Commons as MP for the Coventry allowed Paxton to dedicate his later years to urban planning projects.