Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Forerunners of the Crystal Palace

By Judith Taylor

The Crystal Palace was a greenhouse on steroids. It was only possible to build such an edifice because two industrial processes came of age at roughly the same time, cast iron and plate glass, both benefiting from mass production with its reliable reproduction of an infinite number of identical components. Iron work in Britain goes back to antiquity as does glass, even before Roman times. What was new were the refinements in their manufacture. The eighteenth century may have been the Age of Enlightenment but in my opinion, the nineteenth century was the Age of Improvement.

Joseph Paxton, the man who conceived of the Crystal Palace, had already produced one masterpiece of its type at his employer’s estate in Derbyshire: Chatsworth, seat of the dukes of Devonshire. The “Great Stove”, as it was known, actually a very large heated greenhouse, can now be seen as a forerunner or rehearsal for ever larger such buildings. Paxton worked on it between 1836 and 1840, using wood as the framework. (“Stove” was a shorthand way of referring to these houses. Dutch gardeners had discovered that artificial heating was essential to maintain sub-tropical plants.)

Great Conservatory at Chatsworth: built between 1836 and 1840.
Finally destroyed 1920

The duke was devoted to tropical orchids and then by extension to all exotic plants. He asked Paxton to create the greenhouse as a way of accommodating all his treasures. At the time the Chatsworth greenhouse was the largest glass building in Europe. A few years later Richard Turner constructed the Palm House for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It too was magisterial. Turner also used a wooden frame.

What was different about the Crystal Palace was not only its scale but the fact that it was the first, or at least one of the very first, major public buildings to be prefabricated.

The architectural competition for the design in 1850 produced 245 entries none of which anyone liked. Paxton was going about his own affairs when one day, while sitting in a board meeting of the railway company in which he now owned shares, everything came together in his mind. He sketched out the design on the only paper he had, blotting paper.

Joseph Paxton's original sketch for the Crystal Palace
on blotting paper

From this rough sketch a whole corps of architects, engineers, draftsmen and manufacturers prepared detailed drawings which were enough to persuade the royal commission in charge to go with it. Time was very tight. They only had about a year in which to build the building and equip the exhibition halls. Because of prefabrication it was completed in 190 days, just over six months. One of the reasons this was possible was that they only used two lengths of girder and similarly standardized other parts.

Not only was the design radical and ingenious but the team solved a number of new technical problems very efficiently, like draining water off the roof down through hollow tubes inside the cast iron girders.  This system was not perfect and leakage was always a nuisance.

Certain public structures were inspired by greenhouses of one sort or another. When the railways began in the early decades of the nineteenth century the owners turned to this type of construction for the termini. The buildings needed to be very large to accommodate both trains and people, they needed to be light and airy and they needed to withstand the elements.  Liverpool Street Station was built in 1836. Modern city planning would probably not have placed St Pancras Station within a few blocks of the Euston Terminus (1839). At least the Great West terminus was on the other side of town at Paddington, also constructed in 1839. The stations were built of wrought iron.

Euston Station 1839: early use of wrought iron in a public building

Greenhouse is a very capacious term for many different types of enclosure designed through the ages to nurture both edible and ornamental crops. A useful concept with which to view all the various methods employed is “protected cultivation”. The Romans understood how to do this. The ancient Chinese had effective methods about two thousand years ago.

The Italians discovered that placing a fruit tree against a south facing wall helped to protect it against cold winds. The wall received the sun’s greatest heat for a longer time and this radiated back into the air around the tree. From this it was only a short mental leap to covering the plants.

In the Early Modern era (if I may be allowed to use this now denigrated term) in Western Europe enclosures were initially needed to keep orange trees alive in an alien environment, “orangeries”. The arrival of orange trees in England via Spain and Italy led to the first buildings created for this purpose in the colder climates: orangeries. Orange trees originated in sub-tropical parts of China and required careful attention. Spain and Italy had quite cold winters yet oranges imported from Spain were available in London very early. They were a popular treat.  Nell Gwynne was an orange seller.

Origins of Greenhouses, EWB van der Muijzenberg:
A History of Greenhouses (with permission)

The first record of orange trees in England was at Beddington House in Surrey.  Toward the end of the sixteenth century Sir Francis Carew obtained saplings somehow, possibly from Paris and grew them outdoors.  The great diarist John Evelyn visited Beddington on his garden tours in the mid seventeenth century and noted that Carew had erected a shed over the trees in the very cold weather. Carew died in 1611. Soon after that era the next significant change was planting the small trees in moveable pots.

The first orangery was an open brick loggia forming part of the main house. Enclosing the open side was the next move. At first the ratio of brick wall to transparent spaces in the orangeries was more than fifty percent. With time they whittled that down until one side of the building was covered solely with glass panels fitted into narrow supports.  The Dutch had found this out, modifying the conditions as the seasons changed.

In summer the potted plants were wheeled outside into the open air. When it grew colder they were wheeled back in. The structures began to be heated, first by small localized braziers and later by large centralized stoves. One difficulty was the poor quality of early glass and its cost. It could only be made in small seizes and had chromatic and spherical aberrations. For many years transparent sheets of mica were preferred to let the light and warmth in.

Separating the plant house, no longer solely for oranges, from the main house was another step on the road to the classic greenhouse now so widely in use.  The next logical move was making a completely transparent house with the narrowest of supports. The walls and roof were now entirely glass panes in a supporting frame. Changes in building methods allowed this to be done.

John Claudius Loudon was the first person to experiment with wrought iron as a frame for greenhouses. He patented his narrow sash which had the additional advantage of being slightly malleable in 1816. How to get the most out of the exposure through the roof led to some controversy. Loudon came up with his “ridge and furrow” system, alternating the tilt of the glass panes depending on the axis from east to west. It seemed to make sense for many years but was eventually quietly dropped as not being really useful though Paxton did use the system for the Crystal Palace. (Addis) Later users also realized they needed to shade the interior at the hottest times of the day and came up with moveable fabric covers or a light opaque wash on the actual glass.

Floor Plan of the Crystal Palace

Ventilation was an important issue. Because many exotic plants were coming from hot countries the owners of greenhouses assumed that the plants could only flourish if the   greenhouse were kept at its highest temperature. Paxton was one of the first people to recognize that this was not true. By creating adequate ventilation he could cool down the interior at will and previously fragile and skittish orchids began to grow well for him.

Cast iron was the material which gave architects and builders the greatest
opportunity to do new and radical things. Loudon criticized Paxton for using wood in The Great Stove. They had a very complex relationship but Paxton was clever enough to learn from anyone. Loudon felt threatened and was jealous of Paxton but had the more original mind.

“Pig iron” was the by -product of early iron smelting and at first seemed to be useless. The ironmasters needed the soft pasty form of iron which could be wrought into many forms. If the initial pour from the furnace was not at the right temperature they had to let the mixture run off, putting it into containers, later known as “pigs’. It was disappointing as it had to be re -smelted, using up time, labour and fuel. At some time in the fifteenth century they realized this was a valuable material in itself. By modifying the receptacle at the furnace lip they could produce all sorts of parts, such as cooking pots, railings, weapons of varying kinds and tools.

The history of this industry does not lend itself to glib claims of originality but Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale is supposed to have started cast iron on its path to indispensable industrial material. He recognized the value of coke to do a better job of heating the furnaces than charcoal. This was well established by the mid-eighteenth century and cast iron was in general use by the nineteenth century. Great engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel used it to build the longest bridges ever seen over the most daunting rivers and chasms.

Plate glass was the other ingredient in this heady mix. In 1847 James Hartley patented his method of making large clear sheets of plate glass. His family had been glaziers for three generations and he went to France and Germany to learn their methods. After growing up near Birmingham he opened his own works in Sunderland in 1833 and produced plate glass using the German method of rolling the molten mass over a cylinder. Glass was still taxed at 7s 6d a hundred weight so the manufacturer had to be scrupulous in using very last bit of it. The repeal of the tax in 1845 was very welcome. In spite of this kind of plate glass being obviously so superior he met a lot of resistance in the building trades and had to work incredibly hard to sell it.

The foregoing indicates that all this development was only accessible to the very richest families. Nothing said opulence or luxury like the ability to grow pineapples in the chilly English countryside. The fruit was highly symbolic in several ways. One was its use as an architectural ornament. The actual fruit was way out for reach the average person. A stable boy gaping at a glittering gathering in Mayfair could only pine for “a cut of that there pine” as Thackeray says in “Vanity Fair”. The fruit’s modern ubiquity in tins says something for the forces of democracy after all.

Middle class and upper working class families were able to benefit from the reduced cost of a mass produced greenhouse later in the century. Smaller houses holding a modest number of plants became widespread. An unheated glasshouse gave enough protection for temperate plants even if they could not handle exotic ones. We cannot imagine the excitement caused by begonias when they first appeared in the 1880s. They are the most ordinary of flowers today but back then they were coddled like orchids. 

John Ruskin and his brethren inveighed against the soullessness of mass production but it played its part in allowing ordinary people to enjoy life more fully. While he was probably correct in theory this access to wholesome pleasure was a powerful counterbalance.

I have only skimmed the surface of a huge topic but hope I have said enough to start readers thinking.


Addis, Bill 2006     The Crystal Palace and its place in structural history
International Journal of Space Structures  vol 21 (I) March

Colquhoun, Kate 2006    The Busiest Man in England: a life of Joseph Paxton, gardener, architect and Victorian visionary
Boston        David R. Godine

Desmond, Ray 1993    Kew: the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens
London           The Harvill Press for the Royal Botanic Gardens

Gloag, John and Derek Bridgwater  1948 A History of Cast Iron in Architecture
London        George Allen and Unwin Ltd

Muijzenberg, E. W. B. van der    1980      A History of Greenhouses
Wageningen, The Netherlands      Institute for Agricultural Engineering

Ruskin, John 1851 – 1853 (reissue 2008) The Stones of Venice
London      Euston Grove


 Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.
Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is: www.horthistoria.com

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