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.
In August 2023, we were delighted to receive permission to finally secure our Blue plaque in memory of Joseph Paxton to one of the pillars of the Sunburst Gates.
The Duke of Devonshire is seen here planting a Chinese Tulip tree with help from children of St. Silas' school. The tree was planted to commemorate the work of Joseph Paxton, designer of Princes Park during our 180th anniversary. For more pictures see our Gallery 5.
Below is a short video of the Duke of Devonshire's visit to Merseyside when he came to plant commemorative trees and plaques in Princes Park and Birkenhead Park to honour the work of Joseph Paxton who designed the two parks. We are indebted to Liverpool City Council for their financial support and to all those who made the video possible. Please see credits at end of the film.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.