Joseph Paxton: More Than a Gardener

Happy birthday today to a memorable Brit, the great Joseph Paxton!

Two hundred and fifteen years ago today—on August 3, 1803—one of Britain’s most extraordinary men was born on a farm 50 miles north of London. His name was Joseph Paxton. He was an indispensable figure in the greatest public celebration of trade in the 19th century.

The Cultivation of Greatness

He was a precocious teenager that the Society liked so much its management hired him.

If you like bananas, by the way, you should like Joseph Paxton. The bananas you eat are almost certainly of the Cavendish variety, they being overwhelmingly the most popular banana in the Western world. When he was in his early 30s, Paxton worked as a gardener at Chatsworth House for its owner William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire. It was in Cavendish’s greenhouse that Paxton cultivated the banana, gave it the botanical name of Musa cavendishii in honor of his employer, and then went on to win a coveted medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for his pioneering work with the plant. Sixteen years later, Paxton’s intimate knowledge of greenhouses would give birth to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its famously exquisite Crystal Palace.

Paxton possessed a keen interest in plants from a very early age. To gain entry into the study program at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens, he lied about his age and claimed he was born two years earlier than he was. It turned out not to matter. He was a precocious teenager that the Society liked so much its management hired him shortly thereafter.

After the banana, Paxton took on another challenge while working for Cavendish. The world’s largest water lily is the Victoriana amazonica (native to Brazil and named for Britain’s Queen Victoria) but no one could get it to bloom in Britain. Paxton and an associate gardener were trusted with a seedling, and in short order, they had nurtured it into a mature, blooming specimen. Its nearly five-foot wide leaves were strong enough for Paxton to float his infant daughter Annie on one.

The sturdiness of the lily’s massive foliage fascinated Paxton, who termed them “a natural feat of engineering.” The ribs and cross-ribs of the leaves gave him ideas for creating massive greenhouses that could be far larger than any built to date. Now for exactly where this inspiration led, I’d like to draw heavily from an article I wrote some 15 years ago for the balance of this one.

The Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations

By the middle of the 19th century, Britain was the industrial “workshop of the world,” producing more than half of all coal, iron, and cotton cloth. Powered by a relatively free economy that was becoming freer by the decade, Britain’s railroads, factories, and machine technology were well ahead of any other nation’s. It was time to celebrate not only Britain’s remarkable achievements but also those of free trade and free enterprise the world over. Around the mid-1840s, these thoughts came to animate Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, the Prince Consort.

The project was in danger of foundering when the gardener Joseph Paxton came forth with plans for a monster edifice made entirely of glass panes.

Albert and his advisers felt that Britain should host a fair to showcase the industrial might of all nations. Like so many people of the time, they were ecstatic about the potential of capitalist invention and the peaceful, international trade it fostered. In January 1850, Victoria named Albert to head a 24-man Royal Commission to make the “Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations” a reality.

Prince Albert declared at the start of the commission’s deliberations that the Exhibition should not and would not be funded by government. This was to be a celebration of private enterprise, and it seemed only logical for private, enterprising citizens to foot the bill. Everything from the building that would house it to the exhibits themselves would be paid for by voluntary contributions, fundraising campaigns, and admission fees.

As soon as London’s Hyde Park was chosen for the 1851 site, the Royal Commission solicited proposals for a building to house the Exhibition during the expected six months it would be open to the public. The project was in danger of foundering amid designs deemed too costly when the gardener Joseph Paxton came forth with plans for a monster edifice made entirely of glass panes (nearly a quarter million of them) and the supporting iron framework.

Thanks to the repeal in 1845 of Britain’s longstanding and onerous “window tax,” the price of glass had fallen by 80 percent, making Paxton’s design affordable. (Another hero of mine, classical liberal and future four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone was largely responsible for that repeal).

For a visitor to give every exhibit the attention it deserved would have required 200 hours.

When that magnificent glass edifice known as the Crystal Palace opened its doors on May 1, 1851, the sheer immensity of it made for a grand show: 1,851 feet long (a dimension intended to fit the year), 408 feet wide, and 108 feet high at the entrance. It was built to accommodate as many as 60,000 people at one time, in addition to nearly 14,000 exhibits. There was nothing like it in all the world. Michael Leapman, author of The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation, calls it “the first mass spectacle that appealed to almost every social class.”

For a visitor to give every exhibit the attention it deserved would have required 200 hours in the building, according to London’s most famous newspaper of the day, The Times. There was the huge and fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond from India; a 40-foot scale model of the Liverpool docks, complete with 1,600 meticulously accurate miniature ships; sophisticated threshing machines and other labor-saving farm equipment; a knife with 1,851 blades; exotic fabrics and furnishings, looms, sewing machines; a prototype submarine; gas cookery, electric clocks, and one of the earliest versions of a washing machine.

The wide array of displays representing the very latest of industry from America included a set of unpickable locks, a model of Niagara Falls, a 16,400-pound lump of zinc, a McCormick reaper, a Colt revolver, and, in Leapman’s words, “a piano that could be played by four people at once and a violin and piano joined in such a way that a single musician could play them both at the same time on a single keyboard.”

The Exhibition itself gave birth to new inventions. One of many examples was provided by George Jennings, a sanitary engineer. His ingenious flush toilets and decorative, space-saving urinals prevented a potential health hazard. They sparked so much public interest and fascination that his designs were subsequently copied in cities around the world.

It generated a financial surplus that still kicks out payments for venture capital projects today, nearly 17 decades later.

Some of Britain’s best-known businesses trace their origins to the Great Exhibition. Thomas Cook, the firm that today boasts more than 4,000 affiliated travel agencies around the world, got its start when its namesake began offering low-price excursion packages to get people from all corners of Britain to the Palace in Hyde Park. The big profits Charles Harrod earned serving visitors in his modest grocery store proved to be the capital he needed to create one of the most famous department stores in the world.

When the Exhibition closed its doors on October 18 after five and a half months, more than six million people had come through it. Unsubsidized except for the loan of Hyde Park, it generated a financial surplus that still kicks out payments for venture capital projects today, nearly 17 decades later.

More Than a Gardener

If all that Joseph Paxton ever did was a good job at gardening, cultivating the banana and that big water lily, and designing the magnificent Crystal Palace, he would deserve a prominent place in the panoply of British geniuses. But in 62 years of life (he died in 1865), he also published magazines and dictionaries; designed many famous country houses, gardens, and cemeteries; and invested successfully in railroads.

He served in Parliament for the last 11 years of his life as a member of Gladstone’s Liberal Party, working to keep government small and efficient. That alone earns him my respect and gratitude!

Joseph Paxton never lost his love of the natural world around him. He expressed that affection well when he wrote in a treatise on the dahlia,

No occupation is more worthy of an intelligent and enlightened mind than the study of Nature and natural objects; and whether we labour to investigate the structure and function of the human system, whether we direct our attention to the classification and habits of the animal kingdom, or we prosecute our researches in the more pleasing and varied field of vegetable life, we shall constantly find some new object to attract our attention, some fresh beauties to excite our imagination, and some previously undiscovered source of gratification and delight.

I see a direct connection between Paxton’s appreciation of nature and his political perspective, which was classically liberal in the European sense. Perhaps because he was in awe of nature as a student of it, he was apt to give each human broad latitude rather than be a ruler of him. He celebrated and imitated both design and diversity in nature; he didn’t try to warp it or homogenize it. And that perspective seems to fit his politics too.

Happy birthday today to a memorable Brit, the great Joseph Paxton!

More by Lawrence W. Reed

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