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Chatsworth Conservatory and Lily House, site of
Chatsworth House, Edensor, Derbyshire, UK
Chatsworth Conservatory and Lily House, site of
associated engineer
Sir Joseph Paxton
date  1836 - 1840, 1849 - 1850
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  SK261697
photo  The Victorian Web, see foot of page
With these two buildings at Chatsworth House, Joseph Paxton pioneered the use of prefabrication in the construction of large span glasshouses. Both were demolished in 1920, and only the low stone walls of the conservatory remain. His work at Chatsworth anticipated the methods he later used for Crytsal Palace, the building he designed for London's Great Exhibition of 1851.
In 1826, aged only 23, Joseph Paxton (1803-65, knighted 1851) became head gardener at Chatsworth. He had impressed the house's owner, William Cavendish (1811-58, 6th Duke of Devonshire), whose London residence was close to Paxton’s previous place of work, Chiswick Gardens.
In the first half of the 19th century, there was intense interest in acquiring and cultivating plants from tropical regions, and these required hothouses to survive. Around the beginning of 1836, a scale model of Paxton’s design for the Great Conservatory (also known as the Great Stove) for Chatsworth was produced, and by July 1836 construction was underway. Architect Decimus Burton (1800-81), who later worked with ironworker Richard Turner (1798-1881) on the Palm House at Kew, acted as a consultant and approved Paxton’s plans.
The Chatsworth conservatory was the largest glass building in existence at the time — 84.4m long, 37.5m wide and 20.4m high. It housed a great variety of flora including trees, palms, ferns and aquatic plants. Strong light and warmth is vital for this type of horticulture, and Paxton maximised solar gain by constructing an arrangement of two convex curved tiers of timber-framed glazing. This brought daylight in from all directions.
The floor level of the glasshouse was below the made ground level, with a basement below housing boilers. The retaining walls (still standing) are of coursed squared sandstone, projecting about a metre above the ground. The walls lean slightly inward and form a rectangle of 19 by eight bays. Each bay includes a blind segmental arch, and the bays are separated by square battered piers with flat copings.
The walls were the footing for the conservatory structure, which consisted of curved panels laid out in a series of glazed ridges and furrows, framed in timber. Cast iron columns and beams were used internally, with the columns also serving as drainage downpipes. Timber sections were built up for use as arch ribs, glazing bars and the main gutters, with the aim of lessening the weight of the huge structure, and shortening the construction time.
The ridge and furrow system was invented by John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843). It set the glass at right angles to both the morning and evening sun, maximising the heat and light that reached the plants. It also enabled glasshouse coverage for large areas because of its structural strength. The panes of glass were joined by grooved timber sash bars, usually made by carpenters. However, Paxton realised that using a machine to make standardised bars would cut costs and assembly time.
According to Isobel Armstrong (2008), "he scoured workshops in Birmingham and London" to find a suitable groove-cutting machine. He then improved and developed it, producing a device capable of making and grooving the sash bars to the required profile from a plain piece of timber.
Paxton's fabricating machine was first used in August 1838. A 3.36kW steam engine already on site devoted half of its power to running the machine’s circular saws at 1,200 rpm. On average, the machine produced 500 sash bars in 1.2m lengths per day, mostly of Riga deal and some of oak. In section, the bar was coffin shaped, with a slot cut on either side below the widest point, to accommodate the glass. Sheet glass 1.22m (4ft) long was used — a new record, as previously only 910mm sheets had been available.
The guttering system in the furrows was also unique to Paxton. He used hollows in the sructural members to drain external and internal runoff, connecting these to the downpipes in the columns.
A north-south central carriageway, wide enough for two carriages to pass, ran through the middle of the conservatory. Flights of stairs, screened by rockeries (c.1845), led to a gallery around the top of the glazing’s first tier. Ventilation was provided by iron valves in the basement arches, at gallery level and at the top of the roof.
The building’s heating system was located in the basement. It consisted of eight coal-fired boilers, supplied with wagons of coal by an underground railway or tramway. The boilers heated an 11.3km network of 102mm and 152mm water pipes, running through tunnels apparently tall enough for a person to walk upright. Exhaust gases from the boilers escaped through ground level flues connected to a chimney out of sight in Stand Wood. In wintertime, the boilers used about 305 tonnes of coal.
The Great Conservatory opened in 1840 and cost a total of £33,099. The following year, the Society of Arts silver medal was presented to Paxton for his "Invention of a Machine for the purpose of Making Sash-bars". He claimed that on the Great Conservatory it performed the labour of 20 men for one year, saving around £1,200.
In 1849, Paxton designed a second conservatory at Chatsworth — the Lily House, constructed in the estate's Kitchen Garden to house a species of giant water lily, Victoria Regia (now Victoria Amazonica). The lily had recently been brought from the Amazon to London's Kew Gardens where it wasn’t thriving.
On 3rd August, Paxton collected one of the lilies from Kew. It was housed temporarily in a 3.7m square heated tank in a greenhouse at Chatsworth, where its leaves grew rapidly from 140mm to almost 1.5m across in three months. The lily flowered for the first time in November, producing a series of huge pineapple-scented blooms.
Paxton was interested in the lily’s tray-like leaves, which keep their shape by means of ribs radiating from the stem, connected by a web of flexible veins. This form, which he described as a "natural feat of engineering", gives strength and rigidity to a lightweight structure. On 17th November 1849, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of Paxton's seven-year-old daughter Annie standing on one of the lily pads.
The Lily House was some 18.3m long and 14m wide, constructed in a combination of wood, cast iron, wrought iron and glass. The glazed shell was supported on basement walls constructed in a rectangle, nine bays long and seven bays wide.
Using his observations, Paxton developed a horizontal version of the ridge and furrow glazing to provide extra roof stiffness, and a curtain wall system of hanging vertical bays of glass from cantilevered beams. The roof had seven longitudinal ridge-and-furrow bays, with gutters in the valleys. It was supported on eight slender vertical cast iron columns, four on each long side, connected at the top by cross beams.
The building contained a main tank 10m in diameter for the lily and eight smaller tanks, two in each corner, for other aquatic plants (Nymphaea, Nelumbium and Pontederia). The lily tank was heated to 28-29 degrees Celsius, regulated by four small waterwheels. Its central deeper zone, 4.9m in diameter, held soil in which were embedded 102mm diameter iron heating pipes. The shallower part of the tank used 51mm diameter lead pipes.
The Lily House was heated to between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius using 102mm diameter pipes laid around the inside of the basement walls. Ventilation was provided by 30 openings located between the basement wall piers, plus mechanically-operated openable lights in the roof.
The new building was completed by the end of April 1850. Paxton continued as head gardener at Chatsworth despite becoming a Member of Parliament and a leading figure in the emerging railway industry. He retired from his post when the 6th Duke died in 1858.
The Great Conservatory could be described as the first building in Britain to have an industrial aesthetic, the direct result of the use of batch-produced components. The building proved Paxton’s technical and organisational credentials, enhanced further by the design of the Lily House. The systemised approach to their construction emerged as key to the success of the Crystal Palace. Paxton envisaged using the same methodology on an even larger scale in The Great Victorian Way (1855, unbuilt).
By the 20th century, the Great Conservatory and the Lily House were falling into disrepair. During and after World War I (1914-18), coal could not be spared to heat the conservatory and most of its plants did not survive. The high cost of restoring, maintaining and heating the buildings led to their demolition in 1920. Only the foundation walls of the conservatory were retained. In 1962, Andrew Cavendish (1920-2004, 11th Duke of Devonshire) established a maze inside the walls, which were Grade II listed in June 1987.
Architectural assistant: Decimus Burton
Sheet glass: Chance Bros & Co, Birmingham
Research: ND, ECPK
"The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture" by James Stevens Curl and Susan Wilson, Oxford University Press, 2015
"Bruno Taut’s Design Inspiration for the Glashaus" by David Nielsen, Routledge, 2015
"Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination” by Isobel Armstrong, Oxford University Press, 2008
"Houses of Glass: A Nineteenth-Century Building Type" by Georg Kohlmaier and Barna von Sartory, MIT Press, 1991
"Building Systems Industrialisation and Architecture" by Barry Russell, John Wiley & Sons, London, 1981
"The Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Architecture and Technological Change" edited by Pedro Guedes, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1979
"A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method" by Sir Bannister Fletcher, The Athlone Press, London, 1963 (17th edition, revised R.A. Cordingley)
Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, Volume 53, London, 1841
Photo reproduced from
Colquhoun, Kate. "The Busiest Man in England:" A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect, and Visionary. Boston: David R. Godine, 2006. 300 pages. Many illustrations. ISBN 1-56792-301-1
This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose

Chatsworth Conservatory and Lily House, site of