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Paxton, Sir Joseph

People > Paxton, Sir Joseph

Sir Joseph Paxton, gardener, architect and engineer is most famous for his building which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. This gigantic structure was built almost entirely of glass and covered eighteen acres. The exhibition, organized by Prince Albert, was a showcase for trade and products from all over the world.

Joseph Paxton, a farmer's son, was born on the 3rd August 1803 in Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire. After his father's death, his mother could no longer afford to keep him at school so he was sent to help out on his brother's farm. Here he was treated extremely harshly and eventually ran away. He found work as a garden boy at Battlesden Park near Woburn and then moved to Woodhall in Hertfordshire where the head gardener was a keen horticulturalist. Joseph loved his work and was eager to embrace new ideas.

At the age of nineteen he was invited to return to Battlesden and supervise the construction of a lake which brought about a great interest in engineering. It was whilst working as a foreman at the Horticultural Society gardens, Chiswick, a few years later, that his talent was spotted by the Duke of Devonshire who offered him a position at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Here he worked wonders, levelling, draining, planting, diverting streams, contriving fountains and building huge conservatories. His Great Conservatory, an acre in extent, was considered one of the wonders of the county.

In the 1840s, Prince Albert, announced his idea of a great exhibition to encourage the trade and industries of all nations. Paxton's design in iron and glass was a great success. After the exhibition closed, Paxton dismantled and re-erected the Crystal Palace (as it was known) at Sydenham Hill, south London where it stood for 84 years until it was burnt down on the 30th November 1936.

Paxton was always a champion of the poor and became a member of Parliament for Coventry. He also served as a Justice of the Peace.

He died on the 8th June 1865 and was buried alongside his employer in Edenson churchyard near Chatsworth. A memorial window in the church at Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire commemorates him.

Further Reading:

  • Bedfordshire and the Crystal Palace by M Roberts, in Bedfordshire Magazine, vol. 2, pages 299-304
  • The garden architect by A.J. Hales, in Bedfordshire Magazine, vol. 10, pages 1-3
  • A man of many facets by J Mott, in Bedfordshire Magazine, vol. 20, pages 95-98

Sir Joseph Paxton, by Bedfordshire Libraries, 2005

Page last updated: 3rd February 2014