Gardener to Grandee

Speaker: Rosina Brandham
Date: 25th October
Year: 2017


Rosina in full flow, Liam looks on

Rosina’s fascinating history about a great self-made gardener, started with his birth in 1803 in Bedfordshire, the last of eight children. His father was an agricultural labourer, but he must have had an education at school in Woburn.

He started work at the age of 13/14 for a small local estate whose chief manager was his elder brother some 20 years his senior. He decided that he wanted to become a horticulturalist and ran away to Hertfordshire and got an apprenticeship in horticulture for three years. At this time the aristocracy began to feel that they wanted to be involved in the new science of botany, due to the fame of plant hunters.

A horticulturalist was just becoming to be a distinct occupation. At the end of three years he returned home and again worked for his brother. Aged just 18 he was asked to design and build a large lake several acres in area – which he did. Sadly, this employer spent so much money on his garden that he became bankrupt.

Joseph wrote to the RHS in London (his CV was not completely truthful – he said that he had been at school until he was 15 and that his father was a tenant farmer). He got a job as a labourer at Chiswick in trial beds – salary 14 shillings a week, though there was a system of fines for such things as swearing, dirty tools, lateness and ignorance. The RHS aim was to raise standards of gardening throughout the country.

The land that the RHS was on was owned by the Duke of Devonshire, along with 8 other estates.  Chatsworth was the largest, but not in a good state. Joseph was promoted to undergardener, then the Duke offered him the position of head gardener at Chatsworth and 2 weeks later Joseph went to Chatsworth at the age of 23.

He arrived at Chesterfield – 12 miles from Chatsworth – and had to walk.  When he got there, there was no one about until he saw the men coming in at 6am. He set them to work and at 9am stopped for breakfast and met Sarah, who he married 9 months later. He got the gardens in good order, had 22 greenhouses built, one for each different crop and had a conservative wall built.

During this time the Duke became ambassador to Russia and went away. Joseph started an arboretum, as the Duke was keen on Monkey puzzle trees, and went to other stately homes to give advice. He founded a magazine called “The Gardener’s Register” and did most of the writing himself. It lasted until the 1970s.

Joseph became friends with the Duke who had his portrait painted. He also paid for Joseph to go the South Africa to collect orchids.

The Duke then ordered a large (5 acre) greenhouse to be built for all the new plants at a cost of £36,000. The Duke and Joseph then went off on a grand tour, leaving Sarah to manage everything in their absence. When Joseph returned he ordered sheets of glass 4ft long by 6ins wide, the largest that could be made at this time.

They were used to make a curvi linear structure 72 ft from top to bottom. The columns and beams were made of cast iron and the arched elements were made of laminated wood. Three years later Queen Victoria was driven through the central carriage way which was lit by 12 thousand lamps!

This greenhouse proved to be the model for the Crystal Palace which housed the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

We learned from Rosina’s talk that Joseph Paxton was a remarkable individual; self-made, self-educated, ambitious and bold. The greatest success story of all time?

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