This is a biography of Joseph Paxton, one of the remarkable men of the Victorian age. He was born in 1803, the seventh son and ninth and last child of a farm labourer who died when he was six. Yet this lad, born in rural poverty during the Napoleonic wars, a young boy during the Luddite riots and at the time of the Peterloo massacre, during the early days of the industrial revolution when there was great rural and urban poverty, went on to become one of the most celebrated men in England and a knight of the realm. It must have helped that he was a workaholic. But it is a remarkable story.
Strangely, the tale intersects with many aspects of my own life. My father told me about seeing, when he was a boy, Crystal Palace burn down; as a young boy I remember being taken to the park that was left after the Palace burned and seeing the famous model dinosaurs. Paxton was born in Milton Bryant, near Woburn, in Bedfordshire where I live. I tried to learn the violin in Turnham Green. At one stage he bought the orchid collection of the vicar of Kimbolton, a post later filled by the step-father of my wife's first husband. One of his collectors collected plants from Sylhet; I am proud to be friendly with many Sylhetis. He designed Shepperton Park near where I grew up.
He was originally a gardener. He learned his trade in Battlesden Park near Woburn and then completed his horticultual education in the gardens of the Horticultural Society adjoining Chsiwick House in Turnham Green. The owner of Chiswick House was the Duke of Devonshire; he had a private gate into this gardens. At some time he met Paxton there and offered him the job of Head Gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, one of the country's foremost stately homes. Paxton was 23.
Paxton fully lived up to this formidable promotion, spending vast sums of the Duke's money on creating splendid gardens at Chatsworth. Gardening was in its competitive heyday with plant collectors scouring the globe. Paxton's special triumph was cultivating the first flowering water lily in England. But he had already begun to branch out. He created England's first municipal park in Birkenhead. He became a specualtor and a shareholder in a number of railway companies and began to advise the government on the royal gardens. He founded and edited some gardening magazines and later became one of the founders of the Daily News, originally edited by Charles Dickens. Late in life he became an MP. But he is most remembered as the man who designed the Crystal Palace (basically an enormous greenhouse) for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park (it was later moved to Sydenham where it burned in the 1930s).
This is a biography of a most remarkable man. He had boundless energy and the ability (or the arrogance) to turn his hand to so many different ventures. I did feel sorry for the wife he left at home when his career began to explode into the limelight. He should be better known.
April 2019; 253 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57