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Paxton 150 - the remarkable plans to reconstruct the Crystal Palace

PUBLISHED: 14:16 10 September 2015 | UPDATED: 14:16 10 September 2015

John Greatrex in front of the plaque marking the site of Paxton's house on the Chatsworth estate Photo: www.sortoffilms.co.uk

John Greatrex in front of the plaque marking the site of Paxton's house on the Chatsworth estate Photo: www.sortoffilms.co.uk

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In the 150th year since the death of Joseph Paxton, Pat Ashworth talks to enthusiast John Greatrex FRSA about his ideas to reconstruct the great man’s legendary creation, The Crystal Palace

8th June 2015, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, John Greatrex, head gardener Steve Porter and fellow gardeners and the children of Pilsley CofE School pay their respects to Sir Joseph Paxton, and lay flowers at his grave, following a service led by the Reverend Canon Dave Perkins Photo: www.sortoffilms.co.uk8th June 2015, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, John Greatrex, head gardener Steve Porter and fellow gardeners and the children of Pilsley CofE School pay their respects to Sir Joseph Paxton, and lay flowers at his grave, following a service led by the Reverend Canon Dave Perkins Photo: www.sortoffilms.co.uk

John Greatrex is a self-confessed Crystal Palace anorak. There’s little he doesn’t know about Joseph Paxton’s best-known structure, the pre-fabricated Victorian marvel of iron, wood and glass that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. He founded the Crystal Palace Foundation (CPF) in 1979 with the object of preserving the memory of that building and the major role it played in the story and social development of Victorian and Edwardian London.

So 2015 – the 150th anniversary of Paxton’s death – offers a big opportunity to talk up the Crystal Palace alongside Paxton’s other achievements. Paxton’s story is legendary, his rise from gardener’s boy to head gardener at Chatsworth at the age of 22 extraordinary. The Crystal Palace, John Greatrex is fond of saying, was ‘conceived at Chatsworth, doodled at Derby, built in the Black Country, lent to London and scorched at Sydenham.’ He’d like to add, ‘Re-cast at...?’ – of which, more later.

The story is well known. Paxton, a director of the Derby-based Midland Railway Company, was chairing a meeting of the Works and Ways Committee on 11th June 1850, and, it seems, giving less than his full attention to the matter of trying a pointsman for a minor offence (the man got off with a five shilling fine). He knew of the Royal Commission, now well advanced, that had been set up to design a centrepiece for the Great Exhibition. Those at the meeting observed him doodling away on a piece of blotting-paper, which he then famously held up with the words, ‘This is a design for the Great Industrial Exhibition to be held in Hyde Park.’

Paxton took the design, loosely based on the Lily House at Chatsworth, back to his office there and had staff prepare detailed plans. Ten days later, he was off to London with them, encountering Robert Stephenson on the Derby platform. Stephenson thought the plans were good but too late, nor was the design seized on with much enthusiasm by the Royal Commission, even though there was no clear favourite. But Paxton – who knew the power of the press and had launched a national paper at the age of 28 – strongly promoted it and Punch gave it the name that caught the public imagination, The Crystal Palace.

A section of Paxton's Conservative Wall at Chatsworth todayA section of Paxton's Conservative Wall at Chatsworth today

It caught the imagination of John Greatrex when he was just a boy. His grandfather was born in 1880 and went to school in Wandsworth, where in 1893 he entered an essay competition and won. He had to walk from Wandsworth to the Crystal Palace to receive his prize, and the family cherish the connection. John’s father, an architect, worked for the civil service in the latter part of his career, including the Natural History Museum and the national Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

So big London buildings could be said to be in the blood. John, one-time athlete and member of the Great Britain running team from 1969-76, has had a career in teaching and in sports and arts management, and was working at the Crystal Palace sports centre when he founded the CPF – born out of a meeting in Eric Price’s barber shop in south-east London, where pictures of the Crystal Palace adorned the walls. The organisation went from strength to strength, put on an exhibition and opened a museum.

It all begs the question: just what is it about this structure – which was moved from Hyde Park as intended and reassembled in Sydenham – that makes it the object not only of a lifelong fascination but also of an ambition to see it rise again from the ashes of 1936, when it burnt down? That’s easy, says John Greatrex: it’s a civil engineering marvel. One of his most prized possessions is a coveted copy of the book of plans published in 1852 and reprinted by the V&A: 40 pages detailing exactly how the Crystal Palace was built, with the express purpose of enabling an architect to build a similar one if necessary. The design – the most advanced building of its time – was based on the repetition of standard components, iron columns and girders bolted together in blocks of three. It was 562 metres long, 124 metres wide and 32 metres high. The castings were all made in the West Midlands: the 4,000 tons of ironwork in Dudley and the 900,000 sq ft of glass in Smethwick. It was built in just six months, and six million people visited it during the five months it was in Hyde Park.

‘It’s the flower of Victorian architecture, just as the Globe Theatre was the jewel of the Elizabethan age,’ John reflects. And if they could reconstruct that, he suggests, what’s to stop the reconstruction of the Palace? He’s got a garage full of hundreds of cassette boxes which he uses to demonstrate the principles of the structure. But more than that, he succeeded – after eight years of seeking planning permission – in erecting a full corner of the structure on the Sydenham site, where the foundations of the Crystal Palace remain, buried under 385,000 tons of bricks from bombed-out houses in the Blitz.

The completed corner of the Palace at SydenhamThe completed corner of the Palace at Sydenham

His efforts began in 2000, when the BBC made a series called ‘What The Victorians Did For Us’. John was an advisor for the programme on the Crystal Palace, which challenged the Barr and Grosvenor iron foundry in Wolverhampton to reconstruct a corner of the structure in Hyde Park and a glass blower to make the glass pieces.‘We were sitting in Hyde Park, watching them erect it for just one day,’ John remembers. ‘And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could get that from them and put it on the Sydenham site...’

The pieces were returned to the Black Country iron foundry where they had been made. After being shown at on an exhibition at Dulwich Picture gallery in 2004, in 2005 it finally got the planning permission it needed. But how to get the iron columns down to London – with no budget whatsoever to do so? Begging, borrowing and cajoling resulted in a journey by narrowboat down the Grand Union Canal, the involvement of a Victorian steam fair and a chance encounter with a construction firm, Charlie Patrick Foster of Keighley – company name, CPF.

‘We had no idea how we could do it when we set out,’ John says cheerfully. ‘It was sheer serendipity and catching each little wave, catching the right person at the right time. A lot of people can look back and say, we did our bit.’ When the structure was unveiled in June 2008, with children from the Paxton Junior School in Sydenham cutting the ribbon and laying flowers, it became pleasingly obvious from just how many perspectives it could be seen.

Many people have speculated on where the Crystal Palace could be reconstructed. ‘Wherever it got put up, it has 150 years of publicity,’ muses John Greatrex. It might have happened in Derby as a Millennium Experience, but didn’t. There are the opportunities afforded by the World Expo, which happens every five years and could happen in London in future years.

The 1853 reconstruction of the Palace at SydenhamThe 1853 reconstruction of the Palace at Sydenham

But it doesn’t have to be London, its advocates say: it might have been assembled in London but it was made in the Midlands. Birmingham would be a strong contender. ‘It doesn’t need to have anything inside it... People would go and see it just as they go to the Coliseum in Rome, or to the Pyramids... Dream on,’ John Greatrex says longingly.

But meanwhile, several events have been planned to mark the 150th anniversary, chiefly, of course, in Derby and Derbyshire – Paxton’s adopted home. 11th June has been celebrated annually since the year 2000 as Derby Doodle Day. There’s a plaque to Paxton at the railway station, and a blue plaque is also under consideration. He was commemorated on Monday 8th June, the anniversary of his death, at a 2pm service in the church in Edensor, where he is buried and where schoolchildren laid flowers on his grave. After this the commemorations moved elsewhere, to other places associated with Paxton’s life, work – and genius.

For further information on Paxton 150 contact jmgreatrex@gmail.com

Sir Joseph PaxtonSir Joseph Paxton

On 11th and 12th September Sheffield University is hosting a conference, ‘Paxton 150: Histories and Futures of Public Parks’. Paxton’s 1843 design for the first public park at Birkenhead became a prototype. The conference marks 150 years since Paxton’s death and re-assesses the legacy of public parks. It focusses on Paxton’s heritage but addresses overarching themes that have wider international implications. For further details go to www.sheffield.ac.uk/landscape/events/paxton150.

Joseph Paxton

Son of a Bedfordshire farmer, Paxton was born on 3rd August 1803. At the age of 15 he became a garden boy at Battlesden Park, near Woburn, and by the age of 20 he was working at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens. These bordered the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s riverside villa, Chiswick House, and the Duke became impressed with the young gardener he chatted to in the neighbouring gardens. When the job of head gardener at Chatsworth became vacant in 1826, the Duke offered Paxton the job, although he was only 23.

In 1827 – less than nine months after he met her on his first morning at Chatsworth – he married Sarah Bown, the niece of the housekeeper. Paxton was to remain at Chatsworth until the Duke died in 1858 – eventually managing all his estates and finances. He undertook many major projects at Chatsworth, including the creation of a ‘pinetum’ which extended into an impressive arboretum (the means he developed for moving mature trees were nationally acclaimed), the Rock Garden, the amazing Emperor Fountain and accompanying waterworks, the Lily House where the giant waterlily ‘Victoria Amazonica’ flowered in this country for the first time, the Great Conservatory, Conservative Wall and the layout of the village of Edensor. He organised plant hunting expeditions and worked on parks in Liverpool, Birkenhead, Glasgow, Halifax and Scarborough. In 1845 he was invited to lay out one of the country’s first municipal cemeteries in Coventry and designed renowned country houses in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. Other projects he undertook included gardening publications, such as The Gardeners’ Chronicle, and he was a director of the Midland Railway. He was also a Liberal Member of Parliament for Coventry from 1854 to 1865.

Many of Paxton’s greatest achievements were a result of his close working relationship with his patron and friend the 6th Duke of Devonshire. However, his design for the Crystal Palace to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park was undoubtedly his greatest triumph, and earned him a knighthood. His design has stood the test of time and was the inspiration behind the construction of feats of Victorian engineering such as the roof of St Pancras and in modern times large roofs such as those at the British Museum and the Eden Project.

After the Great Exhibition the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, where the Duke of Devonshire built a house for Paxton. It was here he died on 8th June 1865, although he was buried in the churchyard at Edensor. His wife, Sarah, remained at their house on the Chatsworth Estate until her death in 1871. The Duke of Wellington famously remarked of Paxton: ‘I would have liked that man of yours as one of my generals.’ Perhaps the finest tribute, though, is this comment from the late Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire: ‘Paxton was liked by everyone. Not just his employers and friends, but also by the people who worked for him. He was much loved.’

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