People in Glass Houses … (Joseph Paxton)

Recently I read Bill Bryson’s book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which starts with an anecdote that is not about private life at all. The anecdote concerns the design and construction of the Crystal Palace, which was built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, seen as a response to the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, was meant for “Great Britain [to make] clear to the world its role as industrial leader”.

By 1850, however, less than two years before the scheduled opening of the Great Exhibition, the Royal Commission appointed to organise the exhibition had hit the wall – or the lack of one. They hadn’t yet worked how to house the exhibition. The only viable plans available would both:

  • take too long to build, and
  • make an unacceptable mess of its Hyde Park site.

Enter Joseph Paxton.

Born in 1803, Joseph Paxton had worked his way up from a garden boy to become Head Gardener at Chatsworth House, the seat (then and now) of the Duke of Devonshire. By 1850, Paxton had expanded his work to include (among many other things) skills in designing and building glass-houses. The greatest of these, the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was, at its completion, the largest glass building in the world.

Paxton conceived an idea to construct the Exhibition building from glass and cast iron in the same way as he had built his glasshouses. Encouraged by the support of a fellow director of the Midland Railway, he presented a plan to the Royal Commission, where initially it met with resistance. In no way deterred, Paxton short-circuited that resistance by submitting his design for publication in the Illustrated London News, where it met with universal acclaim.

Sayeth Wikipedia:

“Its novelty was its revolutionary modular, prefabricated design, and use of glass. Glazing was carried out from special trolleys, and was fast: one man managed to fix 108 panes in a single day. The Palace was 1,848 feet long, 408 feet (124 m) wide and 108 feet (33 m) high. It required 4,500 tons of iron, 60,000 cubic feet of timber and needed over 293,000 panes of glass. Yet it took 2,000 men just eight months to build, and cost just £79,800. Quite unlike any other building, it was itself a demonstration of British technology in iron and glass.”

And so to the clerihew:


  1. The construction of the Crystal Palace was made possible not only physically by technological advances in the manufacture of glass and cast iron but also financially by the dropping of a tax on glass.
  2. After the Great Exhibition closed, the building was moved and re-erected in an area of south London that was renamed Crystal Palace. The building was destroyed by fire in 1936.
  3. The current dowager Duchess of Devonshire is the last surviving member of the famous Mitford sisters.
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