Skip to content

Britain’s finest conservatory

Whilst we have looked at some of today’s finest European conservatories and orangeries, let’s delve into the history books to take a look at one of England’s finest. Although this magnificent building was demolished in 1920, it still manages to retain the name: ‘The Great Conservatory‘.

Joseph Paxton, who later went on to achieve notoriety for designing Crystal Palace, was given the task of designing a hothouse for the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s true passion, tropical plants. His innovations in the use of large span glasshouses became the forerunner of all greenhouses and conservatories and his work on the building for the Dukes certainly set the bar high.

The plans

At the tender age of 23, Joseph Paxton impressed the Duke so much that he employed him as head gardener at his country residence Chatsworth House in 1826. This was during an era when tropical plants from exotic regions were being introduced into the upper class households and to survive, these plants required hothouses. It was in 1837 that Paxton, along with Architect Decimus Burton (the designer of Kew gardens’ famous Palm House) began designing the Great Conservatory for Chatsworth House.

The design

The conservatory was 84m long and 37m wide. This vast impression was 84m long, 37m wide and 19m high and was to be the largest glass building in England. Amazingly the interior housed:

  • Exotic palms
  • Ponds full of aquatic plants
  • Rocks
  • Mosses
  • Ferns
  • Tropical plants
  • Strikingly coloured flowers

The cavernous interior allowed enough space for two carriages to pass on the main walkway, with a flight of stairs concealed by ascending rocks.


To recreate the necessary tropical climate, underground rail wagons delivered coal to eight underground boilers. These boilers then dispersed hot water through a seven-mile maze of 6-inch hot water pipes. Incredibly, in winter, it took 300 tons of coal to fuel the boilers. To maximise early notions of solar heating, the light wooden frame with a ridge-and-furrow roof allowed more light in as well as the removal of rainwater. Paxton also thought up an innovative method of utilising hollow pillars to double up as guttering and drainpipes.

The Lily House

Although Paxton’s Great Conservatory took four years to build, he also managed to construct a smaller one in 1849, to house a particularly interesting species of Lily. This Amazonian plant’s leaves grew to twelve feet wide and became too big for the conservatory at Kew Gardens, so Paxton built the Lily House at Chatsworth to breed the incredible plant. He called the Lily: a natural feat of engineering and tested its properties by floating his daughter Annie on one leaf!

The demise of The Great Conservatory

It was during the First World War and the effects of the aftermath that seriously affected the supply of coal. The result of this crippling shortage meant there was not enough coal to heat the conservatory suitably and many of the tropical plants died. Both conservatories ran into serious disrepair and because of the uniqueness of their glass and timber design, restoration was simply out of the question. Sadly in 1920, the Great Conservatory and the Lily House were demolished, leaving only supporting walls as fitting memorial to this revolutionary building.

Interestingly it was Paxton who was integral in building the conservatories we see today. He devised a ‘ready to build’ conservatory that was cheap, simple to erect and ready for immediate use.  With its revolutionary prefabricated glass design consisting of 60 000 cubic feet of timber, 4 500 tons of iron and over 293 000 panes of glass, its simplicity of construction took only 8 months to build. The resulting Crystal Palace still dominates the aesthetically astounding building lists of today. This surely was the forefather of the purpose built conservatory of today.

So remember a conservatory has a myriad of uses from your very own home gym to your toddler’s sunny playroom. Whatever you want from a conservatory, speak to one of our experts at Unicorn Windows today.

[Photo by kili21]