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Paxton's Palace

Anthony Bird

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Henry Cole was an assistant-keeper at Public Record Office. Title sounds like a minor bureaucrat, but he was a fixer - someone who cd get things done. He edited various journals promoting design (and won a competition for a porcelain tea service which gave him significant royalties). These brought him into contact with many of the leading industrialists, and membership of Society of Arts, chaired by Prince Albert.

One of first things Albert did was to back an Exhibition of Art Manufacturers in 1848. It was headed for failure by Henry Cole visiting scores of factories and selecting articles for the show. The success of this Exhibition laid foundations for 1851. After visiting the Paris Exhibition of 1849, Cole realised that the British one needed to be international.

Royal Commission appointed 11 Jan 1850, which meant only fifteen months to proposed opening date. July 1850 they still hadn't selected a building design. The committee rejected 245 suggested plans, and instead went for a design by one of the committee members, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (the famous son of the famous father. Isambard built the Great Western railway and later the Great Eastern steamship.) The big problem was that it required 16 million bricks and, with nine months to go, unlikely that bricks cd be produced, let alone laid.

Enter Joseph Paxton, born 1803. He had no formal qualifications as an architect or an engineer, but the Duke of Devonshire was so impressed with his ideas that he hired him in 1826 as head gardener at his Chatwick House estate. His landscaping outdid Capability Brown - diverted streams, dug lakes, lowered hills, moved huge trees and an entire village, which was rebuilt out of sight of the manor house.

To house the many delicate plants he and the duke collected, he built the Great Conservatory. It covered an acre, with a carriage drive running through it. In 1849 he built a smaller, more elegant glasshouse specially for a giant water lily named after Queen Victoria. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew had germinated some seeds but were unable to grow them. Paxton set up a warm water tank which was kept in gentle motion. He was rewarded with giant leaves six feet across and football-sized flower buds.

Paxton also gained rep as financial manager of Devonshire's estates, which he restored to prosperity, and published a series of horticultural books. By the 1850s he was moving in the industrial and railway circles.

At the very last minute, Paxton met Henry Cole, and promised to produce plans for his version of the building in seven days. His design, with greta walls and roofs of iron-framed glass covering eight acres, was unprecedented.

Paxton had some significant backers who had seen what he aws capable of. One was the Duke of Wellington who had been at a fete held at Chatsworth in 1843. Paxton had conjured up a magical spectacle with gardens, trees, fountains and pools and statuary lit up by thousands of fairy lights and gas flares. (All this in pre-electrical light era). It was a stunning and complex display. The Duke wanted to know how it would be dismantled, so he got up early next morning only to find that not a single candle end or bit of scorched shrubbery remained. The grass, trampled by hundreds of feet had been dug up and returfed. Paxton had hired a large group of labourers who had sprig-cleaned several acres, working by lamplight, between midnight and dawn. "I would have liked that man of yours for one of my generals" said Wellington to Devonshire.

Taking no chances, Paxton got the Illustrated London News to publish engravings of his design together with an explanation of its merits, including the advantage that it cd be cheaply dismantled. Finally, at the end of July 1850, the building committee agreed to Paxton's proposal.

He then had less than a week to cost his design. Had to calculate quantities and labour for two buildings, each bigger than the biggest cathedral, and one on a new construction method. He called in Robert Chance (Chance Bros, Birmingham the biggest glassmakers), and Fox and Henderson the engineers.

Estimated 3800 tons cast iron and 700 tons of wrought, and 600,000 cu ft of timber. 900,000 sq ft of sheet glass, most of it in a size that had never been mass-produced before. Fox and Henderson offered to put the buildings up for £150,000 (or £80,000 if they cd take it away afterwards). That worked out at about a penny per cubic foot for the full price. And they were agreeing to erect a building enclosing 19 acres, with a vaulted roof high enough to cover the three old and tall elms in the centre of Hyde Park, in 22 weeks.

The first job for workmen was to enclose whole 26 acres with a stout timber fence 8ft high. The vertical posts and the horizontal planks of the fence were carefully dimensioned so they cd be used to make joists and floorboards of the finished building.

(Trick copied by Henry Ford. If a Model T was collected from the factory, it came with fitted floorboards. But if it was to be sent by rail, they didn't have floorboards; the wooden crates it was sent in were assembled in such a way that the recipient cd disassemble them for the floor.

The design of the Crystal Palace was completely new. It was the first purely metal-framed building, with light metal girders and a minimum of diagonal bracing.

Much of Victorian canals and railways were built with little regard for safety. The five year task of digging the three mile Woodhead tunnel maimed or killed more men than any of the major battles of the century, Waterloo included. Yet nobody died building the Crystal Palace.

Used galvanized iron for the ventilation louvres. In those days it actually was galvanized - the zinc deposited by galvanic (electrolytic) action - whereas today it is hot dipped.

When Exhibition closed, found had a profit of £186,000. The Royal Commission which ran the show is still active, administering a large income for the benefit of museums and institutions.

Paxton and Fox were knighted; Henry Cole had to wait until 1875 when he was knighted for his work on creating what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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