A Brief History of the Victorian Glasshouse

Samantha PillingHistory, The Gardens

The greenhouse, otherwise known as the Victorian glasshouse, became an iconic feature of british gardens during the Victorian era. As the Victorian’s love of gardening grew, the need to house their fragile, temperature controlled and valuable plants did too. The glasshouse provided a home for these species, whilst also paving the way for plant experimentation and cultivation.

A status symbol of wealth and prestige

However, glasshouses were only originally used by the incredibly wealthy and elite Victorians. Glass and window taxes made it incredibly expensive to create even the smallest of glass buildings, and they became a status symbol of wealth and privilege for the age. Elaborate bespoke glass buildings were created to maximise light and create the perfect temperature for plants previously only grown abroad.

Botany was incredibly popular in the Victorian era – in fact, it was the most popular science of the 19th Century. Plants were discovered and collected from all over the world, brought back to the UK and then shown off and studied accordingly. To help study, preserve and show off these plants, a temperature controlled environment was needed. There was also a growing need to prolong the growing season of many ordinary food plants too, so large beautiful, ornate glass houses were created.

Glasshouse architect, Joseph Paxton

Gardener, architect and keen botanist Joseph Paxton (1803-65) was the notable glasshouse designer of choice. Known as the head gardener at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, he initially designed glasshouses for Chatsworth (including the Great Conservatory), before going on to build the Crystal Palace in London. He also cultivated the Cavendish Banana – the most consumed banana in the western world!

Industrial change made glasshouses more affordable

The Industrial Revolution made glasshouse production costs drop. Timber became cheaper to import, paint and bricks could be mass produced, and innovations in the machine tool industry meant an increase in the production of wrought and cast iron. When the glass tax was repealed in 1845, along with the abolishment of window tax in 1851, glass became a more affordable material. The working middle-classes could now afford to build and own glasshouses too. Manufacturers started to produce smaller, plain glasshouses – iron and glass structures that could be self-assembled in your own back garden.

Designs to suit the differing needs of gardeners

The design of glasshouses changed too, to suit a variety of different uses. Display houses, hot houses, ferneries, orangeries, mushroom houses and cut flower houses were all created to suit the changing needs of the keen gardener. Large conservatories, otherwise known as winter gardens, were attached to the side of houses. These buildings gave you and your guests a place to exercise during the cold seasons and bad weather.

Glasshouses were heated using simple stoves, during the early Victorian era, fueled by coal or Coke. However, with the advancement of boiler technology, sophisticated cast iron boilers with pressurised systems gradually replaced them.

Glasshouse or greenhouse?

So what makes a glasshouse, a greenhouse? There is still a debate around what constitutes a glass or greenhouse however, it’s generally accepted that a glasshouse is a building created mainly from glass and steel. Greenhouses, as we know them today, may still consist of glass, but the majority are created from wood and polyethylene – hence the change in name!

Photo Credit: The Temperate House, Kew Gardens, London.

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