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Chatsworth, the Grand Conservatory

This superb albumen photograph of Chatsworth's Great Conservatory is likely to date from the 1870s - it was something that in its day would undoubtedly been considered to be a truly exotic wonder. The damage on the right of the picture does not take away anything from the scene.

William Adam described the Conservatory in 1857: "this immense mountain of glass might be compared to three square half cones truncated at each end. The exterior base of the upper one resting on the apex of the two others ; ... the whole has a very grand effect".[1]

The following lengthy description is taken from Black's Guide of 1864.

"THE GRAND CONSERVATORY was, before the advent of the Hyde Park Palace of Industry, the finest erection of the kind in existence. The form of the building, which covers about an acre of ground, is compared by one writer to the hull of a vessel turned upside down, with a smaller one on each side. "In description," the writer adds, "this may not sound well, but in reality nothing can be more effective than the appearance, or grander than the effect, of this immense mountain of glass, with no visible means of support or adhesion, and apparently kept together by some unknown power." The height of the central transept is 67 feet, with a span of 70. It rests on two rows of iron pillars, 28 feet high. The plan of the conservatory is a parallelogram 277 feet by 123 ; it is heated by hot water, the pipes conveying which would reach, if placed in one continuous line, not less than six miles. Upwards of 70,000 square feet of glass were required for the roofs. A gallery runs round the building at about two-thirds of its height, the steps to which are formed in a mass of rock-work. It is difficult to conceive a more enchanting sight than that which greets the eye as we enter at the elegant Grecian portico at the north end. The talent of the architect and taste of the landscape-gardener have done everything to gratify the eye, and excite the imagination. The light airy effect of the glass roofs, the balmy air, the light and shade struggling for the mastery, the noble array of tropical vegetation, and the myriads of humming birds of every colour flying about, transport us for a time to the regions of perpetual summer, and away to the gardens of enchantment. Here, on each side of the carriage-drive, which passes up the centre of the Conservatory, we have tall palms, such as give vigour to the swamps of South America; plantains and bananas from China, the East Indies and Mauritius, with tall, aerial stems. and long flat green leaves; dragons-blood trees, the papyrus of the Nile, bamboos, and the useful India-rubber tree, with a myriad of others, conveying the mind to the burning tropics. "All the choicest and rarest floral productions that have been discovered are here in open borders, planted in a soil suited to the nature of each species; and the temperature is so skillfully managed that each plant, or shrub, or tree, rejoices and flourishes in that degree of warmth that is best adapted to its own individual nature."

THE GALLERY, which is supported on elegant brackets, affords a most delightful prospect of the interior; and indeed the view from the Gallery is perhaps more striking than that which is obtained from below.

The large pool of water entitled the AQUARIUM is enlivened with numerous gold fish, and rendered natural by the irregularity of its outline, and the masses of rock-work disposed about it.

To Sir Joseph Paxton is due the credit of designing and superintending the erection of this conservatory, as well as arranging its contents. Near the south end of the conservatory are some portions of marble from the temple of Minerva at Sunium. They were brought to this country by Sir Augustus Clifford, in the Euryalus. The following is a copy of the Earl of Carlisle's lines on the pedestal :-

"These fragments stood on Sunium's airy steep,
They rear'd aloft Minerva's guardian shrine,
Beneath them roll'd the blue Ægean deep.
And the Greek pilot hail'd them as divine.

Such was e'en their look of calm repose,
As wafted round them came the sounds of tight,
When the glad shout of conquering Athens rose
O'er the long track of Persia's broken flight.

Though clasped by prostrate worshippers no more,
They yet shall breathe a thrilling lesson here;
Though distant from their own immortal shore,
The spot they grace is still to freedom dear

J. B. Firth, writing in 1908, recounted how the "sixth duke used to drive a little carriage with four ponies and outriders through this conservatory, and he had milestones - think of it ! - in his garden walks to tell him how far he was from home"[3].

Unfortunately, it was not possible to heat the Conservatory during the First World War because of both coal and labour shortages[4]. The exotic plants withered and died as they were unable to withstand the Derbyshire winters in the unheated building. It was undoubtedly both impractical and too costly to re-stock post war and the labour needed to maintain it would have been both more expensive and less plentiful so the Duke of Devonshire decided it had to go.

The huge glasshouse was demolished in 1920 in a rather spectacular fashion. Demolition experts had concluded that removing the thousand tons of ironwork and 40,000 panes of glass would take years, so it was blown up on Saturday 22 May 1920. The explosion could be heard seven miles away[5]. A few days later, when the final explosion to demolish the conservatories was made, steel fragments smashed one of the windows at Chatsworth House and embedded themselves in the staircase. Lord and Lady Hartington were said to have been in the house at the time but fortunately no-one was hurt[6]. Nevertheless, such a large quanity of smashed glass and metal must have been a nightmare to clear.

As the conservatory was being prepared for demolition a story emerged about its bananas ; there are several banana plants in the photograph, planted amongst the various ferns and palms. The Pacific island of Fiji was said to owe a large part of its trade with Australia and New Zealand to the great conservatory Chatsworth. The Fiji banana is the "Musa Cavendishi" plant originally sent to the Duke of Devonshire by a collector many years before. The plant had grown successfully in the conservatory, and was given the family name. Some roots were taken by mission ship to Samoa, they spread to Tonga and from there to Fiji[7]. So not everything was lost.

Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 September 1920.
"The Chatsworth Explosions.
The Home Office has this week taken official records of the explosive work in the demolition of the famous conservatories at Chatsworth.
The records show that the conservatories contained 70 tons of glass and 800 tons of metal work, and to destroy this 22lb. of gelignite was used, together with 425 electric detonators, and 440 lineal yards of copper shot wire"[8].

Albumen photograph in the collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews. It has been suggested that the picture is possibly from Frith's Series but this has not been confirmed.
Researched, ocr-ed, written by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.


[1] Adam, W. (1857, 6th edtn.) "The Gem of the Peak; or Matlock Bath and Its Vicinity. ..." John and Charles Mozley, Derby, and 6, Paternoster Row, London; Bemrose and Sons, W. and W. Pike, and Wilkins and Sons Derby, Bemrose and Sons, Matlock Bath ; ......

[2] "Black's Tourist Guide to Derbyshire" (1864) pub. Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, edited by Llewellynn Jewitt.

[3] Firth, J. B. (1908) "Highways and Byways in Derbyshire" MacMillan & Co., London.

[4] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 21 February 1920. The Great Palm House to be Demolished.

[5] "Sheffield Independent" Monday 24 May 1920.

[6] "Nottingham Evening Post", 27 May 1920. The final explosion had taken place the previous day.

[7] "Derbyshire Times", 13 March 1920.

[8] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 24 September 1920.

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Chatsworth and Vicinity, 1864

Sir Joseph Paxton was
buried at Edensor