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.
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
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
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
Unfortunately, it was not possible to heat the Conservatory
during the First World War because of both coal and labour
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
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.
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.
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.
So not everything was lost.
|Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 September
"The Chatsworth Explosions.
The Home Office has this week taken official records of
the explosive work in the demolition of the famous conservatories
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".