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The Early Life and Bedfordshire Work of Sir Joseph Paxton

Sir Joseph Paxton medallion 1854
Sir Joseph Paxton medallion 1854

The following is an extract from an article on Sir Joseph Paxton in the Luton News and Bedfordshire Advertiser of 26th October 1933 by C. J. Kilby [CRT180/481]

Sir Joseph Paxton was a Milton Bryan gardener’s boy who became one of the most famous horticulturalists and architects of the 19th century. He it was who built the Crystal Palace, and he is the only gardener ever to have received the honour of a knighthood.

The following from the pen of Mr. C. J. Kilby, of Hockliffe, is the fullest and most authentic account that has ever been written of the famous self-taught architect’s life and associations with Bedfordshire. Mr. Kilby is a well-known authority on all matters concerning the life of that part of the county and this and the succeeding articles will be read with interest.

“In the opening years of the 19th century” writes Mr. Kilby, “there were two brothers of the name of Paxton resident in the village of Milton Bryan. From 1790 to 1824 Thomas Paxton kept the village inn, known as the ‘Red Lion’. Joseph was the son of William and Ann Paxton, and was born and baptised in 1803”.

“The parish registers tell us that Joseph lost his father when he was seven years old, and his mother died in 1823 when Joseph was twenty and beginning to make his way in the world. Joseph had an elder brother, Thomas, and both attended the little Free School”.

“Thomas was some years senior to Joseph and had obtained a post as gardener to Sir Gregory Osborne Page Turner, the eccentric squire of Battlesden. He worked his way up and became chief bailiff and mainly responsible, under a London agent, for the entire management of the estate”.

“In later years he and his sons held two or three of the chief farms on the estate. He was one of the pioneers and founders of the Leighton Buzzard Wool Fairs, and a well-known authority on local agricultural affairs”.

“Joseph was first taken on as a garden boy in the gardens of Milton Bryan Manor, in which at the time there were employed nine men and nine boys. Gardeners’ wages in those days were like those of the farm labourers, low, but the total amount paid in wages was more than in these days of a higher rate”.

“Like most young fellows, Joseph wanted to improve himself and make his way in the world, and in due course he left Milton gardens to assist his brother at Battlesden House”.

“One who worked with him there has told the writer that at an early age he was always experimenting and trying to show his brother and those who worked with him ‘many new ways of raising, treating and forcing vegetables and flowers’”.

“From Battlesden he went, about 1821, to Woodhall Park, Watton, Herts but two years later he returned to Battlesden. There he planned and helped his brother to make the large lake as we know it now in the hollow between the ‘Fogginton Hill, Drovers’ Leys and England’s fields’. It was called by the older generation at Battlesden the ‘New’ fishpond – to distinguish it from the ‘Jack’ fishpond, made and laid out by the Duncombes in the 16th century. This lake was well stocked with trout a few years ago by the Duke of Bedford, and was a favourite fishing resort of their Graces”.

“After a brief spell at Battlesden, he entered the service of the Duke of Somerset at Wimbledon. It was while he was there that the Royal Horticultural Society leased the Chiswick gardens from the Duke of Devonshire, and at once began to reconstruct them. Paxton, to improve himself, obtained employment there in the arboretum. In a very short time he was made foreman and got on well. Although foreman his wage was only 18s. per week”.

The article then goes on to discuss Paxton’s time at Chatsworth, the Crystal Palace and his career as an M. P. before returning to things he did in Bedfordshire.

In 1859 his brother and the representatives of the Page Turner family were anxious about the old Tudor Mansion at Battlesden and in August of that year he wrote his brother Thomas that he would meet him at Battlesden and examine the foundations … We do not know the result, we only know that a year or so later it was demolished and a grand new mansion designed by Sir Joseph in the French Chateau style, was erected in its place at a cost of £40,000. This also was demolished twenty years later and only the kitchen apartments remain. These form part of the Duchess if Bedford’s Nursing Home at Battlesden”.

“Although honours fell on him thick and fast – after the exhibition he was an F. R. H. S. from 1826 to his death, Fellow of the Linnaean Society, Knight of the Russian Order of Saint Vladimir, member of the Society of Arts, Editor of the Horticultural Register, Botanical Dictionary, etc. etc. – he never forgot his old village and his old patrons and helpers, Sir Robert and Lady Inglis. When they were guests of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, he determined that they should see the place at its best and personally thank them for kindness to him and his parents in his youth”.

“He never quite lost what we may term his Bedfordshireisms of “oddities”, as one of his friends termed them. These “oddities”, we are told, came out strongly in his language”.

“It is recorded by a personal friend how, one afternoon, during a great crisis in the City, he had been very much disturbed by some stories he had heard of the misery into which country clergymen and others were thrown by a bankruptcy”.

“”When I hear of these things”, he said, “it makes my blood broil”, an indignant expression of old Bedfordshire workers. He did not think such distress and suffering should be while there was such a great “Plethora” of money in the City”.

“I believe it was another friend, Sir George Groves, who stated that he was breakfasting with him one morning when Milner, a mutual friend, came in”.

“Milner was superintending some alterations at Rothchild’s house in the East of France, and came over to consult Sir Joseph on the arrangements of the fountains on the terrace. “Well Milner and what did you propose?” he asked. “Why Sir Joseph, I thought something like the top terrace at the Crystal Palace”. “Palace, Milner, what do you mean? It would be like Prussians to giants””.

“The great attachment between him and the Duke of Devonshire was very great, as the following true anecdote will show. It occurred at the time of one of the Duke’s illnesses”.

“He was lying ill at Brighton, and two eminent London physicians had been sent for. They came down to a room to hold a consultation. After they had made up their minds they returned to his bedroom and told the Duke the result. He heard them out and said: “Would you oblige me, gentlemen, by ringing the bell. I have heard you, and now I should like to know what Paxton thinks of what you say””.

“Another is to the effect that Paxton, having heard of a coming financial crash in a concern in which the Duke had money invested, went to him and asked him to lend him £20,000 which he did, without question”.

“Paxton cashed the cheque and took care of the money. The concern went smash, and a week or so later Paxton handed the money back”.

“For some years before his death, Sir Joseph resided at Rockhills, Kent. He was buried at Edensor, near Chatsworth, and there the Knight, gardener and servant and Nobleman patron lie side by side”.

“Someone writing on manners said: “One of the most perfect gentlemen I ever knew was Sir Joseph Paxton, who started life as an under-gardener, and retained his old simplicity of manners and speech after he was made a baronet and Member of Parliament””.