Sir Joseph Paxton designed the ‘Crystal Palace’, the enormous cast iron and glass conservatory that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Strange as it may seem, he also played a key role in kickstarting commercial fruit farming in the Pacific by exporting banana plants — from Derbyshire.
JOSEPH Paxton one day boasted to MP John Ellis, a fellow board-member of the Midland Railway, that he could design a building truly fit to host the forthcoming Great Exhibition of 1851, the exciting showcase for Imperial science and industry destined for Hyde Park.
Ellis told him there were only nine days left for formal applications, so Paxton simply published his sketches in the Illustrated London News, ensuring that his breathtaking ‘Crystal Palace’ in cast iron and glass instantly eclipsed all rivals. The design came from his greenhouses at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, where he had been Head Gardener: their strong yet slender frames were inspired by waterlilies.
But Paxton did not only design the Exhibition’s venue; he embodied its spirit. The Cavendish banana trees cultivated in his greenhouses established a profitable cash crop for Pacific Islanders, who sold the fruits back to British consumers - a perfect demonstration of the benefits of Imperial industry and trade on show at Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
* Paxton would convince doubters of a waterlily’s natural strength by getting his nine-year-old-daughter Annie to stand on one.