In 1823 he applied for a post at Chiswick Gardens, a property leased by the Horticultural Society from the Duke of Devonshire. Still only 20, he lied about his age, claiming to have been born in 1801. Within a year, he was promoted to foreman and often met the 6th Duke, William George Spencer Cavendish who owned the nearby Chiswick House. At the age of 23, Paxton was offered the post of Head Gardener at Chatsworth, the Cavendish family seat. The gardens were considered to be one of the finest of the time and he immediately accepted. He took a coach to Derbyshire that evening, arriving at Chatsworth early next morning. By the start of the working day, he had explored the gardens, re-organised the 80 garden staff, sat down to breakfast and met Sarah Brown, neice of the housekeeper, whom he was to marry in 1827. He claimed that by 9am he had completed his first morning's work.
Paxton remained as head gardener until 1832 when he became the Estate Manager. He had a friendly relationship with the Duke and he remained at Chatsworth until William Cavendish died in 1858. During that time he was allowed to pursue his own interests and to undertake a number of private commissions. He brought about numerous changes and improvements to the estate.
Construction of the Great Conservatory began in 1836. This structure of iron, timber and glass was 84m long and 37m wide and Paxton's design concepts were later to be employed in the Crystal Palace. He was assisted by architect Decimus Burton. This enormous building took 3 years to complete after which time it was ready to house numerous exotic plants. Down the centre was a carriage drive and it was illuminated by 12000 lamps. The heating system was housed below ground and the eight boilers were maintained by a team of ten men. The vast quantities of coal were supplied by an underground tramway. Coal and staff shortages in the First World War caused many of the plants to die and in 1920 the 9th Duke ordered it's demolition. It took several attempts before a charge powerful enough blew it up!
The Lily House was built in 1849 to house a single species, Victoria Regia which had been transported from the Amazon. The leaves were large enough to supportthe weight of a small child. This was housed in the heated main tank which also contained wheels to give motion to the water. The Lily House also contained eight smaller tanks. This structure was also destroyed in 1920.
In anticipation of a visit by Tsar Nicholas I, Paxton was asked to construct the Emperor Fountain. Work started in 1843 and took 6 months. A reservoir was dug above the house to supply the water and the fountain stands at the north end of the Canal Pond also known as the Emperor Lake. The highest in the world, it seldom reaches it's full 90m due to shortage of water.
Paxton also built enormous rockeries, ponds, water features, a grotto, an arboretum, a ravine and several greenhouses.
The village of Edensor (pronounced Ensor) lies within the bounds of the Chatsworth estate. The village originally straddled the banks of the River Derwent and was in full view of the house. This displeased the 4th Duke who started to move the villlage to a new location "over the hill" where it would be out of sight. The 6th Duke completed this project by engaging the architect John Roberton of Derby who designed a number of villas and houses in a variety of different styles. The layout of Edensor was to Paxton's design. The walled and gated village surrounds a large green and St. Peter's Church stands high on a mound. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, this replaced an earlier, smaller church. Since the death of her husband, the 11th Duke in 2003, the Dowager Duchess now occupies part of the former viacarage. Edensor churchyard contains the graves of most of the Dukes and their families as well as that of Joseph Paxton and Kathleen, the sister of John F. Kennedy.
Paxton was to become wealthy, largely by astute investment in railway stocks and shares and he held directorship is both the Midland Railway and the London and North Western. Both railways had adjacent stations in Buxton built to similar designs and Paxton was responsible for the great fan windows at the end of each, one of which may be seen today. The village of Rowsley is only 3 miles from Chatsworth and in 1845 the Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway of which Paxton was also a director asked him to build their station. Five years later, he designed the company offices and some cottages nearby. The Park in Buxton is Paxton's other great contribution to that town. He laid out a fashionable 19th century estate of villas lining a circular road. In the central open space is Buxton's cricket ground where famously "snow stopped play" in June 1975 when Derbyshire were playing Lancashire.
It was away from Derbyshire that Paxton found his greatest fame. In 1850 a Royal Commission was considering entries in a design competition for the Great Exhibition which was to be held in Hyde Park. Although over 200 designs were forthcoming, none were suitable. A fellow director of the Midland Railway suggested to Paxton that he might submilt a scheme although the deadline was only 9 days hence. Paxton had to attend a board meeting in Derby and was seen to be sketching throughout the proceedings. At the close of the meeting he displayed the design of his Crystal Palace. After some opposition, Paxton's scheme was accepted and construction took just 8 months. This enormous glass building was prefabrictaed in iron and glass and was based upon his work at Chatsworth. The exhibition hall was 563m long and 124m wide. The floors covered almost 72000 square metres.
"The Great Exhibition of 1851 of the works of industry of all nations" was conceived by Prince Albert whose aim was to stage the greatest exhibition of all time of inventions and art. More than 100000 xhibits were drawn from across the Empire. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert performed the opening ceemony on 1st May 1851. By the closing date in mid October, more than 6 million people had visited the Crystal Palace. The profits of over £200000 were used to purchase the land in Kensington where The V & A and many of London's other museums now stand.
Queen Victoria granted Paxton his knighthood in 1851 for his achievement.
In 1852 the building was dismantled and re-erected in Sydenham in South London. It continued to be used as an exhibition hall and for concerts until 1936 when it was destroyed by fire.
Baron Mayer de Rothschild commissioned Paxton to build Mentmore Towers in 1850. This Buckinghamshire house was one of the greatest Victorian country homes. He was next asked by a cousin, Baron James de Rothschild to build Chateau de Ferrieres near Paris, a house in the style of Mentmore but twice as large. Proposals currently stand to renovate Mentmore for conversion to a luxury hotel and the Chateau has been donated to the University of Paris. Wilhelm I of Germany said of Ferrieres "No Kings could afford this. It could only belong to a Rothschild.
A further country house was built at Battlesden near Woburn, the place of his first empoyment at age 15. The Duke of Bedford purchased this after just 30 years and demolished it as he wanted no other mansion so close to his home at Woburn Abbey.
The first municipal cemetery was in London Road, Coventry designed in 1845 by Paxton. His connection with that city continued and he was elected as the Liberal M. P. in 1854, a seat which he held for 11 years.
The most ambitious project, one which never left the drawing board, was The Great Victorian Way. Paxton adapted his design for the Crystal Palace to a structure that would encircle Central London. This was to be a great glass arcade 22m wide and 33m high. The route, 10 miles long would have linked a number of main line stations passing through Westminster, The City, Hyde Park and crossing the River Thames in three places. The streets were congested and polluted and a fast transport system, protected from the weather was projected. A roadway down the centre would be served by buses and cabs and would be lined with houses and shops. At the second floor there was to be a railway originally planned to carry 4 tracks but later revised to 8. The trains would be driven by compressed air carried in tubes alongside the tracks. There would have been both stopping and express trains, the latter completing half of the circuit in 15 minutes. The estimated cost was £34 million and income would come from property rental and transport fares. The scheme was presented to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Metropolitan Communications in 1855 and although it initially found favour, it was rejected on grounds of cost.
|The Great Victorian Way|
Paxton undertook many other projects including the design of public parks and of private houses. He was consulted on improvements to Kew Gardens and he published and edited a number of horticultural magazines and books.
On the death of the 6th Duke in 1858, Paxton retired from Chatsworth but was to continue working independently. He died in June 1865 in Sydenham and his funeral was held at Edensor. His wife Sarah continued to live at their Chatsworth home until her death in 1871.