Thomas Laxton and Sir Joseph Paxton- Two Bedfordshire Heroes

We were pleased to welcome local historian and Bedford Town Guide David Fowler to our October meeting.  Most people with an interest in gardens will know of Laxton and Paxton but not everyone will be aware of their Bedfordshire connection …

Thomas LaxtonDavid started by talking about Thomas Laxton (1830-1893) a solicitor in Stamford who, through his early interest in hybridisation– peas in particular, corresponded with Charles Darwin and for whom he conducted plant experiments.

By 1879 Laxton had moved to Bedford and had established testing and experimental grounds in 140 acres of land around what are now Polhill Avenue and Goldington Road.

laxton4Laxton and his sons became very successful and well known plant breeders. They bred the Royal Sovereign strawberry in 1892 and subsequently 17 varieties of strawberry were developed from this.  Laxton’s accomplishments also included 47 varieties of pea, 27 apples, 9 plums, 11 roses and many more. 

The Laxton’s shop in Bedford High Street opened in 1890 supplying customers with seeds, plants and garden equipment. 

Laxtons Bedford High StThe Laxton family became nationally established as nurserymen, seedsmen and florists and were awarded numerous Royal Horticultural Society Awards including the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1933.  In 1956 the business was sold by John Laxton and the land was bought by a developer as the ground on which the nurseries and orchards stood was deemed to be barren and no longer useful for growing fruit and vegetables – it is now the site of the University of Bedfordshire.  However, 50 of Laxton’s fruit trees can still be seen today in the Community Orchard off Manton Lane.

David then turned his attention to Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865):
Joseph PaxtonPaxton was born in Milton Bryan where there is a memorial window to him in the village church.He started his working life as a garden boy on the Battlesden Estate.  He subsequently moved to Chiswick House Gardens where he came into contact with William Cavendish the 6th Duke of Devonshire who offered Paxton, now 20, the position of Head Gardener at his country seat – Chatsworth in Derbyshire.Here, Paxtons’s first major structure was the Great Conservatory or Stove, designed to throw rain water into troughs to be recycled.  He also redesigned the garden around the new north wing of the house, established a vast rock garden and for the Tsar of Russia’s visit – the Emperor Reservoir and Fountain which could reach heights of 296 feet.  Paxton’s early civil engineering talents were already in evidence.  By 1847 Paxton was being commissioned to undertake other work including the Italian garden at Tatton Park and Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, which became the inspiration for the design of Central Park, New York.

Paxton is most famous for his work on the Great Exhibition Building in Hyde Park.  He had his design published in the Illustrated London News and through popular demand his design was commissioned and built within a year – it was opened on 1st May 1851.  The glass was made by Chance Brothers in Smethwick – the sand came from quarries in Linslade and was transported to Smethwick by canal.  The exhibition was a huge success with 6 million visitors during the 6 month period before the building was dismantled and taken to the Chrystal Palace site by horse and cart.
Opening of Chrystal PalaceChrystal Palace

There was a huge variety of rooms where designs from the past and into the future were exhibited.  Amongst other things the public were able to see factory machines in operation and railway engines.  In all there were 13,000 exhibits from over 40 countries and on the days of the week when the entry fee was reduced to one shilling there were vast crowds.

Bedfordshire was represented by Howards of Bedford who won an award for a new design of plough:
Chrystal Palace - Howard's of Bedford awardPaxton went on to design a new manor house at Battlesden and Baron Mayer de Rothschild commissioned him to design his new house Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire. In later life Paxton became a Liberal Member of Parliament for Coventry from 1854 until his death in 1865.

Members thoroughly enjoyed this “Historical” evening and next month on 19th November Ann Bird will be with us to talk about the World of Roses.

 Linda Truscott

[photo images, courtesy David Fowler]

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