For most people, the rule of thumb is to stick to what you’re good at. But there are those rare individuals who can’t seem to stick to anything and are good at everything. Joseph Paxton was one of those people, and although very few people know of him, millions of us appreciate the result of his prolific work. (Most of the details about Joseph Paxton have been taken from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home.)
Joseph was born in 1803 as the seventh child of a poor farmer, and after a limited education began working as an apprentice gardener at the age of 14. In only six years he so distinguished himself that he was asked to run an experimental arboretum for the prestigious Royal Horticulture Society. While working there, he befriended the Duke of Devonshire, who being hard of hearing, probably appreciated the loud and clear voice of Joseph more than his gardening skills. Impulsively, the Duke, one of the wealthiest noblemen in Britain, who owned over 200,000 acres of English countryside, asked twenty-two-year-old Joseph to become the head gardener at Chatsworth, principal seat of the House of Devonshire.
Not being one to waste any time, Joseph showed up for work the next day at 4:30AM. He surveyed the entire sleeping estate, scaling walls when gates were still shut. He then put the gardeners to work on his new plans, and sat down for breakfast with the housekeeper’s family, where he met his future wife, the housekeeper’s niece Sarah Brown. By 9AM, he had already done a full day’s work, met his bashert, and was ready to start developing grand plans for the estate.
He installed the Emperor’s Fountain, a marvel of engineering that could shoot a plume of water 290 feet into the air, a feat that to this day has only been bested in all of Europe once. He built the largest rockery in the country, and even designed a new estate village, one that fit in with the landscape better than the previous one. Using efficient estate management techniques, he was able to save the Duke £1,000,000 at a time when the average field laborer made only £30 a year!
Chatsworth Estate with the Emperor’s Fountain in the foreground
Paxton quickly became the world’s leading expert on a variety of flowers and invented the modern greenhouse to encourage the growth of his exotic flowers. His water lilies grew to be over 12 feet wide, so big that his daughter could sit on them comfortably! His enormous tropical greenhouse, The Stove, was big enough that Queen Victoria could tour it in a horse drawn carriage in 1843.
But when you are so talented, why stop at gardening? With the Duke’s permission, Paxton launched two gardening magazines, and a national newspaper, the Daily News, which for a time was edited by Charles Dickens. He began investing in railroads, and did so well that he was asked to join the boards of three of the largest railroad companies of the time.