History of Conservatories


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Many homes have conservatories, but have you ever wondered what their history was? Who came up with the idea and when did they become popular? It all dates back to the 17th century, when a conservatory was considered to be a non-glazed structure where food was stored. It would later mean a place that “conserved” (protected) plants against the elements, similar to what we would call a greenhouse today.

The designs of those conservatories from the 17th century don’t match anything that we would consider a conservatory now. They were just a stone structure that had more glazing than the property they were attached to. In those days, they were used to protect plants, in particular those that were gathered on tours of Europe that the owner wanted to grow in England.

The First Conservatory Ever Built

The first conservatory built in Britain may be the one built at the Oxford Botanical Gardens, with another built not long after in the Chelsea Physic Garden.


Kew Gardens

In 1825 John Nash was commissioned by the British royal family to design 4 new conservatories at Buckingham Palace. In 1836 William IV decided to remodel the palace and had one of the conservatories sent to Kew Gardens. Now know as The Architectural Conservatory, the structure is still at the gardens as is now the oldest 19th century conservatory on the site

It was around this time that conservatories began appearing in literature, such as in the novel “Emma”, written by Jane Austen in 1814.

Glass Tax

Conservatories started to gain notoriety and become more popular in the 19th century. There were several factors involved in this. One major factor was the glass tax, which lasted until 1845 and placed a levy on the weight of glass. This resulted in thin panes of glass being used in the rare occasions glass was used at all.


Wrought-iron was also pretty expensive back then. Cast iron was cheaper because it was mass produced, but it wasn’t as tough and was only suited compression loads like columns. Wrought iron was used in tension, such as with conservatory roofs. This changed in 1856 when Henry Bessemer invented his Bessemer converter, which allowed for the cheaper production of steel. Steel is free from slag and has a higher carbon content than wrought iron, making it harder, better in tension, and more suited to be used for conservatory roofs.

The Great Conservatory

One of the most famous conservatories ever constructed was the Great Conservatory.  This large structure was commissioned by Sir Joseph Paxton and covered around three-quarters of an acre.  The construction started in 1836 and was not completed until 1841, back then there wasn’t a requirement to get planning permission if you were building a conservatory. In total it was 277 feet long, and 67 feet high and was heated by eight boilers working seven miles of pipe and it cost over £30,000 to construct.

The Great Conservatory

The Great Conservatory

The Great Conservatory met its end in 1920. It required ten men to run it and it took a lot of coal to keep it going. The gardeners had gone off to fight in World War I and the use of coal was restricted, so the plants died with no one to tend for them.

Paxton’s  Great Conservatory would go on to inspire other grand conservatories such as the Crystal Palace; a 19 acre monolith that was five times longer than Kew’s enormous Palm House  even Westminster Abbey was dwarfed but it. The entire structure used 293,635 panes of glass!

Wrapping it up

Perhaps the Great War contributed to the death of the popularity of conservatories. Most of them would have been cold during the winter due to the lack of high quality glazing and sealing, not to mention how expensive insulation would have been back then.

There has been something of a renaissance for conservatories in the past 40 years or so though thanks to advances in construction such as double glazing and solar glass. These days conservatories are cheaper to build, heat, and maintain. Under floor heating can be installed on the cheap too.  So there’s no need to shell out a fortune on coal just to keep your conservatory warm!