Richard Turner’s Glasshouses

Posted by admin | July 1, 2013 1
The Temperate House

Kew Gardens has announced the future of its historic Temperate House conservatory has been saved thanks to a massive cash injection totalling £33million. Visitors to the 300 acre gardens just across Kew Bridge on the border with Brentford can’t have failed to notice the glory days of the biggest of all its glasshouses are well and truly behind it.




Grade I listed by English Heritage, the Temperate House is an absolutely fantastic and amazing building. Once the largest plant house in the world and now the world’s largest surviving Victorian glass structure, (The Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936) the Temperate House is another of the architect Decimus Burton’s designs. At 4,880 square metres, it is the largest public glasshouse at Kew, twice the size of the Palm House.

Tender woody plants from the world’s temperate regions have always been a major part of the collection at Kew. In Victorian times, the intensity of collecting meant that the Orangery and many other houses quickly became vastly overcrowded and the need for a large temperate greenhouse had become overwhelming. In 1859, the Government allocated £10,000 to build the Temperate House and directed Decimus Burton to prepare designs for this ‘long-desiderated’ conservatory. However, in 1863, the Treasury called a halt to building for budgetary reasons. However, the building was finally completed in 1898. Today, the planting has reverted to Decimus Burton’s original geographical scheme and includes many unusual crop plants from warmer climates.


Inside the Temperate House



Now thanks to a £14.7m grant by Heritage Lottery Fund being joined by a further £10.4m from the Government and donations to the tune of a staggering £7.7m – the Grade 1 listed building will be fully restored by 2018. Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says, “We are delighted to be given this opportunity to preserve and transform the Temperate House, one of Kew’s most important heritage buildings. This project represents a real step change in the way in which Kew will communicate and bring to life why plants matter, why saving them matters and ultimately why Kew’s science and horticultural expertise matters.


The Temperate House, designed by Decimus Burton,  was originally opened in 1863 and since that time it has undergone several major refurbishments, the last one 35 years ago. It is home to some of world’s most useful plants: a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera); tea bush (Camellia sinensis), from which the nation’s favourite brew is made; a specimen of a quinine tree (Cinchona officinalis), historically used as a treatment for malaria; and the South African balloon pea (Sutherlandia frutescens), which is used in a tonic in rural areas to alleviate symptoms associated with AIDS and cancer.


Turner’s Palm House at Kew



It also houses some of the rarest, such as a South African cycad (Encephalartos woodii). Only one specimen of this cycad has ever been found growing in the wild, and that has long since disappeared. This species now exists only in botanic gardens. Other rare plants include Saint Helena ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus) from St Helena, only two specimens are growing in the wild on the island and Kew’s ex-situ conservation work has been invaluable to secure the future of this

Turner’s Palm House at Belfast


Turner’s Palm House at Glasnevin, Dublin


The Temperate House is a wonder as is the earlier Palm House at Kew. However not being mentioned is their builder and co-designer who worked closely with Decimus Burton the Irish iron-founder and engineer Richard Turner with who he also designed the glasshouse for the Winter Gardens in Regents Park.  Turner used standardised components and prefabricated elements manufactured off-site for later assembly, together with curved glass in long lengths. Most of his components were manufactured at his works in Dublin at the “Hammersmith Works” in Ballsbridge, today the site of Hume House.


Turner’s use of wrought iron and curved glass was at the cutting end of technology and in particular influenced the design of train station sheds and similar structures such as the Natural History Museum in Oxford by the Dublin architects Woodward and Deane.

Indeed Turner designed and constructed the railway sheds at Westland Row and at the Broadstone in Dublin, and Lime Street in Liverpool. When the Palm House was restored much of the cast iron was replaced with stainless steel and I hope the historic integrity of the Temperate House is more carefully conserved in this restoration.


Turner’s Curvilinear Range at Glasnevin, Dublin



One of the fortuitous side effects of Kew’s HRT – History Replacement Therapy is that components were reused in the restoration of Turner’s Glasshouses at the wonderful Botanic Gardens in his home city of Dublin. In the 1990s Turner’s Curvilinear Range of glasshouses in Dublin was fully restored by the Office of Public Works, with particular care being taken to restore the building faithfully. Unlike stone or brick with their own history of research and restoration techniques no such precedent existed for wrought and cast iron restoration. Wrought iron was replaced by mild steel in building at the beginning of the 20th century and is no longer available. This led the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to replace their original cast and wrought iron Palm House (designed by Decimus Burton, with modifications by Richard Turner) with a replica stainless steel building in the 1980s. However in Glasnevin instead of using steel they drop forged and machine hammered replacement wrought iron sections so what you see today is a very handsome conserved structure instead of a steel replica.


Apart from their scientific, horticultural and educational importance Botanic Gardens are also enclaves of tranquility and important refuges from the bustle of the cities which surround them. This is certainly true for Kew with its Royal Palace, Pagoda, wonderful range of glasshouses and collections and riverside walks by the Thames facing Brentford and Old Isleworth on the north bank. It is also true of the Botanic Gardens by the River Tolka in my hometown of Dublin where I spent many happy hours in my younger days as I went to school up the road. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the gardens for the Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein lived in Dublin in the winter of 1948/49. During his time here, Wittgenstein used to visit the Botanic gardens. He would go to one of the hothouses and sit down and have a good ‘aul think. The period of Wittgenstein’s sojourn in Dublin coincided with the coldest winter on record – one that saw all domestic football cancelled as a result of the weather so maybe a hothouse in the Botanic Gardens was the most sensible place to be!

Wittgenstein was a big fan of Turner’s (warm) Palm House!



Turner’s roof at Westland Row Railway Station, Dublin (1930) 



But there is an important difference between Dublin and Kew. The Botanic Gardens in Dublin are still a serious horticultural celebration with little commercialism and unlike Kew Gardens in London which charges a disgraceful £14.99 pounds entrance fee, here entry is free. My wife’s family lived in Brentford across from Kew and when times were hard summer holidays consisted of two weeks of picnics and outings in Kew Gardens. In those days entrance was a penny on the turnstile so ordinary Londoner’s could afford outings to Kew. You have to ask why when entry to National Museums is free why taxpayers should pay such an extortionate entry charge to this great Museum of Horticulture and why Lottery funds are being used to make up shortfalls in Government Grants when we were promised this would not happen.


Kew Palace



As for Richard Turner like his contemporary (and sometime rival) Joseph Paxton he embraced and created technical innovation and changed the way we design and build. There is an interesting postscript. Turner was shortlisted for the design and construction of the Crystal Pace for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 but his design at £300,000 was rejected on grounds of cost. After the competition Joseph Paxton submitted a design for £85,000 which was built on schedule

Crystal Palace on fire 1936

and on budget. The Crystal Palace was the largest Victorian Glasshouse but that title was claimed by Kew Garden’s Temperate House when the Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936. Maybe Turner was still smarting from the grave at his defeat by Paxton?

The Crystal Palace at Sydenham – view from the Water Temple

One Response

  • I love Kew gardens glasshouse. We used to go every weekend until the girls got bored of it! thanks for this, it reminded me of all the good memories we have there!