Back to the Future – Greenhouse Social Set


Greenhouses in Victorian times were a social venue, a place to take afternoon tea, show off your prized blooms and generally display your wealth. But of course they were also a vital way to sustain the kitchens of the upper and middle classes.

Leading greenhouse designer and builder Gabriel Ash Ltd is finding that many of its current commissions are returning to their Victorian “roots”.

Marketing and Sales Manager Robin Parker explained: “Greenhouses and glasshouses are increasingly being viewed as an affordable way to create extra space alongside or near your home.

“They are also being seen as a way of decorating, and enhancing your garden and are even appearing on prestige property listings to market properties

“The beautiful appearance of our range is becoming just as important as the functions they serve, as customers want to use them for a tranquil retreat, as well as an opportunity to “grow your own”.”

Gabriel Ash - the only company to have all of its products from its largest greenhouse structures to its cold frames endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society – uses gorgeous red cedar wood for all its commissions.

Robin said: “The irony is, though we use modern engineering techniques, much of the craftsmanship that goes in to our wooden greenhouses owes its origins to Victorian greenhouses.

“That was the golden age of gardening in many ways, when large teams of gardeners devoted their lives to finding the best ways to cultivate plants, and enhance homes.”

So why did greenhouses spring up and “blossom” in the Victorian era?

It was partly inspired by the economic climate, just as the “grow your own” trend is today. In 1845 glass tax was abolished; then three years later sheet glass was produced for the first time; shortly followed by the end of the window tax .

The emergence of the middle classes in the Industrial Revolution created a body of people with money to spend on “show homes” who wanted to celebrate being out of the crowded and squalid cities.

Improvements in boiler designs meant it was possible to heat greenhouses.

Plus, better transport meant seedlings and seeds were imported from around the globe. While many greenhouses owed their origins to the need to stock tables with fruit and vegetables, the Victorians also learnt to love growing exotic plants.

Sir Joseph Paxton was possibly the most famous Victorian gardener, and designed the awe-inspiring gardens at Chatsworth as well as London’s Crystal Palace. He became a millionaire from commercial investments including selling small greenhouses to gardeners.

But the Victorians also loved their greenhouses as a hotbed of social interaction. They loved to take tea and entertain in the greenery, amongst the exotic blossoms.

Greenhouses also supported their love of entertaining in other ways too. Victorian wealthy would have built different greenhouses for different plants. This could include, for example, specially designed structures for grapes, used to make wine or simply impress dinner party guests.

Gardeners were employed in great numbers in the Victorian era and Head Gardener was a prestigious post. The romantic notion of the Victorian gardener and his magnificent greenhouses is somewhat balanced against the lack of safety knowledge in those days. It was not usual to find gardeners inside greenhouses spraying arsenic.

Though health and safety awareness is greatly improved, modern society is re-introducing some of the Victorian style reliance on greenhouses, according to Robin Parker of Gabriel Ash.

“Modern gardeners are combining the functionality and the wonderful gardening potential of greenhouses, with whimsy and aesthetics; just as they did in Victorian times.

“Fabrics, furniture and other decorations used in greenhouses are nostalgic of that era. But they are also being seen as places to sit , relax and entertain just as they were in Victorian times.”

Not surprisingly then, the bespoke design capabilities of Gabriel Ash are increasingly in demand.

“We wrap our structures around the layout of your garden – either free standing or leaning on a wall of your property, and ensure they blend in to your landscape.

“They become – as they were in Victorian times – a property asset and a source of pride, not just a gardening ‘afterthought’.”

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Robert Smith

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