The Palm House
Resurrecting Wyatville's plans for the new timber Palm House commissioned
for William IV, William Hooker persuaded Parliament to contribute
£2,000 for a new glasshouse project in 1842-1843 and £3,000
Eventually Wyatville's design was rejected. Several architects
submitted plans for the new building and Richard Turner, Ireland's
leading glasshouse designer won the contract and Decimus Burton
was the architectural consultant.
The concept was far removed from that of the more normal orangery
form - a building with glass. The new
Palm House would be a building of glass.
The thinking was Burton's, but the 'doing', the extraordinary engineering
and construction work, was very much Richard Turner's. The technology
was borrowed from shipbuilding and the design is essentially an
upturned hull. The unprecedented use of light but strong wrought
iron 'ship's beams' made the great open pillarless span, a then
unheard-of 50 ft (15.2m) possible.
Built during 1844-1848 and springing from by all accounts a tense
design relationship, the Palm House today is Kew's most recognisable
building, having gained iconic status as the world's most important
surviving Victorian glass and iron structure.
Integral to the Palm House design was the elegant Italianate Campanile,
a new building 490ft (150m) away intended to act as both water tower
and smoke flue for the 12 boilers under the glasshouse. A tunnel
underneath the Palm House Pond connected the two buildings, acting
as the flue and allowing coal to be transported to the Palm House
The siting of the Palm House is significant and was arrived at
only after much debate. Hooker had originally been instructed to
hide the new building in the trees. However, when Queen Victoria
and Prince Albert (he being an ardent early adopter of new ideas)
saw an earlier design for the Palm House in 1843 they expressed
the hope that they would be able to see it from the Dutch House.
Hooker seized upon this comment and the future Palm House progressed
through several locations. First it was to go near other glasshouses;
then possibly north of the Pond near the intended new Temperate
House; then the Commissioners decided they still wanted it hidden.....
Finally Hooker won the debate and placed the Palm House in its
current location, in the middle of the backfilled 18th century Lake
of which the Palm House Pond is the last remnant. Ironically, this
site caused endless problems to the Palm House. When the basement
was flooded in 1848, it took several years to lower the level of
the water by pumps. In 1853 the floor level of the Boiler Room was
raised, which had the unfortunate effect of reducing the amount
of draught to the flues, badly affecting the efficiency of the heating
system. It took around a hundred years, at the first restoration
of the Palm House in the late 1950s, for its problems to be finally
Back to: 1841-1885:
The flowering of Kew