A history of glasshouses, orangeries and potting sheds

James Rothwell, Decorative Arts Curator James Rothwell Decorative Arts Curator

Glasshouses, orangeries, potting sheds – these are just a few of the different garden structures that feature so prominently in our places, providing shelter for growing, protecting and displaying plants all year round.

From the 17th-century orangery at Ham House in Surrey to the 1920s greenhouse at Mr Straw's House in Nottinghamshire, the desire to cultivate rare and tender plants is an integral part of our horticultural history.

Curator James Rothwell uncovers the fascinating history of these structures and charts their journey in becoming such integral features of our gardens.

Early orangeries 

Since Roman times, there has been a desire to grow luscious fruits and glorious flowering plants from climates warmer than our own. It is from resulting endeavours that the humble greenhouse of today emerged and brought with it the ability to experience horticultural and culinary delights from across the globe.

We are fortunate to have one of the earliest surviving precursors to today's ubiquitous, all-glass greenhouses in the contrastingly rare and solidly built orangery at Ham House in Surrey. Oranges are tender natives of China and south-east Asia and their flavour and decorative appearance led to them being grown in England from Elizabeth I’s reign. Initially they were planted outside and protected over the winter by temporary covers. However, by the 1670s, the date of Ham’s orangery, permanent buildings were constructed with large, south-facing windows to provide light to the plants that were grown in movable tubs. In the summer they would be placed in the garden. 

The orangery at Ham House, Surrey dates to the 1670s and is one of the oldest to survive in the country. Orange trees would have been overwintered in tubs. The openings would have originally contained more glass
The 1670s Orangery at Ham House, Surrey
The orangery at Ham House, Surrey dates to the 1670s and is one of the oldest to survive in the country. Orange trees would have been overwintered in tubs. The openings would have originally contained more glass

A staple of the country house garden 

Such orangeries were pleasant to visit and could also be used to house an increasingly varied range of half-hardy exotics, as well as for entertainment when empty in the summer. As such they became a staple of the country house garden, being increasingly elaborate and additionally called greenhouses or conservatories because of the ‘green’ plants that were ‘conserved’ within. We have numerous examples at our places, the most impressive of which are Hanbury Hall’s orangery of the mid-18th century, Croome Court’s Temple Greenhouse of around 1760 and Belton House's huge Regency orangery from 1820.

Greenhouse grandeur

The lure of pineapples and grapes

Up to the early 19th century, orangeries had little if any glazing to their roofs and it was the lure of two other fruits – the tropical pineapple from South America and luscious, indulgent grapes from the Mediterranean – that resulted in what we would now recognise as a greenhouse.

John Rose, the Royal Gardener, presenting a Pineapple to King Charles II by Thomas Stewart (after Henry Danckerts), Ham House, Surrey
Royal Gardener, presenting a Pineapple to King Charles II
John Rose, the Royal Gardener, presenting a Pineapple to King Charles II by Thomas Stewart (after Henry Danckerts), Ham House, Surrey

Pitched glazed roofs were developed to maximise exposure to light. In order to provide the very high temperatures and moisture needed for pineapples and to extend the season for grapes, heating was introduced through hot air flues, by steam and eventually piped hot water – the origins of today’s central heating.

Prized pineapples

Georgian sketch of a pineapple

Adam Taylor's 'A treatise on the ananas or pine-apple' was published in 1769. The pineapple was once regarded as an exotic delicacy in Europe and an intriguing novelty to be grown by British gardeners.

Pineapples and grapes at the centre of the dining table at Mompesson House

Pineapples and grapes form the centre of the dining table at Mompesson House, Salisbury, laid for a Georgian dessert.

Pineapples growing in the glasshouses at Tyntesfield, Somerset

Pineapples continue to be grown today in the glasshouses at Tyntesfield, Somerset.

Pinery-vinery

A magnificent ‘pinery-vinery’ for pineapples and grapes to be grown together was reconstructed in 2007 at Tatton Park, Chesire. There are also several surviving or reconstructed vineries such as those at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s house in Devon, and at Quarry Bank in Cheshire.

Inside the late 18th-century vinery at Greenway, Devon
Inside the late 18th-century vinery at Greenway, Devon
Inside the late 18th-century vinery at Greenway, Devon

Innovation at Quarry Bank

In Cheshire, the Quarry Bank range of glass, carefully restored over the last few years, was originally constructed around 1820. At its centre, between the flanking vineries, is a projecting show house which boasts one of the earliest surviving examples of a ‘curvilinear’ (rounded) iron frame.

The curvilinear structure is of huge significance in the history of both glasshouses and architecture more widely. Sir George Mackenzie, 7th Bt (1780–1848) theorised that by curving the glazed surfaces with minimal glazing bars, ‘the greatest possible quantity of the sun’s rays, at all times of the day and at all seasons of the year’ would be admitted. Ultimately, glass and steel skyscrapers of the modern cityscape owe their existence to the developments around glasshouses like Quarry Bank’s in the early 19th century.  

The glasshouses at Quarry Bank

The upper garden under snow at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Great expanses of glass protecting vines from snow in ranges flanking a curvilinear iron conservatory or show house, all of Regency date, at Quarry Bank in Cheshire.

Historic photography of the Quarry Bank vineries

The Quarry Bank vineries and ‘curvilinear’ central showhouse, built around 1820, with two of the Greg family’s Jack Russells, circa 1900.

With glass becoming both cheaper and of larger proportions and with heating becoming more effective, the numbers and types of glasshouses burgeoned during the 19th century. There now emerged tropical houses containing palms, amongst other things, as at Clumber Park.

The mid-19th-century palm house at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
The mid 19th century palm house at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
The mid-19th-century palm house at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire

There were also structures for ferns, orchids and carnations including the flamboyant Malmaison variety favoured for buttonholes. Others were designed for orchard trees, including peaches and figs and for house plants, cut flowers and, of course, the huge quantities of annuals needed for Victorian carpet bedding.

Cragside’s 1870s Orchard House is a prime example and has been restored to full operation. It is divided into three parts with figs and grapes on one side, peaches and nectarines on the other, and pears, mulberries, apricots, plums, gages, lemons, grapefruit, mandarins and oranges in the middle. Each of the large earthenware pots sits on a turntable to allow the plant to receive even lighting and thus achieve consistent growth and ripening. 

Young fruit trees and vegetables growing in pots in Cragside’s Orchard House of the 1870s
Cragside’s Orchard House
Young fruit trees and vegetables growing in pots in Cragside’s Orchard House of the 1870s

Glasshouses for all

19th-century mechanisation meant that for the first time, glasshouses were within reach of the middle class and by the mid-20th century their distribution was widespread. At Sunnycroft in Shropshire, home to the lawyer John Lander and his family, there is a surviving Edwardian conservatory. It was supplied by R Halliday and Co., who, at the other end of the scale, supplied the princely ranges at the Rothschilds’ Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.

Inside the Edwardian conservatory at Sunnycroft in Shropshire
Inside the Edwardian conservatory at Sunnycroft in Shropshire
Inside the Edwardian conservatory at Sunnycroft in Shropshire
Inside the 1920s greenhouse belonging to the grocer William Straw of Mr Straw's House in Worksop, Nottinghamshire
Inside Mr Straw's 1920s greenhouse
Inside the 1920s greenhouse belonging to the grocer William Straw of Mr Straw's House in Worksop, Nottinghamshire

The Straw family ran a grocery business in the small town of Worksop in Nottinghamshire and their 1920s greenhouse is of a standard type found across suburban Britain. Amongst their books is A J MacSelf’s 'The Amateur’s Greenhouse' which was bought for 7s 6d (35½p).   

The Straw family of Worksop’s copy of A J MacSelf’s The Amateur’s Greenhouse
A J MacSelf’s The Amateur’s Greenhouse
The Straw family of Worksop’s copy of A J MacSelf’s The Amateur’s Greenhouse

The supporting show: garden sheds

No show can be put on without backup and in every one of our gardens, large or small, there were garden sheds supporting the glasshouses. At Quarry Bank there were separate spaces for the potting shed, the tools, the storage of produce and seeds and the growth of mushrooms; there was also a boiler house, a bothy for gardeners, the head gardener’s office and even a privy.  At Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Isle, there is a single, charming shed designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century.

The gardeners’ privy at Hare Hill in Cheshire, now shared with visitors
The gardeners’ privy at Hare Hill in Cheshire
The gardeners’ privy at Hare Hill in Cheshire, now shared with visitors

Many of these sheds remain in use today, critical to the running of the garden as much now as they were when first built. Although countless old glasshouses were taken down during the 20th century, the number restored or reconstructed continues to grow, and they have been joined by practical modern houses such as the example supporting the planting at Hidcote in Gloucestershire.

The potting shed at Greenway in Devon

The potting shed at Greenway in Devon, still in use today.

Modern greenhouse at Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire

Seedlings, tender plants and flowerpots in a working modern greenhouse at Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire.

" The humble greenhouse of today has brought the ability to wander the globe horticulturally and culinarily without leaving home."
View over the compartmentalised hedging of the Dahlia Walk towards the Shelter House at Biddulph Grange Garden, Staffordshire.

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