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Crompton & Fawkes - and the Wentworth 'Winter Garden'

Updated: Feb 21

‘Iron Winter Garden for T.W. Vernon Wentworth, Esq., Wentworth Castle, Yorkshire. Designed, Erected, and Heated by Crompton & Fawkes, Chelmsford’. Plate 8 from ‘Horticultural Buildings and their Fittings by Crompton & Fawkes, Chelmsford’, 1899

As I've admitted in the past, I'm something of a Victorian glasshouse nerd and, last summer, I finally got the opportunity to visit Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire – the home of the only remaining [known] Crompton & Fawkes glasshouse in the country which has now, thankfully, been restored and saved for posterity. And it didn't disappoint.

Wentworth Castle. My photo August 2022

My erstwhile county town of Chelmsford in Essex was once home to Crompton & Fawkes, one of the leading manufacturers of horticultural buildings in the UK. Crompton & Fawkes (and its forebear T.H.P. Dennis & Co.) were based in Chelmsford for many years, and Kelly’s Directory for Essex in 1910 lists their address as Anchor Works [later renamed Arc Works] in Anchor Lane. Several of their catalogues still survive, and two of their publications are available on-line [see Notes].

Postcard of Col. Crompton’s Arc Works c.1896. Photograph by local Chelmsford photographer, Fred Spalding. [The year on the postcard is obviously incorrect.]

Crompton & Fawkes: Beginnings

The ironmongery business of T.H.P. Dennis had already been around for nearly 100 years happily manufacturing domestic goods, as well as fencing and railings, before it diversified into agricultural goods. With the advent of new technologies, and an ever-expanding market for all types of glasshouses and associated paraphernalia, the company moved into this lucrative new business during the mid-19th century. By the 1860’s, the company was advertising in the local press that it was now able to erect “patent conservatories, vineries, orchard houses, etc.”, and, as the business prospered, from 1869 it began advertising economical greenhouses in “a judicious combination of Wood, Iron and Glass, for the fabulously low sum of £5”.

Advertisement for T.H.P. Dennis [forerunner of Crompton & Fawkes] in 'The Chelmsford Chronicle', April 1862

However, it wasn't until the mid-1870's when Fawkes, and then Crompton, joined the company that it really became a major player.

Around this time, Rookes Crompton set up an electrical business in Chelmsford in premises adjacent to T.H.P. Dennis, and Frank Attfield Fawkes joined Crompton's company, initially working as an electrical engineer. Before too long the two companies were working in tandem – Crompton becoming a partner in Dennis’s business, with the company now supplying both economical as well as top-end glasshouses with heating systems and electric lighting. Successfully advertising themselves with the strapline "Art with Economy" in the horticultural press, they issued a catalogue of the same name to display their wares.

T.H.P. Dennis advertisement in 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', January 1st, 1881

R.E.B. Crompton, 1906-8 and, right, F.A. Fawkes in 1928

According to The Chelmsford Chronicle, this catalogue contained at least 20 designs “most of them very beautiful, for conservatories, greenhouses and summer houses, with plans and every detail which a person contemplating the erection of such a charming addition to his house or grounds would actually like to know”. Importantly, adding that “these designs are intended to meet various tastes and various pockets”. The catalogue also listed the company's clients in the UK and abroad – proudly informing potential clients that they were currently erecting a range of vineries and peach houses at Sandringham for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales “to cover a wall 450ft long”.

In 1881, Fawkes published [under his own name] Horticultural Buildings: Their Construction, Heating, Interior Fittings, etc., with remarks on some of the principles involved and their application. It's a comprehensive manual covering all aspects of horticultural buildings from cold frames to grand conservatories.

Contents page from Fawkes' manual covering horticultural buildings

As Fawkes wrote in the Preface, he was of the opinion that “up to the present date no book has existed, from which a gentleman could obtain, in a complete, concise form, unbiassed, reliable information to assist him in deciding what garden-structures would best suit his requirements…”. And although he added that the book’s contents were intended to be “suggestive rather than exhaustive”, it provides extremely detailed information as can be seen from the first page of the Contents shown here.

Even the more artistic aspects of design were considered: in the chapter entitled, ‘Interior Treatment of Conservatories’, Fawkes suggests that “where possible, ample paved space for promenading should be provided inside a conservatory…”, and recommends that “of all materials used for paving, marble mosaic and tiles are the most popular and artistic”. It even included information on aspects of Legal and Insurance matters.

Frontispiece from 'Horticultural Buildings: Their Construction, Heating, Interior Fittings, etc.' by F.A. Fawkes, published 1881 [Note the tiles and decorative elements of this larger conservatory]

When Dennis retired in 1884, Crompton and Fawkes were left to run the business. Just a week later, they were advertising their newly named company on the front page of The Essex County Chronicle.

Advertisement for Crompton & Fawkes in 'The Essex County Chronicle', December 5th, 1884

Below, Advertisement for Crompton & Fawkes from 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', September 17th, 1887

As a blog by The Gardens Trust points out [see Notes], it's clear from Crompton & Fawkes' advertising that they were continuing to develop glasshouse and associated items technology, such as boilers, and the styles of buildings they were selling. These ranged from basic, inexpensive designs “to the fashionable and the grand”. The Winter Garden at Wentworth certainly being one of their grandest.

Wentworth Castle's Iron 'Winter Garden'

In 1885, Thomas Wentworth inherited Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire and a personal fortune of nearly £1 million – making him one of the wealthiest commoners in England. Thomas was a moderniser and, in 1885, began to install electric lighting at the Castle, a rare luxury at the time. This was provided by a generator run by steam boilers supplied by Crompton. Crompton & Fawkes then went on to build Wentworth’s large conservatory (1885-1886), described as an Iron Winter Garden, with a geometrically patterned tile floor and a complex underfloor heating system. Thomas’s intention of having a state-of-the-art building was apparently to attract a royal visitor and in this he succeeded with the Queen’s second son, Prince Albert Victor, staying at the Castle on two occasions.

Front cover of 'Horticultural Buildings and their Fittings' by Crompton & Fawkes, Chelmsford, 1899

Such was this glasshouse's magnificence, that it was the first-featured building in Crompton & Fawkes' catalogue, Horticultural Buildings and their Fittings, published in 1899. Lavishly illustrated with photographs, two of which are of the magnificent conservatory [the one at the top of this post –- and the other, of the interior, below].

In the Preface to this catalogue, Crompton & Fawkes stated that their years of experience enabled them to construct glasshouses “specially adapted for growing plants, flowers and fruit in the most efficient manner at the minimum expense”. While also describing themselves as “pioneers in designing Ornamental Conservatories…”.

As in their previous catalogues, at the beginning of this book two pages are filled with the names of, presumably satisfied, clients: “The following are a representative few of the thousands of Noblemen, Officers, Architects, Manufacturing Firms, and other clients for whom we have designed and constructed Winter Gardens, Conservatories, Ranges of Growing Houses, and other Joinery, Heating, Apparatus, etc.

Heading the list is HRH The Prince of Wales, followed by various Earls, a Duchess, Lords, Ladies and Sirs. Also listed is "T.F.C. Vernon Wentworth, Esq.".

An Interior View of the Winter Garden at Wentworth Castle. Plate 9 from ‘Horticultural Buildings and their Fittings by Crompton & Fawkes, Chelmsford’, 1899

The Wentworth Gardeners

Photograph of the conservatory in 1910 by James Batley, the Head Gardener at Wentworth

The National Trust are still researching the history of the Wentworth estate, but when I visited had several informative signs, including one concerning the head gardeners. And more information on them can be found in the Gardens Trust blog.

Three generations of the Batley family held the post of Head Gardener. First off, William from 1826, then James, who ran the gardens for almost 50 years and who was Head Gardener at the time the conservatory was built. He was succeeded by his son George in 1915, who is recorded as working in the gardens from 1887. James, who took the photograph of the conservatory above, had a staff of 12, divided into 3 teams who looked after the pleasure gardens, the glasshouses and the kitchen garden. The Garden Trust's writer had the benefit of a guidebook when he visited – which included this fabulous photograph of the garden staff. James Batley stands 3rd from the right with his son, George, second left.

The Wentworth garden staff

The Winter Garden in the horticultural press

I’ve found two articles in the contemporary horticultural press regarding Wentworth Castle which mention the Winter Garden. Both are to be found in the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener. The first, from August 1880, concerns a visit to the Castle by a local Gardeners’ Mutual Improvement Society. On entering the gardens, they were met by James Batley, who gave them a tour around the Castle, it’s private grounds and kitchen garden.

In the “conservatory”, the article’s author, Robert Hall, wrote of Tasconia Van Volxemi – “growing there luxuriantly, the roof being almost covered with it”; Batley advising that for the last 5 years it had rarely been out of flower. My photograph below shows this plant, or a similar hybrid, in the Wentworth conservatory still dripping from its roof when I visited in 2022. It's one of those plants with a complicated, and confusing, naming history as Tasconias were once a separate species, but are now considered part of the Passiflora (passion flower) family. [The nearest candidate I can find on the web is P. x exoniensis (named for the Veitch's Exeter nursery), but it could be a similar hybrid such as P. antioquiensis.]

Hall also described the remainder of the roof being covered with “the graceful Coboea scandens”, while the central bed contained a “grand specimen of the Norfolk Island Pine, the other beds being filled with good examples of Oranges, Palms, Tree Ferns, and similar plants”. He also mentioned various other glasshouses at Wentworth, containing vines, pelargoniums – as well as “a Pine stove”, with side benches occupied with Ferns and Dracaenas “for table decoration”.

The next article, published in August 1887, was a report by the Yorkshire Association of Horticultural Societies on their visit earlier that month. James Batley was again in evidence – the article’s unnamed author describing him as “the veteran chief of the gardens”, who, together with his son, George, showed them “extreme care and incessant attention”.

'Coboea scandens' from 'Flore des Jardiniers' (Flowers of the Gardener) by French botanical artist, Pancrace Bessa, 1836

After visiting the Castle, the group visited the “spacious conservatory, built of iron and glass on the ridge-and-furrow principle. Here are some large plants of Orange and Lime trees, the latter bearing exceptionally fine fruit, and noble examples of Palms… the groundwork being covered with masses of Ferns, Mosses, Begonias, etc, while flowering plants were tastefully arranged in the front or sunny part of the structure… The roof throughout is gracefully festooned with healthy and well-flowered specimens of Passifloras, Tasconias, Coboea scandens, and other suitable plants”.

The author also mentioned the electric lighting: “when lit up by means of the electric light, with which this fine house as well as the whole of the establishment is furnished, the effect must be charming and fairy-like in its nature”.

This group also visited the pleasure grounds and kitchen gardens, and 20 glasshouses are mentioned “devoted to the growth of Grapes, Peaches, Cucumbers, Melons, Tomatoes, table and decorative plants and other things necessary to the well being of a first class establishment”. One of the group took a photograph of the Castle’s Flower Garden, which accompanied the article, as shown below.

‘Flower Garden at Wentworth Castle’ from the ‘Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener’, August 25, 1887 and, right, my photo, August 2022

Wentworth Castle: Conservatory & Terrace

Wentworth Castle: Restored Conservatory & Terrace. My photo August 2022

Decline and Restoration

Wentworth’s Grade II* listed glasshouse had been on the Buildings at Risk Register until its renovation in 2013

Like many Victorian glasshouses however, Wentworth's Winter Garden fell into decay as, like many other great houses and estates during the first half of the 20th century, Wentworth was abandoned.

Thomas Wentworth had died in 1902. His son, Bruce, seemed to prefer the family’s other estates in Suffolk and Scotland and, in 1919, left Wentworth completely, auctioning off the house’s contents and moved to Suffolk. Wentworth sat unused for some 20 years until the military moved in during the 2nd World War when, unsurprisingly, its condition deteriorated and demolition was considered.

However in 1948, the Castle and surrounding estate was saved, and sold to Barnsley council. The house was restored for use as a teacher training college until 1978 when it became a residential Adult Education college – which it remains today. However, by 2000, the gardens – including many of its Grade I listed structures, were in a bad way and so in 2001 the Council created a Heritage Trust with a view to restoration.

After many years of fundraising, it was restored in 2013 at a cost of £3.7 million. It's now Grade II* listed. Unfortunately, it seems that the Trust quite quickly ran into financial difficulties – and Wentworth closed to the public in 2017, and its future seemed to be in doubt. However, it's since been taken on by the National Trust (it reopened in 2019) and when I visited they were still in the process of researching its history, and had yet to produce a new guide book.

Restored Winter Garden at Wentworth Castle. My photo August 2022

Interior views of the beautifully restored Winter Garden at Wentworth Castle. My photos August 2022

A Modern Day Moral Dilemma

One of the most controversial aspects of Wentworth that the National Trust had to grapple with [as well as at others of its properties] was the Wentworth family’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. During the early 18th century, they made direct profits from the trade, enabling them to build their splendid house and gardens – and one reminder of this is the statue on show in the glasshouse.

The Kneeling Man in Wentworth's Winter Garden. My photo August 2022

The Georgian lead sundial depicts a kneeling slave, The Blackamoor, which was at the time a popular subject for sculpture in the gardens of stately homes as often their wealth had been generated by the slave trade.

Obviously, as attitudes changed, many were destroyed or disappeared – but the one at Wentworth survived and was restored. The National Trust decided not to shy away from the subject and it’s now the centrepiece of the glasshouse, but with appropriate interpretative signage.

If you want to read more about this, I recommend The Gardens Trust blog on the subject [see Notes].

In Summary

Wentworth’s 'Winter Garden' conservatory is the only known surviving example of Crompton & Fawkes' work and, as the Gardens Trust blog rightly notes: “given the number they must have built, and the obvious quality of their work, [this] is a sad reflection on the preservation of our gardening heritage.”

And what of Crompton & Fawkes? By 1907, Fawkes had retired, and Crompton had returned to the army a few years earlier. The business continued for a while without them, but by 1911 it was voluntarily liquidated, and its remaining stock auctioned off.

Fortunately, Wentworth Castle's Crompton & Fawkes' Winter Garden is now beautifully restored – and well worth to visit.


Crompton & Fawkes online publications:

The Gardens Trust blog of 2017: Crompton and Fawkes | The Gardens Trust

The Gardens Trust blog regarding the Blackamoor statue: Overlooked? Forgotten? Unseen? | The Gardens Trust

120 views2 comments


May 05

The glasshouse is a stunning and beautiful structure and is well worth a visit to Wentworth Castle to appreciate it.


Oct 11, 2023

Those glasshouses are so, so rare, thank goodness this one's survived. Thanks Paula, the history is part of that restoration too...

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