Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire boasts a magnificent Victorian conservatory behind the main 18thc building. It was built in 1885-6 by Crompton & Fawkes, an Essex-based company who were one of the leading manufacturers of horticultural buildings in Britain at the time. As you can see from the photo it was until recently in an extremely dilapidated state. However thanks to the efforts of the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust, it has now been beautifully restored.
Unfortunately, as far is known, Wentworth’s is the only surviving example of Crompton and Fawkes’s work, which given the number they must have built, and the obvious quality of their work, is a sad reflection on the preservation of our gardening heritage.
However the company did leave behind several catalogues of their work. These include not only the usual line illustrations of their various ranges, with dimensions and prices [would that you could still buy such an elaborate 32ft x 14ft conservatory as the one on the left for only £93 today!] but photographs of some of their grander commissions headed by Wentworth Castle.
Read on to find out more about origins of the company and its extraordinarily gifted founders….
So were did it all start? It certainly wasn’t anywhere quite as grand as Wentworth, but a rather humble family-run ironmongers shop in Chelmsford in Essex. The business had been going for nearly a hundred years when T.H.P. Dennis, the third generation of the family, decided to expand, although horticultural buildings were probably far from his mind when he began advertising his ironmongery wares in the local paper in 1856. But he was a shrewd businessman and saw opportunities at every turn.
In addition to the normal run of ironmongery in the shop, Dennis was already manufacturing things like fencing and railings at his Anchor Works in the town. Now he diversified from agricultural goods into a wider domestic range, taking on new products from kitchen ranges to razors and from sewage pipes to safes via ammunition and colza oil.
He was also a keen gardener, winning prizes in local shows, and in 1860 he took out a patent on “improvements in the construction of iron buildings or glazed structures for horticultural or other purposes.”
By 1861 Dennis was making use of his patent and was manufacturing and installing heating apparatus based on steam and hot hot water, which he claimed was suitable for heating everything from churches to gaols and horticultural buildings.
After the repeal of the glass tax in 1845 there was a boom in demand for glasshouses and conservatories to be able to grow many of the tender exotics that were being introduced in increasing numbers from all round the world. Designers like Paxton created more and more outrageously grand buildings, but also a range of more utilitarian and affordable structures that would fit into the gardens of the wealthy and growing middle class. THP Dennis was moving into the market to manufacture and supply them.
By December 1861 he was able “to inform the nobility, gentry, clergy and the public” via ads in the Chelmsford Chronicle that he was “now able to erect his patent conservatories, vineries, orchard houses, &, to any extent and in illimitable forms.” A pretty impressive claim. Within a few months larger illustrated ads appeared and in 1862 he was exhibiting “a model of a metallic conservatory” with “a curvilinear span roof” at the 1862 International Exhibition, a follow-on to the 1851 Great Exhibition.
But to grow a business like this required capital and specific expertise. Perhaps he was a little short of finance, or was wary of expanding too far from his established ironmongery base when in 1869 he announced that he had gone into partnership with a friend, a Mr Portway, to run the horticultural building side of the enterprise. Portway was an engineer already in business making pumps and heating apparatus so was a good match. It’s clear that the business was using the latest technology, but equally importantly had targeted a clear sector of the growing market by introducing “their new Economical Greenhouses” which was heated by a new type of hot water boiler.
They took the new buildings to horticultural shows up and down the country, starting that summer with Manchester and Leeds and then the Royal Agricultural Show. But they also continued to streamline their designs and manufacturing to reduce costs.
So successful were they that from the autumn of 1869 newspapers the length and breadth of the kingdom began carrying a brief classified ad offering “economical greenhouses” for “the fabulously low sum of £5.”
By 1873 this had increased to the fabulously low sum of £6, while a new classified ad explained that this was for a greenhouse measuring 1o x 5, while 6 x 8 melon frames could be purchased for £2.15s. At prices like these business boomed and Dennis opened an office and just possibly a showroom in London. They also introduced “an ornamental villa greenhouse” to supplement the range and began exhibiting abroad, winning numerous medals and prizes in the process. They even took out patents on their heating systems in major European countries.
But the pace really began to speed up when the team was joined, probably in 1875 or 1876, by the unlikely figure of a retired Indian Army officer, Captain Rookes Crompton. He might sound an odd figure for such a role but he was a practical man and an inventor par excellence. In 1875 he left India after 20 years service and returned to Britain looking for a new outlet for his talents.
During his school days at Harrow Crompton had been fascinated by science and engineering, to the extent of building a roadworthy steam engine which he later shipped out to India, and began manufacturing there.
To cut a long story short Crompton had become obsessed with the potential of electricity, and on his return set up one of the very earliest companies in the sector, in of all places, Chelmsford. He was soon the leading manufacturer and distributor of electricity generating and lighting systems in Britain.
In 1874 Crompton had been joined by another immensely practical man – Frank Attfield Fawkes. A Londoner, born in 1849, Fawkes was the son of a man described variously as plumber, gas fitter and builder, and appears to have been taken on at first as an electrical engineer.
Crompton’s Arc Works were adjacent to Dennis’s Anchor Works and the two buildings were soon interconnected, as Dennis began to supply the metalwork needed by Crompton’s lamps and other goods. Then, while he continued to run Crompton and Co, the Captain also became a partner with Dennis in the horticultural buildings business, probably alongside Fawkes as well. This meant that the company could now supply not just economic greenhouses and summer-houses but top-end constructions too, with state of the art heating systems and electric lighting. It was to do so in style under the motto “Art With Economy”.
In 1879 they issued what appears to have been their first serious catalogue, although I have been unable to trace a surviving copy. But, as can be seen from the press reviews , it seems to have been impressive with conservatories in a large range of styles – from Classical to Gothic via Queen Anne and Jacobean…
It concluded with a long list of clients “not only in all parts of England, Ireland and Scotland but on the Continent and in the East…” Most prestigiously “at the head of the list stands the name of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, for whom the firm are at present engaged in erecting a range of vineries and peach houses at Sandringham…to cover a wall 450 feet long.”
In early 1881 Frank Fawkes, rather than the company, published a slim little book full of technical detail: Horticultural Buildings: Their construction, heating, interior fittings, &c., with remarks on some of the principles involved and their application. Some of its 123 illustrations show what the company was producing.
There is a section on conservatories and another on winter gardens, including such things as mosaic flooring and stained glass window designs, but most of the book is still concerned with the more practical kind of buildings. It was well reviewed both locally and nationally and was translated into French. Fawkes also lectured about it to the Architectural Association and the Crystal Palace School of Gardening [more about that in another post one day!]amongst other places. You can find the full text at:
By now I suspect Dennis himself was taking a back seat and becoming a typical Victorian civic-minded gentleman. His ironmongery shop expanded, he ran art exhibitions, helped set up the new Chelmsford Museum, got involved with his church, became a director of the local building society, gained public works contracts and in 1881 became president of the Irongmonger’s Association. Then in 1884 he retired, as Portway had already done, and Fawkes and Crompton were left running the business. They renamed it and, in what the local newspaper called ” an unusually enterprising and prominent manner” the very next week took the entire front page of the paper to advertise their wares.
Frank Fawkes now took full charge of the horticultural side of the business , with a manager appointed for the day to day running, while Crompton, who became the senior partner, concentrated on the engineering part. He was still also running his electrical business next door in parallel.
The Wentworth castle conservatory must have been one of their first ventures as the new company. Although there were fluctuations in demand both businesses continued to flourish and in 1890 the horticultural business moved to larger premises allowing Crompton’s Arc works to take over the old Anchor works site.
The new Crompton and Fawkes factory was opened by the Mayor and a grand dinner was held for the employees. It is clear from the speeches that business was still going well. They had a large quantity of work in hand, were exporting to Denmark and also building a Wesleyan Chapel in Kew and an Anglican one in Chelmsford.
Its clear from their adverts that they were also continuing to develop their technology….
…and the styles of buildings they were designing and selling. They range from the basic to the fashionable and grand. Their most impressive catalogue was published in 1899 and included all of these and many more.
The first example here seems to have been influenced by the fashion for all things Japanese that had started after the 1862 International Exhibition in London. The Mikado had opened in 1885 and painters from Tissot to Atkinson Grimshaw were painting women in conservatories or with Japanese accessories. In 1899 you could buy a conservatory in a range of sizes and have it delivered in kit form to your local station. One measuring 15ft x 12ft 6 and a height of 7ft at the eaves would have cost you £33 17s and 6d. Those were the days!
Even if they weren’t on the enormous scale of the example above, they could be elaborate in their ornamentation and convey a sense of space and grandeur.
There were also more public buildings including a range of summer-houses and small pavilions suitable for public parks, and they were still producing dozens of different designs for working greenhouses and hothouses of all kinds.
Crompton returned to the Army during the Boer war, returning as a colonel, but thereafter seems to have concentrated on his electrical business. One of the world’s first large-scale manufactures of electrical equipment. During the First World War, he was asked to submit designs for “landships” that could cross trenches. These became the blueprint for the modern military tank. He was twice president of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and a Fellow of the Royal Society. None of the biographies I can find have any mention of his horticultural business and since he lived in a mansion block in Kensington, they have no mention of any interest in gardening either! He died in 1940 aged 94.
If you want to know more click on the link under his photo.
Fawkes also started to slow down and finally retired to Felixstowe in 1907. He then spent more of his time on his hobbies, one of which was making fine wooden furniture. He was obviously quite good because not only did he go on to exhibit his work but he was commissioned to make the pulpit canopy in Westminster Cathedral which is still in place today. Incidentally he also wrote about things other than garden buildings and their heating systems. There were books on baby rearing, religion and how to organize bazaars, as well as detective stories and science fiction. He died in 1941 aged 92. There is an interesting biographical blog about him at:
So what happened to the business after Fawkes and Crompton are not longer active in it? Basically it went downhill fast and in December 1911 it went into voluntary liquidation, with a rapid auctioning off of its remaining stock in January 1912.
There is no editorial coverage in any of the local papers or in Gardeners Chronicle as far as I can see, so its difficult to know why the collapse happened or what contemporaries thought. There was clearly a lot of competition in the market but other companies seem to have been flourishing – and perhaps it was just down to the drive and design skills of Frank Fawkes that C&F did so well in the first place.
You can see their catalogue of horticultural buildings in full at:
For more on the conservatory at Wentworth, and its restoration, the best place to start is http://www.wentworthcastle.org
Earlier posts about Wentworth Castle can be found at: