Horticultural Buildings

The previous section dealt with Thomas Messenger’s business interests chronologically, this section deals with the types of horticultural buildings that Thomas Messenger developed, built and sold.

The generic name for these structures is plant houses and there are essentially two classes: –

Greenhouses – these are used for plant propagation and their after-care. Today there are many different shapes, sizes and styles of greenhouse available in a number of materials, such as wood, aluminium, alloy, concrete, plastic, etc. Historically, the greenhouses that Messenger was involved with were, up to the 1950s, made of well-seasoned hardwood to a relatively small set of designs, namely lean-to, ¾-span and span roof, although there are modifications to suit various special growing requirements.

Conservatories – these are structures whose sole or major purpose is for displaying decorative plant and flowers. There is a tendency for there to be an almost infinite range of differing designs afforded to these structures. As they are either attached or very close to their owners’ dwelling house, the latter often has a significant influence on the design of the former. Most owners want a degree of harmony between the two, thus placing a limitation on the flamboyancy afforded to the conservatory. Conservatories made their entrance around the beginning of the 19th century, probably being a natural progression of the orangery. The early conservatories were typically architectural in form and typically built of stone such as at Syon House.

The real surge in domestic glasshouse and conservatory building, particularly for the middle classes, was brought about by a combination of events. Firstly, Paxton’s revolutionary and audacious enormous cast-iron and glass structure, which became known as the Crystal Palace. Built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, it showed the advantages of using cast-iron to cover large areas. Secondly, glass technology had advanced so as to allow plate glass to be produced. Thirdly, glass tax was abolished when Sir Robert Peel’s government repealed the ‘excise tax’ in 1845. This allowed English glass manufactures to invest in the new technology, to produce larger volumes of even finer and larger sizes at significantly lower cost. Fourthly, the rise in interest, mainly through journals and magazines, prompting people to see conservatories as exciting spaces for entertaining or even function as dining rooms, music rooms or indeed billiard rooms. Fifthly, the Country’s sustained industrial success, which markedly improved the prosperity, particularly of the middle classes, who as a result had increasingly more leisure time available to them, in which to indulge their new found passions. Above all, no doubt was the desire to possess plants, including exotic species that was simply not achievable without protection from the British climate.

All that was required was for entrepreneurs to come forward to fill the need by designing and manufacturing the right products for the new market place. Thomas Messenger, along with a host of others, including W. Richardson and Co., Darlington[1], Foster and Pearson, Beeston, Henry Ormson, Chelsea, London, W.H. Lascelles, Bunhill Row, London, St. Pancras Iron-work Company, Old St. Pancras Road, London, Fletcher, Lowndes and Co., Westminster, London and Deane and Co., London Bridge, London rose to the challenge.

The essential features of a plant house are that it should be capable of providing an artificial growing environment, should essentially be watertight and air tight, whilst allowing for controlled ventilation with, if required, a form of artificial heating.

Span roof



Span roof or even-span greenhouses are normally free standing structures where the two slopes of the roof are of the same size, arranged at the same angle, usually between thirty and thirty-five degrees. This form of structure offers the advantage, in most cases, of the plants receiving both more light and a more even distribution of light throughout the greenhouse, compared with other designs. If aligned north-south, then plants receive the full benefit of the sun in the mornings and evenings, while during the middle of the day, in summer, they are naturally offered more shelter, as large part of the sun ray’s is cut off by the sash bars and rafters. However, during winter months the north-south alignment has the disadvantage of receiving less sun than those aligned east-west. The latter alignment, whilst better for those wishing to force plants earlier in the season or for winter flowering, normally requires the use of blinds on the south side during summer months. A north-south aligned structure is probably more effective as a growing house whilst the east west alignment is better as a forcing house. However, the beneficial effects, of a west-east structure is probably confined to about two-thirds of the house, with the north-facing side will receiving receive significantly less sun than the south side and less than if it were aligned north-south. This can be used to advantage by using the north side for growing plants that require less bright, cooler conditions, such as ferns, violets, or for plants at rest, which do fully as well in partial shade. Everything else being equal, the loss of heat from a span roof house will be somewhat greater than from either a lean-to, or ¾-span house, especially if it, like the others, runs east and west, on account of its having a greater area of glass upon its north side. In the lean-to there is no glass at all on the north side, while, in the ¾-span house, the glass area on the north side will only be one-half as great as in the even span. The other advantage of a north-south aligned house is that the northern end can be used as a work area, without increasing the shade.

A variation of the single span is a double span (whereby the roof forms an ‘M’ shape) or even triple span, by essentially placing two or more span roofs adjoining side by side. One of the disadvantages of multiple span style of house is the shading of the centre houses during the morning and afternoon, by those on either side.




The lean-to, sometimes referred to as a half-span, is probably the most general form of greenhouse. It consists of a single glass roof sloping down to a front, with the whole structure having a solid back wall. There are numerous advantages of the lean-to house over other types, firstly they normally cost less to purchase and erect; they cost less in maintenance; because they have less glass surface in proportion to the area covered they radiate less heat. They can also cost less to heat, especially if they face south. One of the major problems is that the light is more unidirectional than in a span greenhouse; therefore, plants can become uneven, due to being “pulled to the light”. The lean-to has advantages in some situations, such as the growing of vines and peaches. A north-facing lean-to can also act as an effective propagating house or fernery. Another problem is that the heat tends to rise to the apex of the roof and therefore not evenly distributed.





The early ¾-span roof greenhouses were likened to lean-to with the peak of the roof cut off. Whilst variations have occurred over time a ¾-span normally have the full length of roof, with opening front lights and a shorter length of roof at the back, leaning on a wall or other solid structure.

The ¾-span roof has a number of advantages than the lean-to in that firstly they admit more sun and light to the plants; secondly, if aligned east-west the north span admits indirect light that insures better results; thirdly, heat is more evenly distributed. The advantages and disadvantages as to an east-west versus a north-south alignment are similar as for the span roof houses. They can also be more economical to heat.

It is normal for these houses to be aligned east-west; the north slope of the roof allows the light to fall on the plants from all sides, so that the growth of the plants will be stronger and more symmetrical. The south slope is normally relied upon to trap the light and heat from the sun, and the best arrangement is to angle the roof as close to right angles as possible to the sun’s rays during the winter months.

In the Victorian period, the ¾-span was seen as being adaptable, being capable of growing a variety of different crops. The height of the walls, the slope and length of the sash bars, and the width and height of the benches could be varied. Generally, ¾-span houses varied from sixteen to twenty feet wide; the south wall four to five feet high, and the north wall from six to eight feet. The south pitch of the roof typically varied from twenty-six to thirty-five degrees, and the north from thirty-five to sixty-five degrees.


Glass and Glazing

By the time, that Thomas Messenger started developing his horticultural business sheet glass was becoming the norm for horticultural purposes. It was made by blowing glass into long cylinders, or “muffs,” then split down and flattened. This enabled the glass to be manufactured in a rectangular form. Differing thicknesses of horticultural glass was normally referred to by weight per square foot., e.g. 21oz. (per square foot) was nominally about 0.1 inch thick; 150z. glass was about 0.077 inch thick and 26oz. about 0.125 inches thick. The standard weight for horticultural use at the time was 21oz. 15oz. was sometimes used for cheapness, although it was obviously not so strong and more liable to scorch plants. Besides being graded by weight, glass was also graded within each weight band. ‘Best’ glass was the clearest; followed by ‘Seconds’, ‘Thirds’ and finally ‘Fourths’.

Whilst Messenger used a variety of glass, there was an amount of consistency in his choice, as early as 1867. He appears to have used a mixture of weights for pit frames and lights. In 1867, he built a 22ft. by 7ft. 6in. heated pit frame with lights, glazed with 21oz. glass, for William G. Palmer, a surgeon, High Street, Loughborough. In 1870, he built a 16ft. by 7ft. pit frame and 2-inch lights with handle, again in 21oz. glass for William Blott of the Poplars, Gold Street, Wellingborough. He also used 15oz. sheet glass, which appears to have been the preferred weight used by him for glazing lights. In 1867, William Busfield Ferrand[2] (1809-1889) of St. Ives[3], Bingley, Yorkshire ordered five 12ft. by 3ft. 6in. two inch lights, with 15oz. glass, at a cost of £6 12s., including delivery to Loughborough railway station. In March 1868, Mr. Parker of Victoria Nursery, Rugby enquired regarding the price of lights. He was quoted 6s. 6d. per light for each 2-inch, unglazed, and unpainted and 13s. 6d. per light glazed with 15oz. sheet glass and painted[4]. The price for a 1½-inch light was 5s. 6d. and 11s. 6d. respectively.

Normally 21oz. glass was used for greenhouse roofs, although on one or two occasions 15oz. glass was offered such as in 1869 for 60ft. by 18ft. structure for Charles Pratt, a wine merchant of The Stonebow, High Street, Lincoln. Also in 1869, Messenger undertook a job for John Stead of Eden Lodge, Stanwix, Carlisle. This involved removing the existing glass from several vineries, painting and re-glazing with 21oz. glass using either 832 square feet of 17½-inch by 7½-inch panes or 768 square feet glazed using boiled oil putty. Earlier, in 1868 Thomas Messenger quoted Edward Finch Dawson of Launde Abbey for re-glazing a vinery roof, 57ft. by 20ft. of 25in. by 14in. 210z. sheet glass panes at 7d. per square foot.

Messenger’s conservatories appear to have been glazed with 21oz. glass as standard, rarely 26oz.

At the time plate glass which was normally polished was produced either on iron tables for large squares, or blown into a cylinders for smaller squares, was thought to be unsuitable for glazing horticultural structures on account of it not admitting enough light to penetrate, especially in dull weather. It was also found that during the summer months it did not provide young and tender plants with sufficient shade, without blinds or other such shading. However, it was occasionally used by Thomas Messenger, although normally reserved for glazing doors. Such as in 1872 for Thomas Wilson, a cutlery manufacturer, of Oakholme, Sheffield. Also in 1872, he glazed a conservatory door in plate glass for Thomas Cordes of Bryn Glas House, Brynglas Road, Malpas, Monmouthshire. Very occasionally he used plate glass for glazing horticultural structures. In 1871 he provided Nelson Walters, a nurseryman, seedsman and florist, of High Street, Oakham, Rutland with rough plate lights (which might have come from another customer, Earl Fortescue of Castle Hill, Filleigh, Devon). In 1873, he built a conservatory for Samuel William Clowes of Norbury Manor, Norbury, Derbyshire, where he substituted sheet for plate glass in the end gable, implying that the rest of the conservatory was glazed in plate glass.

Rough plate glass was, at the time, translucent but not transparent, unpolished and often bearing table marks. In 1869 in a large estimate for William Whetstone of Broom Leys, Whitwick Waste, Leicestershire he quoted for using rough glass for the roof of a 36ft. by 12ft. house. Interestingly the price per square foot was no different from that using standard glass. In 1874, he built a 272ft. long range, with pit lights, amongst other items for the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and charged £12 18s. extra for glazing the roof in rough plate glass.

In 1871, Thomas Messenger built a 16ft. long structure for Mr. H.R. Bowers, Abbots Lane, Chester, which included Hartley’s rolled and bent glass. Similar to rough plate glass, Hartley’s was also a semi-obscure glass, fluted and used for shading. The method of producing this glass was patented by James Hartley in 1847 and quickly taken up by railway companies for both skylights and railway station roofs[5]. It was also used by local authorities to glaze market roofs as well as for horticultural purposes.

Advertisement – Glass Merchant

There are no records of which glass merchant Thomas Messenger used for his glass. He might have acquired glass directly from the manufacturer, if so, one potential supplier is mentioned and that is the Wearmouth Crown Glass Company of Low Southwick, Sunderland. They subscribed 10s. to the fund following the fire at Messenger’s High Street factory in 1872[6]. Horticultural glass was readily available as early as 1848[7], when several glass merchants were adverting glass, particularly conservatory glass. James Phillips & Co, of Bishopsgate Street, London was offering 16, 21, 26 and 32oz. sheet glass in cuts up to 40-inches long, at between 3½d. and 10d. per square foot. By 1858, when Thomas Messenger formally started in horticultural business, the type and quality of glass had increased. Phillips’ were then offering[8] both English and foreign sheet glass; Hartley’s improved rough plate glass in thicknesses from ⅛-inch to ⅜-inch; greenhouse glass in thirds and fourths; orchard glass in 16oz. and 21oz.

Examples of Finials and Roof Cresting



  1. Established in 1874.

  2. He served as Member of Parliament for Knaresborough and for Devonport.

  3. The estate and mansion were bought by Bingley Urban District Council in 1929. The house is now a nursing home for young disabled people..

  4. Including delivery to Loughborough railway station.

  5. The Glassmakers, T.C. Baker, 1977, page 102.

  6. The Loughborough Advertiser, 23rd January 1873.

  7. The Gardeners’ Chronicle & Agricultural Gazette, 1848.

  8. The Gardeners’ Chronicle & Agricultural Gazette, 24th July 1848.