A natural extension of the garden frame is the pit, normally distinguished from a frame by their walls being built partly beneath the ground, which has the consequence of rendering them permanent fixtures. They were sometimes seen as a form of compromise between a frame and a greenhouse. When frames were attached to the front of greenhouses, they were at times also referred to as pits.


During the mid-Victorian period, numerous configurations were devised, although normally they were either lean-to or span roof. They were typically rather low affairs, allowing the plants to be near the light and consequently had an access passage, normally sunk so as to provide the gardener with easy access to the plants. This access path required a door to be inserted at one or both ends of the pit. The main structure of the pit was usually of brick with the lights being securely fastened or hinged to the wooden frame.

Lean-to’s were seen as being a useful method of raising large quantities of young plants, such as bedding plants, as the small amount of heat required could easily be provided. However, because of the shape, with the sunken access passage being against the back wall there was not a lot of height to grow large plants. The span roof pit provided this greater height and was often used for forcing melons, cucumbers or even pines. These plants normally required greater heat and more sophisticated heating arrangements were introduced, compared with the lean-to pits. The span roof pit had the access passage down the middle of the structure, with beds either side.


Lean-to Pit

Between 1867 and 1874, Thomas Messenger was involved with around 30 pits, including new builds, roofing and heating. In 1867, he gave J. Mitchell of Iver Lodge, Iver, Buckinghamshire, a quote for a 72ft. long pine pit at the same time as quoting for a pine house instead of a pine pit. Also in 1867, he quoted Mr. Bullen of Tranmere Park, Birkenhead £17 for two pits on the side of a new plant house (£100). In 1869, he gave Mr. A.M. Knowles of Bromley Cross, Bolton, two estimates for a 49ft. long pit, including heating. The first of £41 (the actual component prices amounted to £41 14s 9d.) for a lean-to pit and the other of £51 for a span roof pit.

By 1870[1], Thomas Messenger was marketing a single sized 3-light wood cucumber frame, measuring 9ft. by 6ft., glazed in standard 150z. glass and painted with four coats for £3 10s.

In 1871, the Duke of St. Albans[2] purchased 60ft. long by 7ft. wide lights for a pit. Messenger also provided the heating, which included a No. 7 boiler, 50 yards of 4-inch, 20 yards of 2in. heating pipe, together with 16 cement joints. The pits which were divided into compartments cost £64 3s. with the option of heating one of the compartments with bottom heat for an additional £10 6s. Three years earlier he supplied the Duke of St. Albans with a 40ft. by 4ft. 6in. roof for a pit alongside a forcing house. The lights were such that they hung from the top.

In 1873, he built, amongst a number of other items including vinery, plant house, stages and heating, three 45ft. by 6ft. 3in. pits for Dr Dyce Duckworth[3] of Sandhill, Buckland, Surrey. The price for the frames and lights was £49 4s. 8d. to which Messenger added 20 per cent (£9 16s 10d.) to cover an undocumented price rise. Carriage and contingency amounted to £2 5s. 6d. Mr. Henry Batchelor[4] under took all the brickwork charging £17 10s. to which Thomas Messenger added 5 per cent (18s.) commission.

Pits are routinely seen as relatively simple structures however, they can be quite elaborate. In July 1873, Thomas Messenger gave the Earl of Stamford and Warrington of Enville Hall, Enville, Staffordshire an estimate for a 135ft. by 12ft. span roof forcing pit, divided by three partitions. The estimate which amounted to £468 18s., included guttering, 135ft. of cresting and 2 finials. It had beds down both sides of the pit with slate fronting, along with 8 sets of ventilation apparatus; heating using a No. 10 boiler, 330 yards of 4-inch, 53 yards of 3-inch, 47 yards of 2-inch heating pipes and 284 patent joints. Whilst the estimate appears to have been accepted, albeit with changes to the heating, the scheme was subsequently cancelled. The following year a smaller 64ft. 6in. by 13ft. span roof partitioned forcing house, without cresting or finials, was erected instead. Again the structure had beds down both sides, with slate fronting and the whole was heated uisng a No. 10 boiler. The scheme which cost £306 10s., also included installing heating into an existing pit.

Not all the pits that Messenger was involved with were as large; in 1871 he gave Orlando Webb an estimate for two small 8ft. by 6ft. pits.

He also supplied pit lights and frames to a number of customers including Col. Drury of Locko Park, Spondon, Derbyshire (one 24ft. by 3ft. cold pit frame); Messrs William Barron and Son, Elvaston Nurseries, Borrowash, Derbyshire (ten 6ft. 3in. by 4ft. pit lights, glazed in 15oz. glass, with 4 coats of paint and one handle on each frame); Mr. Emmanuel Sage (twelve 6ft. by 3ft. 6in lights, without either glazing or handles).

Prices remained fairly constant over the period, between 1868 and 1874 with Thomas Messenger typically charging 1s 3d. per superficial foot for pit roofs, although this could rise to 1s. 8d. depending upon the complexity. Pit frames were always significantly more expensive costing 3s. 4d. per superficial foot, inclusive.


Span-roof Pit



  1. 1870 Catalogue.

  2. of Bestwood Lodge, Arnold, Nottinghamshire.

  3. Dyce Duckworth (1824-1928) was the son of Robinson Duckworth and Elizabeth Forbes Nicol. In 1870 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and from 1884 until 1923 he was Treasurer of the College and represented them on the General Medical Council from 1886 until 1901, when he resigned. He acted as physician to King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, from 1890 to 1901. He received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1886 on the occasion of the opening of the Examination Hall on the Embankment, and was created a baronet in 1909.

  4. A builder and undertaker, living in Betchworth.