JB Seatrobe reveals that the noted gardener, architect and creator of the Crystal Palace sat for the Liberals for a decade
Sir Joseph Paxton, designer of the famous Crystal Palace, was, at the height of his fame, an MP for over a decade. Several years before he became a Member of Parliament, Punch had cleverly linked his Crystal Palace, the centrepiece of the 1851 Great Exhibition, with frustrations over the delays in completing the new Palace of Westminster following the 1834 fire, by begging him to create "two glass Houses of Parliament".
Paxton was already a noted landscape gardener and architect when he accepted an invitation from Liberals in Coventry to become their candidate (having previously rejected a similar offer from Nottingham in 1852). One of the sitting Liberals had died in November 1854, and Paxton was well-known locally for his successful design of the city's new cemetery.
He issued his first byelection address on 11 November, in which he backed the raging Crimean War as just and inevitable - though, once in Parliament, he became openly critical of its conduct - and with the Tories unable to field a candidate in time, he was unopposed on 2 December. He took his seat in the house on 18 December.
Despite living in Kent, he worked hard in the constituency. At the byelection, he had visited every potential voter (around 4,500), an effort which it was said "gained him great popularity". At a supporters' dinner on 3 October 1855, he admitted that a year previously he "was only known personally to two or three persons in that city", but now felt "no longer a comparative stranger" but "among friends...whose representative he was proud to be".
He was an active parliamentarian on a wide range of constituency and national issues. His first recorded speech was on 5 March 1855, on the state of army barracks at Aldershot, and he was one of three MPs appointed to an official committee on the subject later that spring.
His most striking parliamentary contribution was his visionary solution for London's chronic transport problems - his Great Victorian Way, a multilevel, covered glass-and-iron ring road around the metropolis, incorporating an arcade and a railway. On 7 June 1855, he presented this scheme to a select committee, which, in its report, praising its "splendid designs" and "many features of remarkable novelty". Nevertheless, it was never built. In 1857, at his first general election, Paxton faced opposition. The election was precipitated by a Commons defeat on 3 March over the Liberal government's aggressive China policy, on which Coventry's two Liberal MPs had split, with Paxton rebelling. Another Liberal, John Mellor, stood, hoping to defeat Paxton, even at the risk of splitting the party's vote. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, one handbill reminded electors that Paxton had been made a Russian Knight of St Vladimir in the 1840s: "Only think of Coventry being represented by a Russian Knight!" Despite this, Paxton was returned, second, with 2,384 votes, to his veteran Liberal colleague, Edward Ellice, leaving Mellor trailing with only 703 votes.
Paxton faced the electorate again only two years later when, in April 1859, another major government defeat led again to an early dissolution. This time, no Liberals stood against the two incumbents in Coventry, and they were safely returned, with Paxton again second to Ellice. Paxton's supposed connection with nearby Wyken colliery, then on strike, was an election issue. At one Tory meeting, someone shouted "Bury him in a coal pit", provoking another's response, harking back to Paxton's earlier architectural connection with the city: "No, put him in the cemetery!"
In the early 1860s a controversial trade treaty with France, which abolished duties on silk imports, devastated Coventry industry. Despite many Commons speeches and petitions, Paxton had to defend himself against local criticism of not being sufficiently active at Westminster over this vital issue. Following such a speech at the local Corn Exchange on 15 December 1863, the meeting ended with him receiving a large vote of confidence.
In Parliament, he was active in railway development and regulation, in which he was heavily commercially involved as an investor, company director and designer of new lines at home and abroad.
On 12 March 1861 he strongly opposed a motion calling for greater regulation of rail companies following a spate of accidents. This seems to contradict his claim in his 1857 election nomination speech that he stood with "no personal interest in view".
Paxton's health started to decline in the early 1860s and, in April 1865, he told his constituency agent that he would not stand in the forthcoming general election. His death on 8 June was not entirely unexpected. He should have heeded the warning of a supporter, back when he first stood in 1854, who told him that becoming an MP would "so add to your great labours as to interfere with...enjoyments of life and shorten your days".
Perhaps unfairly, his obituary in The Times concentrated on his design and garden triumphs, and dismissed his other activities, including his parliamentary career, as not worth "more than a passing notice".
Next month: David Ricardo