The Norwood Society

The Hornimans and Coombe Cliff

Coombe Cliff Conservatory was saved from demolition in 1973, when the Norwood Society actively supported the GLC in its intervention to save it. John Horniman, who founded the famous tea-merchanting firm in Newport, Isle of Wight, around 1845, made a fortune by so doing; but he was also a great reformer and gave much of his fortune to charity. He sent his youngest son, Frederick John Horniman, to the Friends’ College in Park Lane, Croydon, and in 1852 removed both himself and his tea business from the Island to Croydon, building Coombe Cliff to live in.

At first he leased a house; then, in 1859, ‘When prosperity continued to attend him, he purchased an elevated piece of ground at Coombe Hill . . . much of which was covered with an almost impenetrable tangle of thorns and brambles . . . and converted it into charming gardens and sylvan walks, crowning it with his Italian villa.’

He travelled widely and brought back many specimens of shrubs and flowers, delighting in entertaining his friends in these beautiful surroundings. He lived to be 90, dying in 1893. His widow, although thought to be in frail health, was already 93 and yet she lived for a further seven years.

Conservatory added

Frederick John Horniman, who, with his brother, had taken over the tea business, had houses at Hyde Park Terrace, Brighton and Forest Hill (where his collections later became Horniman’s Museum). But he came to live at Coombe Cliff for part of the year and within six months of his father’s death he planned his only major alteration to Coombe Cliff: the addition of the conservatory.

It was to provide him with somewhere for his rare plants (he too was a traveller, and an FRGS and FZS) and to give his mother a garden where she would not be troubled by cold weather. The old lady lived on at Coombe Cliff until her death in 1900. Soon after - in about 1902 or 1903 - F.J. Horniman sold the house; he died in 1906.

Nineteenth Century Conservatories

The conservatory, as a type of building, was a 19th century development of the orangery; it not merely provided shelter for plants which would not flourish in the open, but gave them an artificial climate which could be regulated to suit their needs. The chief requirements were plentiful glass to give adequate light, and plentiful fuel to maintain the desired temperature.

Joseph Paxton, who was the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener, began work at Chatsworth in 1836 on the most magnificent of all conservatories, the ‘Great Stove’. Its 75,000 sq.ft. of glass covered an acre, and it was so large that a coach and horses could drive through it. Here, early in the afternoon on November 2, 1849, the water-lily, Victoria Amazonica, with leaves so large that they could carry a child, flowered for the first time in cultivation. The success was sensational.

Conservatories rapidly became fashionable. If the desire of the Englishman of means to explore the swamps of the Amazon in search of rare botanical species remained a dream, at least he could built a conservatory, purchase his tropical plants, many of which were soon commercially available in England, and show them off to his friends.

Ironfounders, in their catalogues, offered veritable palaces of glass and cast iron in Gothic, Severe Greek and the Mixed styles - especially the latter.

Paxton, who was a friend of John Horniman, built the biggest glass-house ever, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, first at Hyde Park and later transferred to Sydenham. He himself retired to Sydenham to spend the last years of his life, dying in 1865.

The Coombe Cliff conservatory, built 30 years after the Crystal Palace, has a south porch suggestive of that edifice in its rounded arch. It was actually constructed by Walter Macfarlane & Co, of Saracen Foundry, Glasgow, whose name is cast into the iron columns.

Catalogue of cast iron

Walter Macfarlane spent many years in studying the working of both precious metals and iron. He set up the Saracen Foundry in Glasgow around 1850 and its success was so great that a suburb of Glasgow - Possilpark - grew up around the foundry to house the company’s employees.

The company was awarded an international prize at the 1862 Exhibition and that year brought out the fourth edition of its two-volumed catalogue. Describing itself as architectural, sanitary and general ironfounders, the company illustrated a phenomenal range, from drain covers to buildings. Over 200 cast-iron columns were illustrated, as well as piers and pilasters. A selection of entire buildings made up from the company’s standard cast-iron parts was shown - pavilions, conservatories, shelters, kiosks, hatstands, arcades. These cast-iron parts were sent all round England and all over the world.

All Macfarlane’s had to do for the design of the conservatory at Coombe Cliff was to work out a detailed design to suit F.J. Horniman’s needs, collect the parts together, and despatch them by rail to Croydon, with instructions to a local contractor for their assembly. The local contractor in this case was Joseph Kemp and Son of Forest Hill.

Plan of the conservatory

The conservatory lies on the west side of Coombe Cliff and is attached to it at its east end, forming a continuation westward of the south front. The conservatory is rectangular in plan and has a projecting south entrance. Around the periphery of the building there are 32 columns, internally there are four columns and in addition four columns to the South Entrance porch, making 40 columns in all. Nine of the 32 peripheral columns have rainwater gullies against the plinth beneath them and these shafts obviously do duty also as down-pipes, as, too, do the inside two of the four columns of the porch.

The peripheral columns have Corinthianesque capitals and Attic bases. The frieze rail over the glazing has floral decoration with intertwined tendrils, and above this is a band decorated with stars.

The roof above starts with a curved section and, higher, there is a small clerestory. The curved roofs are covered with fish-scale glazing, a feature as ingenious as it is decorative, for the curved surface can be glazed with flat glass.

Towards the house there is a high lantern carried on four internal columns; it rises first as a square, then as a tall octagon, and, finally, as a square with a pyramidal roof. To the south of the lantern there is a transept-like projection with a doorway leading to the gardens. This has the round-arched porch mentioned above, suggestive of the Crystal Palace. The lantern and the south porch, as well as much of the exterior are richly decorated with friezes of scrolls and with ornate terminal features. The lantern is surmounted by a weather vane which bears the motto: Esperance en Dieu.

The cast-iron work - panels, friezes, roof spandrels within, terminals and crestings without - all show the wealth of pattern available to the medium of cast iron; this patterning enriches the structure, but in no way clutters up its simple lines. The decoration is ornate, but it lightens the effect of the structure and gives it an airy appearance belying the weight of the materials of which it is made.

The whole conservatory forms a most satisfactory composition visually, both in itself and in relation to the Italianate Villa to which it is attached. It is an unusually ambitious structure for a private house.

Fortunate preservation

That the conservatory has remained is in itself remarkable. It has been lucky - for most of the conservatories erected during the period of popularity in the second half of the 19th century have gone - mainly as fuel for heating them became scarce and dear.

Horticulture itself turned its back on the exotic and concentrated on the creation of naturalistic gardens and today a mere fraction of the great number of conservatories of a century ago survive.

The Norwood Review Edition #68. Published 1977