The History of the Conservatory

Conservatories have a long and varied history and their usage has changed over time; from non-glazed structures used for storing food, through glazed structures used to protect plants from the weather to today, where they are almost exclusively restricted to glazed structures, of numerous designs, attached to dwellings, used either as an extension of the living space or a fusion of house and garden.

Numerous contemporary accounts have been made of the history of the conservatory, most interestingly, although unsurprisingly, by manufacturers of modern conservatories. Unsurprisingly, these accounts vary in both their approach and emphasis, although, obviously, not their intent:


The Differences between a Conservatory and a Greenhouse

The differences between a conservatory and greenhouse is another interesting facet.

As early as 1850, the subject was being raised, resulting in a long article on the subject, by R. Fish, appeared in Volume 4 of The Cottage Gardener[1]:

PLANT STRUCTURES. —” What is the difference between a greenhouse and a conservatory?” is a question often put, and to which it is difficult in a few words to give au explicit answer. Hence the difficulty of replying to another question which comes to us nearly as often— ” Whether should I, in the few limited feet I can command, erect a greenhouse or a conservatory? and how should I arrange it internally so as to yield the greatest amount of pleasure?” which just brings us back to the propriety of distinguishing between the two terms, for, though used indiscriminately, and often synonymously, the different words ought to convey different ideas ; for, allowing that a greenhouse may be termed a conservatory, it does not follow that a conservatory is always and necessarily a greenhouse. The primary meaning of the word, conservatory, is merely a place where a thing or being is kept in circumstances suitable to its nature; and thus, fish, in a pond, bird in an aviary, natural object! in a museum, &c., are as much in conservatories as are plants from tropical or more temperate climes, when kept in glass structures suitable to their healthy existence.

As a new Gardeners’ Dictionary is being brought out, the settling of terms and definitions will be an object of some interest. The term greenhouse is applicable to all gardening structures in which tender plants are cultivated; but since we have plant stoves for plants from tropical regions, orchid-houses, vineries, peacheries, pineries, &c., all of which may be used for many purposes, but the main object of each of which is generally understood, it would be advisable to restrict the term greenhouse to those structures which contain plants so comparatively hardy, that they require protection only during the colder months of the year. The term conservatory is more high sounding, and carries with it something more of dignity, especially when the possessor enthusiastically describes its treasures to one who has not had the privilege of seeing it, and whose mind may therefore be left in pleasing suspense whether the wonderful place covers a few square feet or the large fractional part of an acre. The term also conveys a higher degree of the comfortable, for though in a northeaster in February, alike sufficient to pinch nose and finger-ends, we should just expect the cold to be prevented intruding into the greenhouse—we should expect something of the cosiness of the snug parlour to be realised in the conservatory. Hence, on account of the prevalence of this idea, we should be satisfied if plants are green, without much of growth or of floral attractions, in a greenhouse in winter ; while under the more aristocratic name of conservatory we should expect | to find plants in bloom at all seasons—the blooming of , plants in winter requiring quite different circumstances from what is requisite note, as adverted to last week, coolness and shade being not more essential for preserving the bloom in summer than heat and light are necessary for a similar purpose in winter. Plants that may be kept healthy in a temperature of from 35° to 40°, will not open nor expand their bloom freely if in a lower temperature than from 40° to 50°. Hence, again, arises the difference between a cold and a warm greenhouse; the first a structure for preserving plants in winter for ultimate effect during spring and summer, the second for the same purpose also, but combined with the growing and blooming of plants in winter.

Suppose we carry our definition of distinctions a step further, and have a cold and a warm conservatory—one in which plants are merely kept from the contingencies inseparable from our climate, and the other in which plants are grown and bloomed, and to which plants in bloom are brought from other still warmer structures; then we have only one more distinction to make before we answer the question of many amateurs, as to whether a conservatory or a greenhouse would be the most suitable for them—and that is a broad demarcating line to separate greenhouses from conservatories. Now this we believe would easily be done were we to term all plant-houses greenhouses in which the plants are cultivated in pots, baskets, vases, &c., with or without stages; and were we, on the other hand, to term all such structures conservatories in which the plants were either planted out upon beds of soil, or plunged with their pots into it, so as to present that appearance.


Almost sixty years later, William Rowles, in his book “The Garden Under Glass[2]”, published in 1917 gave a contemporary account of the differences:

These do not differ merely in name. The conservatory should be rather better in appearance, loftier, with a larger surface of glass at the sides and better flooring, ample means of ventilating and shading, and should have a heating arrangement capable of maintaining a minimum temperature of 50° by night. It is best that the whole of the ground floor be covered with tiles, concrete or some similar substance, and that the side staging be movable. If the conservatory be of fair size I would dispense with a middle staging and put the plants into picturesque groups which could be changed according to the character of the plants.

A conservatory need not be large to be beautiful. I know such a structure attached to the house which is barely ten feet in length and whose breadth could easily be spanned with outstretched arms, yet it is always gay with flowers supplied by a greenhouse and a few frames and gives great delight to its owner.

Today, the difference is probably even starker, with the greenhouse being perceived as utilitarian structure, only suitable for growing pants, whilst the conservatory is part of the home and fitted out as such, probably, in many cases, to the exclusion of the paraphernalia required to either grow or show plants.

Again, there are numerous contemporary descriptions on the differences:


Messenger & Co., Ltd.’s Conservatories

The firm is known to have built and installed approaching 700 conservatories between 1875 and the early 1960s.

Amongst the earliest included those for the Reverend William Lea[3], vicar of St. Peter’s Church, Droitwich, Mr. W. T. Marriott, Sandal Grange, near Wakefield and W. Melles, Sewardstone Lodge, Essex. One of the last, in 1962, was for Percy Turnbull, the composer, who at the time was living at West Broomers, Broomers Hill Lane, near Pulborough.

As would be expected, the firm followed the fashion of the time. However, in the late 1870s they commissioned two eminent architects, Edward William Godwin F.S.A. and Maurice Bingham Adams A.R.I.B.A. to design a series of artistic conservatories, which the firm included in their 1880 catalogue. Whilst there is evidence of at least one of these structures being built, they probably represent an aspiration rather than the practical. The three decades upto the First World War, probably represent the zenith of elaborate conservatory design. Following which it appears to have been a downward trend reaching a low point in the three decades, following World War Two; only to pick up again towards the end of the twentieth century, by which time the firm had gone out of business.

In terms of quantity, the firm built and installed in excess of 550 conservatories between 1875 and the beginning of World War One and under a little over a quarter of this figure in the equivalent period following the end of World War One.





  1. Published by William S. Orr & Co., of No. 2, Amen Corner,London.

  2. Published in Philadelphia by J. B. Lippincott Company and in London: by Grant Richards Ltd.

  3. The conservatory was erected at the St Peter’s Vicarage; the site of which is now occupied by St. Peter’s Church of England First School.