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The Glasshouses & Orchid Collection

A distinctive feature of Highbury when the Chamberlain family lived there was the number of glasshouses. The main range by Henry Hope and Son of Birmingham was erected in 1878-9 when the house was built, and was contiguous with the mansion. A door in the east wall of the drawing room led into the conservatory or palm house which in turn led into a fernery and from there, a corridor two hundred feet long which, on its south side gave access to thirteen span greenhouses in succession.

By 1888 a remarkable feature of glasshouses was that they were lit by electricity allowing for a tour after dark to see the treasures of the ornamental plant collection. The conservatory was a large house with a marble fountain on its rear wall. This had been designed by the architect of the house, John Henry Chamberlain. In October 1879 Joseph Chamberlain wrote that it was ‘all marble and alabaster and I know not what besides. It looks charming on paper and I hope it may look half as well in reality.’ The fountain had plantings of rex begonias and ferns, with some plants of water hyacinth in the basin. The terracotta floor had four large marble edged beds set into it and there was staging around the edges with a metal screen to hide the pots.  There was some permanent planting of palms although the Chusan palm  (Trachycarpus fortune ) noted as being thirty feet high in 1896, was removed in 1899 when it became too tall, and was sent to Kew. There was also a cabbage palm (Areca sapida),  ginger lilies (Hedychium garderianum ), a banana and Camellias whilst the other planting varied with the season. Among the flowering plants in pots were ‘white dwarf lilac and flame coloured flowers’ in spring, lilies in summer and Chrysanthemums in October. The furniture was cane seats and tables and coffee was taken after dinner by the family in the conservatory.

Read more about Highbury’s glasshouses and Joseph Chamberlain’s orchid collection.

Highbury, the south front with the conservatory on the right, reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham, Wk/M6/46   
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