Messenger & Co.’s Finest: Combermere’s Edwardian Glasshouse

In 1855 a Victorian metal-worker and entrepreneur by the name of Thomas Goode Messenger owned a plumbers, glaziers and glass-fitter’s business in High Street, Loughborough – in Leicestershire, in the East Midlands. Three years later Thomas registered the trading name of Messenger and Co. and by the middle of the next decade he was describing himself as a plumber and hydraulic engineer. By 1877 the company was advertising as “horticultural builders and hot water apparatus manufacturers”.

In 1874 there was a change of ownership however, and one Walter Chapman Burder acquired Messenger & Co. We don’t know what happened to Thomas. Did he sell up and retire? Did he perhaps die? It’s interesting that Burder did not re-name the company and put his own surname over the door and on the firm’s headed paper. This suggests that the name of Messenger was already well-known and had a commercial value.

We do know that in 1884 the business was moved from its original premises on the High Street to Cumberland Road in Loughborough. This is a long, straight road with late-Victorian terraced houses on one side and a park on the other. At the very end stands the Cumberland Industrial Estate, and this is where Walter Burder re-established the business, and built a foundry.

The expansion was obviously successful; just over a decade later the premises were enlarged and the firm’s administrative side left its original offices and workshop on the High Street, and everything was now consolidated on the cone site at Cumberland Road.

It was a well-chosed site as it was close to the Charnwood Railway, whose goods shed still exists along Station Avenue. The railway here was a branch line to the coalfields of Coalville, so it would have brought in fuel to fire the foundry (it was shut in 1965). The old railway lines are still embedded in the tarmac under the canopy on the former Messenger’s site. All the firm’s produce was transported out by railway – for distribution not just to this country but across the Empire.

This would have been a large, noisy and dirty site, and the terraces of houses were in fact built to provide accommodation locally (very locally) for the Messenger company’s workers. Cumberland Road was known as ‘Messenger’s Village’, with both the workers and the owners of the firm living there – the latter in rather larger homes, as you might suspect. Pleasingly it is now a conservation area.

When social conditions in the latter Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries are discussed a lot of emphasis is placed on urban and rural poverty, but of course there was a huge blossoming of the middle class, right across the country. Vast amounts of wealth were generated by trade, commerce and industry, and wealth certainly flowed down from the very rich too. Very many Britons were far better off than their grandparents, and lived in much larger and better-built houses, and owned vastly more possessions. The Victorian and Edwardian middle classes loved spending money, and the inventive trading classes were very good at coming up with new things for them to spend that money on.

The concept of minimalism was of course utterly foreign to them, and to our eyes their homes were horribly cluttered. This in itself was no bad thing as it further stimulated economic growth; not just at home but across the Empire – the middle classes were truly internationalist in their passion for acquisition, and were fond – and proud – of imports from ‘their’ colonies round the world.

Among this maelstrom of commercial activity Thomas Messenger & Co. found their niche. Joseph Paxton’s brilliant, prefabricated glasshouse for The Great Exhibition of 1851 had been greeted with awe, and what the Victorians had seen on a massive scale they soon wanted to reproduce, albeit more modestly, in their urban villas and country houses. Glasshouses and greenhouses – free-standing or attached to the house – became very popular, and quite apart from the structure itself, money always needed to be spent on fitting it out.

This is where Thomas Messenger and Co. came into their own. As well as glasshouses, greenhouses, open verandahs, and summer houses, they offered all the fitting you could possibly imagine for these, plus other garden necessities such as cucumber frames, melon pits, mushroom beds, orchid stages, vineries and peach houses. Messenger’s sold you everything you could want or need, from the full – and often large and ornate – glasshouse, right down to the tiniest detail and utensil. They printed catalogues of their wares which ran into dozens of well-illustrated pages. They were a ‘one-stop’ operation; offering everything which the well-off garden enthusiast needed so far as iron and glass garden and horticultural structures were concerned.

MessengerCoLtdCca57881_0008Messenger & Co. could provide absolutely enormous glass structures for the gardens of the wealthy . . .
MessengerCoLtdCca57881_0022Or ones which were rather more modest, relatively speaking
This seems to be the same conservatory, used in an Edwardian press advert
So long as you could afford it you could have an astonishingly elaborate interior to your glasshouse or conservatory too

They didn’t just cater to the middle classes though; they sold to the gentry, the nobility, and to royalty. Messenger’s was the name for quality; the name to impress your friends; the name your head gardener insisted on.

We don’t know if what is now known as The Glasshouse at Combermere Abbey was originally advertised as a glasshouse by Messengers’s. They were very particular about the exact role of their buildings, and a glasshouse was different from a conservatory, an orangery, a vinehouse or a forcing-house.

MessengerCoLtdCca57881_0092This glasshouse, supplied to a customer in Northamptonshire by Messenger & Co., was 176 feet long. I rather doubt that it survives to this day
But on the other hand, if you just wanted a modest tool tray for your conservatory Messenger would sell you that too

The Glasshouse as it exists today is a very simple but elegant structure, but many of the buildings offered were very elaborate, and their construction complex. Often they came fitted with boiler-fired heating; the glasshouses had hot water circulating under the raised beds to force the fruit, vegetables or flowers (no plant was so exotic that it could be grown by Victorians and Edwardians, and – as with their possessions – they were very proud that they could cultivate flora from the furthest corner of the Empire). Even a relatively lowly home-owner could equip his garden with a ‘peach-house’, which stood against a south-facing wall, preferably, and could provide gorgeous fruit almost all year round. Before industrial-scale refrigeration in transport and air flight that was a certain way to impress your friends and neighbours.

166_ConservatoryOnce you had the Messenger & Co catalogue you could order everything you needed, assisted perhaps by your head gardener, and the firm would do the rest

The Glasshouse at The Abbey was ordered – and it seems, paid for – by Her Grace The Duchess of Westminster in 1903, while she was renting the Abbey (between 1898 and 1917, from the third Viscount Combermere). She was born The Honourable Katherine Cavendish in 1857, and lived until 1941. She was the third and last wife of the Duke, who was a truly remarkable man; a philanthropist, a great commissioner of buildings, and teetotaller and campaigner against the demons of alcohol. He was said at his death to be “the richest man in England”.

Messenger & Co. include mention of the Duchess’s patronage very proudly in their catalogue – with her name heading those of their customers in Cheshire, as her status dictated. Below her name the list includes Richard Hardin Watt of Knutsford, who created all the Italianate buildings in the town, Captain Walthall of Wistaston Hall in Crewe, Mrs Hall of Calverley Hall near Tarporley, and the Earl of Stamford at Dunham Massey near Altrincham.

MessengerCoLtdCca57881_0036As well as horticultural and garden buildings, Messenger & Co. sold bespoke glazed verandahs, which wrapped around a house, providing light and warmth in almost all weathers 

Although the largest of Messenger’s buildings almost rivalled Paxton’s glasshouse of 1851, the one ordered for Combermere Abbey was relatively small and far less elaborate than the norm. Perhaps the Duchess, understandably, wasn’t going to spend too much on someone else’s property.

The building sits slightly off-centre (surprisingly) on the semi-circular north wall of the Walled Gardens, facing ten degrees off due south, facing the fruit tree maze. It is just under forty feet in overall length and depth. There are service doors in the north-east and north-west corners, which lead to semi-subterranean service rooms on both sides, which actually sit behind the perimeter wall. Nowadays there are kitchens to the north-east, and private rooms for brides and grooms and loos to the north-west. It is possible that there were kitchens here originally; although the building has a functional feel compared with many of Messenger’s garden buildings, it is too well-situated not to have been used by the Duchess and her guests for relaxation and entertainment. Her staff would doubtless have served hot and cold food when required from kitchens here.

early photos of glasshouse_0003
early photos of glasshouse_0005
The only surviving early photos of the Combermere Abbey glasshouse
Combermere garden open day and north wing july 23 2014 021
The cast iron work is restrained, delicate and elegant
Combermere glasshouse and North Wing June 2014 010
And the same view today. Note that the wings to left and right, the higher rear roof section and the chimney just left of centre have all gone
Combermere garden open day and north wing july 23 2014 026
The Messenger Glasshouse at Combermere Abbey faces a delightful maze with ‘walls’ made up of fruit trees and bushes – which to the best of our knowledge is unique.

The building itself has two parallel side which project towards the garden, and then form a half-icosagonic semi-circular – with the main entrance doors being at the most southerly point. The area enclosed is uninterrupted except by a single, elegant cast iron column.

Originally it had two symmetrical arms, running as far again to the east and the west, and perhaps eight feet each in depth. When the building was restored in the 1990s these wings had sycamore trees growing up through them, and they were deemed to be too dilapidated to merit renovation.


This detail from a recently-discovered aerial photograph of the Abbey shows the Glasshouse with its original wings. The picture was taken in 1952.


glasshouse map 001On this map of the estate The Glasshouse, with its flanking wings is cross-hatched. The service rooms can be seen behind the wall at the rear (shaded). An ice house is indicated to the north-west. The buildings arranged round a courtyard at the bottom of the map are the stables – now converted into self-catering holiday cottages.

Now fully restored, The Glasshouse is used for special events and for the Abbey’s weddings; it is a very beautiful and romantic venue – much appreciated and very frequently photographed, of course.

Combermere glasshouse and North Wing June 2014 003The beautiful interior of The Glasshouse – taken from the point of view of someone officiating at an Abbey wedding
Combermere glasshouse and North Wing June 2014 015 The horizontal iron rectangular-section rod was probably used to train vines and other climbing plants inside one of The Glasshouse’s wings
Combermere glasshouse and North Wing June 2014 013Evidence on the south-facing back wall of the higher roof level and the vertical contact point between The Glasshouse and the existing wall
Combermere glasshouse and North Wing June 2014 008
A cast door handle and escutcheon: he only element of the Combermere Abbey Glasshouse identifying it as a Messenger & co. product

As business declined during the Thirties, Messenger & Co. retreated from building garden houses and began to concentrate more on the manufacture of heating equipment. It traded under the name of the Midland Horticultural Company. Messenger & Co. closed its doors for the last time on March 11 1980.

Im18980722BN-MessBoilers were the future for Messenger & Co. – for fifty years at least