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Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?

  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?

A couple of years ago, a French customer who came to my garden made a surprising comment. We were walking through our kitchen garden where we have an old greenhouse. As we passed it, she stopped me in my tracks and said 'Wow ... is that a Thomas Messenger? May I have a look?' Puzzled, I sheepishly opened the door to the greenhouse, which was in bad need of a clear out and some seasonal TLC, and followed her in.

Moments later she declared triumphantly 'Oui! It is' and began to explain. Thomas Messenger was the foremost designer of greenhouses in Victorian and Edwardian England. His company, Messenger & Co defined the standard for conservatories and greenhouses for generations. Indeed his designs are still copied to day, where the original heavy wood frames are replaced with 'timber-look' aluminium by www.http://www.alitex.co.uk. For botanic gardens, the National Trust, owners of listed period properties, it's a great solution for those looking to use a functional design faithful to the original 'look' of a Thomas Messenger greenhouse.

So what are the defining qualities of a Messenger greenhouse? Messenger & Co. described themselves as horticultural builders, heating engineers and iron founders. Their designs commonly had half brick walls supporting a white painted, hard wood glazing framework. Temperature was controlled by means of hot water pipes and forged iron ratchet window controls. They came in all sizes and many of the larger greenhouses were bespoke to the client.
The designs were so successful because they managed to give control with extraordinarily heavy materials (hard wood and iron), achieve an unmistakeable elegance of design and last for generations.

My greenhouse which, I hasten to add is probably one of the smallest they produced, is certainly over 100 years old and going strong today.

They had some fine design features. Note the curve on the bottom of the glass panes to keep rainwater running down the centre of the glass rather than on the wood frame. See also the distinctive iron angle supports, furnace and smartly embossed door handle.

A few weeks after my discovery a package arrived at our house. The French lady had kindly sent me an original Messenger & Co catalogue she had, Edwardian I think, which has their whole range of designs and a long list of their illustrious clients around the country. A grander statement of the English obsession for gardening would be hard to find.

Comments (11)

  1. Grower

    Amanda CW

    I want one. I particularly like the window controls - like the break levers they had on steam trains and used to control the points in signal boxes!

  2. Grower

    Peter Kennelly

    I have just moved into a house in Shropshire which I discovered has 3 Thomas messenger greenhouses! One I can date to 1905 the others are victorian with all the heating still in place .

  3. Grower

    WrightRhodos

    Hi Peter - How fantastic! If you add some photos, I'll see if I can find the greenhouses in the catalogue I have and post a photo from it, so you'll see what they were like new. Amazingly, I may also be able to tell you who purchased your greenhouses as at the back of the catalogue is an index of all the purchasers with addresses(!) over 70 years - I assume from their start in 1858. There are around 30 in Shropshire - I've attached a photo.

    • Is that a Thomas Messenger greenhouse?
  4. Grower

    Paul Bridges

    Hello Rhodos Wright,
    Fascinating post. I'm researching a greenhouse that used to stand in our Arts & Crafts house in Penarth, South Wales. It looks v much like a small Messenger and I'm intrigued as to whether the catalogue might include reference to it: John Coates Carter, Red House, Penarth, Glamorgan. Many thanks for your time. Regards, Paul Bridges

  5. Grower

    Phill Williams

    Hi there, not sure if this post is still rolling.. but we also seem to have a Messenger of some description although very little is left. There were two 70' glasshouses in another part of the garden (gone) and in our part, the frame yard, two smaller versions (buried). Would it be possible to view the page for Hampshire, in particular Marchwood, Southampton? We are just trying to find plans and or guess at what was here to consider rebuilding part or all. Regards Phill

  6. Grower

    WrightRhodos

    Hi Paul and Phil,

    I have checked the catalogue for your names/addresses and regret neither are listed. I have also checked the Staffordshire list for Lapley Hall without success for Kate Weston who wrote to me separately. Clearly the company produced more than made it into the catalogue. The catalogue gives names and addresses of more than a thousand clients up until around 1930, which is interesting in itself. No problems there with Victorian/Edwardian data protection. Or maybe your clients ticked the non-disclosure box!

  7. Grower

    Phill Williams

    Thanks so much, might have to figure out another way. There's so little left for documentation of the Messenger glasshouses despite them being so well thought of at the time.. hey ho..
    Thanks again..

  8. Grower

    WrightRhodos

    Hi Phil - there are amazing line illustrations in the catalogue of many of the glasshouses which you could build from. Do you know what the ground dimensions were and if they were full span (door in the middle of the end), lean to (one sloping roof from a high wall), or 3/4 span (half span up to a peak from a lower wall, then full span the other side, with door off centre). I could post copies of the illustrations.

  9. Grower

    Phill Williams

    Thanks! As we only have some signs of what was once here, most of the walls are still buried, it looks like the glass house would have to be 14ft wide and about 25ft long.. it would have been a span glasshouse we think. This was in the frame yard so possibly a propagation glasshouse? We know there was also a melon house, pineapple house, cucumber house, mushroom house, fernery and vinery! Two 70ft greenhouses where here but not too interested in those and we have the remains of a much narrower glasshouse in front of the one we are trying to investigate and two, probable cold frames, in front of that!

    Quite the investigation!

    Any info would be useful..

    Thanks again.

    phill

  10. Grower

    Phill Williams

    Sorry.. 45ft long ish..

    Phill

  11. Grower

    Phill Williams

    Hi Rhodos, do you happen to have any line drawings of Pit houses that Messenger made? there's a theory we might have originally had one of those. That's the only real suspect for our greenhouse being so close to the original garden wall which didn't form part of the greenhouse. The floor is sunken enough. Hope to hear from you. Phill


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