Travel to the ancient world with the Crystal Palace dinosaurs
The history of the Victorian life-sized models of prehistoric dinosaurs and mammals in Crystal Palace Park.
Crystal Palace is famous for many things – its football club (actually located in Selhurst), its telecommunications tower (South London’s very own Eiffel Tower) and for being the site of the actual Crystal Palace building. However, it is also famous for another unique sight – the world’s first dinosaur statues.
Following the success of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, the building was such a success, it was erected permanently on a huge site on Sydenham Hill in 1854. The Crystal Palace was sort of a theme park-cum-museum for Victorians, bringing attractions, antiquities and experiences most had never seen before. To accompany the palace, the surrounding land (in what is now the park) was landscaped with many features added, including lakes, a maze, and rides. Towards the south-west corner of the park, a dinosaur park was created by sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894), with landscaping by architect (and creator of the Crystal Palace) Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) and Professor David T Ansted (1814-1880).
In the mid 19th century, Victorians were further behind in their knowledge of dinosaurs than we are today. Palaeontologists and archaeologists of the time were still trying to piece together exactly what the prehistoric creatures looked like by studying fossils. When you visit the dinosaur sculptures of Crystal Palace today, you may well find it humorous to see how the Victorians’ believed they appeared. However, it’s important to acknowledge the people who made them just didn’t have the science we have today.
Thirty sculptures from the prehistoric world were placed across three islands, grouped in species and following a rough timeline of their existence (Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras). The park made history as Hawkins’ creations were the first full-scale models of the extinct creatures in the world. The new Crystal Palace Company commissioned him to sculpture the ancient creatures, with advice from palaeontologist and biologist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892). Hawkins set up a studio in the park and spent months creating replicas of the dinosaurs and other prehistoric mammals in 1853-1855. Using the scientific advice of Owen and other experts, the dinosaurs’ skin, claws and how they stood was mostly due to guess work by Hawkins.
The Crystal Palace officially opened in Sydenham in June 1854. At the time, only some of the sculptures were complete for opening, with Anstead continuing to work in his studio. In 1855, Hawkins had started creating a woolly mammoth, but the company directors decided he had made enough and halted the project, which had cost over £13,000.
From the Palaeozoic era are two models of Dicynodons. With the shells on the back, they look quite turtle like. However, current data shows they looked more like large lizards.
The Mesozoic era is the most represented period in the Crystal Palace dinosaur park. Among the sculptures depicting this period including the Mastodonsaurus (aka Labyrinthodon); Teleosaurus, Plesiosaurus, Hylaeosaurus, Megalosaurus, an Iguanodon, an Ichthyosaurus, two Pterosaurs and a Mosasaurus. One sculpture that stands out is the Mosasaurus, which was set further from the others. Situated in one of the lakes, only its head and part of its body is seen ’emerging’ from the water. At the time, only skulls of the creature had been found so Watkins decided against trying to guess what its body looked like.
Meanwhile, the Cenozoic era sculptures feature the Palaeotherium, Anoplotherium and Megatherium. The latter was a giant ground sloth and most park visitors usually see it from behind, hugging a tree. Finally, standing at the fork of two paths are the Megaloceros sculptures (not be confused with the very similarly sounding Megalosaurus above). The Megaloceros was an extinct genus of deer which lived in Eurasia in the early Pleistocene to the early Holocene period.
A few decades later, science had moved on and the dinosaur sculptures had been subjected to criticism due to their inaccuracies. As the fortunes of the Crystal Palace declined in the early 20th century, the models started to deteriorate. When the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936, the park’s status fell further still. Lack of maintenance meant the sculptures were gradually swamped by foliage. However, Victor H.C. Martin decided to restore the collection in 1952. Two decades later, the models were Grade II listed by Historic England. They were upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007. Over the years, the dinosaurs have been restored and repainted several times. In February 2020, the sculptures were added to the Heritage at Risk register. More recently in May 2020, the Megalosaur’s head sustained some damage and fundraising efforts are currently ongoing to repair it, as well as protect the dinosaurs to safeguard their long-term future.
- The dinosaurs can be found in the south-west corner of Crystal Palace Park, Thicket Road, Crystal Palace, SE19 2GA. Nearest station: Crystal Palace, Anerley or Penge West. For more information, visit the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website.
📚 Further reading:
- The Mysterious Dinosaurs of Crystal Palace by Sheju Adiyatiparambil-John. 2019.
- The Crystal Palace: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise by Patrick Beaver. 2001.
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