The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs | History Hit

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Engraving 'The Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition', by George Baxter, after 1854
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The curious sight of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs is one that has fascinated visitors since the Victorian era. Constructed between 1853-55 as an accompaniment to the now-lost Crystal Palace, the statues were the first attempt anywhere in the world to model extinct animals as full-scale, three-dimensional creatures from fossil remains.

A favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the 30 palaeontological statues, five geological displays and related landscaping near Crystal Palace Park’s tidal lake remain largely unchanged and unmoved. However, the Grade-I listed structures have since been declared ‘at risk’, with the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group campaigning for their preservation.

So what are the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and who created them?

The Park was designed to be an accompaniment to Crystal Palace

Built between 1852 and 1855, the Crystal Palace and Park was designed to be a spectacular accompaniment to the relocated Crystal Palace, which had previously been located in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. As one of the main aims of the park was to impress and educate, there was a thematic emphasis on discovery and invention.

Sculptor and natural history illustrator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was approached to add pioneering geological illustrations and models of animals to the site. Though he had originally planned to re-create extinct mammals, he decided on also creating dinosaur models under the advice of Sir Richard Owen, a renowned anatomist and palaeontologist of the time. Hawkins set up a workshop on site where he built the models out of clay by using moulds.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Grand International Exhibition of 1851

Image Credit: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The models were displayed on three islands which acted as a rough timeline, with the first representing the Paleozoic era, the second the Mesozoic and the third the Cenozoic. The water levels in the lake rose and fell, which revealed different amounts of the dinosaurs over the course of each day.

Hawkins marked the launch of the dinosaurs by holding a dinner inside the mould of one of the Iguanadon models on New Year’s Eve 1853.

They are largely zoologically inaccurate

Of the 30 plus statues, only four represent dinosaurs in the strictly zoological sense – the two Iguanadon, the Hylaeosaurus and the Megalosaurus. The statues also contain dinosaurs modelled on the plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs fossils discovered by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, as well as pterodactyls, crocodilians, amphibians and mammals such as a giant ground sloth that was brought back to Britain by Charles Darwin after his voyage on HMS Beagle.

Modern interpretation now recognises that the models are wildly inaccurate. It is unclear who decided on the models; however, research shows that experts in the 1850s had very different interpretations of how they perceived dinosaurs to have looked.

They were hugely popular

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the dinosaurs numerous times. This greatly helped boost the popularity of the site, which Hawkins benefitted greatly from: he sold sets of small versions of the dinosaur models, which were priced at £30 for educational use.

However, the building of the models was costly (the initial construction had cost around £13,729) and in 1855, the Crystal Palace Company cut the funding. Several planned models were never made, while those half finished were scrapped in spite of public protest and press coverage in newspapers such as The Observer.

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They fell into decline

With progress being made in palaeontology, the scientifically inaccurate Crystal Palace models declined in reputation. In 1895, American fossil hunter Othniel Charles Marsh spoke angrily of the models’ inaccuracy, and combined with funding cuts, the models fell into disrepair over the years.

When the Crystal Palace itself was destroyed by fire in 1936, the models were left entirely alone and became obscured by overgrown foliage.

They were renovated in the 70s

In 1952, a full restoration of the animals was carried out by Victor H.C. Martin, at which point the mammals on the third island were moved to less well-protected locations in the park, which led to them ultimately decaying further in the decades that followed.

From 1973, the models and other features in the park such as the terraces and decorative sphinxes were classed as Grade II listed buildings. In 2001, the then severely decaying dinosaur display was totally renovated. Fibreglass replacements were created for the missing sculptures, while badly damaged parts of the surviving models were recast.

In 2007, the grade listing was increased to Grade I on Historic England’s National Heritage List for England, reflecting the statues being key objects in the history of science. Indeed, many statues are based on specimens currently on display at the Natural History Museum and Oxford Museum of Natural History, amongst others.

Iguanodon sculptures in Crystal Palace Park

Image Credit: Ian Wright, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There are ongoing campaigns to preserve them

In the time since, the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have been instrumental in advocating for the dinosaurs’ conservation and evolving scientific interpretation, engaging with historical authorities, recruiting volunteers and offering educational outreach programmes. In 2018, the organisation ran a crowd funding campaign, endorsed by guitarist Slash, to build a permanent bridge to Dinosaur Island. It was installed in 2021.

However, in 2020, the dinosaurs were declared officially ‘At Risk’ by Historic England, which marks them as the highest priority for conservation efforts.

Lucy Davidson