The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
In a green and leafy park in southeast London, there is a lake. And around this lake there stand more than 30 animal statues. Some of the statues are a bit worn or a little bit broken. One or two are partially hidden by undergrowth. And to be honest, as far as authenticity is concerned, some of the statues are among the least anatomically accurate ever to be created - about as unreal as the animals of a Disney cartoon.
And yet these unprepossessing statues have a 'Grade 1 listed building status'. For those who do not know the listed building system, Grade 1 is the very highest preservation grading of all for England's architectural heritage, reserved for buildings or monuments of the most special architectural or historic importance and conferring upon them a high level of protection against alteration or damage. It effectively means that these statues have the same preservation status as Buckingham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. So what is it that makes such seemingly modest sculptures so important as to deserve Grade 1 listing? The answer lies in three key points - their age, the animals they depict, and the status of Great Britain at the time of construction.
These statues are the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and this is their story, the real-life creatures which inspired their creation, how they came to be made, and what can be seen today. All photographs, unless otherwise credited, were taken by the author on 6th July 2016.
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In 1851, Great Britain was at the very centre of the world. Times were good, at least in the uppermost echelons of society, the Empire was being accrued, and Britain was ready to announce its pre-eminence to the world. And the way to do it was to host a great exhibition of all Britain had achieved in art, in culture and in science, as well as to show off all the wonders of the colonies. Other nations like France and America would also contribute iconic displays to this hugely ambitious project.
And nothing less than a magnificent and new building to host this 'Great Exhibition' would suffice. The result was the Crystal Palace, a vast and beautiful iron and glass edifice installed in Hyde Park, one of London's largest open spaces not far from Westminster and Buckingham Palace. The resultant exhibition housed in the Crystal Palace, promoted by Prince Albert and opened by Queen Victoria, featured 100,000 separate objects from 15,000 contributors, including the latest mechanical marvels, scientific inventions, tapestries, ornaments, the finest furniture and jewels. The Exhibition attracted visitors from far and wide for 6 months from May to October - more than six million in all. It had proved to be an unparalleled success still remembered today and regarded as the first ever World's Fair.
But it was only ever intended to be temporary, and when it was time to close the show, the exhibits went back to their museums or their home countries. But what of the Crystal Palace itself? It was decided that Hyde Park should be returned to its former state, and the palace should be moved - all 4,000 tons of iron and 8,000 panes of glass - to a new green space south of the Thames in the district of Sydenham. The park chosen to house it received the name Crystal Palace Park, and the land around it was reclaimed and new entertainments introduced. But centre stage among these new attractions was to be another display befitting the Great Exhibition itself.
The 19th century had been an age of great scientific discovery, and none more so than in the fields of geology and biology. And some discoveries made at this time had gripped the public imagination in a way which could scarcely even be imagined today. Most notably, fossil discoveries. In a world where the largest land animals were elephants, rhinos and hippos, and when evolution by natural selection was still a barely conceived theory, what could people possibly think when huge fossilised bones began being dug up in the late 18th and early 19th century? Bones that could only have come from animals far larger than any modern day beast and far stranger in appearance too - creatures which perhaps had even existed before the Biblical Noah's Flood?
These were the first dinosaurs to have been discovered and recognised as something different, and together with the unearthing of giant marine reptiles and flying reptiles, they had become the sensation of the age as people tried to fathom out what they were and how they had lived. So when the administrators of the relocated Crystal Palace began to look for subjects to stir the public's imagination, what could possibly be better than sculptures of all these great beasts which were being disinterred from the Earth? The decision was taken - Crystal Palace Park would house the world's first ever dinosaur theme park!
The Men Behind the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Sir Richard Owen
If sculptures of these giant 'antediluvian' (before the flood) beasts were going to be created, there was only one man to turn to. In 1851 Professor Sir Richard Owen was widely regarded as one of the foremost scientists in England. He was an expert anatomist and zoologist, who had taken a keen interest in the new fossil discoveries of monsters from the past, and he was a pioneer in their classification. He was astute enough to recognise that they were a group of animals no longer existing on Earth. He thought them to be reptiles, but reptiles deserving of a classification all of their own. So he gave them a new name. He put together the ancient Greek words 'deinos' (meaning terrible or fearfully great) and 'sauros' (lizard) and in 1842 coined the name 'dinosaur'. And when the decision was taken to create 33 statues for the Crystal Palace display, who else but Owen could they approach to select and design the models?
In later life Richard Owen remained highly respected and very influential. In 1881, his crowning glory was to open the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London - today a world famous institution. He died in 1892. Unfortunately, Owen's reputation has since suffered, perhaps unfairly. A devout Christian, he never fully accepted Charles Darwin's new theory of evolution by means of natural selection, published in 1859, and is forever seen as the scientist who picked the wrong side in that debate - a sorry legacy for a man who nonetheless was a great scientist and the designer of these statues.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
The man Richard Owen turned to to construct the statues was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins - again, the natural choice. Hawkins was a respected sculptor, but also he had studied geology and natural history and was a noted artist of animal subjects. who had previously contributed sculptures to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He had already been appointed an assistant superintendent of the Great Exhibition when he was approached to create the lifesize concrete statues for installation at the Crystal Palace's new home in South London. He set to work in his studios near to the site, working to Richard Owen's specifications, and completed the sculptures in time for the grand opening of the new exhibit.
In later life, Hawkins' reputation grew. A Fellow of the Geological Society of London, he spent many years in America collaborating on the first ever reconstruction of a dinosaur skeleton at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1868, as well as fossil reconstructions and dinosaur paintings at the Smithsonian and at Princeton. Back home in England he led a very colourful family life with eight children and two wives, the second of whom he married twice - the first time bigamously and the second time (after his first wife's death) legitimately! Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins died in 1894.
Publicity Stunts Are Certainly Not a New Phenomenon!
The Dinosaurs in the 19th Century, the 20th Century and Today
It was in 1854 that the new sculptures were finally revealed to the public amid much hype. All the statues were placed around a lake in the park. Some aquatic creatures were shown emerging from the water on to an island in the lake, and terrestrial animals were obviously shown on the island. Some other models were placed further around the water's edge. And there was method in the sequencing of the statues, which were arranged in chronological order according to the rock strata in which they were found (in this article I will start with the oldest and finish with the most recent). There were other features too - nearby, Richard Owen planned a representation of geological strata including coal seams and layers containing iron ore and lead - all the minerals which had enabled Victorian Britain to pioneer the Industrial Revolution. And these remain an important part of the display which still exists today. But there was no doubt what attracted the public in their droves - it was the never-seen-before dinosaurs.
Inevitably however, the enthusiasm would one day begin to dim, particularly as more and more fossils were recovered around the world, and more accurate representations were possible. Some palaeontologists even began to scorn the hard work of their 1850s predecessors, seemingly oblivious to the limitations of the fossil evidence they'd had to work with. And the 20th century was not particularly kind to the Crystal Palace statues, as the exhibit fell into decay. At various times, models were moved, some were vandalised and broken and neglected as weathering took its toll and lichens and moss began to grow on them. The vegetation became overgrown. Time was even less kind to the magnificent building which gave its name to the park in which they reside. In 1936 a fire broke out in the glass house and quickly became uncontrollable. The Crystal Palace was razed to the ground and has never yet been rebuilt - a sad loss.
The statues did remain despite the neglect, and as time went on their true significance became clearer - they had been the first ever dinosaur models, and a testament to the scientific thinking of the time, as well as the great enthusiasms and achievements of the Victorian Era. Moves to restore and preserve the statues began in earnest in the later 20th century. In 1973 they were given Grade 2 listed building status, and then a full restoration of the site was undertaken in 2002, clearing some vegetation, recasting some rusted iron joints in the legs and replacing broken parts with fibreglass. In 2007 the models were upgraded to Grade 1 listed status.
Today Crystal Palace Park is a pleasant open area, very popular with the local public as a place of recreation. There's a sports stadium, a fishing lake and a playground for children, and an Information Centre and a cafe. But the old attractions remain the most important of all - the ruins of the Crystal Palace and above all, Waterhouse Hawkins' prehistoric statues. A pathway takes the visitor around the lake's edge to give good viewing of almost all the statues, and illustrated information boards describe the statues and their historical context, School parties, in particular, come to see and enjoy them.
The following sections give descriptions of the sculptures as they appear today, with accompanying notes on the fossil discoveries which inspired them.
Amphibians and Ancient Land Reptiles
It's time to come clean. In truth, even though the statues are generally known as the Crystal Palace 'dinosaurs', in point of fact only four of the statues are genuine dinosaurs. All the rest are a mix of prehistoric amphibians, land and sea reptiles, flying reptiles and even mammals - the selection determined by the small number of creatures which had been unearthed and reconstructed prior to 1854. And true to Sir Richard Owen's vision chronological order is in evidence, the five creatures at the farthest end of the 'Dinosaur Island' being the oldest, predating the earliest dinosaurs by many millions of years.
First, there are a group of three giant Labyrinthodonts, a type of carnivorous amphibian which lived between 250 and 200 million years ago in Europe. They were thought by Owen to have frog-like characteristics, though today they are believed to have looked rather more like small crocodiles or huge salamanders. Two species are represented - smooth skinned L.salamandroides and rough skinned L.pachygnathus. (Both have experienced name changes and today are more accurately known respectively as Mastodonsaurus jaegeri and Cyclotosaurus pachygnathus).
Close to the Labyrinthodonts are two Dicynodonts. These were a type of land-living reptile which were contemporary with the Labyrinthodonts, but are known from Africa and India. And as with the Labyrinthodonts, a paucity of skeletal remains was a major problem for Owen. He portrayed the Dicynodonts as turtle-like due in part to the beak like mouth, but they are now believed to have been more mammal-like in appearance.
The Sea-Going Reptiles
Along the same water's edge as the labyrinthodonts and dicynodonts are a host of reptiles which lived in the oceans of the world during the Mesozoic Era - the Age of Dinosaurs - some of which are very familiar to all who know and love prehistoric animals. They include the Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs, and also the Teleosaurus.
Three separate species of plesiosaur are on display, superficially similar, but varying in the length of neck and size of head. Plesiosaurs were long necked, paddle finned, fish eating reptiles which lived in the oceans of the world, throughout the Age of Dinosaurs, though the ones exhibited here date to the Jurassic Period c180 million years ago, and were modelled from fossils found at Lyme Regis in Dorset, Southern England in the early 19th century. They must have been one of the most abundant of sea reptiles with well over a hundred species so far recorded, varying hugely in size, with the largest possibly being more than 20 metres in length.
Like Plesioraurs, many partial remains of different species of Ichthyosaur had been discovered by 1854, the first fully complete specimen having been found on the Jurassic coast of South England in the year 1811. They are perhaps the best known of all the prehistoric sea reptiles, and have long been regarded as being dolphin-like in appearance, evolving to live a very similar lifestyle to their modern mammalian counterparts. That was well known to Owen, but back in Owen's day, the dorsal fin and the tail shape were unknown, because these were made of cartilage which doesn't fossilise so well. And also, as can be seen in the photo, they were shown emerging from the water perhaps to lay eggs. But just as with dolphins, that would never have happened - fossil specimens have subsequently been found with a baby inside the body on the point of actually being live born - a tragic end to a mother and baby in their ocean habitat, but helpful for modern day scientists trying to understand their lifestyles. Ichthyosaurs were most common in the Jurassic seas, but some species lived on till the mid-Cretaceous, about 90 million years ago.
Next in the display are two long snouted crocodile-like creatures, modelled to resemble the fish eating Indian gharial, a specialised crocodile which lives today. And in that, they are probably among the most accurately presented of the reptilian sculptures in Crystal Palace Park. Crocodilians appear to be almost perfectly adapted to their environment and thus have changed very little in form ever since they first appeared. Fossils of these 3 metre reptiles were first found in Yorkshire in 1758.
All the aquatic reptiles described here lived contemporaneously with the dinosaurs so it is not surprising that the next creatures in Richard Owen's chronological display were the dinosaurs theselves.
Of course it is the four dinosaur statues which attracted the most attention in their heyday and still do today. They are the largest and include some of the best maintained of all the sculptures, though unsurprisingly they demonstrate even more the inadequacies of early palaeontological research. The problem was that the dinosaurs were simply so very different from anything which had ever been discovered alive on Earth. And with only a few sparse fossils to work with, Richard Owen could do little except hypothesise and improvise. The assumption was that dinosaurs - like the great sea going creatures - were reptiles, and yet the shape and size of the fossil species so far discovered were more reminiscent of the great mammals like hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses. The consequence was that Owen used his knowledge of these creatures plus a degree of imagination and Hawkins' skills to create bulky, scaly sculptures - like a cross between a giant lizard and a rhinoceros.
Since these statues were made, palaeontologists have discovered many thousands more dinosaur fossils, some of which are much more complete, and a far improved understanding of the anatomy has been the result. The slow plodding monsters Owen envisaged have been replaced by the much more agile, fast moving creatures which we are familiar with in representations such as those in the 'Jurassic Park' francise. So in conjunction with my photos here, I have included modern day impressions of what these dinosaurs more probably looked like, when they were alive.
In the 1850s the creature to strike terror into the hearts of any young dinosaur enthusiast was not Tyrannosaurus rex, which was still awaiting discovery - it was Megalosaurus. Not quite as big as T.rex, Megalosaurus was still a very impressive carnivore of at least seven metres in length and one ton in weight (a complete specimen has never been discovered, though many assorted bones have been found since 1854). It was a Jurassic forerunner of T-rex, broadly similar in appearance, but most famous today because this has the distinction of being the first dinosaur ever to be formally identified. Various fossil bones later attributed to this dinosaur had been discovered in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was in the early 19th century that more discoveries led to the realisation that this was a giant unknown creature - possibly a 'giant lizard' - and fittingly it was then given the Greek translation of this phrase as its name 'Megalosaurus' in 1822. In 1827 it was given the specific name M.bucklandii in honour of William Buckland - Professor of Geology at Oxford. And in 1842, it was one of three species - the three represented at Crystal Palace - which were identified by Richard Owen as a member of a distinctly different and long lost group of reptiles. Megalosaurus wasn't merely a giant lizard - it was a dinosaur!
Arguably no recreated animal in the Park has undergone quite so much revisionist thinking since this statue was built. Take a look at the photos of a ponderous four-legged beast below - apart from the powerfully jawed, razor-sharp toothed skull, it's a far cry from the athletically agile bipedal carnivore we recognise today.
One of the legendary discoveries in the history of palaeontology occured on the day in 1822 when a young medic Dr Gideon Mantell was making a house call in Cuckfield in Sussex in southern England. The story (disputed by some) is that his wife Mary Ann accompanied him and whilst waiting, decided to take a stroll through the village. During the course of her walk she noticed a curious rock by the roadside with a fossil embedded in it. She took it back for her husband who was a keen amateur fossil hunter. Dr Mantell recognised the fossil as a tooth, and when he later searched the vicinity the tooth had come from, he discovered several more teeth and also some bones. Mantell sent the teeth to two leading scientists - one initially thought they came from a rhinoceros, and the other - the aforementioned Buckland - thought they came from a fish (both of these later amended their opinion to a reptilian origin). But on a later visit to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Mantell was shown the skeleton of an iguana lizard and he noted the similarity in shape of the teeth of the iguana and the much larger teeth he had. At this point the doctor realised that he had discovered another new and gigantic reptile which in 1825 he named Iguanadon (literally 'iguana tooth'). The second dinosaur had been named.
Like Megalosaurus, there was no way to accurately model the Iguanadon when the Crystal Palace dinosaurs were being created. Richard Owen portrayed it as a bulky quadruped, although doubts had already surfaced about whether it was really a bipedal dinosaur - Gideon Mantell himself before his death in 1852 had suggested the animal had been less hippopotamus-like than Owen thought and that the forelimbs were comparatively slender. Today, palaeontologists concur that they may have moved on two or on four legs as the need arose, and believe that Iguanadon species (there were many) were common, herd-living herbivores about 10 metres in length and weighing several tons. And there was one other notorious mistake in Owen's representation - a single triangular spiky bone had been found and was assumed to be a rhino-like nose horn. It was only later realised that this was in fact a pointed thumb bone.
In 1854, only three dinosaurs had been identified - all in England - and the third of these was Hylaeosaurus. Perhaps many today would struggle to name a Hylaeosaurus, as this heavily armoured armadillo-like dinosaur is less well known to the public than the similar Ankylosaurus, but after an almost complete specimen was discovered and named - again by Gideon Mantell - in Sussex in 1832, it became the last of Owen's original trilogy of creatures which he christened as dinosaurs.
When the Crystal Palace statue was created, Hylaeosaurus was given a very lizard-like posture, and indeed the dinosaur in real life was quite squat, relying on its thick armour plating and spines for protection. It was a 4 to 5 metre long, herbivorous dinosaur, and it may have weighed a couple of tons.
The Pterodactyls and the Mosasaurus
Two other species are to be found on Dinosaur Island - the flying reptile Pterodactylus and another marine reptile, Mosasaurus. Pterodactylus, commonly known as a pterodactyl, was the first of the large group of flying reptiles now known as pterosaurs to be discovered and identified. The first specimen was unearthed in Germany and named in 1784, but such was the inferior quality of the fossil and the bizarreness of its appearance, that its true nature remained in doubt for many decades. Indeed, even as late as 1830 - just 24 years before the Crystal Palace statues were created - it was possible for some to claim that pterodactyls were marine creatures and that their wings were flippers! However, the 1854 statues are clearly identifiable as flying reptiles and of course since those early days, many more pterosaurs have been discovered, including some truly enormous forms. The Crystal Palace statues are not in perfect condition and were largely obscured by vegetation at the time of the author's visit, and unfortunately no good photos were possible.
The Mosasaurus is interesting. This was a giant and ferocious sea-going beast and it was the first prehistoric reptile fossil ever to be reconstructed from two huge skulls found in the Netherlands in 1764 and c1770. Because this was clearly a reptile, it may have influenced later dinosaur reconstructions on the basis that if the Mosasaurus was a lizard-like reptile, then it was reasonable to suppose that these other giant fossil animals were also lizard-like reptiles. Only the head of the Mosasaurus was known in the 1850s, and it wasn't even clear whether it had legs like a crocodile or flippers like a whale. For this reason the Crystal Palace sculpture was positioned half-submerged in the water - a convenient and ingenious way to show the creature in its natural habitat, whilst also obscuring the fact that no one knew what the rest of the body might look like!
Not all the creatures immortalised by sculptures are reptiles, dinosaurs or amphibians. There are also four types of mammal which existed long after the dinosaur extinction. Two of these are covered in this section and two more which existed in the relatively recent past will be covered in the next section.
Palaeotherium and Anoplotherium
Two models of Palaeotherium and three Anoplotherium statues are to be found under the leafy shade of some lakeside trees a little away from the dinosaurs. Palaeotherium was first discovered in the early 19th century. They are believed to have been forest dwelling animals with tapir-like snouts used for foraging in the earth - small, primitive members of the horse family. Anoplotherium is believed to have been related to pigs or hippopotamuses, and one of the mistakes in the Crystal Palace statues is that they were given hoofed feet, whereas in fact it's now known their feet were clawed. Both Palaeotherium and Anoplotherium lived about 50 million years ago.
Megatherium and Megaloceros
The Megatherium or Giant Ground Sloth is a creature which lived in South America and which only became extinct about 11,000 years ago. First discovered in 1788, the Giant Ground Sloth was indeed giant - more than 6 metres in length - an imposing sight when standing up to reach the leaves of trees. So recent was its extinction that even its dung and hair have been found and the hair helped Richard Owen and Waterhouse Hawkins create a more lifelike statue, clinging to a large tree (living at the time of installation but now dead). Unfortunately the statue at the time of the author's visit in July was partially concealed by vegetation on one side, and it stands with its face partially obscured by the tree trunk on the other side.
The Megaloceros or Irish Elk is another recent extinction dying out after the last Ice Age. Represented by three statues in the park, the Irish Elk - believed to be the largest ever species of deer - was characterised by huge antlers spanning more than 3.5 metres (12 feet) from tip to tip. Originally the antlers on the statue of an elk stag were genuine fossils, but they proved too heavy to be supported on the model and were eventually replaced by replicas. Unsurprisingly because of their similarity to modern deer, the Irish Elk are probably the most accurate of all the models here, and for many they will be the first to be seen as they stand at the eastern end of the display closest to the Information Centre, cafe and one of the car parks. But in this review of the Crystal Palace statues, they are the last to be seen.
Visiting the Dinosaurs
There is free parking within the park boundaries, and whichever entrance is taken, the walk to the dinosaur exhibits will not be a long one. There is no best time to go. In the winter some of the models may be seen more clearly as much of the vegetation will have died back, but of course the park is more attractive and more enjoyable to visit in the warmer months of the year, and park attendants do keep the vegetation under control as best they can. Not far from the Irish Elk statues are the cafe and the Information Centre where maps and leaflets and other information can be obtained. On the occasion of my visit Penny was in attendance and she seemed very enthusiastic and helpful.
So these are the creatures which Sir Richard Owen envisaged and which Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins then created. The Crystal Palace had been the largest glass building in the world, and the Great Exhibition had been the first ever World's Fair. Both are now gone, but these statues remain as the world's first dinosaur theme park. At the time, they caused a sensation, but it is only with the passage of time that their true importance as historic monuments has become clear.
The Crystal Palace dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians and mammals are truly monuments to a time gone by. But the time gone by that we are talking about is not 65 million years ago and the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Rather, it is the Victorian Era - a time when pride and optimism in Britain were at their height and when it seemed anything and everything could be achieved. A time when Britain could show off to the world the wonders - not merely of the Empire - but of the whole world's history.
And nothing could exemplify that more than the creation of these statues, sculptures which represented the state of the art scientific knowledge of the time, but which today offer a salutary reminder of the way in which that knowledge is forever developing and progressing. How Victorians must have gazed in absolute wonder at these few beasts, even as ponderous and slow as they were depicted here - monsters unlike anything anyone had seen before. But how would they have stared open-mouthed if they could have seen today's very different interpretations of dinosaurs as active and often agile creatures, hugely successful animals which dominated the world in thousands of forms for more than 150 million years?
All except five of the statue photos here were taken from the public walkways. The exceptions include some photos of the Iguanadon, the Hylaeosaurus, and the Mosasaur. To take these for the purposes of this article, I obtained kind permission from Penny in the Visitors Information Centre to venture on to the Dinosaur Island. My thanks for this.
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Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs Website
This is a link to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website. This is a charitable organisation which promotes the long term conservation of these statues, as well as the geological rock strata exhibits. They work with other heritage organisations such as English Heritage and also the London Borough of Bromley who administer the park. There is plenty of information on their website about their projects, their voluntary conservation and education work, as well as opportunities to donate to the upkeep of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs if you wish
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