The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Last week I inveigled you into imagining a movie starring Nicolas Cage gunning a Dodge Charger across the California desert to take some peyote and look at some concrete dinosaurs. Well, this week I thought I might ask you to try imagining roughly the same film, except with Robin Asquith gunning his Ford Cortina down the A2199 to Crystal Palace in the rain…

In Crystal Palace park, south London, one can find The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a set of sculptures of dinosaurs and extinct mammals located on a lake island. Commissioned in 1852 and unveiled in 1854, they were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, pre-dating the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by six years. They became Grade II listed in 1973, extensively restored in 2002 and upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007. The models themselves are now considered to be out of date and to varying degrees inaccurate.

After the closure of the Great Exhibition in October 1851, the Crystal Palace was bought and moved from Hyde Park to South London; the grounds that surrounded it were then extensively renovated and turned into a public park with ornamental gardens, replicas of statues and two new man-made lakes. As part of this renovation Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build the first ever life-sized models of extinct animals. Hawkins set up a workshop on site at the park and built the models there.

The models were displayed on three islands acting as a rough time-line. The models’ realism was aided by the lake at the time being ‘tidal’ and rising and falling, revealing different amounts of the dinosaurs. To mark the ‘launch’ of the models Hawkins famously held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the mould of one of the Iguanodon.

crystal palace dinosaur meal

As further and fuller discoveries of the species included in Crystal Palace were made, the reputation of the models declined. By as early as 1895 experts looked on them with scorn and ridicule. The models and indeed the park fell into ill-repair as the years went by, a process aided by the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace itself in 1936. The visibility of the models became obscured by overgrown foliage, but a full restoration of the animals was carried out in the 1950s.

Though general maintenance was performed in the meantime (including the use of plasticine) the dinosaurs did not undergo a full restoration until 2002; during that time the park had fallen into total disarray and at one point a guided tour of the dinosaurs was the only time the park was open to the public. In 2002 the Institute of Historic Building Conservation totally renovated the models, including properly fixing and re-painting the existing models in much lighter or at times totally different colors, for instance the Megatheirium was changed to beige during the restoration, having previously been painted a rather unusual shade of blue.




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About Author Profile: Worm

In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

4 thoughts on “The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

    March 16, 2013 at 10:55

    Worm, you are rapidly becoming the Dabbler’s resident dinosaur guy. Interesting place, Crystal Palace park although I would guess that today it is more meth than palace. Used to live at the foot of the hill, in Sydenham’s Venner Rd, the park had a motor racing circuit which was popular and the sounds from the cars could be heard in the high street. The track was sunken, the spectators looked down into the cars, a weird sensation, watching the heads of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt whistle by as the dinosaurs stood silently in the background, can’t remember what colour they were, probably mouldy green.
    Stewart was not the only Helensburgh lad to be associated with the Crystal Palace. Himself, John Logie Baird, had workshops there making television sets from girders, brown paper and sealing wax, within the local engineering community there were people still around who had worked for the famous inventor.

    Sydenham of course, famous for adjoining Penge, famous for being invisible and having an east station.

    • Worm
      March 18, 2013 at 12:40

      that was the last article about concrete dinosaurs for a while, Malty!

      Penge – surely the most terrifying address in the mind of an Englishman

    March 16, 2013 at 17:03

    Somewhere I have a newspaper from 1st December 1936 – the day my father was born was the day the Crystal Palace burned down. Latterly famous for its transmitter (which I used to be able to see from my window until they built an enormous apartment block in front of it), the athletics track – and outdoor summer concerts… but I had no idea of any dinosaurs. Now I shall have to pay a visit. In the footsteps of my ancestors… thanks, Worm.

    • Worm
      March 18, 2013 at 12:44

      I was always amazed that a building made of metal girders and glass burned down.

      Hope you get to see the dinos in the flesh as it were, Susan!

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