On 22 April 2010, I finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition, by visiting a veritable Lost World of dinosaurs and other monstrous members of our planet's prehistoric fauna. Yet this particular Lost World was located not atop some lofty South American mesa, or concealed amid some remote African rainforest. Instead, it was cosily ensconced within a leafy, tranquil setting not very far from the frantic hustle and bustle of central London. I refer of course to Crystal Palace Park, and its spectacular array of life-sized (albeit far from life-like) palaeontological reconstructions, which date back to Victorian times and include the earliest representations of dinosaurs ever created.
Today, they are considered by many to be nothing more than antiquated curiosities, at least as far as their direct relevance to modern-day fossil studies is concerned. Yet in historical terms, their significance is immense, as is their aesthetic value as stunning works of art. So here via this comprehensive 3-part ShukerNature blog article, I invite you all to pay a virtual, verbal visit with me to these extraordinary creations, and uncover their fascinating histories and mysteries.
I first learnt of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs from one particular animal book that (along with many others) my mother had bought me when I was a child, back in the 1960s. A compilation of chapters written by several different authors, and which I still own today as a fond reminder of my early years, it was entitled Children's Encyclopedia of Knowledge: Book of Nature, and had been published by Collins in 1967. I'd also been bought a number of books devoted specifically to dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts. Yet whereas the respective reconstructions in these latter books of the various famous dinosaurs' likely appearance in life all compared well with one another, those in my Book of Nature were radically different. This notable discrepancy puzzled me for some time until I finally uncovered the answer.
The dinosaur illustrations in the above-named book were photographs of enormous statues on display in southeast London's Crystal Palace Park, but they more closely resembled giant, misshapen lizards than the very distinctive, familiar forms depicted in all of my dinosaur books. Back in those far-distant pre-internet times, it took a while for me to learn more about them, but during the mid-1970s I bought Adrian J. Desmond's bestselling book The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs (1975), which included a fascinating history of how and when the first dinosaur remains had been discovered, and it was here that the secret of Crystal Palace Park's mystifying monsters was at last revealed to me.
The year 1851 saw Central London's Hyde Park host the world-famous Great Exhibition (1 May-15 October), which was a huge exposition showcasing the finest achievements of British industry as well as including displays from other countries around the world too. It was housed within a spectacular, palatial exhibition centre designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and composed extensively of glass, which duly became known as the Crystal Palace. Although initially intended to be merely a temporary creation, so popular did this very imposing, impressive edifice prove to be that when the Great Exhibition ended, instead of being demolished the Crystal Palace was purchased for £50,000 by the new, specially-created Crystal Palace Company, which then paid for it to be dismantled and moved in its entirety from Hyde Park to Penge, situated on the lower slopes of Sydenham Hill, southeast London.
Here it was painstakingly reassembled and became the focus of a new, specially-designed park, with beautiful landscaped gardens, lakes, statues, and many other eyecatching features. These included what became its most famous attractions – the incredible statues of huge dinosaurs and other exotic-looking prehistoric animals created by English sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894).
Despite having become extinct many millions of years ago, dinosaurs are among the most popular of all animals in today's world, their diverse imagery appearing everywhere, from books and films to toys and postage stamps, as well as being represented by countless displays in museums worldwide. All of which makes it all the more surprising, therefore, that although dinosaur fossils had been dug up by geologists and excavators for centuries, it was not until 1824 when the first dinosaur was scientifically named.
This was the 25-30-ft-long carnivorous theropod Megalosaurus ('big lizard'), a saurischian or lizard-hipped dinosaur, by Oxford University's Professor of Mineralogy and Geology, the Reverend William Buckland, based upon fossil remains unearthed in Oxfordshire, and originally thought to indicate a creature measuring around 40 ft long. A year later saw the naming of a second dinosaur form, the herbivorous 30-40-ft ornithopod Iguanodon, based upon remains found in the Tilgate Forest area of West Sussex by English palaeontologist Gideon Mantell and initially deemed by him to have measured around 60 ft long. This was followed in 1833 by a third, Hylaeosaurus, a herbivorous spiny ankylosaur, originally thought to have been approximately 25 ft long but nowadays downsized to around 10-13 ft. Its remains had been exposed after an explosion had demolished a quarry face not far from where Mantell's Iguanodon remains had been obtained. Both of these latter forms are ornithischian or bird-hipped dinosaurs, and both were named by Mantell.
When ideas were being sought for subjects to be represented in the new Crystal Palace Park, the suggestion of constructing life-sized representations of extinct animals was put forward, although there is still some controversy as to its originator. However, Queen Victoria's enterprising consort Prince Albert (already responsible for the Great Exhibition itself), Britain's foremost zoologist and palaeontologist of the day, Prof. Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), and the Crystal Palace's designer, Sir Joseph Paxton, were all probably involved. Once this notion had been formally accepted, in September 1852, Hawkins was duly commissioned by the Crystal Palace Company to construct these statues, using concrete, brick, lead, and steel.
Initially, the plan was to concentrate upon prehistoric mammals, with thoughts of reconstructing mastodonts, mammoths, and other furry wonders from the distant past. But once Hawkins had read some of Owen's publications, it wasn't long before the prospect of also reconstructing dinosaurs reared its reptilian head. At that time, only the above-named trio of dinosaurs had been formally recognized, so Hawkins decided to recreate all three of them with life-sized sculptures to show what they may have looked like in life. Moreover, as his work progressed, the scheme was expanded still further to include reconstructions of quite a number of other archaic beasts too.
Indeed, by the end of the project, no fewer than 33 statues representing 20 different animal species had been produced (together with some reconstructions of fossil plants too, such as cycads), yielding a major attraction dubbed Dinosaur Court (aka Dinosaur Park), which encompassed three specially-created islands within a large artificial lake, situated near the southern end of Crystal Palace Park itself. Although the idea was to focus upon such creatures that had once existed in Britain, some non-native examples were also represented, Hawkins having utilised fossil remains from Holland when reconstructing the mosasaur, for instance, from South Africa for Dicynodon, and from South America for Megatherium.
This unique project was nearing completion by the end of 1853, so to mark with suitable panache its impending official opening, a lavish banquet given by Hawkins was held on 31 December, New Year's Eve, of that same year, at which 21 notable dignitaries invited by him attended, including Owen and world-renowned bird painter John Gould. And the setting for this celebration? None other than inside Hawkins's colossal hollow mould for the construction of his standing Iguanodon statue! Never before, and probably never again, would such an event take place quite literally inside the bowels of a Mesozoic mega-beast!
Just over 5 months later, on 10 June 1854, Crystal Palace Park was formally opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Furthermore, no fewer than 40,000 visitors were in attendance, anxious to see what the media were enthusiastically referring to as an incredible assemblage of antediluvian monsters, i.e. labeling them as giant creatures that were believed by Creationists and other religious figures from that time to have existed on Earth during its earliest age before being wiped out by the Great Flood.
Although initially proving very popular, the Crystal Palace Park's Dinosaur Court eventually fell out of favour, especially once continuing palaeontological discoveries revealed that most of its reconstructions were actually very inaccurate. Neglected, especially after the Crystal Palace's destruction by fire in 1936, the statues eventually became partially hidden amid an overgrowth of undergrowth, and suffered considerably from damage caused not only by external, environmental influences but also by vandalism. Happily, following a first major restoration project in 1952, the historical significance of Hawkins's creations as a pioneering palaeontological venture was belatedly recognized, and in 1973 they were officially classed as National Heritage Grade II Listed Monuments, upgraded to Grade I in 2007. Meanwhile, an extensive second restoration project had taken place in 2002, recreating their dignified former appearance, making many repairs to their crumbling forms, and overseen by the London Borough of Bromley, the landowner of Crystal Palace Park.
Intriguingly, I'd long heard rumours that during the 1970s and possibly beyond, some of these statues were painted in bright garish colours. Only recently, however, have I uncovered some notable details concerning this hitherto scarcely-documented chapter in their long-running saga.
For example: during their 'painted period', the standing Iguanodon statue was initially rendered a deep olive green with contrasting white underparts and golden jaw edges, but by the late 1970s both Iguanodon statues were dark indigo blue dorsally, pure white ventrally (although their throat region began as a flushed pink shade, subsequently fading to white). They still sported this colour scheme during the 1990s (as confirmed by some early 1990s videos and mid-1990s photos of them), whereas in still later photos they are a pale mint green. In addition, Mandy Holloway, Curator of Fossil Reptiles, Amphibians, and Birds at London's Natural History Museum at that time, has shown me a photograph snapped by her of the left-hand side of the Megalosaurus (nowadays uniformly grey all over) that reveals the presence of a thick red horizontal stripe running along its lower flank, and striations of the same shade upon its limbs.
Moreover, the charity organization Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (FOCPD – click here to access their fascinating and very worthy website) kindly alerted me to a music video from 1977 currently accessible online (click here to view it) that features the late singer Lena Zavaroni boating past these dinosaur statues while singing the song 'I Had A Brontosaurus', in which the Megalosaurus is almost entirely bright red. I'd initially assumed that this vivid colouration was simply a special-effect created for the video, but Mandy confirmed that it was genuine – the Megalosaurus having been painted red on the instructions of the now long-defunct Greater London Council (GLC), which was also responsible for painting the other statues in Dinosaur Court that were brightly coloured during that period. Apparently, the reason for doing so was to make the statues appealing to young visitors, as a children's zoo had also been set up there, on Tertiary Island.
Correspondent Sam Crehan has shown me a full-colour photo of the Megalosaurus statue during its red phase that appears in the little children's book I-Spy Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals, and which reveals that its underparts (not very visible in the Lena Zavaroni music video) were white. (I suspect that the statue's red colour in the video, so bright that it virtually glows, has been enhanced, to make it more visible against its dark, shadowy background.)
In January 2021, Crystal Palace Dinosaurs devotee Anthony Hawkins posted on FOCPD's Facebook page a photo of the Megalosaurus when red with white underparts that dated from December 1980. And a similar photo from 1979 was an entry in the 2016 Arles Festival of Photography, Rencontre d'Arles, a premier event for photographic art.
Finally, Canadian cryptozoological friend Sebastian Wang has drawn my attention to the official website of Palaeoplushies, a manufacturer of plush toys, which includes in its list of products not one but two versions of the Crystal Palace Megalosaurus – identical in shape and size, but very different in colour. For whereas one is grey, the other is red. In its official description of these two Megalosaurus versions, Palaeoplushies refers to the grey one as ""Classic Grey" – The current weathered grey concrete look", and to the red one as ""70s red" – The look this statue had during the 70s" (click here to view and/or purchase these Megalosaurus plushies on the Palaeoplushies website). In short, Megalosaurus really was red in colour during the 1970s and at least as recently as the early 1980s too. This in turn means that Mandy's photo of it sporting just a horizontal red flank stripe and some red leg markings was snapped at a time when most of its red paint had been removed or painted over, or had simply faded away (red and yellow pigments are very prone to fading when exposed to sunlight).
Dinosaur Court's prehistoric creatures were originally located upon, and also within the waters surrounding, three artificial islands (named Tertiary, Secondary, and Primary), and most of these statues are still there today. The general public can walk around the islands (but not as yet directly upon them, except during special annual Open Days) via a railed public footpath on the Court's mainland portion, which affords excellent views of all of the statues. The islands are arranged in geological order, with their respective creatures dating from the Cenozoic Era back as far as the Permian Period of the late Palaeozoic Era. However, the Mesozoic Era is the Court's principal focus, because that is when most of the archaic beasts represented here existed, during the Age of Reptiles, as this era is commonly termed.
After arriving inside Crystal Palace Park's Dinosaur Court, if we begin our journey through geological time with the most recent creatures represented here, as I did, the first of Hawkins's statues encountered are four different mammals from the Cenozoic Era. These were formerly present on Tertiary Island, but except for the ground sloth they have now been relocated on the nearby mainland.
One of these mammals is Anoplotherium, represented by a small herd of three statues when I visited and photographed them in 2010 (yet some sources claim that only two exist). It was a primitive artiodactyl ungulate (even-toed hoofed mammal) from the late Eocene and early Oligocene Epochs (c.37-33 million years ago).
Anoplotherium is nowadays thought to be related to camels and llamas, and which Hawkins did provide with a camel-like head and neck. Its fossil remains have been found widely across Europe, including Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in the UK.
Also represented here is Palaeotherium, another primitive hoofed mammal, in existence at much the same time as Anoplotherium and whose remains have again been found in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Unlike Anoplotherium, however, Palaeotherium was a perissodactyl (odd-toed) ungulate. Originally there were three statues of it, but the largest one mysteriously vanished sometime after the late 1950s and has never been seen again.
Hawkins followed the opinion of eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier concerning the likely appearance of Palaeotherium in life, reconstructing it to resemble those modern-day perissodactyls the tapirs. Today, conversely, palaeontologists generally depict it as a perissodactylian parallel to the artiodactylian giraffe's shorter-necked forest relative, the okapi.
My favourite Hawkins mammals are his very imposing giant deer or Irish elks Megaloceros giganteus, consisting of two antlered adult stags standing regally and an antler-lacking adult doe reposing with her fawn close by. Even today, these statues still correspond well with palaeontological thoughts regarding their likely appearance. This is because Hawkins based them upon living modern-day deer.
In addition, for his stag statues' antlers he utilized actual complete fossils of the famously magnificent antlers borne by this species' stags, but in subsequent years these real fossil antlers were replaced by replicas. Their remains have been found not only in Ireland but also on the Eurasian mainland, including as far east as Siberian Russia. Some have been dated to as recently as the early Holocene, 8000 years ago.
Finally, a suitably huge Pliocene/Pleistocene Megatherium or giant ground sloth from Argentina squats upright on its haunches, grasping a tall tree. However, it sports a short trunk-like proboscis that is no longer thought to have been a valid feature of this creature.
Over the course of many years following the sloth's installation at Dinosaur Court in 1854, the girth of the tree that it is grasping grew so wide that it broke the sloth's left forearm, which needed to be restored. And at the time of my visit in 2010, its right paw was missing.
Also worth noting is that at one stage during its long and distinguished existence, this very spectacular statue shared its location with the afore-mentioned children's zoo. That must surely be the only example of such a zoo to contain a giant ground sloth in its midst!
Moreover, although this Crystal Palace example is the first Megatherium statue to have been attempted by Hawkins, in subsequent years its gigantic species would again be an inspiration to him when designing a second major exhibit, as will be revealed later here.
Memorable though these bygone mammals are, it will come as no surprise to learn, however, that the most popular portion of Dinosaur Court is the next island to which the mainland public footpath now leads, Secondary Island. For this contains Hawkins's most famous creations – his Mesozoic dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Moreover, on its shore and also in the adjacent waters of Dinosaur Court's lake are Mesozoic plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, sea crocodilians, and a mosasaur.
So that is where our virtual tour of Crystal Palace's Lost World will be taking us tomorrow, in Part 2 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here to access it) – back in time to the astonishing Age of Reptiles. And after that comes Part 3 (click here to access it), where I reveal the tragic tale of Hawkins's ill-fated Palaeozoic Museum, planned to be a major attraction in New York City. Don't miss them!