In Parts 1 and 2 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here and here to access them), we paid a virtual, verbal visit to the ancient mammals and especially the enormous dinosaurs and other prehistoric herpetological creatures that are immortalized at Dinosaur Court in Crystal Palace Park, southeast London, via a series of artistically magnificent (albeit nowadays palaeontologically inaccurate) statues.
These were the first such statues ever created – dating back to 1853/4 – and were reconstructed by eminent British sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the guidance of Britain's foremost zoologist and palaeontologist at that time, Prof. Sir Richard Owen. Today, we turn our attention to the ongoing peril faced by these monumental wonders from a deadly combination of environmental and vandal-induced vicissitudes, as well as recalling Hawkins's tragically ill-fated American adventure.
In recent times, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have hit the news headlines for a variety of different reasons – some good, some not so good. Sadly, the most notable instance falls into the latter category. In May 2020, media reports worldwide revealed the shocking news that the nose and jaw tips of the magnificent Megalosaurus dinosaur statue had broken off. Photos accompanying these reports presented in stark close-up detail the severity of the damage, but opinions were mixed as to its cause. The Metropolitan Police were treating it as vandalism (and there are plenty of precedents with these statues to explain this view), whereas some historians noted that the nose and jaw tips had broken off along pre-existing fracture lines, thus suggesting that it may have happened naturally.
Indeed, when I read the reports I was reminded of a brief but prophetic observation made in a Tetrapod Zoology blog article of 11 December 2018 by British palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish following his visit to Dinosaur Court in September 2018 during its annual Open Day weekend there in which visitors were allowed the rare privilege of stepping forth onto the actual islands where Hawkins's statues stand, thereby enabling them to be viewed at much closer range than is normally possible. In his article, he stated: "…sections of the megalosaur’s nose look like they could fall off at any moment".
Happily, however, in May 2021 Hawkins's Megalosaurus statue was restored to its former glory when it received a specially-created 'prosthetic jaw' and 22 teeth. The intricate restoration work that had created and fitted them had been financed by a grant from Historic England's Culture Recovery Fund plus support from Bromley Council and donations generated via fundraising carried out by the charity FOCPD – Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (more about this sterling organization later).
Certainly, following direct outdoor exposure to the elements for almost 170 years, many of Hawkins's statues, especially the larger ones, sport a distressing array of fractures, fissures, cracks, and breaks, and are in danger of losing toes, tails, teeth, and antlers. The distal region of the tail of his Hylaeosaurus dinosaur statue, for example, is already severed from the remainder of it. And at much the same time as the Megalosaurus disfigurement took place in May 2020, the antlers of the two Irish elk stags were also damaged, although this may have been due to the prevailing high winds.
Ironically, less than three months previously, in late February 2020, Historic England had announced that the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were being added to its Heritage at Risk Register.
Speaking of Hylaeosaurus: many years after its statue had been created by Hawkins, the head either fell off of its own accord or had to be removed because its great weight was causing the statue's neck to snap (accounts differ), and a lightweight fibreglass replica was added in its place. Happily, however, the original head was preserved, and can still be seen, mounted upon a special inset plaque on the ground, but sited some distance away from the rest of this statue.
In my view, however, undoubtedly the most devastating damage wrought upon any of Hawkins's Crystal Palace statues was suffered by the pair of smaller, Oolite pterosaurs mentioned by me yesterday in Part 2 of this ShukerNature blog article. After being on display in addition to the more famous larger pair of pterosaurs for approximately 80 years, they were destroyed sometime during the 1930s; it has been claimed that they were used as target practice when the grounds of Crystal Palace Park were being temporarily utilized as barracks. During the major restoration work that took place at Dinosaur Court in 2002, however, a gorgeous pair of golden-gleaming fibreglass replicas were installed, having been specially created by sculptor John Warne in consultation with geologist Peter Doyle and Morton Partnership. Tragically, however, they were heinously destroyed just three years later, in 2005, when vandals kicked them over and also stole their smashed fragments.
Nothing more was heard about the Oolite pterosaur replicas for almost a decade, until a blog article by Joe Cain uploaded on 18 July 2014 to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website sensationally revealed that their fragments had been discovered just a week previously. Although for security reasons their location was not disclosed, Joe stated that he and two colleagues had been given special access to the fragments, which enabled them to be counted and their condition assessed. Sadly, most were in poor condition, but he felt that there was enough for future work to be initiated at some stage. As for the two larger, Cretaceous pterosaurs, they have suffered a degree of damage too, including much of the long slender jaws of one of them having broken off in recent years (I was fortunate enough to see both of them fully intact back in 2010).
Yet even the desecration of the Oolite pterosaurs almost pales into insignificance when compared to the nightmare of what happened to all of Hawkins's New York statues. Despite the initial success of his Dinosaur Court at London's Crystal Palace Park, the cost of the statues' creation had been prohibitive (approximately £13,750 – an enormous sum back in the 1850s). Consequently, in mid-1855 the Directors of the Crystal Palace Company, which had purchased the palace itself, had funded its removal from Hyde Park and its reassembling at Penge following the end of the Great Exhibition, and had also financed Hawkins's creation of all of the statues there, refused to provide him with any further funding to reconstruct some additional statues of extinct Cenozoic beasts that he'd wanted to display on the Court's Tertiary Island.
These were believed to include New Zealand's ostrich-like giant moa Dinornis, the Mauritius dodo, the antlered giraffid Sivatherium, a South American glyptodont (a giant armadillo-like armoured mammal with a fearsome mace-like tail), some snakes and turtles, plus a woolly mammoth, and at least one other prehistoric pachyderm too (variously claimed to be a Mastodon or a Deinotherium).
Nevertheless, buoyed by the success of his existing statues at Crystal Park Palace, Hawkins subsequently launched into an even more ambitious project following a transatlantic invitation sent to him in May 1868 from Charles Green, the administrator of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park in New York City, USA. Green was well aware of how lucrative and educational the Crystal Palace dinosaurs had proved to be, attracting each year numerous paying visitors anxious to gaze upon and learn all about these prehistoric goliaths. So he offered Hawkins the opportunity to establish in Central Park a comparable attraction, but this time in the form of a unique museum that would house a diverse range of new life-sized statues, with especial emphasis upon prehistoric creatures of the New World.
Hawkins readily agreed to do so, dubbing this major new project the Palaeozoic Museum. Among the statues that he planned to produce for it were ground sloths, glyptodonts, mastodonts, and the American plesiosaur Elasmosaurus, as well as bipedal representations of the American herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur Hadrosaurus and carnivorous tyrannosaurid dinosaur Laelaps [now Dryptosaurus], plus the Eurasian giant deer or Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus, a species that he had already constructed for London's Dinosaur Court, and also New Zealand's giant moa Dinornis, which he had been prevented from constructing for the Court.
Hawkins set up a workshop studio in Central Park, and by early 1871 he had created several statues and the moulds for several more when disaster struck. One fateful evening in spring of that same year, a team of brutish despoilers broke into his studio, with what has traditionally been believed to be the blessing of 'Boss' William Marcy Tweed – an extremely rich, influential mobster in all but name. Tweed had stealthily gained control over much of New York City, including the finances of the Park, having infiltrated its Board via several corrupt Commissioners loyal to him, but according to traditional belief he had no intention of funding the museum's establishment (being neither a fan of Hawkins in particular nor of fossils in general). So his covertly-hired team's specified task was to smash, destroy, remove, and bury every statue, mould, and sketch that they could find there – a despicable crime that they carried out like palaeontological Luddites with diabolical zeal and efficiency, duly ending any prospect of Hawkins and Green founding their Palaeozoic Museum.
[UPDATE: You will have noticed, however, that when blaming Tweed for this destruction, I have twice highlighted that this is the traditional belief regarding it. In reality, however, a revelatory re-examination of the salient facts, published in a May 2023 Proceedings of the Geologists' Association paper authored by Victoria Coules of Bristol's Department of History of Art and palaeontologist Prof. Michael Benton of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, exposes the culprit not to have been Tweed at all. Instead, the villain in question was none other than Henry Hilton, Treasurer and VP of Central Park. It turns out that Hilton made the fatal decision at a specific meeting that the statues and moulds should be destroyed, and it was he who sent out the very next day the team responsible for doing so. But why? Apparently, Hilton was a very strange, eccentric character who is already known to historians for a number of other bizarre, senseless, disreputable acts, so this wanton vandalism is entirely in keeping with his notorious reputation.]
Returning to England dejected and rejected, Hawkins spent the remainder of his days painting wildlife, dying in 1894, his American dream shattered, unfulfilled. Happily, however, in London's Crystal Palace Park his visionary creations live on (in all but the most literal sense!).
Moreover, today they have a major ally and protector, in the shape of a superb charity organization called Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs or FOCPD (be sure to visit its official website here for full details concerning its founding, its aims, volunteering, donating, and so much more). FOCPD is enthusiastically supported by an eclectic range of members united by their love for Hawkins's iconic creations, drawing not just from the scientific community but from every walk of life. One of FOCPD's biggest supporters, who has extensively publicized on social media its worthy cause, is none other than Hampstead-born Saul Hudson, better known today as celebrated Guns N' Roses rock guitarist Slash.
FOCPD was specifically founded in 2013 to promote the longterm conservation of these statues plus the larger surrounding geological site, and its latest in a long line of major successes since then has been to raise the very substantial sum of money (approximately £70,000) required to design, construct, and then safely secure in place a robust lockable swing bridge, dubbed the Dino Bridge. This will exclusively enable FOCPD's workers, volunteers, and others involved in vital restoration and maintenance work here to access the islands whenever needed, but at all other times it can be locked away to prevent would-be intruders and trespassers from using it to access these statue sanctuaries.
On 13 January 2021, the Dino Bridge was formally installed, thereby marking the beginning of a major new phase in FOCPD's ongoing objective of protecting and preserving Hawkins's priceless, irreplaceable legacy – and, in so doing, maintaining interest in it. This in turn ensures not only the continuing physical survival of his creations but also that their unique scientific, historical, and artistic significance is fully understood and appreciated by current and future generations.
For what is all too often not realized (yet is absolutely crucial to remember here) is that whereas in comparison to today's currently-accepted palaeontological reconstructions of the prehistoric beasts represented by them, Hawkins's statues are undeniably inaccurate and thoroughly outdated, they are nonetheless exceedingly accurate representations of the very limited fossil remains and attendant knowledge concerning them that were available to him back when he created them almost 170 years ago. Indeed, it is even probably fair to say that relatively speaking, Hawkins's statues are actually more precise life restorations of the fossils available to him and Owen for study than today's life restorations are of the vast array of fossils available to modern-day sculptors and artists. This is because even such visually insignificant yet taxonomically highly significant features as tooth structure were diligently replicated by Hawkins from the fossils available to him for study. So, viewed from that perspective, i.e. strictly in context, his Victorian statues not only were the earliest but also may well be the most faithful three-dimensional reconstructions of dinosaurs and other antiquated animals ever created.
This is surely a most fitting testimonial to the man who was the very first person to resurrect like a veritable naturalist of necromancy the long-dead, long-buried monsters from the vast mausoleum of our world's hitherto-unsuspected prehistoric past.
For further details concerning the history of Hawkins's Dinosaur Court statues and for very extensive, meticulous analyses of their morphological accuracy when compared with our present-day knowledge of the prehistoric creatures that they are based upon, I heartily recommend Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World's First Prehistoric Sculptures (1994), a fascinating, lavishly-illustrated book written and researched by Steve McCarthy, designed and produced by Mick Gilbert; plus the excellent online blog of British palaeontologist and palaeoartist Mark Witton (click here to access it).
In addition, my sincere thanks for sharing with me all manner of interesting, pertinent information go to Sam Crehan, Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (FOCPD), Mandy Holloway, Dr Darren Naish, Bob Skinner, and Sebastian Wang.
But above all, I wish to dedicate this comprehensive 3-part ShukerNature article to my late mother, Mary Shuker (1921-2013), whose fascination with animals inspired my own and whose ever-present encouragement and support were crucial in helping me to achieve my lifelong ambition of becoming a zoologist. Down through the years, she had heard me speak of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs so often that when in 2010 I finally decided to brave the turmoil of London's traffic and pay them a long-promised visit at Penge, she was almost as keen to see them as I was. So naturally I took her with me, and when traversing the long and winding public pathway on the park 'mainland' that encircles their island sanctuaries, she enjoyed observing these immensely impressive statues just as much as I did.
Indeed, although during the five decades that we shared, Mom and I had travelled the world together, taking her with me to visit and view so many exotic sights that she had always wanted to see but had never thought that she would, the simple joy of our day among the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace will always remain one of my most treasured memories of our life together.
God bless you Mom, thank you for being the best person I shall ever know – how I wish that you were still here, that you could read and enjoy this article of mine, and remember once again, as I am doing now, our happy time spent together in the company of its stately, stupendous subjects.