It’s not just children who love dinosaurs, everybody seems to, and that includes Historic England who have just put several of them on the 2020 Heritage At Risk Register. And no… that’s not because our leading heritage body is about 65 million years too late, but because a group of slightly more recent ones in a London park are falling to bits and are in danger of becoming as extinct as their ancestors.
If you’re confused about how and why these “antediluvian monsters” got there in the first place and how they became, and indeed still are, one of the city’s most popular attractions then you might be surprised by their story,
The dinosaurs under threat are 166 years old and rather than being divine creations were brought into being by a talented artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Actually, if we’re being pedantic they’re not all dinosaurs in the strict zoological sense, but that’s certainly how they are popularly described and it’s certainly the easiest term to use for most purposes.
You might think that the word dinosaur has been around a long time, like the creatures themselves, but when Hawkins created them it was a recent addition to the dictionary. It had been invented by Richard Owen, later to become the first superintendent of the Natural History Museum. He was commenting, in 1841, on the similarities of recent fossil discoveries and argued they were “ground for establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.” Owen’s choice was derived from two Greek words : deinos, which means “horrible” or “fearful,” and sauros a lizard and was a pretty accurate description.
Hawkins was a well known illustrator and sculptor in the field of natural history and had already, between 1842 and 1847 made models of the animals in the Earl of Derby’s menagerie at Knowsley Park near Liverpool. Derby probably helped him get the job of assistant superintendent of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park. When that finished, the main building – nicknamed the Crystal Palace by Punch – was dismounted and transferred to a new site, Sydenham Hill, on the south eastern outskirts of London.
The nickname stuck and the Crystal Palace reopened in 1854 as a commercial amusement. But it was to be a commercial amusement with a difference. Rebuilt in a commanding position overlooking London it had some 200 acres of grounds laid out it below it in a series of themed terraces with enormous fountains and masses of statuary. These were linked together by a grand central walkway and overlooked amazingly elaborate and lavish gardens laid out in a variety of styles by Joseph Paxton.
The palace itself was destroyed by fire in 1936 and the centre of the parkland was taken over for the National Sports Centre which opened in 1964. But in one corner of the surviving parkland [bottom left of the map above] there is still a remnant of Paxton’s original creation, and it is populated by Hawkins’s dinosaurs.
They were part of a new scientifically-inspired landscape created by Paxton stretching over 20 acres which also included a section constructed down the hillside to demonstrate the economic importance of geology. And if that doesn’t make much sense to you, it didn’t to me either until I read a description and saw the illustrations and photographs of it.
Geology was a still a relatively new science whilst Palaeontology – the study of fossil remains – was also a rapidly developing area of science. Paxton wanted to showcase both.
We must also remember this was all happening 5 or 6 years before Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species which outlined the theory of evolution, so its easy to see why people were taken taken aback by the underlying science being explained, and its easy to see where the ideas for these cartoons came from.
Hawkins seems to have consulted with Richard Owen, the leading expert of the day, and examined fossil remains in the British Museum, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Geological Society, to try and imagine, and then model, the creatures as if they were alive. As the guide to the Crystal Palace explained that it was from this “study and comparison of these fossil remains that the vast bodies which the visitor sees before him have been constructed.”
It then added “with a truthful certainty that admits of no dispute.” That was a bit simplistic or perhaps dishonest to say the last bit to put it politely. Even back in the 1850s the experts disagreed and Hawkins had plenty of alternatives to choose from. Indeed we now know that he made what we would now be called mistakes in his interpretation of the remains, but his models are nevertheless pioneering reconstructions and reflected the latest knowledge and artistry.
Despite our greater technical ability and the discovery of other remains to add to our knowledge, the debate about “accuracy” and interpretation of fossil remains still continues. So even though the statues only represent one strand of 19thc opinion, because of their size and location, they have exerted a very strong influence on the public imagination. Peter Doyle in his 2003 conservation report called them ” a three-dimensional geological text-book in the heart of a London suburb”. Dr Ellinor Michel, who chairs the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, [and no I didn’t make that up – they are lively campaigning group raising money for conservation and improving access and awareness] argues that “Waterhouse Hawkins got the science as right as he could but also there was an absolute beauty and real theatricality to the way he put things together.
The intention was to educate visitors to the exhibition rather than just create a theme park which sensationalised them. The result was 30 sculptures of dinosaurs, mammals, marine reptiles, and other antediluvian beasts, which were a celebration of British geology and palaeontology then at the very height of its expertise.
It was decided the models would be installed on a series of islands in the lake, each representing a different geological era. Hawkins hadn’t finished his work by the time the park opened in June 1854, with only the group for the Tertiary Island ready. Mind you landscaping was still going on when the site opened to the public so, for example, there wasn’t even any water in the lake at that point either! While he was working on the remainder and planning more new figures the directors of Crystal Palace Company ran into financial difficulties and, when you realise how complex and presumably expensive these models must have been, the project was halted in 1855. Hawkins left soon afterwards and went to New York where he was commissioned to make a similar series of prehistoric creatures for Central Park.
On the way to see the dinosaurs the visitor had to descend the slope from the palace itself, and pass through a series of specially constructed landscapes designed to show how Britain’s geology underlay its economy. There was for example an outcrop of a coal measure “admirably constructed by Mr James Campbell, a practical engineer and mineralogist.” Apart from coal this also showed strata of …”lead, iron and lime, all of which have helped so largely towards the prosperity of our commercial nation.”
There was also a reconstruction of a lead mine in miniature which the visitor could enter on the way down to the lake.
Shockingly most of this was blown up when the site was re-landscaped in 1962, for the Sports Centre and other “improvements”, although in 2002 the limestone cliff was rebuilt as part of conservation work.
Geological education continued when the visitor reached the lake with its islands. One of these was designed in part to show the geological formation of the Weald in Sussex, Surrey & Kent, “formerly the great metropolis of the Dinosaurian orders.” There Hawkins installed two iguanodons, “a great spiny lizard” [Hylaeosaurus] and a “Gigantic Lizard” [Megalosaurus].
Other geological eras were represented elsewhere on the island with the appropriate creatures including three “large frog-like creatures” built up the creative mind and hands of Mr Hawkins under the guiding eye of Professor Owen.”
Aquatic creatures were in the lake itself, where originally the water level rose and fell as the park fountains played, alternately submerging and revealing them. On the adjoining island, representing the Tertiary period, the visitor was told they would “discover animals approaching more nearly in form and appearance the creatures of our own day.”
You might wonder, as I did when I first saw them, how on earth they were made. The answer is supplied by Libby Ireland of the institute of Archaeology at UCL. She explains that you can actually get inside several of them and see. One of the iguanodons for example, took 600 bricks, 650 half round drain tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, 100 feet of iron hooping and 20 feet of 1” square bar. That’s not so surprising though when you realise the model was more than 30 feet long.
First Hawkins looked at fossil remains in various collections and drew detailed sketches, which he then converted in scale models in clay. Once the design/pose was finally decided his team of workmen built full sized clay models around a wooden framework, to which Hawkins himself added the final details. Next the team created a plaster mould in sections, each of which were then cast in cement. Once that was done the various pieces were taken from the studio on sledges for assembly on site.
How this was done depended on the size and complexity of the model. Smaller creatures were built up in situ, sometimes around iron armatures, with delicately moulded heads made from lead, whilst one model was actually carved from a solid limestone block. However the bodies of the larger creatures required a more complicated technique, involving a brickwork structure with a metal framework, making the model hollow.
In 1853 Hawkins took advantage of the fact that these structures were enormous and threw a dinner party for Owen and 20 others inside the half-built carcass of the iguanodon. Professor Richard Owen was symbolically placed inside its head sitting where the brain would have been. Never shy of publicity the Crystal Palace company also arranged for some newspaper editors to be invited, too. A short amusing account of what was apparently quite a raucous evening was published in Punch which said “We congratulate the company on the era in which they live; for it it had been an early geological period, they might perhaps have occupied the Iguanodon’s inside without having any dinner there.” There’s a much fuller account on the blog of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.
Once each model’s framework was finished it was made more “dinosaur-like”, by adding iron hoops and tiles to provide the base for the cement sections, which were fixed to the underlying structure with strong mortar. Remaining gaps were filled with rubble or concrete. Finally details like teeth were added usually in lead and the finished model was painted.
Much amusement was caused by the colour of the primer coat, a bright pinky-red withThe Observer suggesting that the dinosaurs were this colour because Hawkins had fed the them carrots as there was no proper vegetation for them to eat in the winter. Once installed on their islands, they were surrounded by planting which reflected the development of plant life through geological time as it was understood in the 1850s.
They were an instant popular success. As Ellinor Michel pointed out in an interview: “People had never seen anything like it. All that had been available before that were museums of fossils, so piles of bones and probably fairly turgid descriptions … a request to the viewer to imagine it for themselves – and how do you do that?”
Inevitably, however, the initial excitement of this new educational parkland faded and the way it was seen and understood began to change. The Crystal Palace Company sold off around 130 acres of land for housing, and by 1879 a report found that other than the most popular parts the Park was neglected and entertainments had become ‘vulgarised’. Its well-meant intentions were probably lost entirely when the site became a garrison for troops during the WW1. If possible things got worse after the 1936 fire, and the second military takeover during the second world war. Post-1945 austerity meant parks were not considered a priority by local authorities, and there was little opposition to the building of the National Sports centre and the consequent destruction of the integrity of Paxton’s grand landscape.
But everybody loves a dinosaur, and somehow Hawkins models lived on in the public imagination, despite considerable neglect, scorn and derision. They were listed Grade 2 by English Heritage in 1974 but promoted to Grade 1 in 2007 in recognition of their international importance, particularly to the history of science.
Some restoration work was carried out in 1952 and a lot more in 2002, when the destroyed limestone cliff was completely rebuilt and fibreglass replacements were created for the missing sculptures, and badly damaged parts of the surviving models were recast It was no real surprise then that in 2014 when Bromley Council and the Mayor of London allocated £2.4 million for projects in Crystal Palace Park, public consultation showed the Dinosaurs were easily the popular top choice.
Work began on the standing iguanodon in 2016 since it was in particularly poor condition, and later that year work started on eight of the water-based creatures. Putting the dinosaurs on the At Risk register is intended to focus attention on the remaining most urgent problems which experts believe are ground movement and changing water levels which will require an ongoing programme of repairs and maintenance.Englisih Heritage’s announcement certainly attracted a lot of press attention with headlines such as Tyrannosaurus Wrecks – despite the fact there are no tyrannosaurus there – and dinosaurs to be extinct again?
Bromley Council are using the conservation work on the dinosaurs as the lead-in to a major regeneration of Crystal Palace Park. There is a lot to do! But with allies like the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs,[who have a great website and blog] it looks much more likely to happen now and I’m sure we all echo Ellinor Michel’s’ “Thank you,” to Historic England because “the future suddenly looks brighter for the birthplace of dinomania.”