What are “Crystal Palace Dinosaurs”?

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are a collection of over 30 statues created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) in the years around 1854. This set includes the first ever attempt anywhere in the world to model dinosaurs as full-scale, three-dimensional, active creatures. The set also includes models of other prehistoric creatures, including plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs discovered by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, and a South American Megatherium brought back to Britain by Charles Darwin on his voyage on HMS Beagle. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fascinated by the dinosaur displays in Crystal Palace, and they visited the site several times.

Secondary Island in Crystal Palace Park
View of “Secondary Island” in Crystal Palace Park, including “Iguanodon (lower left), Hylaeosaurus (upper left), and Megalosaurus.

The statues are listed on Historic England’s “National Heritage List for England” as Grade 1 monuments. This is the most important rating for that list, and it is reserved for sites of international importance. The statues are key objects in the history of science. Many statues are based on specimens currently on display in the Natural History Museum, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and other natural history museums in the UK.

Baxter print Crystal Palace 1854
This ‘Baxter’ print shows the Crystal Palace Park as conceived prior to opening in 1854. This landscape for dinosaurs imagines a tour underway.

Some of the statues are wildly inaccurate compared with modern interpretations. Who decided what the dinosaurs should look like is a subject of historical debate. However, research by historians shows clearly that experts in the 1850s had different interpretations of the dinosaurs, and these differences in view are reflected in the statues on display. The story of these evolving interpretations demonstrates how scientific ideas evolve when new evidence and ideas comes to light.

The statues were created on site in Crystal Palace Park. In 1854, the park opened as a commercial amusement. This included the spectacular glasshouse (made from the glasshouse in the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London). The Crystal Palace glasshouse burned to the ground in 1936. It is no longer on view. However, the scale of that building is easy to see when visiting the park today, as some of the terraces and decorative sphinxes remain. The park also included elaborate landscape and fountain works designed by Joseph Paxton.

Crystal Palace Park is located in the south suburbs of London, UK, and four neighbourhoods surround it:  Sydenham, Penge, Norwood, and Crystal Palace. The park is open to the public and free to visit. The dinosaur displays are free to visit, too.These are accessible for those with limited mobility, and it is well sign-posted.  The statues are outdoors, so please be mindful of local weather conditions. School groups frequently visit the dinosaurs, and children might benefit from bringing a simple pair of binoculars. The statues are viewed from a distance and cannot be climbed.

Specific visitor information is here. The park is served by Transport for London (buses and London Overground) and numerous rail connections. The current Crystal Palace rail station (CYP) dates from the 19th century and was used by visitors to the original amusement park. Parking is available. The park includes conveniences and other services. The park is owned and maintained by Bromley Council. An excellent range of restaurants and pubs can be found in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Much has been written about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (bibliography).

Why visit when photographs are easy to view online?

  1. There’s more to the site than the statues themselves. The statues are set within a model geological landscape that tells an important story. Other original features are present, too.
  2. Photographers tend to post photographs only of the big dinosaurs. There are many more statues to see, and each has personalities of their own.
  3. As when visiting an art gallery, these statues are great works of art and have an aesthetic within their space that is impossible to capture on film.
  4. Crystal Palace Park is one of London’s great green spaces. It’s a popular local and national treasure. It is off the usual London tourist trails.

Want to see more?

This video wasn’t produced by us, but it’s a good preview for anyone considering a visit (Credit: TheArtDecoVampire). The dinosaur displays change over the year, as the surrounding landscape follows the seasons. In this video, the landscaping has been cut back.