Like a great many people, my original holiday plans this year were scuppered by Covid-19. Even when travel restrictions were relaxed later in the summer, going overseas felt too risky; some people I knew booked holidays to Spain and then still couldn’t go due to quarantine rules. Instead, I decided to stay in England, and go see some places in the south that I’d wanted to see but hadn’t gotten round to. Among these was an attraction well known to dinosaur nerds: the dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park, London.
Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace glasshouse used for the event was moved from Hyde Park to what is now Crystal Palace Park, in South London. A number of attractions were set up in the park alongside the Palace – among them, life-sized sculptures of prehistoric animals, created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and unveiled in 1854. As you walk among these sculptures from the south-east entrance to the park, the further back in time you go, and the less accurate the depictions become.
First, there is the Quaternary Island, featuring a group of Megaloceros, the giant deer. As these deer only became extinct around 7,700 years ago, there was already enough fossil evidence available in the 1850s for relatively accurate reconstructions. Further along is Tertiary Island, featuring examples of prehistoric mammals that lived after the Age of Dinosaurs. The Palaeotherium and Anoplotherium were easy to find, but it took a few circuits around the island before I finally spotted the giant ground sloth, Megatherium, hidden between the trees and the lake. It must be easier to view in the winter.
The highlight, of course, is the islands representing the Primary and Secondary geological periods, as they were known at the time, when giant amphibians and reptiles roamed the land. The term “dinosaur” had only been coined in 1842, grouping together three species of large prehistoric reptile: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, all of which are represented among the models. The mould for one of the Iguanodon models was actually used to host a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853. However, these reconstructions were based on both limited fossil evidence and assumptions from studying living reptiles; we now know that the actual animals looked very different. What was originally thought to be a horn on the Iguanodon‘s nose was actually a spike on its thumb. The Hylaeosaurus – which, a little frustratingly, is facing away from the viewer – was more of a squat, armoured animal than a spiny-backed iguana. The predatory Megalosaurus – which wasn’t looking its best, having lost part of its jaw earlier in the year – walked on two legs rather than four.
Also occupying the island are some of the marine reptiles that were known by the 1850s: a Mosasaurus, long-necked plesiosaurs, and ichthyosaurs, which looked more like graceful dolphins than the sluggish, freaky-eyed belly-draggers on display. At the far end of the island are some labyrinthodonts and dicynodonts, the oldest animals in the collection, dating back to around 250 million years ago. Appropriately, a modern-day dinosaur – a heron – happened to be treading through the water, close to the reconstructions of its ancient relatives.
There were plenty of other places where you can see models of dinosaurs, but this one has true historical significance – a fascinating reflection of the early days of palaeontology, and the novelty of these amazing animals to their original Victorian audiences. Having known about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs from the books and documentaries of my childhood, I am very glad that I’ve finally been able to see them in person!