Episode 47: Victorian Dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park

Did you know the world’s first Jurassic Park was actually in Crystal Palace Park?

It’s been said that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fascinated by the dinosaur displays in Crystal Palace and had visited the site several times. Have you been?

Hear Hazel talk with Sarah Slaughter about these wonderful life-sized dinosaurs.

Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

In episode 2: Fantastic Beasts I discussed many of London’s current and former beastly residents, but today’s subject, warrants an episode just for them.

Today, we’re going to Crystal Palace Park in South East London. It was a Victorian pleasure park surrounding the site of the former crystal palace building from the great exhibition of 1851.


Joining me today is Sarah Jayne Slaughter who is here to tell us more about the unusual residents of crystal palace park.

Sarah Jayne Slaughter

Sarah Jayne Slaughter – a trustee for Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs and a volunteer managing social media and acting as liaison for on site operations.

Instagram | Twitter | Website


Hazel Baker: Hello, Sarah. 

Sarah: Lovely to meet you. 

Hazel: Thank you so much for taking the time out today. You are going to have to explain to everybody why, Oh, why we have dinosaurs in crystal palace park?

Sarah: I will, I will. The beginning would probably be in around 1851, which was when  Hyde parks or the  A big fair, where it showed lots of  science and technology from across the world. And that was how I was doing something called the crystal palace. It was given that name by a newspaper because it was all sparkling in the sun.

It was all made of glass and metal that was only supposed to last for a year. And then after a couple of years, Private money was raised and the decided to rebuild the crystal palace elsewhere and to put together an, a permanent exhibition space so that people could come to  the crucified days and be entertained and also learns quite Victoria.

And I did so that people would learn at the same time as being, being  Excited and interested in something. And part of the, this huge new exhibition was  an area of the park, which is set aside specially to demonstrate, let me say it was a part of the  British history of mining and taking things out of the ground.

And obviously the things are taken out of the ground were very old and so we started to look at these materials and think, well, This earth is not quite as young as we thought it was. So that’s older than we thought it was. And so these are all very new ideas. And what the Victorians wanted to do was to express this to the public and to show them actually, those there’s not a few thousand years old, as we thought, it’s more millions of years old.

And this area of the park was set aside to demonstrate the layers of the earth. So any rocks that you see around that area has been, haven’t been brought there by the Victorians. They’re not natural to London.  So it was demonstrating different parts of the UK and demonstrating that the age of the earth like that.

And part of learning about the earths layers and its age is learning about the extinct animals that also were being dug up in those mines. And. So extinction was also quite a new idea and people didn’t realise that there had been animals before.  And you had things. Okay. You know, I suppose people would have been digging up bones and then that would have led to  myths and legends and things like people trying to figure out what on earth is this?

You know, they’ve got this huge. What is clearly a leg bone of an animal that its own style. 

 Sarah: But this was the time when people were starting to them. Exactly what they were. And  so the idea was to demonstrate both the Earth’s layers. And so when you go to crystal palace, you will see a sort of cliff side that had, it shows the layers of the, of the Estrada and also the animals that would have populated the earth at particular times.

Hazel: So people can walk around the park, it’s all open  to the elements.  And then you’re actually able to walk through chronological order, right? 

Sarah:  That’s right. Yes. So the animals are displayed in a very specific order because the artist who  who built them, his, his name was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

He was a local its crystal palace. And  he wanted to show with the display. Exactly.  The science involved. So it was  very important to him to demonstrate that  it wasn’t just, you know, fantastical animals that he was building, there was actual science behind it. And he worked with the most eminent scientists of the time to make sure that the animals were as accurate as they possibly could be.

Hazel: So we know a lot more about dinosaurs now than we did back. What do you think, John, on that two different versions? Tell us about those. 

Sarah: Well, they’re all. Yeah, some of the animals are repeated, so they’ve got several different sculptures depicting the same animals.  The four sculptures that depict dinosaurs are the mechanism at the high layers or , there’s two of one and domes. And the reason for that is because at the time that the sculptures were built, there was no consensus in science about the way and iguanas on would have said. And so some scientists said, well, We think that the, the  the legs would have been underneath the body.

So kind of like a modern day, right? Our surveys, so elephant and other scientists said, no, no, no, no. The legs would have been sprawled out like a lizard. So like a modern day iguana and the Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins took, took this and he thought, well, you know, there is no consensus. What do I do? Who do I go with?

And brilliantly, he said, I’m going to do both. So we’re going to make two sculptures that represent this, this argument in science to show that there was no agreement. And so what we can see today is that crystallisation of an, of an argument of a scientific disagreement, which is fantastic because it encapsulates that science isn’t immutable.

You know, it, it changes according to, you know, as soon as new knowledge comes to the fore, then. People adapt and they say, well, okay. It wasn’t like that. As we thought, it’s like this instead. And you still see this in science today, when it’s, when they’re talking about dinosaurs  you know, things change and they go back and forwards.

And  and that, that, that particular piece of artwork demonstrates exactly that. 

Hazel:  Yeah. And you can see that with the Raptors, can’t you with the drastic park. And I, part of it is due to the complications with computer software, but you know, the last ones are much smaller and they’ve even got a few feathers on their forehead.

I’m sorry, but what is nice about him choosing those two?  To do two.  And it actually takes quite a lot of guts to actually  make that decision to make the two, rather than going actually, you know what? I favour this one, or this will be easier to make, or this will look more impressive. So what else do we know about him?

What has he done? Anything else like this?

Sarah: Benjamin Bartell’s Hawkins was a super star at the time. He was very well known for making really  lifelike sculptures of animals. And he’d only made  existing animals before it. So this was a real challenge for him.  They were going on, you know, fragments of bones really.

And he was talking to scientists and saying, what would this animal look like? And they were saying, well, We’re not quite sure. We think the head might have looked like this, but we don’t know about the rest of it. And he looked at it and using his knowledge of anatomy, he would say, well, okay, this looks a bit like an amphibian Jawbone.

So I’ll put the body of a frog onto this one. And it was engaged in lots of arguments with the scientists, because they were saying you can’t represent something until you actually didn’t know what it looked like. And he said, well, yeah, In my experience as an artist, people won’t respond to parts of animals.

They want to see the whole thing. There was a real tussle in between them as to whether they should depict the whole animal or not. And in fact, we then only about 10 years or so people were mocking the sculptures and saying, Oh, that’s completely wrong. You know, we know much more nowadays. And so even though we are still doing that 167 years later, you know, within 10 years already, those, those creatures were seen as a little bit silly. 

Hazel standing in front of the Victorian models of dinosaurs
Hazel visits the dinosaurs

Hazel:  So when they were first put in the park and open to the public  how did people respond to them? 

Sarah: Oh, there were a huge, huge success. So they, people came from miles and miles just to come and say, well, is it crystal partners as well, but really to see these creatures and to learn about what happened before, because remember this was completely new, that this was  the idea of extinction where something that people hadn’t really thought about before.

 And so these are controversial ideas. They’re challenging ideas. This is before Darwin’s origin of species was released.  And we all know about the sort of controversies that are raised from that. So really it was a very exciting thing for people to come and say they built two new  railway stations to cope with the amount of visitors that were coming.

Hotels sprung up all around the area. And at that point, it would have been quite rural roles. So people would have been coming from other places into the countryside and to come and see crystal palace park and this place we can come and learn and be entertained at the same time. 

Hazel: Wow. It sounds like it really made it a destination.

Sarah: Yes. Yes, it really was. Yes. 

Hazel: And what about now?  I have a little nephew Luca who has seen some of the photos when I tried to entice him to the park. He refuses to go because they’re not anatomically correct. What would you say to Luca and little boys and girls like him? 

Sarah: I would say, Luca, what you need to do is transport yourself to 1854 and imagine having a piece of bone in your hand that no one has ever seen before and trying to create an animal ounce of that and understand what it looked like and how its body fit together and anatomic knee, and what colour it might be, whether it had fare or feathers. And that’s something that scientists are still doing today.

So you would really be doing the same as scientists are still doing now.  And when he says they’re not accurate really for the time that they’re the absolute top end of science there’s, this was probably, maybe artists have not been able to work with the top scientists in such a direct way as Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins did at that time.

So. Well, they, they don’t look correct today. Also, remember we still don’t know what dinosaurs look like and we never ever will because there’s none here. So that, that connection between art and palaeontology is completely bound together. There’s no separating them because we cannot have photographs. We cannot work on the animals in person.

So we have to have artists representing. What those animals would have looked like, and that’s exactly what they were doing. And that was the first time anybody did it in life size for the public. 

Hazel: Wow. You’re getting me all excited again.  I’ve only recently found out that they are grade one listed.

Sarah:  They are yes. With historic England, they are great one listed buildings. In fact, because they’re hollow and they last year were put on the at-risk register. They see because they are crumbling. They’re in quite bad repair. Some of them have been conserved in the last few years that others are in desperate need of work to be done on them.

And that’s very specialist conservation work. 

Hazel:  Yeah. I mean, are these the only ones of it? Other kind, 

Sarah: There is nothing like this in the whole world. They are the only ones. This is the first real Jurassic park. This is the. First time that anyone tried to depict dinosaurs for the public in a, in a life-size way.

This represents science coming out from behind closed doors and being shared with the public, because it was important for people to understand the world that they lived in and to know more about it and to be educated.

Hazel: That’s really quite amazing. Isn’t it? And it gives you a chance to  time travel back to 1851 as well.

Sarah:  Absolutely. Yeah. So 1854 for us. 

Hazel:  Sorry. Yeah, so they, they said, but you’ve also got some geological illustrations haven’t you to sort of understand it a little bit more. Tell us a little bit more about that. 

Sarah: As I said before, this is sort of  Cliff side, that’s been built in the park. If you’re walking from the actual dinosaurs around in the mumbles, you’ll walk over a wooden bridge.

And on the left-hand side of the bridge, you’ll see a sort of cliff side and set into that is a mine. And that was a. A replica mine that the Victorians built so that London has, could walk around  a mine  which you wouldn’t see in London.  It was copied from one in Derbyshire I believe. And so people could see, they ha they built  static types that hung down from the ceilings that if you’ve got to understand about those and how they worked, and then they had these sort of cliffs of which we can still see now, and it has layers of different types of rock  So I’m no geologist, I’m an historian geologist.

But so if you, if you look at it and there, there is  science there and information to explain, like what  what types of rock they are and how long ago they were formed. And that you can also tie that up. If you look along the bridge there’s information, showing you, which of the animals depicted in the sculptures would have been alive at the time, each layer of rock.

Hazel: Yeah, really clever, isn’t it? I think it’s that, it’s that joining those bits together and that’s where history, zings time of history you do. But I think that’s one of the things I love being a tour guide is that unsafe saying something that happened in history, they might’ve done it at school, but when they realise that maybe they’re standing on that side, But where it happened, you see this light bulb moment and they get goose bumps and suddenly the whole outlook on that has changed.

And that’s, you know, and that’s why I love about that. And I think here  what’s nice is that you’re, you’re able to explore this kind of stuff in your own time. Whereas, if you go to a museum, especially everyone else around you, when they do try and move you around, don’t they, you know, they don’t really want you stumbling and looking at something for too long and thinking  but here in the park, you can do that.

You’ve got that freedom to really your mind is, is your own limit, isn’t it? 

Sarah:  Yes, exactly. Yes. It’s wonderful to  think about people through the year. So, you know, for 167 years, Those creatures have stood there and think about all those millions of people that have come and looked at them and thought, what on earth is this?

And then wanted to find out more and learn a bit more. And there are so many different aspects to it. It’s it’s, it’s not just science. It’s not just, you know, Oh, we learned about dinosaurs. It’s also, we learn about the history of art. We’re not about the history of science. We’ll learn about the history of construction materials.

And we learn about social history as well, because this is all about people shifting ideas and perceptions about the world they lived in.  So it’s a fascinating site, cause there’s all sorts of different, different aspects to it that people could enjoy it and take away. And yeah. 

Hazel: Yeah, absolutely. Now you mentioned that the  the dinosaur, some of them are a little bit unloved at the moment, but I know that you’re  a trustee of the friends of crystal palace, dinosaurs, charity.

What are you doing to make sure that they’re being looked after? 

Sarah:  Well, what we do is really be sort of advocate for them. We just check up on them. Some of us are local and we’re able to go into the park pretty much every day and just have a look and see what’s happening. Some of us are working from a bit further away, but we all bring certain skills to the charity to help it blossom really.

And to be a strong voice for the sculptures. And we work with local council Bromley, and they’re the ones who own the scientist health. And we also work with historic England who have oversight to make sure that. These  listed sculptures. I was looked after and we just made sure that they are really, we raise awareness of them through our social media and through our website so that people understand what they are and that they are unique in the world.

There’s nothing like them anywhere else. And. And just to encourage people to learn more about them.

Hazel: Brilliant. We are going to share  links to the charity and your social media. It’s all on the show notes. And we also have some photos that Sarah has kindly shared with us, and we’ll put those in the show notes so you can see what we’re going on about  especially if you’re not.

Anywhere near to London.  But if you are somewhere near London, then maybe as locked down as lifting, you’re able to venture to a crystal palace park and have a look at these fantastic beasts for yourself and really getting the mind of the Victorians and how they would have experienced it as well.

I mean, even in 2021, they were a Marvel, but  back then I just get, not people wouldn’t have seen it. Anything like it at all. So how can people support the charity?  

Sarah: Oh, well, the best way really is to join us on social media and  keep up to date with what we’re doing. Lots of different projects going on.

What are the newest ones actually is asking people for that old photographs of the dinosaurs. So if anyone has any old pictures from being there in the past, no, maybe 1980s, 1990s. Maybe even 1950s, then please do have a look on our website and have a look for the dinosaur monitor project. 

Hazel: Well, that gives us an opportunity to get into the loft and look through all the old family photos and see if we have any crystal palace dinosaur ones.

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