The Dinosaur Court

The Dinosaur Court, Crystal Palace Park. Penge (Sydenham Hill), south-east London. Sir Richard Owen, Professor David Thomas Ansted, Sir Joseph Paxton and others, with the prehistoric creatures modelled by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. 1852-54; restored 2001-3. Photograph and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2009. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL.]

As a large information board at Crystal Palace Park proclaims, the Dinosaur Court is "a unique and globally famous display of creatures built at the dawn of Palaeontology." The key figure among those involved in this complex collaborative enterprise was perhaps the pioneering palaeontologist Richard Owen (1804-1892). However, the geological expert (who may have mooted the whole project) was Professor David Thomas Ansted of King's College, London, while the state-of-the-art water features, with tidal simulation, were engineered by Paxton. Hawkins, who actually sculpted the replica creatures, was also well known: he was widely admired as a natural history artist and sculptor, and had been an assistant superintendent of the 1851 exhibition. In 1852 he had been made director of the fossil department for the new Crystal Palace (see McCarthy).

The grand idea of the Crystal Palace Company, formed to re-site the structure in this location, was to provide a kind of "illustrated encyclopaedia" (qtd. in White 270). Unlike modern theme parks, therefore, this seven-acre area in the park was educational in purpose. It may have owed its origin to Ansted, who, like so many in the early days of the University of London, was a keen populariser. But the "dinosaur court" itself drew its inspiration from Owen: originally, Hawkins had intended to produce sculptures of large extant mammals, but he changed his mind after reading Owen's works. Owen is remembered now for having coined a name for prehistoric creatures, giving us the word "dinosaur" in 1841; but he did much more than that. He also imagined what they might look like; he "designed them — invented them, in a sense — paradoxical as this may sound" (Desmond 224). Inspired in his turn, and in consultation with Owen, Hawkins now set out to introduce them to the Victorians in life-size models in authentic settings. Owen himself spent much of 1853 on the project, "directing and superintending the restorations of the megatherum and other extinct animals in the geological section of the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham" (qtd. in Owen 397). Thirty-three prehistoric creatures were constructed before funding ran out ("Crystal Palace Park" — though some sources have twenty-nine, e.g., see Weinreb et. al. 226).

Hawkins formed them exactly along the lines of Owen's ideas about the creatures,

based on fossils in the British Museum and other collections using the process of comparative anatomy. He made accurate sketches of the bones of the most complete fossilised animals he could find, and compared these with the bone structures of the nearest living creatures, to produce an outline of the extinct animal with its skin and fleshy parts. In the case of the frog-like labyrinthidons there were hardly any remains to go on so their appearance is necessarily speculative. He made small clay models from these, 'sketch-models' as he called them, to either a 6th or 12th of the full size, drawing on his knowledge of living animals to put the extinct ones into plausible attitudes. The models were submitted to Owen for his criticism and when they were as satisfied as they could be with their accuracy, they were made up to life-size clay models, using as the basis for the finished size the largest available fossil bones for each animal ("Iguanodon").

Since this was the first project of its kind, and depended on what was then known about the animals, there were inevitably some anomalies. In particular, as is frequently pointed out, one of the iguanodons stands on all fours instead of just its hind legs (the other is half reclining) and both have been given a horn like a rhinoceros's — this is now thought to have been a thumb-like claw rather than a horn. The Megalosaurus is depicted as a quadruped as well. But criticisms of these inaccuracies are indeed "starkly unimaginative" (Doyle 204), considering the revolutionary nature of the scheme. Besides, there were practical considerations. From what Hawkins said in a lecture of 27 May 1854, it would have been impossible for him then to have shown such enormously heavy creatures supported on two legs:

In the instance of the Iguanodon, it is not less than building a house upon four columns, as the quantities of material of which the standing Iguanodon is composed, consist of 4 iron columns 9 feet long by 7 inches diameter, 600 bricks, 650 5-inch half-round drain-tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of artificial stone. These, with 100 feet of iron hooping and 20 feet of cube inch bar, constitute the bones, sinews, and muscles of this large model, the largest of which there is any record of a casting being made (qtd. in "Iguanodon").

Such was the scale of the standing Iguanodon that Hawkins was able to pull off what must have been one of the most bizarre publicity stunts of all time: he entertained Owen and twenty other men of science inside its mould on the New Year's Eve of 1853, accommodating the overflow of seven other guests on a platform raised to the same level just outside it (as recorded in Owen 399; see also Rudwick 209). Owen himself was six feet tall, something one might just guess from Sir Thomas Brock's sculpture of him — and even, curiously, from William Holman Hunt's arresting seated portrait of him.

Once completed, the "monsters" stood or swam around islands in the lake, land-masses appropriate in their geological features to the layers in which their fossils were discovered. Visitors were able to wander amongst them, crossing from one island to the other in sequence on bridges, except for the one representing the Primary or Palaeozoic era, which was left empty — demonstrating the era when all life was in the sea (this, before Darwin's Origin of Species). Very near the dinosaur area is another important part of the geological display for which Ansted was would have been the main guiding light: here, artificial cliffs were constructed to reveal different strata of minerals, and rock formations (see "Geological Strata" in Related Material).

The Queen and Prince Albert had taken a great interest in the work, visiting Hawkins's studio by the lake's basin; and the completed Dinosaur Court was very popular, so much so that miniature models were produced for visitors to buy as souvenirs. Owen himself wrote a guide to it (Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World, 1854, with plates presumably by Hawkins). The landmark collection represented no less than "the brightest and best discoveries by mostly British scientists" (Doyle 201), including of course the remarkable fossil-collector Mary Anning (1799-1847). Now that all this is fully appreciated, and the dinosaurs have been faithfully restored, the collection has been given a coveted Grade I listing.


One can see what Doyle means about Owen's "inventing" the dinosaurs. Ansted tells the story of visiting a museum in Madrid which had a wonderful fossil from South America, "the largest, and, at one time, the most perfectly preserved skeleton of an extinct animal known to exist." Yet it had not been assembled with the required accuracy, even after many years. On the other hand, a similar find from the same area was brought back to England, where it was, promptly and meticulously, it seems, "set up, and described by Professor Owen" (121). Owen possessed not only "extraordinary scientific energy" (Rudwick 207), but also special skills as a "manipulator & anatomist as well as acute observer," and these gifts enabled him to see and demonstrate just how such creatures would have looked when alive (J. W. Gregory, qtd. in Gruber).

Other Views

Related Material


Ansted, David Thomas. Scenery, Science and Art; being Extracts from the Note-Book of a Geologist and Mining Engineer. London: John Van Voorst, 1854. Available offsite here.

"Crystal Palace Park, Penge, South London." Viewed 13 May 2009.

Desmond, Adrian J.. "Designing the Dinosaur: Richard Owen's Response to Robert Edmund Grant." ISIS, Vol. 70, No. 2 (June 1979): 224-34.

Gruber, Jacob W. "Owen, Sir Richard (1804-1892)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 13 May 2009.

"Iguanodons" (Public Monuments and Sculptures Association site.) Viewed 13 May 2009.

McCarthy, Steve. "Hawkins, Benjamin Waterhouse (1807-1894)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 12 May 2009.

Owen, Richard. The Life of Richard Owen (by his grandson). Vol. I. New York: Appleton, 1894. Available at Internet Archives here

Rudwick, Martin J. S. Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976.

Weinreb, Ben, et al, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 2008.

White, Jerry. London in the Nineteenth Century: "A Human Awful Wonder of God". London: Cape, 2997.

Victorian Web

Last modified 13 May 2009