Imagined Dinosaurs – Crystal Palace Park


The bustling and exciting metropolis that is London. Even if you only have a meagre few hours free, you could easily follow Bilbo’s philosophy and go on a (brief) adventure. In a recent autumn’s day of unseasonable warmth, I found myself at a corner of a South London park, eyes irresistibly fixated on the inexplicable creatures that may as well be Dragons.

The famous dinosaurs of Crystal Palace Park.


The original Crystal Palace was a greenhouse-like glass giant that housed the Great Exhibition – an equivalent of World Expos – in 1851. At its conclusion, the Palace was uprooted to the (then) expansively green suburb of Sydenham. The move, in turn, spun an accompanying Victorian funfair, renamed the suburb itself, and most importantly, my beloved Crystal Palace FC. The club had previously played at the park and earned the nickname ‘the Glaziers’ for the connection.

Unfortunately, the Palace itself was tragically destroyed by fire in the 1930s. While numerous proposal abounds for its reconstruction, most recently put forward by a Chinese consortium, nothing concrete (or nothing glass and iron, I suppose) has been forthcoming. The park remained a vast South London pleasure park, pleasant enough for an afternoon stroll, but fundamentally devoid of its original trademark.

Perhaps the developers have yet to figure out how to fireproof the structure. Or they’re just lining up to rebuild the Titanic first.

Yet there are still interesting features to be found. Like any new attractions, the Crystal Palace Company devised many compliments for its relocation, leading to the most enduring component: the Prehistoric Theme Park, a geological time trail comprising of dinosaur models .

Dinosaurs were certainly in vogue back then: the term itself have then existed for barely 10 years, as the remains of giant lizards were being unearthed in the countryside. The Palace searched for naturalists to present a vision of these mysterious creatures, and who better than Sir Richard Owen, the controversial naturalist who created the term ‘dinosaur’ itself?

In modern times, Owen is known as an adversary of Darwin and therefore has seen his stock dwindle (perhaps unfairly). Yet, in 1854 these models predated The Origin of Species. They were the very first representations of dinosaurs, and their mere commission had introduced the controversial(!) theory that such giant lizards even existed!

Owen engaged a famous Victorian animal sculptor, Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, in order to bring the dinosaurs to vividity. However, they had very little to base their work on all they had were scattered and fossils, newly dug.


And so they devised various schemes and sneakiness to get the job done. Only have the fossil head of the Mosasaurus? Let’s have its head ’emerging from water’. Not having a clue of how the Dicynodon looked? Let’s guess that it had a turtle’s body. (it’s now thought to be more like a hippopotamus).

Originally, Hawkins and Owen had more than dinosaurs in mind: they wanted to complete the display with more extinct animals, from the Dodo to the entire cast of Ice Age the movie franchise. However, the models proved to be very expensive to create, and the Palace – guess what – ran out of money again, forcing the project to halt.

Knowing the science what know what, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are very inaccurate; sometimes, you’d think that you were looking at Pokemon instead (how is the Park *NOT* a Pokestop yet?!). Nevertheless, these dinosaurs are the very first human imagination of these great creatures that once roamed the earth – not to be missed!

Note: the models are currently under refurbishment. Give it a wait to see them in their glory!

Overground: Crystal Palace; Penge West