Updated post: 17/12/18 | December 2018

“These must have really freaked out the Victorians when they were first exhibited!”

My friend Gerry and I were checking out the 30 dinosaurs arranged around lakes in south London’s Crystal Palace Park.  And she was spot on. These slightly bizarre pieces of Victoriana, embodying the emerging theory of evolution, ignited controversy when they were first displayed in 1853.

The Crystal Palace dinosaurs

The sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had made the Crystal Palace dinosaurs with the intent to educate the masses. Instead, the dinosaurs outraged them.

Putting this into historical context, this was six years before Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. Contemporary views on evolution were rooted in the biblical ‘truth’ that man was unrelated to other species. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the “survival of the fittest”, opposed the Christian viewpoint of a divine hand in creation.

Today, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs are a much-loved oddity on London’s landscape. Dotted around Crystal Palace Park’s lakes like improbable domestic animals, I love the fact that they are ever so slightly wrong.

At the time of their creation, the study of dinosaurs was in its infancy, and these sculptures reflected scientists’ understanding at the time. The result is that many of the dinosaurs are a strange mish-mash of different animals, looking quite different from what we now believe to be the case. Take the Plesiosaurus for example, which looks like a peculiar fusion of a swan and a reptile. Or the Labyrinthoden that resembles a giant frog.

Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition

Crystal Palace itself takes its name from the giant structure which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. And what a spectacle that must have been.

Attended by the great and the good of the Victorian age, it must have been like travelling to all corners of the globe without setting foot outside of London. There was a Byzantine court, Egyptian winged bulls, Italian sculptures and a mini Alhambra courtyard alongside more local Birmingham and Sheffield courts. As Gerry put it “This is in the day when ‘Made in Britain’ really meant something.” Six million people – around a third of the population of Britain at the time – attended the exhibition.

By J. McNeven – collections.vam.ac.uk, Public Domain

The Great Exhibition also scored an important first in that it was the first venue to provide public lavatories. It cost a penny for a pee and at the end of the exhibition raised a grand total of £443. Some believe that is where the phrase ‘spending a penny’ comes from.

Although the Crystal Palace was intended to be a temporary structure, a consortium of eight businessmen decided that it should live on. Therefore, in 1854 the Palace was rebuilt at the top of Penge Peak, an affluent suburb of south London. The nearby residential area was renamed Crystal Palace, in honour of the structure.

Sphinx at Crystal Palace London
Sphinx at Crystal Palace, London

The Crystal Palace was home to a series of exhibitions and event until it is was destroyed by fire in 1936. All that remains of the Palace today are its water towers, its terraces and six of the original 12 sphinxes from the Egyptian Court. Standing guard over the Upper Terrace, these sphinxes remind is of its past glories.  

How to visit Crystal Palace Park

  • Crystal Palace Park is next to Crystal Palace station, which is served by London Overground (orange line) and mainline trains
  • Entry to the park is free
  • Make time to stop by the Crystal Palace museum for an insight into the history of the Palace. Open on Sundays only. Free admission. Guided tours for a small charge on the first Sunday of the month.

Have you visited any out of the ordinary places in your home city that you can recommend?

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