Go back to article: A discourse with deep time: the extinct animals of Crystal Palace Park as heritage artefacts

The afterlife of Hawkins’ extinct animal models

The Crystal Palace burned to the ground in 1936, but its extinct animal models survived. ‘Once the pride of Victorian London, the gardens and the monsters are the playground of youngsters,’ noted the narrator of a Pathé News reel shown at cinemas in 1950. ‘So [the monsters] lie, a reminder of two distant ages. The prehistoric and the age of our grandfathers’ (British Pathé, 1950). Familiar to generations, Hawkins’ statues were a part of local history. While the world they channelled was understood to epitomise Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’, having survived the war nearly unscathed, they also hearkened back to a time before the Blitz, when Britons fought their wars far from home. Over the decades, the park became a part of everyday life in South London. Newsreels produced around the mid-century mark demonstrated the absurd, yet naturalised quality of the century-old statues. A man walks his dog through the park and women push prams and tote toddlers, the youngsters seemingly unafraid of the extinct ‘monsters’ that loomed over them. Children frequently clambered atop the statues, contributing to peeling paint and overall deterioration. Footage captured in 1950 showed two young boys darting around on the Iguanodons’ island. The boys scampered under the one that stands of all fours like a mammal – the mould for which had hosted Hawkins’ New Year’s Eve banquet in 1853 – and through a hole in the belly climbed into the hollow form. Having shimmied into the head of the statue, one boy waved frantically at the camera from behind the fearsome teeth (British Pathé, 1950; British Pathé, 1954). Once regarded as scientific models, Hawkins’ work had become the playthings of local children.

Initial efforts to conserve the statues, obdurate but not invulnerable to the elements, began in the 1950s, as the empire began to fragment, alongside a resurgence in popular interest in the Victorian era (Secord, 2004: 165). Workers added fresh cement to restore the crumbling statues and fresh coats of paint to those that were only slightly weathered by the years (British Pathé, 1959). In 1973, the ‘prehistoric animal sculptures, geological formations and lead mine on islands and on land facing lower lake’ were all added to a register of designated heritage assets, presently called the National Heritage List for England, as Grade II buildings, an official category that established the entire geological section of the Crystal Palace Park as ‘of more than special interest’. After three decades, the models were upgraded to Grade I buildings, now recognised as of ‘exceptional interest’ and a high conservation priority (Historic England n.d.; Doyle and Robinson, 1993: 188; McCarthy and Gilbert, 1994: 85). Official recognition of cultural and historical significance has facilitated further restoration projects and the reconstruction of some of the ‘geological illustrations’ that had been destroyed. And once again English resources were used. In the 1990s, the Borough of Bromley brought in ‘110 tonnes of replacement Carboniferous Limestone’ sourced from Derbyshire as before, to recreate some of Ansted’s lost work and to conserve the prehistoric animals, the largest of which Hawkins had built and reinforced more like ‘buildings’ than sculptures (Doyle, 2008: 201, 203–4).

The most recent restorations have been overseen by the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a charity organised in 2013 that deploys the term ‘dinosaur’ loosely to encompass all of the prehistoric animals on display in the park. As Ralph O’Connor (2012: 494) has demonstrated, the use of the word to describe the statues is, beyond being a categorical overstatement, anachronistic. For while Richard Owen coined it in 1842, the popular adoption of the term dinosaur in place of ‘antediluvians’ and ‘extinct monsters’ would not happen for another fifty years. The Friends’ express mission is ‘to ensure the dinosaurs survive our generation intact, so they can be enjoyed for future generations’. In addition to offering public engagement programmes, lecture series and resources that communicate the Victorian history of the site, the Friends collect stories from people who use the park to this day. The group also raises funds to repair the crumbling models and organises the Palaeo Planting Project, a community effort of volunteer labour to introduce plants deemed ‘historically and scientifically appropriate’ and to weed out those determined inappropriate (Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, ‘Reviving lost worlds’ and ‘Who are Friends’ n.d.).[6]

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a number of concrete extinct species models from the nineteenth century

From a distance, the saurian models under restoration gleam while the others blend into their surroundings on a gloomy day (photographed 2018)

During fair weather, visitors to the Crystal Palace Park may see conservators at work on the models. Signs installed throughout the park in the summer of 2017 announced, ‘The Dino Doctors Are Back’ for phase two of conservation work on ‘seven magnificent Victorian Saurian marvels off Dinosaur Island’. Playful illustrations depicts a woman wrapping bandages around an Ichthyosaurus, while a man tends to its tail and another man cares for a Teleosaurus. The work is, according to these signs, ‘vital’ and ‘essential to preserving our heritage for future generations’ (see Figure 9). Another sign, which boasts that the Friends are ‘Bringing History to Life’ shows the female conservator brushing the Ichthyosaur’s teeth while her colleague strokes a Plesiosaur’s neck as if getting to know a horse (see Figure 10). Just as Richard Owen did in his guidebook, the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs strategically emphasise specific models in promotional and fundraising materials, focusing on the extinct animals of the Mesozoic while leaving out mention of the modelled mammals.

Figure 9

Colour photograph of a poster informing public that conservation work will be carried out on the concrete dinosaurs

Banner installed by Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs promoting conservation of the ‘Victorian Saurian marvels’ (photographed by author on 14 June 2017)

Figure 10

Colour photograph of an information poster from Friends of Crystal Palace dinosaurs

Banner installed by Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs promoting work that is ‘bringing history to life’. It does not clarify whether that history is pre-human or Victorian (photographed by author on 14 June 2017)


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191102/005