Visiting the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: London’s Jurassic Park

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

So said my friend Geraldine as we 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. Today, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs are a much-loved London oddity.

large model dinosaurs posed in greenery at crystal palace london

Meet the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

model of a dinosaur in shrubbery

The sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins made the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in London 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.

model of a dinosaur in a lake

Today, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs are one of the quirkiest landmarks in London. Dotted around Crystal Palace Park’s lakes like improbable domestic animals, I love the fact that they are ever so slightly wrong.

models of dinosaurs by a pond

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 mishmash of different animals, looking quite different from what we now believe to be the case.

model of one of the crystal palace dinosaurs
model of a dinosaur in a lake

Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition

Crystal Palace itself takes its name from the giant structure which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. 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.

Six million people – around a third of the population of Britain at the time – attended the exhibition.

painting of crystal palace by By J. McNeven
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. 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.

stone statue of a man in robe and headress

The Crystal Palace was home to a series of exhibitions and events until it 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 us of its past glories.  

pink Sphinx at Crystal Palace London
Sphinx at Crystal Palace, London

Visit the Crystal Palace Museum for an insight into the history of the Palace. Open on Sundays only. Free admission.

How to Get to the Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs

Crystal Palace Park is next to Penge West and Crystal Palace stations, which are served by London Overground (orange line). Mainline trains stop at Crystal Palace station.

Entry to the park is free

More Great Places to See Dinosaurs in London (or near London)

If Crystal Palace Park doesn’t quite meet your dinosaur-hunting needs, here are a few other places to see dinosaurs in London (or close by):

  • Natural History Museum – the classic choice for dino-action and dino souvenirs a-plenty
  • UCL Grant Museum of Zoology – this hidden gem of a university museum is home to a collection of dinosaur bones and also has a model collection
  • Horniman Museum – inside the museum, there is a dinosaur footprint. Within the museum’s grounds is a pre-historic garden.
  • Gulliver’s Dinosaur & Farm Park, Milton Keynes – this attraction north of London features animatronic dinos doing their stuff.
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About Bridget

Bridget Coleman is a Londoner who has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.

Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.

To get in touch, email her at hello@theflashpacker.net or follow her on social media.