A Dino-Lover's Dream - 1853's New Year's Eve Dinner in Crystal Palace Park

31 December 1853, a New Year's Eve dinner, hosted by the future first director of London’s Natural History Museum Sir Richard Owen and the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, was held inside the mould of a life-sized Iguanodon sculpture in Crystal Palace Park.

“I was at the opening of the palace in 1854; but ere that pageant took place, I dined as a guest of the distinguished comparative anatomist, Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, in the interior of the model of some gigantic Saurian, on a margin of the lake, where also were to be seen other life-sized models of the former gigantic inhabitants of the earth. I cannot remember whether it was in the stomach of the Iguanodon, or in that of the Malaeotherium, the Anoplotherium, the Plesiosaurus, or the Megatherium, that we feasted; but we did hold a very joyous banquet in an improvised dining-room not much larger than the cabin of a small yacht.“ (George Augustus Sala, “Five P.M. : A Children's Festival at the Crystal Palace“)

A wonderful illustration of the memorable event by an unknown artist found on illustratorpod.co.uk 

The “Age of Reptiles”, as the first half of the 19th century was named under the auspices of the emerging science of paleontology, was rang in when Georges Cuvier dubbed the owner of a giant skull found near Maastricht a Mosasaurus, lizard of the river Meuse. Meanwhile, Mary Anning discovered the marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset and Mary Ann Mantell stumbled over the teeth of an Iguanodon during a stroll in Sussex. But it was Sir Richard Owen who coined the name Dinosauria from Greek δεινός (deinos) "terrible, powerful, wondrous" and σαῦρος (sauros) "lizard". Owen, a well-connected and -funded conservator and career scientist with a bit of a reputation of hogging the finds and achievements of others, certainly had a well developed sense of gaining publicity and placing his scientific theories on the market of public interest. When the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in Kent after the Great Exhibition of 1851 ended, Owen and his publications were popular enough for the operating company of the new pleasure park to ask him to cooperate with the natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create 33 life-sized concrete dinosaurs that would populate the place.

Waterhouse Hawkin's dinos, nascent in his Sydenham studio

Hawkins’ marketing skills were certainly no less developed than Owen’s. Planning his “Dinosaur Court” along a series of islands in a lake, representing the three stages of development of the giant reptiles, one island for the Paleozoic era, one for the Mesozoic and a third for the Cenozoic, adding a bit of mystery when the sculptures appeared step by step from the lakes’ tidal rise and fall. Owen and Hawkins decided to open “Dinosaur Court” with a bang – one of the two Iguanodons’ moulds would become the venue for a dinner party to celebrate New Year’s Eve of 1853. 21 famous natural scientists were invited to feast on a dinner table set up within the Iguanodon, under a large tent in the park, complete with china, silver, chandeliers and full service. The whimsical idea found not only favour with the invited guests but the press and the public as well. Most London papers covered the story of the dinosaur dinner party and Crystal Palace Park and the “Dinosaur Court” became quite a success, smaller models of the beasties were sold for the proud price of £30 (equivalent to € 3,000 today), but, nevertheless, the production of Hawkins’ dinosaurs proved to be to costly, £13,000 per giant lizard, and in the end only 15 were finished by 1855, when his funding finally got the axe.

 A woodcut from the Illustrated London News from January 7th 1854, commemorating the notable event of scientific gentlemen dining inside an Iguanodon.

Almost everything about the contemporary cognitions of Hawkins’ dinosaurs is obsolete by today’s standards, actually his and Owen’s idea of the famous Iguanodon as a heavy, hippo-like creature, were already questioned by the lizard’s original name giver Gideon Mantell, the naturalist husband of the lady who discovered its first tooth that was so like an iguana’s. By the end of the 19th century, the sculptures were already considered being quite ridiculous. “Dinosaur Court” began to fell into disrepair, even though the “antediluvian monsters” were referred to in various novels as staffage. When the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936, they were largely forgotten and fell into a deep slumber until the site was completely renovated in 2002 and largely restored to its original state of 1855, to be marvelled at as a curious milestone of science history and lovely Victorian folly.

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