Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and the Great Dinosaur Utopia of Victorian England
The filthy, rat-infested shed was no place for a queen.
It was November 1853, and Queen Victoria had paused some of the more polished duties of the royal family to wade through a mud-caked plot of land in south London to the wooden shed. The building seemed unfit to house animals, let alone workers and their distinguished visitors—but inside was a commotion that gave the queen great excitement.
Dinosaurs were coming back to life.
The four beasts, in various stages of completion, stood up to 9 feet tall and 32 feet long. Two Iguanodon joined Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, the trifecta of extinct species that had only recently been grouped and labeled Dinosauria. They were to be a key attraction at Crystal Palace Park, a partially glass-walled exhibition center that promised Londoners an array of wonders to encounter. No one in the world had ever seen a dinosaur sculpture that was sized to scale. Considering Queen Victoria’s visits prior to their completion, she and Prince Albert would be among the first.
The man responsible for this great stride forward in a field that would come to be known as paleoart was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a sculptor who invested years building what he considered to be the equivalent of four dinosaur-sized houses. Despite scant fossil records or reference materials, Hawkins would imbue these species with a facsimile of life not possible in two-dimensional illustrations. He would go on to be fêted by London society, travel to the United States to replicate his success, and give lectures on his great achievement.
He would also be denounced for scientific inaccuracy, incur the wrath of scorned lovers, and see his work destroyed at the hands of corrupt politicians. Though he helped spark the modern fascination with dinosaurs, his name has escaped household familiarity. In truth, Hawkins was the Steven Spielberg of his time—an artist and visionary who created an immersive world where giants still walked the Earth.
The Bone Collectors
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was born in London on February 8, 1807. On that day, and for the next 35 years, there was precious little information about prehistoric life. Though Robert Plot wrote about what is now believed to be the first found dinosaur fossil in 1677, he thought it belonged to a giant human. The word dinosaur didn’t even exist.
That didn’t change until the early 1840s, when scientist Richard Owen found himself at 15 Aldersgate Street in London and picked up a peculiar fossil from geologist William Devonshire Saull’s collection. It was, he learned, part of the spine of Iguanodon, a species first identified (via its teeth) in 1821 by Gideon and Mary Ann Mantel that seemed to share traits—like fused spines—with other prehistoric life, including Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus. These were not simply large reptiles but another discovery altogether. Owen coined the taxonomic term Dinosauria. (Dinosaur comes from the Greek for “terrible lizard,” though Owen likely meant “terrible” to mean “fearsome” in this context.)
As Owen was making the rounds in the scientific community with his notion, Hawkins—who had studied art and sculpture at St. Aloysius College in London—was busy with contemporary animals. Combined with his interest in natural history and geology, his skills were a natural fit for nature illustration. In the 1840s, under the direction of Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, he drew studies of living animals at Knowsley Park, and once raced over to capture the first movements of a newborn giraffe calf.
He earned affiliations with the Society of Arts, the Linnaean Society, and later the Geological Society of London. But his reputation was made in books—illustrating the adventures of expedition teams that were returning with news of fantastic discoveries.
Among those who recruited Hawkins was Charles Darwin, who used Hawkins for his multi-volume The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published between 1838 and 1843. “Darwin came back from a voyage on the Beagle and published a number of volumes describing the trip,” Robert Peck, curator of art and artifacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University and the co-author of All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, tells Mental Floss. “There were five different parts, and Hawkins did two, the parts on fish and reptiles. He got to work with Darwin on that. They had totally different views on evolution. Later in life Hawkins became quite anti-evolutionary in his thinking.”
Hawkins’s dismissal of evolution likely came from Owen, whom he befriended as a result of his illustrations. “Owen was anti-evolutionary and anti-Darwin,” Peck says. "Hawkins didn’t have the scientific training, so he relied on Owen. If someone as well-respected as Owen didn’t believe in evolution, then he [thought he] shouldn’t, either."
In this earnest era where paleontology had not yet acquired a name, Owen was perceived as a leading expert. It was natural, then, for both Owen and Hawkins—with the latter perhaps receiving a nudge from the Earl of Derby as well as Owen—to be invited by organizers of Crystal Palace in September 1852 to accompany its relocation from Hyde Park to Penge, near Sydenham Hill in south London. (The site is often referred to as being in Sydenham.) They wanted the men to create a prehistoric attraction of 33 life-sized, extinct animals set amid a geologically accurate environment. Originally conceived to house the Great Exhibition of 1851—a kind of prototype world’s fair showcasing Victorian arts and sciences—Crystal Palace's owners wanted new attractions for its new surroundings and new incarnation: Crystal Palace Park.
“At Sydenham, they wanted to recreate prehistoric England,” Peck says. “They brought stones and dirt and gravel and built them up in a stratigraphic pattern on islands they had created to show what England had been like in three dimensions. Then the thought got extended: They might as well do creatures who had lived there but were now extinct.”
Owen would be the adviser; Hawkins would be the designer, architect, artist, and engineer, strategizing the best way to raise Iguanodon and the rest from the dead.
Though Hawkins was not a paleontologist, he understood animal anatomy—how mammals walked, what reptiles looked like. “All he had to do was scale it up,” Peck says. “If Owen gave him the green light, Hawkins was happy to follow along. Who could possibly criticize Owen? He was the dean of comparative anatomy at the time.”
As for Hawkins, his background in science appealed to the project’s leaders. “They turned to Hawkins because most artists didn’t want to deal with the science side,” he says. “Had they gone to a sculptor of the era, they may well have been turned down.”
Sketches and small-scale clay models came first, so Hawkins could work out details. This was a key step, because many of the creative choices were informed by supposition rather than the fossil record. No complete skeletons of any dinosaur had yet been found, so Hawkins examined whatever fossil materials were available at the British Museum, the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Geological Society. He also relied heavily on French naturalist Georges Cuvier's theory that small fragments could inform the entire organism—that a few body parts could be used to arrive at a larger anatomical appearance. It was guesswork, only as educated as the knowledge of the time allowed. Paleoart, which would evolve over time, was barely getting started.
“There was some great two-dimensional paleoart with paintings, but no one was attempting to do life-size reconstructions, or in three dimensions,” Mark Witton, a UK-based paleontologist and paleoartist, tells Mental Floss. “[Hawkins’s] reconstructions were essentially bringing two-dimensional paleoart to life.”
Crystal Palace arranged for Hawkins to have a studio on site, which was little more than a large workshed surrounded by muck and which one visitor described as a “long, low, window-roofed building” and another labeled “rude” in appearance. Its only appeal was what was happening inside—what one contemporary writer described as a menagerie of “huge lizards, and turtles, and long-snouted crocodiles, and hideous reptiles of fish-like, frog-like, bird-like forms.”
Hawkins and a stable of laborers used whatever they could get their hands on—including the materials of an abandoned building—to erect the dinosaurs. Clay molds were cast in plaster; iron rods and bricks supported their giant frames; concrete gave them an exterior shell.
Hawkins was adamant about not creating pillars or supporting structures, which doubtlessly would have made the task easier. Instead, Hawkins said, the project was like building four houses on stilts. As he later explained to an audience at one of his lectures:
“Some of these models contained 30 tons of clay, which had to be supported on four legs, as their natural history characteristics would not allow of my having recourse to any of the expedients for support allowed to sculptors in an ordinary case. I could have no trees, nor rocks, nor foliage to support those great bodies, which, to be natural, must be built fairly on their four legs. In the instance of the Iguanodon [it] is not less than building a house upon four columns, as the quantities of material of which the standing Iguanodon is composed, consist of four iron columns 9 feet long by 7 inches diameter, 600 bricks, 650 5-inch half-round drain tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of artificial stone.”
The bricking and concrete pouring would likely have been the purview of the laborers, though they worked from the clay molds designed by Hawkins. The artist took the reins to handle finer details like textured skin, nails, and teeth. In the dinosaur bellies were concealed openings to allow work inside, either to get them ready for display or to make repairs later. The openings also allowed for practical water drainage. A coat of paint was added to provide color and detail.
The four dinosaurs were not Hawkins’s only responsibility. Thirty-three animals were intended for Crystal Palace Park in all, though most were of a much more manageable size. Hawkins toiled from September 1852 to early 1855, crossing out plans for more scale models of a mammoth and a giant tortoise as the park’s purse strings grew tighter. Though his work charmed Queen Victoria, he still had to keep it within budget.
“The newspaper articles of the time were pro-Hawkins and were unimpressed the funding was pulled. They were saying it was only a small amount of money to let Hawkins finish his mammoth,” Witton says.
As completion neared, Hawkins signed his work by inscribing “B. Hawkins, Builder, 1854” on the lower jaw of one of the Iguanodon. But Hawkins also had another, bigger idea of which to declare himself the author. And it would become the talk of London.
Inside the Belly of the Beast
As work progressed on the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, the project’s leaders invited reporters (likely regretting their lack of rubber boots) to the shed. Illustrations of Hawkins and his crew hard at work appeared in newspapers like The Illustrated London News, Punch, and others. The coverage created anticipation for the exhibit’s debut, but it was nothing like what Hawkins himself arranged.
On New Year’s Eve 1853, Hawkins invited over 20 notable scientists, journalists, and VIPs for a dinner inside one of the Iguanodon sculptures. (It may have been the actual model, or, more likely, one of the molds created for it.) The model was open at the back to accommodate a table and chairs, with more space created around it for additional guests that couldn’t fit directly inside. (The “slightly less important guests,” Witton says.) Stairs allowed attendees to ascend to the model’s interior. A sumptuous menu awaited them, including fish, pheasants, and mock turtle soup. Above the table hung banners with the names of noted paleontologists William Buckland, Georges Cuvier, Gideon Mantell, and Richard Owen. According to Hawkins, the whole thing resembled a 30-foot wide boot.
“Hawkins was quite good at promoting himself in that way,” Peck says. “It was done in part to thank his mentors, his backers, for their financial support. It was also to get publicity. The press was going to fall over such a story, famous people eating inside a dinosaur. It was an illustrated event in newspapers and big news. People were all the more eager to see the sculptures once they were put into the park.”
Of course, Owen was in attendance, seated at the head of the table, a place of honor meant to reinforce his foundational role in the study of dinosaurs—if not for his actual work on the project.
“He provided some basic information as the project went along, but I doubt he was that involved, Peck says. “Owen was hedging his bets: There was not a lot known about dinosaurs, [and] he didn’t want to have his name too closely attached to it. It might later prove not to be accurate. Owen himself was quoted as saying what Hawkins did was conjectural. He was kind of throwing Hawkins under the bus.”
Owen needn’t have worried. When Queen Victoria officially opened Crystal Palace Park in 1854, 40,000 guests gawked in amazement. For the first time, a three-dimensional landscape contained a group of giant dinosaurs that stood at imposing height over captivated visitors. Against a series of “geological illustrations” by leading geologist David Thomas Ansted, the dinosaurs were surrounded by an artificial lake in a landscape designed by Joseph Paxton, a well-known botanist and engineer.
“Of all the things you could see in Sydenham in the second incarnation of Crystal Palace, the dinosaurs were the most talked about, the most novel,” Peck says. “The other things people had seen in the first Crystal Palace. Seeing dinosaurs was huge … It was all very lighthearted, whimsical. Children were screaming. Dinosaurs were looking ominous.”
Others were simply dumbfounded. Unlike in museums today, there were no informative panels or signs to describe what people were looking at, and the non-scientific folks had no idea what to expect. But Hawkins’s dinosaurs were accomplishing something astounding—they were democratizing science. At the time, field study and scientific investigation was something mainly wealthy, upper-class individuals had the time and money to pursue. With the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, everyone from the queen to a Dickensian street urchin could feed a newfound curiosity about an untold chapter in the planet’s history.
“Hawkins didn’t come from upper classes. He worked his way up to that point,” Witton says—and perhaps that experience shaped Hawkins’s approach to communicating science.
Given their size, it’s unclear how the models were transported from the shed to their eventual home in the park. In all likelihood, they were covered in more plaster for protection and then moved on sledges, though it’s possible some were assembled from individual sections. Once they were in place, concrete was poured to give them a solid foundation. The largest of the models, weighing up to 30 tons, were probably completed on site.
Despite budgetary and practical constraints, Hawkins had sparked a curiosity about dinosaurs that would spread throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Though the job hadn’t paid particularly well, it opened doors. He produced small-scale models of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs for consumer sale; he would soon be asked to replicate his work in the United States. The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs would become the basis for his livelihood for the remainder of his life.
But what began as an invitation to America eventually became something of an escape. That’s because Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins didn’t quite know how to cope with his infuriated wife. Rather, his two infuriated wives.
An Extinct Marriage
The private life of an artist can be chaotic, and Hawkins’s fit the bill. He was a married father of 10 children, seven of whom survived infancy. His marriage to Mary Green took place in 1826, when he was about 20. Despite the births of four girls and a boy, within 10 years the marriage grew cold. Then Hawkins met artist Frances Keenan, and soon he was spending most of his time with her. Without informing Mary, let alone asking for a divorce, he married Frances in 1836. By all accounts, neither bride knew about the other for years.
“I suspect his first wife began to be a little suspicious when he’d go away for years at a stretch. He traveled to Europe, to Russia. He justified it at the beginning as an art trip,” Peck says. “She was busy raising their children.”
When the two loves of his life became aware of Hawkins’s bigamy, they were predictably enraged. Though it's not clear when exactly his dual life was discovered, Peck believes Hawkins found it all too easy to pack his things and head for the United States in 1868, where a letter of recommendation from Charles Darwin served as his introduction. Americans had no equivalent to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. They wanted to hear of his work, his research, his models, and what he might be able to contribute to this burgeoning field of study.
Hawkins was invited to give lectures in which he discussed how the models were constructed and even engaged in a bit of showmanship, drawing scale animals on massive canvases that required a ladder to reach the top. Hawkins also took these opportunities to espouse his anti-evolutionary views, which were informed in part by the beliefs of Richard Owen.
Hawkins’s most exciting project in the States was undoubtedly his work on Hadrosaurus, a nearly-complete fossil discovered in 1858 that was to be the first mounted dinosaur skeleton in history. Hadrosaurus lacked a head, so Hawkins made one, working with Joseph Leidy of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia to get the massive frame of the creature upright. It was an evolution of the wonders of Crystal Palace Park—lacking the personality of the replica creatures, but gaining intrigue by being shaped after the genuine article. Over 100,000 people came to see it in 1869, double the attendance of the previous year. The museum began charging admission—not to make money, but to slow the crowds.
Not long after, Hawkins was invited by Central Park comptroller Andrew Green to mimic his Crystal Palace efforts in New York City. Green envisioned a Paleozoic Museum, and an excited Hawkins set about crafting a population of prehistoric animals in a new—and presumably more pleasant—workshop where the future American Museum of Natural History would eventually stand. A 39-foot Hadrosaurus stood sentinel, a replica of what Hawkins had built in Philadelphia.
The Paleozoic Museum never materialized, however. Hawkins ran afoul of William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and corrupting godfather of Tammany Hall, which pulled the strings of city politics. When Tweed realized he wasn’t receiving the standard kickbacks from such a lucrative project, “he pulled the plug on the Central Park Commission and the funding for the Paleozoic Museum,” Peck says. “Hawkins wasn’t familiar with American politics. He thought if he just kept doing the project, the money will come. He thought he could sell it to some of the other institutions. So he continued doing it, and it infuriated Tweed.”
Hawkins publicly criticized Tweed. It was the wrong move. On May 3, 1871, Tweed dispatched goons to Hawkins’s workshop, where they demolished his in-progress dinosaur models, erasing years of work. Raw materials like iron were salvaged from the rubble, but the rest of it was tossed away or buried, giving rise to urban legends about his dinosaur heads forming the mounds of the park’s baseball fields.
Just six months later, Tweed’s corrupt reign caught up with him, and we went to jail for the rest of his life. Peck notes, “Had the timing been different, had Tweed been caught first, we would have had our first paleo museum in America in Central Park.”
But the damage to the dinosaurs was done. Hawkins accepted work at the Elizabeth Marsh Museum of Geology and Archaeology at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, painting detailed illustrations of dinosaurs—including Iguanodon—and developing a relationship with the school that would outlive him. All the while he supported his two families back in the UK, which meant he lived within modest means. He died in 1894, his contributions to paleontology going largely unmentioned.
In some of his final paintings for Princeton, Hawkins reflected the expanding knowledge of paleontologists. His scale Iguanodons and Megalosaurus originally rested on four legs, but scientists had determined that they were actually bipedal, and he reworked the composition—a comfort with self-correction that was unusual for the times.
“There’s an element of trying to honor what he did at Crystal Palace and not completely embarrass himself by changing things entirely, but it also seemed like he couldn’t deny the advancements of science,” Witton says. “He needed to make it look bipedal, but he had it crouching over a dead Iguanodon. It’s still using all four of its limbs and holding itself up with its arms."
Yet Hawkins was to receive more criticism than acclaim in the years to come.
“It’s like trying to do a LEGO model without instructions and with three-quarters of the pieces missing."
Susannah Maidment, a senior researcher at London’s Natural History Museum, describes to Mental Floss the huge challenges Hawkins faced in his quest for anatomical accuracy. “For Iguanodon, limb bones [were all there was],” Maidment says. “We didn’t have anywhere near a complete skeleton or anything articulated. No vertebrae. For Hylaeosaurus, even today, there’s only a single known specimen. It’s a slab, with some vertebrae, pectoral girdles, some plates. For Megalosaurus, some limbs and a lower jaw.” The first complete Iguanodon skeleton wasn’t discovered until 1878, when one was extracted from a Belgian coal mine. Many more specimens have been found in disarray, having been swept away in rivers or buried in ancient mudslides, with fossilized bones jumbled up in newer materials.
Hawkins produced dinosaurs using the best available knowledge of the time—knowledge that was quickly outpaced by the flood of discovery that came later. Skeletons of Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops were excavated, hastening a deeper understanding of dinosaurs unknown to Hawkins at the height of his career.
In designing the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, Hawkins made guesses about everything from skin texture to color by extrapolating from living reptiles. Megalosaurus probably had a thicker skull, not the elongated crocodile head of the sculpture. Hylaeosaurus probably had spikes on its back and sides, not its spine. Iguanodon is now thought to have a quadrupedal frame, walking on their hoof-like fingers, making the four-legged Iguanodon of the park not quite right. A spike he placed on the tip of the nose of Iguanodon really belonged on its hands.
“You have to appreciate it in its proper historical context. You can’t look at artwork and judge the science of it based on what you know today. It was based on what they knew at the time,” Witton says. “I’ve been lucky enough to get close to them and look at the detailing. They’re covered in interesting and well-thought-out skin types. They have scales, smooth skin, creases. They’ve got a well-formed musculature to them. It really stands out on Iguanodon. There are bulges of muscles at the shoulders. The belly is swollen out. The gut tissue is different in the one standing than the one sitting.
“He was modeling in a precise way. I can still look at them and go, 'Gosh, that looks like a real animal.'”
And when Hawkins wasn’t sure of a dinosaur’s morphology, he masked his uncertainty in clever dioramic choices. Hylaeosaurus faced away from visitors, perhaps because Hawkins was unsure of what exactly it should look like.
But as time went on, admiration of Hawkins’s skill gave way to condescension. Instead of perceiving what Hawkins got right, critics emphasized what he had gotten wrong. Some of the blowback was really aimed at Richard Owen, whose anti-evolution views and arrogance made him unpopular with the new generation of scientists, Peck says.
“It’s easy for people today to poke fun at it,” he adds. “The good news is no one took down the dinosaurs in Sydenham. There were so popular. But had it been in a full-fledged science museum instead of a park, they might have taken them off view or even dismantled them as new knowledge became evident.”
Where Dinosaurs Roam
Ellinor Michel heard it often. Walking around the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace Park during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she eavesdropped on children and adults marveling at the models. The kids craned their necks up at the creatures that once excited Victorian youth before being dismissed as out-of-date. They told each other the dinosaurs were from the 19th century, and that they’re important.
Michel, a paleontologist, is chair of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a non-profit that seeks to conserve the models while raising their public profile. With Mark Witton, she’s also the co-author of The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a comprehensive history of the exhibit. She first came across the dinosaurs when she moved to London from the United States 25 years ago.
“You could just stroll up and look at them! It was amazing. They were still there after 170 years,” Michel tells Mental Floss. “That was the beginning of it.”
By “it,” Michel means the efforts to keep the dinosaurs standing. With colleague, friend, and historian of science Joe Cain, Michel became a Crystal Palace Dinosaur activist. “We have two clear focuses,” Michel says. “One is the conservation of the site and the sculptures. The second is improved interpretation of the site and sculptures. The two aims are mutually reinforcing. The public gets an understanding of why it’s important, and that grows when the site is nicer.” (The London Borough of Bromley owns the dinosaurs, and the Friends serve as their custodians.)
Thanks to Hawkins’s craftsmanship, the dinos have remained mostly in place since debuting in 1854. From paint layer analysis, Michel knows the sculptures got fresh coats of paint by city officials every five or six years. In recent decades, however, it's been a bigger struggle to keep the sculptures repaired and maintained.
“There’s vegetation growing on them. Cracking skin. Plants growing on them, forcing them apart,” Michel says. “The island is not natural—it [was] manufactured for them. There’s [land] slumping and other issues.”
In the Victorian era, Hawkins’s dinosaurs could evoke a suspension of disbelief in their audience—but that illusion disappears when a jaw falls off and the rusting armature is visible, Witton says. “It looks like a severely wounded animal. It’s difficult not to feel some sense of care.”
Michel founded the Friends in 2013 with area residents after seeing the models subjected to weather, vandalism, and the perils of Instagram. “They make for great selfies, but they’re 170 years old and falling apart. Climbing on them means there will be damage,” Michel says.
In May 2021, the face of Megalosaurus was repaired after suffering damage in May 2020, but the dinosaurs have yet to undergo a much-needed exhibit-wide makeover. The sole major renovation occurred 20 years ago, following a vandalism incident, in which the sculptures were repaired, the geological illustrations were extensively revamped, and objects in the tableau were repositioned to be more historically accurate. “I hope we’re on the brink of another major amount of work,” Michel says.
In February 2020, the site received a crucial Heritage at Risk designation from Historic England, the government agency in charge of historic preservation, that prioritizes the dinosaurs for funding. The dinosaurs are also Grade I-listed monuments, the agency’s designation for sites of exceptional historical value (only 2.5 percent of the UK’s thousands of listed structures are Grade I).
“We wanted to get back on the at-risk register. It gives us more momentum and makes work more likely to happen,” Michel says.
The at-risk designation reinforces the idea that Hawkins’s vision gave rise to the burgeoning field of paleoart and marks a crucial milestone in not just paleontology, but also in the communication of new scientific discoveries to a wide audience. They represent a precise moment in time, when the Victorian public came face to face with terrible lizards.
“Crystal Palace was the first time all the components of modern paleoart came together. It was a public-facing commercial project; an artist was working with a scientist and they were as up to date as they could be,” Witton says. “The paleoart produced beforehand was very loose. You’d be drawing a generic and monstrous reptile and calling it a day. This was the first time the viability of paleoart was being demonstrated. It showed what paleoart could do.”
Hawkins was arguably a pioneer of edutainment, the kind of intellectually-stimulating entertainment that wraps science in the guise of diversion. It may not be a straight line, but a line nonetheless, between Hawkins and Bill Nye, Mr. Wizard, and countless science learning centers.
Though Hawkins's name may have been largely lost to history, his impact on raising awareness of prehistoric life and making it accessible to people of all ages and walks of life remains vital. Visitors still marvel at the dinosaurs today, rapt in the artistic concepts that never really existed, but that Hawkins made believable.
“When you go there, you can see what we thought prehistoric animals looked like in the 1850s,” Witton says. “There aren’t many places in the world to see that in such a grand and informative way.”