Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Crystal Palace Dinosaurs several times during the site’s construction in 1853 and 1854. In November 1853, the Royals visited the Model-Room, or Studio, of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and observed construction of models for one Iguanodon and the Megatherium (the giant sloth) as well as some of the aquatic reptiles. In April 1854, they saw the sculptures in situ and discussed the project with Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. This article describes the Royal visits to the Crystal Palace in Sydenham and notes key press coverage.
Queen Victoria Adored the Crystal Palace
The Royal couple toured the construction site of Crystal Palace and Park in Sydenham on 01 November 1853. This was a day trip from Windsor Castle that had them travelling by train to Vauxhall Station, then driving to Sydenham. “It was a most interesting visit,” the Queen wrote in her diary.
Their visit was planned as a formal but private occasion. It was described in considerable detail in The Illustrated London News on 05 November 1853 (volume 23, issue 652, page 383), with two engravings and additional detail provided in the following issue on 12 November 1853 (volume 23, issue 653, page 401-402). Full text below.
After lunch in the developing Pompei Court, the Royal tour moved into the gardens. This included a visit to the Model-Room, or Studio, used by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and his assistants to create the statues and moulds for his display of extinct animals in the geological illustrations. This element of their visit is quoted below.
“On Tuesday last her Majesty and Prince Albert, accompanied by the King of the Belgians, and his son (the Duke of Brabant) and daughter-in-law, (an Archduchess of Austria), paid a private visit to the Palace and Park at Sydenham.” …
“After luncheon the Royal party passed along the lower gallery, and entered the garden, which – thanks to hasty but complete preparation – was for the first time passable without the aid of navigator’s boots. Pathways had been laid of faggots covered with gravel, leading as fas [sic: far] as the shed where Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins is preparing life-size models of the gigantic extinct animals, of which the bones of some of the largest are found in the Weald of Kent and Sussex. There were to be seen, in clay, the Iguanodon – a vast scaly lizard, thirty feet long and eleven feet high; a sloth, three times as large as a polar bear, preparing to climb a tree of proportionate size; frogs as huge as modern turtles; and other monsters, which are to be placed in appropriate positions in a great tidal basin now in course of excavation at the lower end of the gardens.”
“In returning from this workshop of diluvian and antediluvian beasts, a complete view of the Palace was obtained, as it appeared full 200 feet above the level of that part of the garden…”
Excerpt from “The Crystal Palace at Sydenham,” The Illustrated London News 05 November 1853 (volume, 23 issue 652, page 383)
The Royal party did not descend further down the hill into the space of the geological illustrations. Most historians place the Model-Room on the site of the present Crystal Palace Farm, Capel Manor College. From the Model-Room, a clear view of the landscaping for the not-yet-complete Tidal Lake and islands would have been available.
Describing the visit in her diary, Queen Victoria made specific reference to their tour of the Model-room.
“We also went to the building in which the very curious restoration, under Profr Austen’s [sic: Professor David Thomas Ansted (1814-1880)] supervision of what good Sir J. Paxton [Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)] calls “the hextinct haminals” is going on, which really is most interesting. What beasts they must have been, & why should they have become extinct?” (Queen Victoria’s diary, volume 36, page 125, Princess Beatrice copy)
During their tour, the Queen commented to the King of Belgium (who accompanied the Royals on their visit). Detail was reported in coverage of the New Year’s Eve dinner in the Iguanodon model on 31 December 1853. Several newspapers carried the story that during the toasts,
“…allusion was made to the interest and surprise evinced by her Majesty … on being informed that the Iguanodon was a native of Horsham, in Susses. Her Majesty called the attention of her royal uncle, the King of the Belgians, to the interesting fact, and we apprehend there will be no person who will not heartily sympathise with the expression of his Majesty, ‘It is to be thankful the Iguanodon is not now one of your subjects.’ (The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 04 January 1854; Issue 27155)
Below, I provide full coverage of the visit as reported by The Illustrated London News. Their coverage also detailed other elements of the glasshouse and gardens, especially the Fine Arts Courts and Historical Courts, including the Medieval Court, Roman Court, Greek Court, the Nineveh Court. Two illustrations capturing the Royal visit appeared in the next issue, on 12 November 1853 (volume 23, issue 653, pages 401-402). The companion article described in more detail the Pompeiian Court scene where the Royals lunched. Accuracy and faithfulness in reproduction of the exhibits were recurring themes of press coverage of Crystal Palace.
25 April 1854 visit
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took their children to visit the Crystal Palace in Sydenham on 25 April 1854, the result of a more-or-less spontaneous decision of parents for an afternoon out to a site of interest. Newspapers described the visit as “most unexpected”. “The intention of Her Majesty to honour the works with a visit was not made known until a few minutes before the arrival of the Royal carriages in front of the main entrance.”
Just prior to this Royal visit, the attraction was due to open formally on 14 May 1854. Opening was postponed until 10 June, however, by unfinished works, including the need to redesign water towers owing to design flaws. The Lady’s Newspaper and Pictorial Times gave a concise up-date for the attraction in their 22 April 1854 issue (“The Crystal Palace,” The Lady’s Newspaper and Pictorial Times, Saturday, 22 April 1854, number 382, page 248-249). Some elements remained unfinished well past the opening of this complex site. This includes the antediluvian displays. Waterhouse Hawkins would continue to add to his count of sculptures through 1854 and into 1855.
In her diary, The Queen mentioned the Royal visit and the walk through the gardens. “We saw everything, without examining the details too minutely & then took a walk, — a very scrambling one it was, all through the grounds.” (diary for 25 April 1854) She specifically mentioned neither Waterhouse Hawkins nor the sculptures.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was on site that day. The coverage given by John Bull, a weekly London newspaper, described his meeting H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. Prince Albert, and his giving them another brief tour of the project (really, an update on progress since their visit in November). If the coverage is accurate, others in the entourage took over the conversation and steered it as they thought fit.
In that conversation, Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877) proposed a theory of adaptive colouration. When discussing the ichthyosaurs, he predicted prey species would be dull in colour so as to hide, whereas predator species might be flamboyantly coloured. At the time, Wyatt and Owen Jones (1809-1874) were engaged in wider discussions about his choices of colour in the Greek Court. Such was the debate and criticism that Jones wrote a defence of those decisions, which the Crystal Palace Company published in its Handbook series.
Excerpt from John Bull, 29 April 1854
“Her Majesty having expressed a desire to visit the grounds, was conducted along the upper and lower terraces, and with some difficulty, but with evident delight, traversed the rough, stony walks, uneven tramways, deep cuttings, unformed slopes, and mountains of loose earth which now abound in such interesting variety in the park, until she arrived at the bottom of the lake where the antediluvian monsters have settled in strange and terrible groups. There Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins had an opportunity of explaining, in concise terms, all the technicalities of primary, secondary, and tertiary formations, and all the mysteries of antediluvian life. A giant ichthyosaurus, rejoicing in a grand system of unfinished iridescent decoration, with several men working busily on his screw propeller tail, did not fail to attract due notice, and to lead to some inquiries as to the particular style of colouring which the animal would ultimately display. Mr. Owen Jones, whose theories of colour would thus appear to transcend the regions of art-decoration, declares that analogy would afford rules for the decoration of these monsters. His proposition is that those of them which were preyed upon by others ought to be a dull colour, in order that they might not attract the notice of their devourers, while those which were accustomed to chase their interesting dinosaurian brethren ought to be of a gay or lively line.” (Source: “The Crystal Palace – Visit of Her Majesty,” John Bull, 29 April 1854, issue 1742, page 267.)
When the writer for The Lady’s Newspaper and Pictorial Times visited the site during the previous week, they reported, “Mr Hawkins has got his monsters in the intended lake; and this part of the ground is so broken and rugged in outline, that it promises to be one of the most picturesque points of view.” (“The Crystal Palace,” The Lady’s Newspaper and Pictorial Times, Saturday, 22 April 1854, number 382, page 248-249.
Other Visits By Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Sydenham site several times during the site’s development. The Queen mentioned in her diary the plan to move the glasshouse to Sydenham on Wednesday 23 June 1852. This note was sparked by her final visit that day to the Great Exhibition site in Hyde Park during its dismantling. Several days later, on Saturday 26 June 1852, the Queen and Prince Albert took their boys to visit the newly acquired Sydenham site, which was pastureland. The Queen clearly was impressed by the scale and lightness of the building. Her enthusiasm for both the Hyde Park and Sydenham projects strikes me as far more than either solely ceremonial or primarily promotional.
Saturday 12 March 1853 was a fine Spring day, and Prince Albert decided the family should visit Sydenham again. Possibly this was a spontaneous decision. The Queen wrote that she was impressed by the scale of the attraction, but lamented to seeing little of the gardens owing to concerns she might have “to scramble about too much.”
A more organised visit took place roughly one month later, on Monday 06 June 1853, presumably after the Company’s organisers had time to prepare the site for a Royal tour.
Their visits on 01 November 1853 and 25 April 1854 included substantial tours of the gardens. On 01 November, the Royals visited the Model-Room. On 25 April 1854, the Royals saw many of the statues in place and discussed the antediluvian project with Waterhouse Hawkins.
The Queen and Prince Albert were the centrepiece of Grand Opening ceremonies on 10 June 1854. Politics surrounding the Crimean War were on her mind that day, and the scale of the crowds prevented much exploring. Her enthusiasm for the attraction remained strong.
“I fervently hope that so great & noble an undertaking may be crowned with success.” (Queen Victoria’s diary, volume 37, page 265, Princess Beatrice copy)
After the grand opening, the Crystal Palace attraction served as a venue for diplomatic visits, such as on 20 June 1854 when Prince Albert tours the site with the King of Portugal and the Duke of Oporto among others. (Source: John Bull, Saturday 24 June 1854, issue 1750.) This included meeting Waterhouse Hawkins, among creators associated with the Crystal Palace attraction.
Guides published by the Crystal Palace Company offered detailed accounts of the visitor experience for the various Fine Art and Historical Courts, as well as the gardens. Richard Owen’s (1854) Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World was the company’s official guide to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs and the surrounding and geological illustrations. Complementary information was included in the general Guide to the Crystal Palace and Park.
The Illustrated London News full articles from 05, 12 November
This section provides the full text for the coverage printed in The Illustrated London News for 05 and 12 November 1853.