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The First Dinosaurs’ Dinner

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As I write in the early days of April 2021, we’re about to emerge from lockdown and outdoor dining will resume, hopefully before a measured resumption of some degree of normality.  Not all outdoor dining can strictly be called normal.  One of the sights on my daily lockdown walks was involved in what has become a legendary event in the history of palaeontology and of science.  Much has been written, not all of it completely accurate, nevertheless let me take you through the events of New Year’s Eve 1853, and what led up to the fabled dinner in the iguanodon at the Crystal Palace Park.

It’s probably best to begin at the end, and with the sketch that appeared on page 22 of the Illustrated London News edition of the 7th January 1854.  This shows a group of men sitting under canvas, being served a fine dinner while seated in the hollowed out belly of a large beast, surrounded by the names of four esteemed palaeontologists on banners: ‘Owen’, ‘Buckland’, ‘Cuvier’ and ‘Mantell’.  The article itself was a follow-up to a longer piece in the previous edition outlining the work of the sculptor and what was underway at the new site of the Crystal Palace. It was accompanied by another article showing the work of Richard Owen in reconstructing the skeleton of a very large, extinct ostrich-like bird, remains of which had been found in New Zealand. 

The party was hosted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the sculptor hard at work constructing the dinosaurs. The menu was seven-courses, with each guest choosing his repast from the following:

Soups: Mock Turtle, Julien, Hare

Fish: Cod and Oyster Sauce, Fillets of Whiting, Turbot à l’Hollandaise

Removes: Roast Turkey, Ham, Raised Pigeon Pie, Boiled Chicken and Celery Sauce

Entrées: Cotolettes de Moutonaux Tomates, Currie de Lapereaux au riz, Salmi de Perdrix, Mayonnaise de filets de Sole

Game: Pheasants, Woodcocks, Snipes

Sweets: Macedoine Jelly, Orange Jelly, Bavaroise, Charlotte Russe, French Pastry, Nougat à la Chantilly, Buisson de Meringue aux Confiture

Dessert: Grapes, Apples, Pears, Almonds and Raisins, French Plums, Pines, Filberts, Walnuts &c, &c

Wines: Sherry, Madeira, Port, Moselle, Claret

Richard Owen was the guest of honour. As the ‘Father of Dinosaurs’, and with his involvement in the Great Exhibition, his prominence at the dinner is only what would be expected.  Reports of the dinner place him seated in the head of the iguanodon and he is the main speaker at the dinner.  He is referred to in one report as ‘the brains’ of the assembled company and it is only fitting that he be seated in the iguanodon’s head.  He has also been involved in the ongoing creation of the sculptures.  Benjamin Hawkins’s sketches of the dinosaurs to be created had been given to him for scientific oversight.  Just as his authority guaranteed that the gargantuan creatures on display were as they would have been when they walked the Earth, the event cements Richard Owen at the apex of the paleontological world in the United Kingdom. 

Owen offered a toast to the late Gideon Mantell while seated in the head of the iguanodon at the dinner.  ‘To the memory of Mantell, discoverer of the iguanodon’ and the guests drank in silence.  After that there was merriment. A song penned by Professor Forbes was sung by a guest singer brought in for the occasions, with all guests joining in with the chorus of ‘The Jolly Old Beast’.  The party went on well past midnight, into the new year of 1854, before the company departed by train from the yet to be opened Crystal Palace station on the new branch line back to London.

Despite the convivial description of the dinner, what really attracts the attention is the drawing that accompanies it.  Twenty-one men of learning in the belly of a huge monster, all clad in formal evening attire under a candelabra suspended from the apex of the tent.

In the previous edition of the Illustrated London News there was a long piece outlining Hawkins’s work, showing the great efforts he had made to ensure the models were scientifically accurate.  The scale of the undertaking was illustrated with the huge amounts of materials being used and, being the Illustrated London News, this was accompanied by another sketch of the model of the iguanodon still in its cast at the site of his workshop at the southern end of the park. 

These models and the sketches in the newspaper would have been among the first images of dinosaurs that the public had seen.  Apart from de la Beche’s image ‘Duria Antiquior’ and a few copies of it, there were only words in reports and occasional sketches.  Jules Verne’s ‘Voyage au centre de la terre’ was still ten years away.  The image accompanying the Illustrated London News article was possibly the first to bring dinosaurs into a contemporary scene, and Hawkins’s sculptures would bring the truly awesome sight to the masses visiting the park.  They truly were the first dinosaurs, here with the greatest men of the age standing on their shoulders.

Hawkins’s sketch of the dinner in the Illustrated London News was the most perfect and sensational image of Victorian educated society. In 1853 there was a huge appetite for this.  The Great Exhibition two years previously had demonstrated that everyone wanted to come and see the knowledge and industry taking the Empire not only around the world, but far back in time as well.  The men of science had conquered the most terrifying beasts to have walked the Earth.

Of course, not everything here is what it seems.  The sketches in the Illustrated London News were by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins himself.  It may have been drawn prior to the event taking place and thus not be an accurate representation of what happened.  It bears a resemblance to the invitation sent out to the diners prior to the meal.  Although some of the men seated in the iguanodon, or at least nearby, were members of the Geological Society and Royal Society, many were not.  Included among them were Francis Fuller, railway entrepreneur, one of the driving forces behind the Great Exhibition and one of the directors of the nascent Crystal Palace Park. Also present was Herbert Ingham, founder of the Illustrated London News, as well as other newspaper proprietors and editors.  

This was the most fantastic promotional material for what was to become one of London’s major tourist attractions.  The Crystal Palace was at the time being reconstructed at the northern end of the park having been removed from Hyde Park at the end of the Great Exhibition.  Perhaps even more importantly for Francis Fuller, the railway branch line to Crystal Palace Station from the main line of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway was nearing completion to enter service in 1854. It would bring London’s population south to the countryside and the magnificent attractions of his new Park.  Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had moved to a nearby house so as to be close to his work in the otherwise mostly inaccessible corner right up against the borders of Kent as it was not an easy commute prior to the building of the railway.  He’d worked with Francis Fuller previously, providing some models and serving as assistant superintendent for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Indeed the backers of the new park also backed the dinner, ensuring the event was reported as widely as possible.  There were pieces in Punch and other publications the following week.  1854 was to be the year of the new Crystal Palace and they wanted everyone in London to head out on the new railways to enjoy all the spectacles they were developing. They wanted the public to relieve the Great Exhibition that so many had enjoyed in 1851.  This was the first theme park for London, and it was at least partly Jurassic!

There is another, perhaps darker aspect to the dinner.  It represents the culmination of a years-long story that is most definitely not included in the write-ups of the dinner, but would have been readily apparent to those involved.  In Hawkins’s sketch, there are four names on banners.  It seems there were actually more than four banners as reports also mention Conybeare had his name celebrated in this fashion as did Professor Forbes.  Mary Anning was almost certainly not, even though she was responsible for the discovery of several of the creatures Hawkins was sculpting.  Of the names in Hawkins’s sketch, William Buckland was gravely ill and would have been unable to attend.  Georges Cuvier died in 1832 while Gideon Mantell has passed away sadly as recently as 1852. These were the men who had provided the legacy upon which the diners were celebrating.

Richard Owen acknowledging Gideon Mantell’s discovery of the iguanodon in his toast was big news.  He had been disputing the discovery, and the reconstruction of the iguanodon with Mantell for many years, much to Mantell’s aggravation.  Owen seemed to be possessive of all things dinosaur, and was loathed to hand over plaudits to another man.  He went as far as claiming that Mantell’s work plagiarised his, and demeaned Mantell as “nothing more than a collector of fossils, furnishing specimens to distinguished scientists like himself”.  At the time Owen’s claims for priority in the work on the iguanodon had been found wanting resulting in Owen’s reputation suffering among palaeontologists.

There are actually two iguanodons in the Park – the larger one that they dined in looked like a rhinoceros, with a large horn and a distinctly mammalian form.  The other is quite different.  It looks more like a vastly oversized iguana, lying on its belly with a long tail.  These represent the two competing ideas of what the iguanodon looked like.  The rhinoceros-like version was Owen’s, while the iguana-like version was Mantell’s.  Mantell had initially been approached to lend his scientific oversight, but turned it down as he claimed he was spent force and was in considerable pain.  Owen got the job instead.  Although Owen had condescended to have the second model constructed after Mantell’s ideas, they dined in the cast of Owen’s iguanodon.  

Mantell had died only the previous year, in November 1852.  He was buried only about a mile away, as the pterosaur files, in the new West Norwood cemetery.  His mortal remains were at rest on the other side of the hill they were dining on, almost within earshot of the celebrations.  His death came after a very long and painful illness centred around severe back pain following an accident with a carriage horse some ten years prior. His demise had been at his own hand in the house he lived in alone, after an equally painful separation from his wife and children.  A few weeks later, about a year prior to the dinner in the dinosaur, an anonymous obituary was printed in which Mantell’s works were harshly demeaned.  This cruel piece, to which Mantell could no longer respond, was commonly attributed to Owen.  

Then, there is the fact that after Mantell’s post-mortem which demonstrated the scoliosis of his spine that had condemned Mantell to more than a decade of pain, Owen requested that a section of the spine be added to the collection of the Hunterian Museum that he curated.  It remained there until being destroyed by bombing in World War II.  All of these events would have happened roughly a year prior to the dinner and would have been relatively fresh in the minds of those gathered in the iguanodon. 

Owen’s toast crediting Mantell with the iguanodon was, perhaps, a public burial of the hatchet after all the years of fighting. But if was so, it was accompanied by such a large helping of situational chutzpah it’s tantamount to Owen crowing of his victory over his dead nemesis in the most outlandishly public manner he might have dreamed up.  

If you’d like to help to preserve the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, you can visit the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs who are doing all they can to restore and protect these First Dinosaurs. In the meantime, please responsibly enjoy the resumption of dining out over the next few weeks and remember not to take any disagreements over the bill too personally!


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