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The Crystal Palace Pterodactyl

Hidden away in a display case in the Fossil Stories room of the Great North Museum: Hancock is a small model which could so easily be overlooked but this intriguing mid 19th century object has an amazing story to tell.

This fragile maquette, made in the Victorian era, is incredibly rare and takes us back to an era when the term ‘Dinosaur’ had only just been conceived.

It was made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) a renowned sculptor and naturalist artist. Hawkins was appointed by the Crystal Palace Company, in 1852, to create 33 life-size concrete models of extinct dinosaurs and other animal species to include Iguanodon, Labyrinthodont, Plesiosaur, Mammoth and, of course, a Pterodactyl.

He worked with the eminent palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) on the project. The models were hugely popular and can still be seen in the grounds of Crystal Palace Park today.

Hawkins famously hosted a dinner party inside the mould used to make the Iguanodon on the 31 December 1853. To read about it, please click here.


As the fame of the dinosaur models spread Hawkins worked with James Tennant (1808-1881), who had a successful business selling fossils in London, to produce a series of five small maquettes of the Crystal Palace saurians to sell as demonstration models to natural history museums.

Our Pterodactyl is one of these models and there is also a Hawkin’s Labyrinthodon model in the Hancock Museum collection stores. Both models were cast from clay as an exact scale representation of Hawkin’s life-size dinosaurs.

Hawkin's Labyrinthodon GNMHancock

Hawkin’s maquette of his Crystal Palace Labyrinthodon sculpture © GNM: Hancock

We have no details of how they came to be in the collections of the Natural History Society’s Museum or if at one time we had all five models on display. The maquettes are very fragile and easily damaged and many of the known models have not survived in good condition. What we do know is that our Pterodactyl figure is rare, in fact it may be the only one left of this fragile set in the UK.


Henry A Ward’s Catalogue of Casts of Fossils

Both of the Natural History Society’s models or ‘fossil restorations’ of the Pterodactyl and the Labyrithodon were noted for sale in Henry A Ward’s Catalogue of casts of fossils, from the principal museums of Europe and America, with short descriptions and illustrations, 1834-1906.

To view a copy of Ward’s Catalogue of casts of fossils, please click here.

 Visit the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs in London

You can still see Hawkins series of sculptures of extinct animals and mammals at the Crystal Palace Park, situated in the London borough of Bromley. It’s a great day out!

To visit the website of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs for up to date information on their care and restoration, please click here.

Want to learn more about Hawkins and his amazing Dinosaurs?


We have a copy of this book in our library.  McCarthy, Steve & Mick Gilbert (1994) The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World’s First Prehistoric Sculptures. Crystal Palace Foundation.

or check out

Doyle, Peter (2008) A vision of deep time the Geological Illustrations of Crystal Palace Park London