How London’s Grade-I listed ‘Victorian Jurassic Park’ ended up on Historic England’s at-risk list

The Crystal Palace dinosaurs and the beleagured Gunnersbury Park are under threat. We must work to save them, says Jack Watkins.

The  Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have delighted children and adults for generations, so when news filtered out last year that they had been placed on the Heritage at Risk register, Historic England’s annual list of historic sites and structures with uncertain futures, it drew a public reaction.

‘People were upset at the state of the sculptures, but glad that the site was being acknowledged as in need of attention,’ says Ellinor Michel, chairman of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. She reveals that they even had a letter from Sir David Attenborough, who described the dinosaurs as ‘the first attempt to visualise the dramatic creatures from the distant past in the country where they were first discovered, recognised and named’. A sort of Victorian-era Jurassic Park, if you like.

The 30 sculptures sit on a 20-acre island site in an atmospheric spot at the bottom of Crystal Palace Park. Only four of the sculptures are dinosaurs in the strict zoological sense (two Iguanodon, a Hylaeosaurus and a Megalosaurus. Others include pterodactyls, crocodiles and a giant sloth). However, as the chairman says, as an ensemble they are ‘huge, ominous and exciting’.

“The Megalosaurus, the biggest, most famous statue, recently lost its jaw and the antlers fell off one of the Irish elk stags.”

Created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins between 1852 and 1855 as part of works to mark the relocation of the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill, they effectively launched our ongoing dinomania.

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The first attempt anywhere to model extinct animals as three-dimensional, active creatures within their geological environment, the internationally important collection is Grade I listed. Yet, despite repeated efforts to stabilise the site, the lichen-encrusted creatures are ailing. The Megalosaurus, the biggest, most famous statue, recently lost its jaw and the antlers fell off one of the Irish elk stags.

A temporary jaw has been made for the Megalosaurus, thanks to public donations that Historic England matched. But, Dr Michel explains, ‘the sculptures need regular checks, oversight and maintenance from professional conservators to identify and repair any damage so it doesn’t propagate. Long term, we don’t know where funding will come from’. Although she is hopeful the site may eventually come off the register, by their nature, outdoor sculptures need regular attention. ‘The sculptures are around to delight us today because people in the past cared for them. We want to pass on that mantle to future generations.’

Streatham Hill Theatre, a new addition to the list. ©Historic England

Gunnersbury Park, on the outskirts of Ealing, has been on the register since the list’s inception in 1998. A treasure trove of old buildings, including a museum, garden follies, towering cedars, flowery walks, and standard recreational amenities, it was the home of George II’s daughter Princess Amelia in the 18th century and rivalled Kew in prestige. Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe and a regular visitor, stood on the terrace of her Palladian villa and hailed ‘an exceedingly fine prospect of Surrey, the River Thames, and all the meadows on the borders for some miles’. The romantic setting was depicted in watercolours by William Payne.

The estate was subdivided in the 19th century, and what are now known as the Large and Small Mansions replaced Princess Amelia’s villa. The Rothschilds owned the bulk of the estate in that period, but the park was decaying badly when it was purchased for the nation as a public park — Neville Chamberlain, then Minister of Health, performing its opening ceremony in 1926 (an event captured in a Pathé News film clip, now on YouTube.)

However, underfunding has long been a major issue. ‘We started the Friends of Gunnersbury Park in 1981 because the park was in a terrible state,’ explains chairman James Wisdom. ‘Various buildings had been demolished and the William Kent-designed Temple only survives because permission to knock it down was refused.’ The register noted the landscape was ‘generally in poor condition’, but a conservation plan was drawn up and progress has been made in the past decade.

Gunnersbury Park, Hounslow, designed by Sidney Smirke. ©Historic England, Chris Redgrave

‘The big picture is that we are halfway through, with the Large Mansion restored and the museum back in it,’ says Mr Wisdom. Princess Amelia’s bathhouse and the orangery have been restored. A herb garden has been planted between the former and the sham Gothic arches that resemble the ruins of a medieval abbey. Plaques name notable trees, such as the rare daimyo oak and a Japanese pagoda tree, survivors from the old Japanese garden that, on its opening in 1901, was hailed ‘as the most strictly true and magnificent garden of Japanese design and composition’, in Britain by the Journal of Horticulture.

Although another folly, the ghostly, castellated Gothic boathouse, still resembles a genuine ruin and the Small Mansion presents a sorry spectacle, Mr Wisdom reveals that the latter is ‘next up for restoration. The scaffolding is a sign of money being spent on the roof and various structural essentials to prepare it for a better future, thanks to Historic England funding’.

Mr Wisdom, who has written a short description of the park, explains that it ‘has a long history of decay and then recovery. Each transformation has left traces in the landscape’. With the park anticipating the centenary of its public opening in five years, he describes ‘Gunnersbury 2026’, the 15-year master plan developed by the Ealing and Hounslow Borough Councils, as ‘the transformation for our generation’.

Three more places on the at-risk list

Savoy Cinema, Edgeware

A former 2,000-seat Grade II-listed cinema, designed by Art Deco master George Coles, it retains all its internal Moderne fittings, but has been closed since 2014. Consent was recently granted to restore the exterior of the building and convert the interior into flats.

St Pancras Old Church

An immensely historic church, one of the capital’s oldest, next to the former St Pancras Workhouse. Sir John Soane and Mary Wollstonecraft are buried in its churchyard. The register describes the church’s state as ‘very bad’ and a Next Millennium Project seeks to raise £500,000 to complete a restoration programme by the end of 2025.

Pope’s Grotto, Twickenham

The last surviving element of Alexander Pope’s Thames-side villa and gardens. Efforts to arrest the declining condition of the decorated imitation of a natural cave have been ongoing for 30 years and a recent pilot restoration project, with money from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, was successful. The aim is to complete full renovation in 2022.