On 31st December 1853, a group of distinguished Victorian gentlemen celebrated the new year, by dining within the carcass of a dinosaur.
No ordinary dinosaur, for this was a mighty Iguanodon, and more peculiarly, it’s body was made of re-constituted stone — for this was the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs, and for one evening, one of them became a private restaurant.
Officially known as the Extinct Inhabitants of the Ancient World, the concrete monsters were cast in moulds in a workshop in Sydenham for the Crystal Palace.
Conceived by a Mr W Hawkins, he wanted to show off the display, and came up with the clever idea of inviting a number of Victorian worthies to dine inside the empty body of the 30ft long Iguanodon.
There is some doubt about whether they sat inside the model, or around it, but the drawings of the time of the event show them clearly sitting inside — this may be typical Victorian journalistic excess of the time, or maybe an actual representation of the evening.
The invites were themselves sent on cards decorated with the wing of a Pterodactyl, (and described as grotesque by the Morning Chronicle) and in the end, twenty-one guests agreed to the short notice invitation.
“Mr. B. Waterhouse Hawkins solicits the honour of Professor —–‘s company at dinner, in the Iguanodon, on the 31st of December 1853, at five o’clock”
(curiously, various news reports of the time say that the invite was for 4pm, while the invite card itself says 5pm)
The dinner whenever it started, was widely reported in part to show off the animals as an attraction, but as importantly to the Victorian mind, to highlight the scientific accuracy of the models.
Today the concrete animals are almost as famous for how badly designed they are, but at the time, they were based on the very latest understanding of what an extinct animal looked like. So the promoters were keen to promote their evident scientific value.
There is also some issue about whether the dinner took place in the studio where the casts of the animals were being made, or in the Crystal Palace grounds.
The drawing shows a tent like structure, and steps up to the belly of the beast, which could suggest it was in the park, as this photo might support.
The magazine, Punch reported the affair, noting that it congratulated the diners for living in such an age, for had the dinner been in an earlier geological period, they might have perhaps have occupied the Iguanodon’s inside without having any dinner there.
Another example of scientific inaccuracy though, for the beasts were herbivores, and would no more think of dining upon a Victorian scientist than you would.
The dinosaurs were recently restored, but there’s no lingering remnants within the Iguanodon of its once socially loaded stomach.