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1926: History-making fossil find

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 19 October 1926

CUCKFIELD , LITERARY SOCIETY. Sir Arthur Smith Woodward on

The Iguanodon.

A large number of people gathered in the Queen’s Hall, Cuckfield. last Tuesday evening to listen to an interesting lantern lecture by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, F.R.S.. of Haywards Heath, entitled “Iguanodon, the Fossil Giant Reptile Found at Cuckfield.” The lecture was in connection with the weekly meeting of the Cuckfield Literary Society, and the chair was occupied by the Rev. Canon C. W. G. Wilson, of Cuckfield.

Marsh's iguanodon reconstruction 1896.

In his opening remarks, in which he introduced Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, the Chairman said he was


talking about it beforehand, because, as a matter of fact, he knew very little about what Sir Arthur was going to lecture on. (Laughter). It was very pleasing to notice so many people present in spite of the unpleasant weather, and he accorded the lecturer a very hearty welcome on their behalf. (Applause). Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. F.R.8., said the subject was one which could be spoken of In ordinary terms, and he intended avoiding, as far as possible, the use of scientific expressions. He was going to speak about a great discovery made at Whiteman’s Green, Cuckfield, a little over a century ago - a discovery which added a fundamentally new idea to natural history.

He intended taking his audience back many, many years, and he asked them to obliterate all reference to the present contour of this country, and its present inhabitants, vegetation, etc. They had to imagine it a country very like a little piece of South America at the mouth of the great River Amazon, and to picture this land like the tropics. There were found in the clays surrounding the district remains of plants, the relatives of which existed in the tropics. Remains of sea fishes and sea reptiles had been discovered, which showed the proximity of the ocean. In fact, the clay sediments and sands were laid down in


which flowed through Sussex. In the year 1822, however, a surgeon named Gideon Mantell, of Lewes, who was greatly interested in geology, was scouring this country for fossils, and came upon a quarry at Whiteman’s Green. Cuckfield, which had been used for building stone and the repair of local roads. The quarry no longer existed now, and no one knew exactly what site it occupied, because it had been filled and had been used for a building site and gardens. Well, while Mantell was wandering around the quarry, he noticed a peculiar tooth. He removed it from the rock in which it was embedded, and sent it to Paris to Baron Cuvier, who was the leading authority on teeth and bones. He said it was something new, and was probably the front tooth of a kind of rhinoceros.

It had been worn down to a stump, which showed its possessor was in the habit of grinding its food. There was nothing very startling in saying that it was the tooth of rhinoceros, because the remains of such animals had been found in the surface deposits of this country. Mantell, undaunted, continued his work of excavation, and came across some pieces of bone, which he also sent to Paris for examination and report. These were said to be the toe bones of hippopotamus, but the fossils were so fragmentary that it was not possible to arrive at a definite conclusion. Later, however, Mantell found another tooth like the one he had previously discovered, only this one was complete, and was not worn down. It was about one-and-a-half inches in length and had


Mantell knew enough about teeth to know that it was not the ivory of a rhinoceros he had found this time, and again sent it to Paris to the French expert, who was so excited about it that he asked Mantell if he would continue his work of collecting these fossils, and try to obtain as much material as he could. They were certain that it was the tooth of a reptile, and that it must have belonged to a cold blooded creature like the lizard, crocodile, turtle, snake and similar families.

The next step Mantell took was to go to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and try to find a tooth like the one he had unearthed. He found the skull of little lizard named iguana from Central America, which had a tooth of the same pattern, but very small as compared with the big tooth he had found at Cuckfield. The American lizard grew to a length of between four and five feet, and had a long, slender tail, which it used as a weapon, but no lizard masticates its food. A reptile merely crushes its food and then swallows it. so, although it was a fact that although the lizard had a tooth like the Cuckfield fossil, it could not belong to the same group, because the tooth that had been found had been worn down by a constant crunching and mastication.


therefore named the fossil reptile Iguanodon from the name Iguana and a Greek word signifying tooth, and this name had been used ever since the year 1824, when it was first introduced. Mantell eventually got several parts the skeleton, and tried to match the various bones he had found at Cuckfield with several bones of the skeleton of the little Iguana, and tried to make them out to see if he could trace any relationship between them, but failed in his task; they seemed to be different in every way. Ten years later, however, in 1834, there happened to be found In a quarry near Maidstone a group of hones, among which were one or two Iguanodon teeth. This proved a great triumph for Mantell because the bones had corresponded with those found at Maidstone. He was enabled to find out the more nearly exact nature of the creature, but at the same time could not get away from the idea, however distant it must from the Central American lizard, that the Iguanodon must be of the same shape, lived in the same way, but had stronger limbs, which must be expected owing the creature’s great size. He got an artist to draw an imaginary sketch of what the Iguanodon would look like if alive, and as a result it was supposed to measure 80ft. in length. This was in the forties, and Mantell carried on with his work until his death in 1852.


that he and others had made awakened a very wide interest, not only among scientific men. but among those who were only generally interested in natural history. One who was particularly keen was the late Prince Consort, and when the Crystal Palace, at Sydenham, was being prepared for its opening ceremony, the Prince thought it would be a good idea to make some life-size models of these creatures and put them on an island in the grounds, so that a general notion might got as to the change of life that had taken place during geological history. At that time there happened to be very capable man named Waterhouse Hawkins, who undertook to carry out the Prince’s idea, and a series of various models were put in the grounds.

This was at the beginning of the fifties. At that time they created great interest, and America took the idea up. Models were going to made for erection in the Central Park, at New York, but there happened to be a Mayor who considered himself extremely orthodox, and ordered them to be destroyed. He was afraid that their erection would be too big a shock for orthodoxy (Laughter). The opening ceremony at the Crystal Palace was a brilliant affair, and the proceedings were enlivened by the fact that the top of the life size huge Iguanodon was taken off, and


consisting of prominent men in that day, was held inside! (Loud laughter). That was on December 31st, 1853. For several years after this, the study of the Iguanodon remains in Sussex was carried on in feverish eagerness by several prominent gentlemen. Among these were Mr. Beckles, who did his work along the coast at Hastings, and Dr. Holmes, of Horsham. Both men spent their leisure, taking out fossil bones from the wealden rocks. Holmes’ discoveries found a place in the Brighton museum, while Beckles’ went to London. These discoveries seemed to show that the Iguanodon was not quite so big as Mantell had made out. In 1878 workers in a Belgian coal mine suddenly lost their coal, and struck rocks.

They decided to hew down the opposing rocks, thinking there might be another coal seam on the other side, but when they got into the rock their way was barred by immense fossil bones, and it was found they had been the burial place of 30 or 40 Iguanodons, and all were lying in a heap. The fact was that where the bones and miners were had been a deep ravine, and the creatures had fallen or been swept over the precipice.

The Brussels Museum spent many years in taking up the bones, and 22 of tlie creatures could be seen to this day in the great museum in Brussels. Their length was 24 feet, instead 60 feet as Mantell had imagined. These creatures belonged to a peculiar group of land reptiles, and there were no warm-blooded animals of importance in those days—these great cold-blooded animals took their place. They represented


when great, cold-blooded creatures flourished all over the world. Beckles’ discoveries on the coast of Hastings included the numerous rows of three-toed footprints embedded in the rocks, and similar marks were found not long ago between Bexhill and St. Leonards. At first he thought they were the footprints of birds, but afterwards he found the feet, which proved that they belonged to the Iguanodon.

The late Mr. Charles Dawson, of Lewes, showed how to distinguish the footprints of the iguanodon in different attitudes. When running, the Iguanodon was on the tips of its toes, when walking the toe marks only could be seen, but while in the act of resting the pads on the whole of the foot were visible. It was proved that these creatures had practically no brain, and were listless things which responded to anything that distracted them. In 1878 an attempt was made try to find out what the Iguanodon really looked like. A creature was made almost duck-shaped stand about 12 feet high, with a tail adapted for swimming, and three-toed massive foot. The outer skin was shown as covered with boney plates, but the latter idea was wrong. In North America mummified specimens of a related reptile were found, and they were covered with a very finely granulated skin. Just before the war, there fell out of the cliffs near Atherfield, in the Isle of Wight,


showing pieces of exactly the same granulated skin, was procured by the late Mr. Hooley, of Winchester. It was remarkable that practically all the knowledge that had been obtained in this country concerning these prehistoric creatures had been acquired by amateurs, who had been following such studies merely in their spare time. These animals apparently lived all over the world, and a curious thing was that at a period when the chalk deposits ceased the creatures disappeared.

From that time onwards their places had been filled by warm-blooded quadrupeds, and the change that had taken place had culminated in ourselves, who only appeared at the end of the story. (Loud and continued applause).

In passing a vote of thanks to Sir Arthur, the Chairman said it must have indeed been a strange world in those far-off days. It was really marvellous how the naturalists had been able to piece the facts together and find out what the creatures were like. It had been a most interesting address, and Sir Arthur had described everything in such a lucid manner. (Loud applause).

The lantern was manipulated Mr. Frank Wisbey.

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