"Out of the whole world Cuckfield was the birthplace of the dinosaurs" - The Gideon Mantell Story

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Illustrated London News - Friday 01 July 1977

The Cuckfield dinosaur

One day in 1822 Dr Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) was visiting a patient in the tiny village of Cuckfield, (1) Sussex, while his wife searched for fossils at quarry near by. The quarry, in the fossil-rich Wealden area of the South Downs, had already provided Mantell with many a specimen for his impressive collection in his home at Lewes.

Gideon Algernon Mantell and his wife Mary Ann Mantell

Although fossil-hunting was a popular hobby, its finds were only dimly understood. Both geology and palaeontology were in their infancy; dinosaurs were unheard of and Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) had not yet been published. Mantell realized how little was known of prehistory and was determined to find out more, and in doing so to win fame. In the quarry, now a playing-field named Whiteman’s Green, sandstone was being excavated for road-making. With characteristic zeal, Mantell bribed the quarry-men to give him all the fossils they found.

When he discovered that a rival fossil-hunter had taken some from his quarry he was outraged. He was understandably proprietorial about the site: in his book The Fossils of the South Downs published that year, 1822, and illustrated by his wife, he had proved that its fossils were of freshwater origin and therefore dated back to the Cretaceous period (136 to 65 million years ago). He had also spent much time and money on combing the site for clues to its prehistory.

On that day in 1822 all of his efforts paid off: Mrs Mantell found a stone embedded with a worn tooth. Although she helped her husband with his work and was used to identifying fossils, this tooth left her bewildered. When she placed the fossil into her husband’s hands he, too, was excited but mystified. Further teeth were found and were sent to Baron Cuvier, the celebrated French palaeontologist, who identified them first as those of a hippopotamus, then as the teeth of a rhinoceros. Cuvier’s explanations were based on the current belief that there were no mammals during the Cretaceous period and that as reptiles with masticating teeth were unknown the specimens must belong to a mammal from a period later than the Cretaceous.

He thought the teeth must have been buried or carried by water into the older, Wealden, strata. Mantell was not convinced. Eventually he matched the teeth with those of the tropical lizard iguana, in the skull collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, and realised they had once belonged to a giant reptile, which he named iguanodon, meaning iguanatooth. In the light of this new evidence Baron Cuvier admitted his mistakes and helped Mantell to predict the animal’s structure.

In 1825 Mantell wrote an account of the giant reptile and submitted it to the Royal Society. Although the word dinosaur —meaning fearfully great lizard-—was not coined until 1841, Dr Mantell had in 1825 become the first man both to discover and describe a species of what we know as dinosaurs. Of all his achievements, this was perhaps the greatest.

Later finds, of an iguanodon skeleton with only the head missing in Maidstone, Kent, in 1834, of 29 complete ones in a coal mine at Bernissart, Belgium, and of a fine specimen (now in the British Museum) in the Isle of Wight in 1917, proved Mantell more or less correct in his description. Mantell went on to discover at Cuckfield three more of the five dinosaur genera known during his lifetime: hylaeosaurus, pelorosaurus and regnosaurus. The iguanodon has become the most clearly understood of all dinosaurs from the “age of reptiles”, a phrase used by Mantell as early as 1833.

The iguanodons probably lasted about 60-70 million years during the Cretaceous period. They were giant herbivorous dinosaurs varying in size from 15-30 feet from head to tail and standing up to 15 feet from the ground. A long, flat tail helped them to swim across swamp waters and rivers or to take refuge in water when pursued. They moved with a hopping gait or short gallop on strong hind legs and had short front arms like kangaroos. Their front arms and “hands” tore off vegetation from trees and they chewed it with powerful jaws and masticating teeth. The “hands” had four fingers and a spiky thumb which was sometimes used as a weapon. Mantell misinterpreted this thumb-spike, believing it to be a nasal horn. This mistake, understandable as no complete head of the reptile had been discovered, was maintained in the reconstruction of two iguanodons modelled by Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854 for the new Crystal Palace in London. In Mantell's diary, which he kept from 1818 to the year of his death, 1852, he recorded a friend’s remark that Mantell would ride on the back of his iguanodon “into the temple of Immortality”.

This delighted Mantell. His pursuit of science was not disinterested; he wanted it to gain him social acceptance and immortal fame. In 1826 he wrote in one of his occasional poetic outpourings: “And anxious vigils Fve kept. In a fruitless search for fame; And have toil’d when the world has slept, To gather a deathless name!” He was born on February 3, 1790, the son of a prosperous Lewes shoemaker. Educated at Lewes and in Wiltshire, he studied medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and in 1811 became assistant to a Dr Moore, general practitioner in Lewes. On Dr Moore’s retirement in 1818 Mantell took over his practice and house in Castle Street. Two years earlier, in 1816, he had married Mary Anne Woodhouse. Perhaps because of Mantell’s tireless devotion to work the marriage was an unhappy one.

At first his practice thrived. His success in obstetrics was exceptional for those days: during 15 years only two mothers died out of 2,410 deliveries. He sometimes saw 60 patients a day and when the number dropped to only 30, visited in their houses, the journey made on horseback, he rebuked himself as a failure.

Meanwhile, he was building up the largest private collection of fossils in this country, showing them to distinguished visitors and travelling to different parts of Sussex to find more. He was working on The Fossils of the South Downs, his first book and The Geology of South- East England, published in 1833. He contributed several papers to The Lancet on midwifery and other subjects. But after his entry, with the publication of his account of the iguanodon, into the Royal Society and his growing eminence, the delights of Lewes society and a rural medical practice began to pall.

In 1833 he moved to Brighton to be closer to William IV’s court, aiming to extend his practice into sophisticated society. His house. No 20 The Steyne, was in a fashionable part of town near the Royal Pavilion. He moved his collection into this grand mansion: the museum included bones from Cuckfield sandstone, fossils from chalk, an incomplete skeleton of the dinosaur hylaeosaurus and was soon to have the headless iguanodon skeleton found in Maidstone in 1834. By this time Mantell was a distinguished figure, belonging to various scientific institutions and mixing with great men such as Michael Faraday. He had also becomean early popularizer of science: his public lectures in Brighton drew audiences of sometimes 1,000 people.

His obituary in The Illustrated London News of December 4, 1852, read: “Dr Mantell was a most attractive lecturer, filling the listening ears of his audience with seductive imagery, and leaving them in amazement with his exhaustless catalogue of wonders. His style, both in speaking and writing, was fluent, and singularly free from technicalities —qualities which went far to render his works popular, and make him a favourite amongst our institutions for diffusing knowledge amongst the people.” His books for the general reader were widely read: Wonders of Geology (1838) went into six editions in the first ten years. Medals of Creation (1844) was well known abroad as well as in England: it clearly outlined existing knowledge about fossils and British palaeontology.

Although his reputation as a man of science had grown, his practice, and with it his wealth, had dwindled during his years in Brighton. He also needed money to give to his son Walter who was emigrating to New Zealand.

Later Walter was to provide his father with some interesting New Zealand fossils to identify, the dinomis, the extinct moa, and notornis, another flightless bird. In 1838 Mantell sold his museum of 1,300 specimens to the British Museum for £5,000. far less than it had cost to assemble. His wife left him that year. Mantell moved to a practice in Clapham in 1839 and later to No 19 Chester Square, Belgravia. He devoted himself to writing, lecturing, scientific institutions and his distinguished friends, and let his practice fade out.

By the end of his life he had written 67 books and memoirs and 48 scientific papers, mostly on the geology and palaeontology, including the plant life, of southeast England. The last of these papers described Telerpeton elginense, a reptile from the Triassic age (190 to 225 million years ago). In 1849 he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for his services to palaeontology.

It might be thought that Mantell, famous and respected, had fulfilled his ambitions. But he was still dissatisfied. In part his discontent during the last years of his life was due to a spinal pain caused by an accident, but much of it was founded on a belief that he had not accomplished enough. He died in 1852 from an overdose of opium taken to allay the pain in his spine.

To some extent his fear of failure to win immortality has proved justified. There is no comprehensive biography of Mantell, no plaque marking his home in London and no monument at Whiteman’s Green in Cuckfield*, site of his discovery of the iguanodon and other dinosaur remains. His original documents are all in New Zealand; they were sent there to his son on Mantell’s death.

But Mantell still has loyal admirers. The Mantellian Society (Grantham House, South Chailey, Lewes, Sussex) has recently been formed which aims to raise money to redress these oversights of posterity. One of the founders is Dr Jack Palmer, a Lewes practitioner. He took me to the site in Cuckfield where, 150 years ago, Mantell made his momentous discovery.

There is nothing grand about the quiet green now, with the sleepy Downs rolling away in the background, but Dr Palmer has been given permission to erect a life-size reconstruction of the enormous iguanodon to loom among the trees. If the money for this plan cannot be raised it is hoped to mark the site with a block of Tilgate stone with some iguanodon bones showing how and where they were found. “The site will be a shrine to Mantell,” says Dr Palmer “and will remind everyone that, out of the whole world, Cuckfield was the birthplace of the dinosaurs.”

* A monument to Gideon Mantell in the form of Tilgate stone has now been erected on the site of the discovery at Whiteman's Green

(1) The writer

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