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Smallpox outbreak in St Mary’s Lane 1794

When young Gideon would have been three years old (he was born in 1790) an outbreak of the dreaded smallpox occurred in Lewes on 4 January 1794. The following report was recorded in the Town Book of 1794 describing how the town and its people requested affected people to remain in their homes and not to spread the illness. The people identified in the account lived two doors from the Mantell family house on St Mary’s Lane.

Gideon’s father Thomas Mantell was a local tradesman a cordwainer, and a well known Dissenter. He was elected one of the two Headboroughs in 1792 and served on the council known as The Twelve who, elected annually, managed the town’s finances and oversaw law and order and general town improvements. He would have been involved in the town meetings called to discuss the outbreak and what to do about it.

The town eventually decided upon the use of inoculation, a new development available in the town from its local doctor Dr Frewin who had premises on School Hill. It was  agreed by the town that  “general inoculation being an evil much less to be dreaded than infection in the natural way”.

After being injected with some “infected matter” taken from cow pox pustules they were required to rest indoors for two weeks.  Nevertheless it was not without its dangers and out of 2,290 town inhabitants and 600 strangers inoculated forty six died. Those who died were of all ages from eight hours to eighty years and there many ulcerated arms experienced and 25 women miscarried.

Dr Thomas Frewin (1704-91) from Northiam was a pioneer and advocate of inoculating, having written it up for his Master’s. He was however cited as a “common Nuisance” in the Lewes Quarter sessions of 1750 for injecting patients near a busy highway in Northiam, by 1772 it was becoming more accepted a practice. However in 1794 it was still a novel approach with many people fearful.

From the Town Book of Lewes 1702 – 1837 ed by Verena Smith. Sussex Records Society; Lewes Vol 69 pages 94-96

extract 1

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Smallpox was declared as “eradicated” by World Health Organisation in 1967 through programmes of vaccination carried out across the world.   

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Introducing Mantellisaurus – the 2020 Mantell Birthday Memorial Lecture

When Gideon Mantell and wife Mary Ann described fossils they had found in the Wealden clays north of Lewes in the 1820s they realised they had come across something totally new; the original tooth so resembled that of an iguana’s the creature was named Iguanodon. Over the next 100 years more bones were discovered and a whole set of dinosaur skeletons under the name of Iguanodontids were identified and placed in museums around Europe.

More recently however the family tree of this creature has been questioned…

Come along to the Gideon Mantell birthday memorial lecture on 3rd February 2020 7.30pm at Lewes Town Hall Council Chamber, High Street, Lewes BN7 2QS to find out about the latest in research on this. Joe Bonsor (@palaeojoe) PhD student at the Natural History Museum in London will be sharing his work on the skeleton that is exhibited in the museum’s Hintze Hall, now called Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis after Lewes’ own Gideon Mantell.

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Upcoming conference

Cuckfield The quarry at Cuckfield where various items were found

For all those interested in Geology/Earth Science in Southeast England there is the inaugural Wealden Geological Assembly on Saturday 30 November 2019 in the Exhibition Hall of Worthing College on the northern outskirts of the town,  BN14 9FD,  with ample free parking. An Invitation to attend conference is here.

Highlights of the programme include:

2.05-2.40pm                Wealden Dinosaurs, based on Mantell’s discoveries: Joe Bonsor  (PhD student at the NHM)  ‘Iguanodon and other Wealden iguanodontids’

2.40-3.15pm               Tom Raven  (PhD Student at the NHM) Hylaeosaurus and other Wealden anklyosaurs’

Conference Fee for the WGA is £30, which includes coffee/tea/biscuits, buffet lunch and Conference publication. Please make your cheque payable to   Anthony Brook   and forward, with this completed Registration Form to Anthony Brook, 15, Cambourne Court, Shelley Road, Worthing BN11 4BQ. Conference Fee for Full-time Students is only £25

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Mantell’s birthplace

Gideon Algernon Mantell was born on 3 Feb 1790 in St Mary’s Lane in Lewes, now Station Street. His early life and training as a doctor  are well documented. His father Thomas Mantell was a well respected local cordwainer who sat on the local Council of Twelve who managed the affairs of the town. You can read more about this enigmatic man, of whom not a lot is known, in the Think Tank lecture notes here.

Gideon told a friend “although my parents and their immediate predecessors were in comparatively humble stations being only trades people in a country town yet they were descendants of one of the most ancient families in England” The family could in fact trace itself back to the Conquest, and their coat of arms is shown on the Mantell plaque in St Michael’s Church

You can visit the house as part of 2019 Heritage Open Days. Please note this is a private home so not normally open to the public.

HOD 2019

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A Look at Lewes through the Eyes of Gideon Mantell

An evening walk will be led by Debby Matthews looking at the town in the early 19th century based on Mantell’s diaries and writings on Friday 16 August 2019 at 7pm.

Gideon Mantell was not just a local doctor and a famous geologist and palaeontologist, credited with the discovery of the existence of dinosaurs, he was also an antiquarian and interested in the history of Lewes. Join Debby Matthews on an evening walk, starting at his birthplace in Station Street* and ending at his house on the High Street, taking in the Priory and streets of Lewes viewed as they were in Mantell’s time; the early 19th century.

This is the fourth in the summer series of Lewes Archaeological Group’s 50th Anniversary walks

Walk LAG

*If you are interested in Mantell’s life you can also visit the house separately as part of Heritage Open Days in September

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Dinomania – a review


Reviewed by Anthony Brook

Dinomania is a most unusual and powerful theatrical performance. It begins with a flourish and remains relentlessly fast-paced for the next 80 minutes, without a pause, to a grand finale. You are transfixed by the drama unfolding before you, enacted by a small cast, in the manner and style of Ancient Greece; you are transported back in time to a time when the world was so much simpler to explain, by religious orthodoxy, until geologists came along to cause major controversies. It is a powerful dramatisation of the personalities and ideas battling for supremacy in the first half of the 19th century, a time of iconoclastic ideas and elephantine egos. In that chaotic situation, someone was going to get hurt!

Although this piece of theatre portrays the tumult caused by palaeontological discoveries of the time, it focuses on just one man, the great Sussex geological pioneer, Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), whose brave but ultimately futile effort to use his discovery of Iguanodon to join the scientific elite and Society came to nought in the end. Despite always proclaiming scientific priority over Iguanodon, and being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1825, he was still considered only ‘a country doctor and a cobbler’s son, who should leave such matters to the learned men of Society’. As is always the case, personal relationships matter enormously: although Mantell had the long-term friendship of Charles Lyell, he faced the bitter rivalry, frontal antagonism and societal dominance of Richard Owen, an oleaginous man with a razor-sharp mind, who discredited his discoveries and did his level best to appropriate his achievements. Owen coined the term dinosaur in 1841 and later established the Natural History Museum, so would seemed to have triumphed, but Mantell is still remembered as the man whose fossil discoveries in the Weald revealed fauna and flora from a Time far beyond the conceptualisation of contemporaries. ‘Deep Time’ gave plenty of time for the evolution and extinction of species, issues which had troubled ‘natural philosophers’ for many decades, leading in due course to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.

All the main personages of that period are portrayed, presenting evidence and arguing their case—-Ussher, Lamarck, Cuvier, Parkinson, Buckland and, of course, Owen, as well as those more directly involved in Mantell’s life—his father, Thomas, and his long-suffering wife, Mary Ann, who supports him admirably at first, but eventually finds his obsession with fossils too much to bear and walks out of the marital home, a very brave decision in those days. Mantell’s life bears all the hallmarks of a Shakespearian ‘Tragedy’–early success, reaching for the stars, downfall by bad decision-making and crushed by the turn of events.

Most of Dinomania is factually accurate, but ‘some of the scenes might not stand up to forensic historical scrutiny,’ admitted Lauren Mooney, co-writer/producer, ‘but it is intended as a creative adaptation, with a series of wider themes, such as who controls scientific progress.’ In that respect, it should be observed that Science, like History, is always open to re-interpretation as Time goes by; and that Geologists are only people with a particular ‘focussed curiosity’, subject to all the emotional frailties of humankind.

The acting was strong and powerful; the setting and props minimal; and the sound effects provided by a pianist on stage. The actors each played several roles in the course of the play, always in view and changing character by their language, voice, pose and actions: character changes were rapid, recognisable and yet convincing—a tribute the their thespian skills.  Foreknowledge of people, places and events helped but was not really necessary. It was a truly exciting theatrical experience, which left everyone in the audience overwhelmed.

Dinomania was performed at the New Diorama Theatre, Regent’s Place, London from 19 February until 23 March 2019:    A Show about scientific endeavour, bitter rivalry and terrible lizards, by the Kandinsky theatre company

More by Antony Brook on Mantell’s life and works here Momento Mori

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Mantell’s publications

Gideon Mantell produced a vast number of learned papers and books during his life time. These ranged from local history, geological findings, medical papers and his own observations. The full list can be downloaded here as THE PUBLICATIONS of GIDEON MANTELL

This has been produced by Anthony Brook compiler of various publications on Mantell and is based on the bibliography produced originally by Dennis Dean.

They cover from 1811 …


To 1852 just before he died …

Publications end

You can find a link to some of his original publications to read as pdf or online on the Links and References page

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