The Crystal Palace dinosaurs

1854 was the date of the unveiling of model dinosaurs in the park in South London  where the Crystal Palace had recently been moved from Hyde Park. Gideon Mantell however had died in 1852. So what is the link?

In August 1852 Mantell was approached by the directors of the Crystal Palace Company to oversee the development of a geological display telling the story of the discoveries he had overseen for so long. The minutes showed they wished to “make enquiry of Dr Mantell as to what degree of completeness the collection could attain for a sum of 3,000 or 4,000 pounds”. Mantell was however in acute pain, and in fact dying, and so he declined the offer. “Very good for nothing… in fact I am all used up” he wrote. On 10 November he died, possibly from an overdose of the opiates he took to achieve some relief.

His previous antagonistic relationship with rival Richard Owen then worked its ways out. This has been documented in the book by Deborah Cadbury The Dinosaur Hunters: the True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World

Owen despite having been unmasked as the author of an obituary dismissing Mantell’s contribution to the knowledge of the time went on to not only inherit Mantell’s deformed spine for his collection at the Hunterian Museum but also to take over the development of the dinosaur park at Sidenham. Owen ignored Mantell’s, in fact correct, interpretation of the Iguanodon as having shorter fore limbs and designed a squat four legged scaly monster Igunaodon model.

On New Years Eve 1853 Owen hosted a celebratory meal inside a cast from this model and used it to promote the venture, as described here Dinner in the Iguanodon .


The famous “Dinner in the Iguanodon Model” was immortalised in this picture, published in Illustrated London News, 7 January 1854, p. 22.The names of Mantell, Buckland and Cuvier can be glimpsed high on the wall but Owen took the place at the head of the table.

To explore this debate and the respective roles of all of the men and women discoverers of our earliest land and sea creatures a piece of street art will be coming to Lewes in the summer. Not only was Lewes Mantell’s birthplace but also the location of where he  lived when he discovered and identified the original Iguanodon fossils. This event will be on Sunday 25 September 2016  and will be brought to life by the Iguanodon Restaurant street theatre shows presented by Emerald Ant CIC

If you would like to help plan this event, can help with fundraising or help develop the fossil festival programme to accompany this please email debby.matthews[at]



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Horsfield’s History & Antiquities of Lewes and its Vicinity

This illustrated book was published in 1824 by J Baxter and written by Rev Thomas Walker Horsfield who was the Minister of West Gate Chapel (1817-27) includes additional material from Gideon Mantell. Volume I includes an appendix of the Natural History of Lewes by Gideon Mantell FRS.There are descriptions of the bones, beads, pots and other antiquities found by Mantell in his searches around the hills of the town. Click on the link to view the book online as a Google facsimile

Contained within the 350 plus pages is a comprehensive history of the town as was known at the time in an extremely readable style. There are illustrated plates included in the book which are familiar to many people as pictures in their own right.  The only possible chapters now contested are the sections describing Lewes as a Roman garrison.


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Gideon’s parents Thomas & Sarah Mantell

In 1776 Thomas Mantell, written sometimes as Mantle, married Sarah Austin born 25 Nov 1755 from Peckam Kent and lived together in 16 St Mary’s Lane, Lewes. Thomas Mantell born 21 April 1750 signed himself in documents as a Cordwainer, or shoe maker.The history of the ownership of the house is listed in Colin Brent’s exhaustive analysis of house ownership and residences of Lewes.

Number 23 SML SJ: Southover manor freehold, rent eight pence
1710 Widow Hawcombe, late Auger: tenement next the Ship in SML – MR
1733 & 1738 Jas Daw junior master bricklayer [GL] Westgate owner & occ – DN list
1761 house belonging to J Daws: abuttal – FB 116
1780-6 Mr Thatcher, 1787 J Wimble junior,1788-1807 T Mantell owner – LT W1
1807 death of TM boot maker & master gardener aged 55 – SWA 13 July
1807-12 Mrs M owner – LT W1 W2
1780-1 J Edwards, 1782 Jos Burgess, 1786 Fowle, 1787 JW junior
1789-1807 T Mantell shoemaker, 1807-12 Wicks, Saxby, Morley, occs* – LT W1
1812 Gideon Mantell occ – W2

Thomas did also own various other buildings in Fisher Street, St John’s Street and Lancaster Street as well as the Methodist chapel he had built in St Mary’s Lane by the time of his death on 11 July 1807. The first Thomas Mantell came to Lewes in the 1550s and took up important roles in the governing of the town such as Headborough in 1562 and Constable in 1572. The full family story is told in the 2008 book by Dennis Dean Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of Dinosaurs

Thomas and Sarah’s fifth child was Gideon Algernon born 3 February 1790 whose middle name reflected his father’s admiration for Algernon Sidney, a republican hero. Together living with Gideon and his parents were older sister Mary (their first child Sarah had died in infancy) and brothers Thomas and Samuel. Later they were joined by younger siblings Joshua, Jemima and, when Sarah was aged about forty five, her eighth child Kezia.

Thomas founded a Methodist chapel opposite the house on St Mary’s Lane in 1788 where Gideon was baptised by the Rev George Barnard on 8 September 1790. Thomas Mantell died in 1807 and was buried in his parish church, St John sub Castro graveyard along with other members of the Mantell family. In 1812 Gideon is recorded as back from London living with Sarah who was listed as owner of the family home, before taking up his medical practice with Dr Moore on the High Street around the corner. In December 1828 Sarah died age 73, Gideon wrote in his diary “my poor mother was interred this morning in a steined grave close to my father, who was buried 22 years since”.

Grave of Thomas and Sarah Mantell

Grave of Thomas and Sarah Mantell, Gideon’s parents

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Gideon Mantell in the news

They’re Back a recent Guardian article on Dinosaurs made much of Richard Owen and his dinosaour park at Crystal Palace but seemed to have totally overlooked Mantell’s contribution to the story by his finding and naming of the Iguanodon. A letter in the Guardian 19 June 2015 has attempted to put this right

The long standing rivalry between Owen and Mantell was well described in Deborah Cadbury’s book Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. Fourth Estate; 2000 (reviewed here

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Booth Museum of Natural History

If you are in Dyke Road in Brighton do not forget to visit the collection of fossils in the Booth Museum. There is a description of what you can see on their website Here you can also read about the origins of the Booth Museum and how Mantell ended up in Brighton with his own museum collection of fossils and natural specimens.

Thanks to John A. Cooper BSc AMA FGS Keeper of Natural Sciences, Booth Museum of Natural History, 194 Dyke Road ,Brighton, BN1 5AA



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Who exactly found the iguanodon tooth?

Gideon Mantell’s life was full of exploration and learning and he wrote and published about it extensively but one mystery remains; who actually found the original iguanodon tooth? The story goes that Mary Ann Mantell accompanied her husband Gideon on a journey one day in 1822 and while he was visiting one of his patients she spotted a strangely coloured item by the road side in a pile of stones left by some road builders. She immediatly spotted the significance and showed it to her husband who went on to publish the find as evidence of a giant land lizard the Iguano-don (tooth of an iguana) in 1825. He later changed the story to being “found by me”. We know that later on Gideon and his wife separated; with her leaving him and her children, possibly exasperated by his obsessions with ancient stones and bones. Was she written out of the history books or is there a different explanation?  Anthony Booth of West Sussex Geological Society gave a talk on Tuesday 24th February 2015 at Council Chamber, Lewes Town Hall  looking for a different explanation. By delving into the sources such as Mantell’s published and unpublished diaries  he attempted to discover whether Mantell was already in posession of fossil “teeth” before the date of the supposed original find.At the close of the talk he asked the people present for a show of hands. Most in the room were still for Mary Mantell  – after all why would Gideon have lied when he wrote himself that “the first specimens of the teeth were found by Mrs Mantell in the course conglomerate of the forest”. See Mantell’s Illustrations of Geology of Sussex  1822  Vol 1 p 54 nos 40, 41.The fossils of the South Downs, or, Illustrations of the geology of Sussex pages 54-55. The illustrations of the first teeth found that appear in the publication were produced by Mary Ann Mantell. The case against this explanation was not therefore proven. However whatever the actual truths the whole story of the finding, identifying and naming of the first known land dinosaur is still of major national and international importance.

The actual tooth is kept in the Te Papa museum in New Zealand where the Mantells’ eldest son Walter emigrated to and who received many of the Mantell papers and artefacts after Gideon’s death. See a description of it at

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How to find original Mantell publications

Mantell’s books can be viewed as facsimiles or as paperback reprints but to handle or own one of Gideon Mantell’s original publications is a special thing. These books can be quite expensive, for example his Geology of the South East England (1833) can be in the high hundreds. Some of the books are quite rare as they were produced by subscription and have hand produced plates in them.

Places to buy originals includes the Bow Windows Book Shop in Lewes.

Or search the regular book fairs in Lewes Town Hall. There you can usually find Alan Ticehurst who may have one of Mantell’s originals for sale. Or he can seek them out for you. Contact him on 01323 641912 or email If you do so please let him know you found out about him here.

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