A couple of weeks ago I attended a fascinating presentation telling the story of Lewes Racecourse. It was made by John Turley, one of a small group of Sussex people determined to properly mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of the closure of the course in September 1964.
John’s excellent illustrated talk was facilitated by the Lewes History Group and attracted an audience of around 150.
John couldn’t tell us everything about Lewes Racecourse not least because he was restricted to about an hour in total and that’s not a lot of time when you consider that racing commenced in the town as far back as 1727.
It so happens that I’ve done a bit of my own research and have dug up a tale concerning Dr Gideon Algernon Mantell, celebrated discoverer of the first fossil remains of an iguanodon in the Sussex Weald. It turns out he was a frequent visitor to Lewes Races in the 19th century. He lived in a large house in the High Street very close to the Castle. The property is still there today and has a plaque marking his tenure; there are decorative representations of fossil ammonites above the doorway. We know of Dr Mantell’s keen interest in the races through the extensive journal he compiled between 1819 and his death in 1852. The content details his social, medical and fossil-hunting activities in Lewes and the surrounding towns, villages and farms. The original manuscript is now housed in the Alexander Turnball Library in Wellington, New Zealand, taken there by one of his sons who had emigrated.
Mantell’s journal yields plenty of references to Lewes Races. He doesn’t go into any detail about runners and riders or wagering; indeed, the clear impression is that the races at Lewes (and those at Brighton for that matter), were for him and his wife Mary Ann very much social gatherings played out against the backdrop of a splendid sporting occasion atop the glorious South Downs.
Intriguing Journal entries include: “July 31st 1820. First Day of Lewes Races. Drove Mrs Mantell and Ellen to the hill. On the previous day we had been to Brighton Races.”
“August 12th 1820. Accompanied Mrs Mantell and Miss Woodhouse to the Races.”
“July 8th 1830. Fine Roman brass celt found near the Racecourse.”
“August 1830. Lewes Races very badly attended.”
“August 21st 1833. Went to the Race Assembly Ball and Supper.”
“August 10th 1834. The Races were last week. Much plagued with visitors.”
Dr Mantell’s interest in Lewes Racecourse and environs went beyond the equine. Born and bred in the town, from an early age he demonstrated a fascination for the untold types of fossils awaiting discovery in the many chalk quarries surrounding the county town.
Mantell qualified in medicine and became a doctor, a profession with the title “surgeon” in those days. He worked from his Lewes home from 1816 and his journal makes it clear he was kept very busy; cholera, typhoid and smallpox outbreaks were frequent and it was not unusual for him to treat 50 patients a day. He also delivered several hundred babies each year; no doubt many being the ancestors of not a few present-day Sussex folk.
But geology was his hobby and real love. He slowly built up what became his ‘Mantellian Museum’, full of fossil fish and other relics. His journal records a number of visits to Offham chalk pit in a “fly”, a horse-drawn lightweight carriage. The chalk pit at Offham nestles below the Race Hill and is by the side of the road from Lewes to Chailey. In Mantell’s time the site was a working quarry producing lime and exposing new surfaces that might yield fossils almost on a daily basis. Traces of an ingenious hillside tramway that carried lime down to barges in a cutting below can still be seen beside the present-day Chalk Pit pub. This was the first true railway to be built anywhere in Sussex.
Mantell’s most astonishing find were some fossil teeth that he quickly realised were once part of a colossal, herbivorous reptile, long extinct. He dubbed it “Iguanodon”, a name that translates as “Iguana-tooth”. In 1842 the Iguanodon was formally recorded as a hitherto unknown type of creature. Mantell had discovered a genuine dinosaur in the heart of Sussex. Today the Iguanodon has been dated as belonging to the mid-Jurassic period, some 125 million years ago.
Mantell left Lewes in 1833 to go and live in Brighton. He remained there until 1838, when he moved to London. He was never a wealthy man and at one time had to sell his fossil collection to the British Museum to raise £4,000 to pay off debts.
Following a terrible carriage accident near Clapham Common, Mantell’s health - never good at the best of times - rapidly deteriorated. He had to take opium to alleviate the constant pain. He died in 1852 from an overdose of the drug. His post-mortem revealed he suffered from scoliosis. In death, fate had an ironic twist in store for this man who, in life, had busied himself collecting fossil remains of extinct creatures. In the interests of medical research, part of Mantell’s spine was removed, pickled and stored on a shelf at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.