If you’ve ever been there on Bonfire Night you’ll know that Lewes loves a good party. Any excuse will do so I was not surprised to learn that things are happening in and around the town to ensure that the 225th anniversary of the birth of Dr Gideon Mantell doesn’t go unmarked.
Mantell was, of course, the celebrated discoverer of the fossil tooth of a dinosaur that we now know as the Iguanodon. I’ve drawn on the contents of the doctor’s extensive diary a number of times for stories in “County Yarns”. On this occasion, however, I am indebted to reader Debby Matthews for passing me some fascinating information concerning Mantell’s early life.
Gideon Algernon Mantell was born to Thomas and Sarah Mantell on 3rd February 1790 in Lewes at 16 St Mary’s Lane. The house is still there but with the opening of a new railway station at the bottom of the lane in 1857, it was renamed Station Street and also underwent a change of numbering so that 16 became 23.
Gideon was the fifth of eight children and lived in what biographer Dennis Dean describes as “an unpretentious but comfortable home which paternal shrewdness and hard work (rather than formal education) had provided”. Thomas Mantell is believed to have been a cordwainer, a maker of footwear.
Thomas had founded a Methodist chapel opposite the house on St Mary’s Lane in 1788 where Gideon was baptised by the Rev George Barnard on 8th September 1790.
Gideon’s middle name reflected his father’s admiration for Algernon Sidney, a republican who had fought on the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War. Following the Restoration Sidney was beheaded after being convicted on a dubious charge of treason.
As a radical Whig, Thomas was deeply opposed to a monarch wielding absolute power. He was an associate of the Lee family who were friends of Thomas Paine when he lived in Lewes between 1768 and 1774. Debby Matthews believes that Thomas must have known and fully approved of Paine’s pronounced republicanism. But showing support for the “wrong” politics can be costly as Gideon lamented some years later: “My poor father suffered greatly in fortune during the war with revolutionary France for his Whig principles”.
The Mantells were a long-established Lewes family; a direct ancestor, John Mantell, was elected Headborough in 1562 and made Constable 10 years later. Thomas himself successfully secured election as Headborough in 1792. These were all important positions. Even so, it seems that Thomas Mantell’s religious and political leanings effectively ruled out his son attending the local Anglican grammar school.
Gideon’s formal education from the age of five was at a “Dame School” located either in St Mary’s Lane or Fisher Street. The “Dame” in question was a woman of mature years able to teach children the rudiments of grammar and arithmetic with a bit of history thrown in for good measure. The classroom was most likely the teacher’s own home. Gideon’s teacher must have grown very fond of the boy, as upon her death she apparently left him all of her worldly possessions. Or maybe she was just so proud of how her young charge had grown up to become a respected doctor and famous geologist.
In 1797 he moved on to Dr John Button’s Academy, opposite Cliffe Church, where he stayed until 1802. Button was a Baptist and also a radical Whig. An 1852 account describes him as “a gentleman whose political sentiments were so accordant with those of Thomas Mantell that he was known to be on the Government black list”.
Button was a modern educationalist for his time; a fitting place then for a keen pupil who at the age of seven read aloud an excerpt from Homer’s “Illiad” to an audience in the Assembly Room of the Star Inn, a building that later became Lewes Town Hall. The young Gideon was also skilled at drawing and created a book “Sketches by G A Mantell, aged 11, for his sister Jemima”. It featured various places in the town and was produced in a limited edition of two copies!
There are records of who lived where in Lewes in 1790 and a detailed interpretation panel (researched by Debby Matthews) has been erected halfway up Station Street giving an idea of what the lane would have been like back then. It was from No 16 that the young Gideon would set off to dig up and bring home bits of pot and stone from the nearby ruins of Lewes Priory. He recorded: “In my various explorations of the ruins when a youth and which of course were not judiciously conducted, and with very inefficient means, three or four ornamental capitals and considerable number of encaustic tiles bearing various devices rewarded my labours.” These are now housed in the British Museum but one can only imagine what his mother Sarah must have thought when he first brought such stuff home.
In his book “Notes on a Pebble” Gideon tells how he and a friend, Warren Lee, found a stone bearing an ammonite fossil in a stream. All these activities set him on a path to becoming such a remarkable geologist and pioneer palaeontologist.
Gideon Mantell’s father Thomas died in 1807. His will showed he still owned 16 St Mary’s Lane. In 1812 Gideon was recorded as briefly living back in the former family home with his widowed mother Sarah Mantell, who had become the house owner.
Thomas Mantell was buried in the graveyard of the parish church, St John sub Castro, alongside others of the extended Mantell family. In December 1828 Sarah died age 73. Gideon wrote in his diary: “My poor mother was interred this morning in a grave close to my father, who was buried 22 years since”.
Unfortunately Mantell had been at loggerheads with the church vicar who was now able to block the doctor’s attempts to plant trees and flowers on the plot. The aggrieved doctor wrote: “The incumbent Peter Crofts was pleased to take offence at my action and compelled me to take up the yew tree, though allowing the railings to remain as a great favour”.
As stated at the outset I owe much of the above information to the input of Debby Matthews. She and her husband John are keen supporters of the Lewes Bonfire tradition and love living in this town. It may also not surprise you to learn that the couple inhabit that very same house where Gideon Mantell was born 225 years ago. More fitting custodians of the one-time abode of such a Sussex legend I could not imagine.