Category Archives: Curiosities

Biography Curiosities Dinosaurs Medicine Science

He discovered the fossil bones of the prehistoric Iguanodon

Gideon Mantel by Samuel Stepney, published in ‘Thoughts on a Pebble’ (1837)


Shakespeare’s England usually sits very firmly in the everyday world of the seventeenth century, but I’ve always believed this doesn’t preclude me from exploring tantalising snippets of history from both before and after my beloved sixteen hundreds. So this post is on Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), father, doctor, and dinosaur expert. As a resident of Sussex, I’ve often walked past the house which once belonged to him, and this week I thought it was time, at last, to discover who he really was.

Gideon was born on 3rd February 1790, at the family home in Lewes, East Sussex. His father Thomas was a shoemaker, and his mother, Sarah Austen, came originally from a family in Kent. Gideon’s father had radical political opinions. As a strident Whig and Methodist, his views were unacceptable at the local grammar school, and so Gideon was educated by John Button in Sussex and his uncle in Wiltshire. By 1805, at the age of fifteen, Gideon had become apprenticed to the Lewes surgeon James Moore, and after a six-month spell at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, he became Moore’s business partner. In 1816, Mantell married Mary Ann Woodhouse of London, the daughter of one of his earliest patients, and he was soon successful enough to buy out James Moore’s interest in the Lewes medical practice and support a growing family.

Gideon contributed to a number of journals and publications as his medical career progressed, but he developed an increasing fascination for geology and palaeontology; interests he had been fostering since childhood. Spending many hours exploring the rolling countryside of Sussex, Gideon published his first book, The Fossils of the South Downs, in 1822. By 1825, having surveyed Tilgate Forest near Cuckfield, Mantell announced the exciting discovery of Iguanodon. His early evidence for the existence of dinosaurs (incidentally a word not yet coined in 1825) consisted primarily of extant teeth he had collected, but it was sufficient to establish the identity of a gigantic extinct herbivore, and Mantell was subsequently invited to become a member of the Royal Society.

In 1827, Gideon published Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex, a booked devoted to vertebrate fossils, it is ‘the earliest book of any to deal primarily with dinosaur remains’ (Dean). In 1833, he combined his writings from both his previous books with a paper written for the Geological Society, and published a new book entitled Geology of the South-East of England, in which he confirms his discovery of a second type of dinosaur, the heavily-armoured Hylaeosaurus. This discovery confirmed that dinosaurs walked on the ground and were not amphibians; a theory previously held by scientists.

Mantell’s work and reputation grew exponentially in these years, and he began to associate with members of the aristocracy, particularly the third earl of Egremont, who made him a whopping grant of £1000. Such was his fame and popularity, Mantell located to the more fashionable nearby resort of Brighton, which the king visited every winter. Gideon attempted to open a medical practice in Brighton which failed, but he did create a geological museum to house his fossils. In 1834, Benjamin Silliman of Yale managed to secure Gideon an honorary LLD, and despite his distinction being literary, rather than medical, he adopted the title Dr Mantell henceforth.


The Weekly True Sun (London) 1838


In 1834, Mantell acquired his most famous paleontological specimen, the Maidstone Iguanodon, which had been located for him by two of his friends. It was one of only two almost complete dinosaur fossils known at the time, and it became the chief attraction in Mantell’s Brighton museum. Despite this however, Mantell’s finances were failing, and he was forced to purchase a medical practice in Clapham. Unable to afford to maintain his collection, he sold his fossils to the British Museum in 1838 for £4000. The following year, his wife and elder son left him, and in 1840, his favourite daughter, Hannah, died of tuberculosis.


Maidstone Iguanodon


Initially and naturally devastated by his accumulated losses, Gideon nevertheless maintained his interest in palaeontology, and his book Wonders of Geology (1838), as well as his Medals of Creation (1844, which opposed evolution), and Thoughts on Animalcules (1846, on microscopy) sold well and were popular. His last books on geology, A Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains (1850) and Petrifactions and their Teachings (1851), included contributions on recently extinct New Zealand birds by his son Walter.

From 1841 onwards, Gideon was plagued with a painful spinal disease and he eventually died in his Chester Square home in London on 10th November 1852, possibly from an overdose of opium taken to counteract his back-pain. He was buried in Norwood cemetery with his daughter, Hannah.

The word dinosaur came into use in 1842, coined by a comparative anatomist named Richard Owen, who was envious of Mantell’s discoveries. For posterity it should be noted that it was Mantell, and not Owen, who first emphasised that there had been an age of reptiles preceding the age of mammals. Besides Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, Mantell’s dinosaur discoveries included Megalosaurus, Cetiosaurus, Regnosaurus, Pelorosaurus, and the later-named Hypsilophodon. He also discovered dozens of other prehistoric creatures: new fossil fishes, further vertebrates, and a very large number of invertebrates, together with microspecies and plants.


Plaque outside Mantell’s home in Lewes


Source: “Mantell, Gideon Algernon (1790–1852),” Dennis R. Dean in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, October (2006)

Curiosities Witchcraft Women

She threw up crooked pins


This extract comes from a late seventeenth century account of witchcraft in Somerset. I think it’s the first witchcraft text I’ve read which details victims vomiting household objects, and it makes for some curious reading. The text doesn’t unfortunately relate what subsequently happened to the suspected witch. 

In the Town of Beckenton, in Somersetshire, liveth one William Spicer, a young Man about eighteen Years of Age. As he was wont to pass by the Alms-house (where lived an Old Woman, about Four score) he would call her Witch, and tell her of her Buns; which did so enrage the Old Woman, that she threatened him with a Warrant; and accordingly did fetch one from a Neighbouring Justice of the Peace. At which he was so frightened, that he humbled himself to her, and promised never to call her so again. Within a few days after, this Young Man fell into the strangest Fits that held him about a Fortnight. When the Fits were upon him, he would often say that he did see this Old Woman against the Wall in the same Room of the House where he was, and that sometimes she did knock her Fist at him; sometimes grin her Teeth, and sometimes laugh at him in his Fits. He was so strong, that three or four Men could scarce hold him; and when he did call for Small Beer to drink, he would be sure to bring up some Crooked Pins to the Number of Thirty, and upwards.

In the same Town liveth one Mary Hill, about the same Age of this Young Man; who meeting with this Old Woman, demanded the Ring she borrowed of her, with a threatening from the Old Woman that she had been better to have let her kept it longer. About a Week before the said Mary was taken with Fits, she met this Old Woman in the Street; who taking her by the hand, desired her to go with her to Froom, to look after some Spinning Work. The said Mary being afraid, refused to go with her. About four days after she met the Old Woman again, who begged an Apple of her, which she refused to give her.

The Sunday following, she complained of a pricking in her Stomack; but on Monday, as she was Eating her Dinner, something arose in her Throat, which was like to have Choaked her; and at the same time she fell into Violent Fits, which held her till Nine or Ten a Clock at Night. The Fits were so strong and violent, that Four or Five Persons were scarce able to hold her, and in the midst of them, she would tell how she saw this old Woman against the Wall, grinning at her, and that she was the Person that had bewitcht her.

The Wednesday following, she began to throw up Crooked Pins, and so continued for the space of a Fortnight. After this, she began to throw up Nails and Pins. And then she began to throw up Nails again, and Handles of Spoons, several pieces of Iron, Lead, and Tin, with several clusters of Crooked Pins; some tied with Yarn, and some with Thread, with abundance of Blood. She threw up in all, above Two Hundred Crooked Pins.

The People of the Town seeing the sad and deplorable Condition of the said Mary, did cause this old Woman to be brought near the House where the Mary Lived, and being gathered together above an Hundred People, the said Mary was brought forth into the open Air, who immediately fell into such strong Fits, that two or three men were scarce able to hold her, and being brought upon the Hill by the Church, and the old Woman brought near her (notwithstanding there were four men to hold the said Mary in a Chair) she mounted up over their Heads into the Air; but the men, and others standing by, caught hold of her Legs, and pulled her down again.

This old Woman was ordered to be searched by a Jury of Women, who found about her several purple Spots, which they prickt with a sharp Needle, but she felt no pain. She had about her other Marks and Tokens of a Witch, and she was sent to the County Jayle.

This old Woman was had to a great River near the Town, to see whether she could sink under Water. Her Legs being tied, she was put in, and though she did endeavour to the uttermost by her Hands, yet she could not, but would lie upon her Back, and did Swim like a piece of Cork. There were present above Twenty Persons to Attest the Truth of this. She was had to the Water a second time, and being put in, she swam as at first; and though there were present above Two Hundred People to see this Sight, yet it could not be believed by many. At the same time, also, there was put into the Water, a Lusty young Woman, who sunk immediately, and had been drowned, had it not been for the help that was at hand. To satisfy the World, and to leave no Room for doubting, the old Woman was had down to the Water the third time, and being put in as before, she did still Swim. At this Swimming of her, were present, such a Company of People of the Town and Country, and many of them, Persons of Quality, as could not well be Numbered; so that now, there is scarce one Person that doubts of the Truth of this thing.

It is full Ten Weeks ago that this young Woman was first seized with these Terrible Fits, yet she continues to be often seized with terrible Fits, and to bring up both Nails and Handles of Spoons, and is still remaining an Object of great Pity.

Since writing this post, Tom White alerted me to the digitised records of this case, which reveal that the witch, Elizabeth Carrier, died in prison. The records are held on a wonderful database entitled Witches in Early Modern England, which can be accessed here


Curiosities Handwriting

Victorian Shorthand

Travelling forward two hundred years from Elizabethan England, I’ve been trying to decipher this handwriting below without much success. I can manage some of it but not all. It’s entries to Newgate Prison listing the physical descriptions of the prisoners, written in some sort of shorthand. I can decipher names heights and occupations etc but the rest has me baffled. If you have any idea what the shorthand may mean then please do leave a comment below.

Could the ‘fr’ refer to fair? Followed by shorthand for eye colour? In other entries ‘fr’ is replaced with ‘sal’ perhaps for sallow?


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Crime Curiosities London Politics Tower Of London

The more affliction we endure

Queen’s House, Tower of London

I thought it might be interesting to share some photographs of Tudor graffiti in the Tower of London. I should point out that I am in no way a photographer, and the photos below were taken inside the Beauchamp Tower with an iPhone. As such the quality is quite poor. However the photos do convey a sense of the incredible graffiti carved into the walls; there is something very moving about these personal imprints, carved during a time of fear and, often, abject despair.

Beauchamp Tower stands adjacent to the above building in the Tower complex. Its proximity to what had been the Lieutenant’s Lodgings made it an ideal place to hold high-profile prisoners in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some of its more famous occupants include Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, imprisoned for a year in the Tower in 1553, and Sir Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, who died at the Tower after ten years of incarceration. The upper and lower floors of Beauchamp Tower are littered with personalised graffiti, now carefully preserved behind perspex screens.

Beauchamp Tower
Robert Dudley’s initials?
Earl of Arundel

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