The World in a Pebble

There is no picking up a pebble by the brook side without finding all nature in connexion with it.

Cited in Thoughts on a Pebble by Gideon Man tell, 1849

While Mary Anning was searching the shore for fossils, a young shoemaker's son, Gideon Algernon Mantell, was trying to make his own way in the world of science. A story told by one of his childhood companions reveals that, like Buckland, Gideon Mantell was drawn to geology early in life:

As a mere youth, he was walking with a friend on the banks of the River Ouse when his observant eye rested on an object which had rolled down the marly bank . . . He dragged it from the water and examined it with great attention. 'What is it?' inquired his friend. 'I think that it is what they call "a fossil",' he replied. 'I have seen something like it in an old volume of the Gentleman's Magazine.' The curiosity, which proved to be a fine specimen of Ammonite, was borne home in triumph . . . and from that moment young Mantell became a geologist.

It was a revelation to Mantell that buried in the earth beneath their feet lay the 'wreckage of former lives that had turned to stone'. His home town of Lewes in Sussex is enveloped by the dramatic contours of i 1

An ammonite: according to ancient folklore, these extinct marine invertebrates were thought to have magical powers.

the chalk South Downs. Past the grammar school, the castle and the Market House, the High Street plunged towards the valley of the River Ouse and the chalk spur beyond loomed above the smoke from the chimneys of the shops. To the south, past the ruined priory, the green fields, decked with white wherever the chalk broke through the thin covering of grass, beckoned Mantell through every cobbled alley-way.

As a child exploring the local pits and quarries he uncovered ammonites with their coils 'like the fabled horn of Jupiter, Ammon', and shells with spines, such as the sea urchin, and the remains of corals and fishes; the chalk hills teemed with the worn relics of creatures that had lived long ago. For the young Mantell, science was 'like the fabled wand of the magician' which could 'call forth from the stone and from the rock their hidden lore and reveal the secrets they have so long enshrined'. Every fossil reclaimed from the past was, for him, a 'medal of creation', a fantastic page of Nature's volume to interpret.

Far removed from his vision of ancient worlds was the daily reality of supplying the town's footwear. He and his six brothers and sisters were brought up in a cottage in St Mary's Lane, a steep, narrow road that ran off the High Street. At a time when social status was principally determined by money and land, Gideon Mantell was aware of his family's modest station in life. Although his father, Thomas, ran a successful business, sometimes employing several people, he was a 'tradesman', not a 'gentleman', and so excluded from the higher ranks of society.

It was a far cry from what Mantell understood of the great wealth of the family's forebears. In his youth, he dreamed of restoring the family honours. He 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 name "Mantell" occurs in the list of Knights that accompanied William the Conqueror from Normandy. The family settled in Northamptonshire and possessed large manors at Heyford and Rode where many of the family bore the honor of a Knighthood.'

But the family fortunes had been lost almost overnight. The grandson of Sir Walter Mantell, a Protestant, took part in Sir Thomas Wyatt's attempt in i C C 4 to prevent the Catholic marriage of Queen Mary with Philip of Spain. The planned royal marriage was so unpopular that Wyatt and an array of four thousand men almost reached London Bridge before they were outnumbered and eventually forced to surrender. Wyatt and the ringleaders, including Mantell and his grandson, were executed. As if this was not enough, all the Mantell family estates, in Kent, Sussex and Northamptonshire, were forfeited to the Crown. 'Irretrievable ruin fell upon the house,' wrote Gideon Mantell; 'in my boyish days I fancied I should restore its honors and that my children would have obtained the distinctions our knightly race once bore.'

Mantell's soaring ambitions were not without foundation, for he was regarded as something of a child prodigy in his home town. He was distinguished by 'uncommon perseverance and quickness in his studies'. Owing to his pious parents, 'his retentive memory enabled him when young to repeat a large part of the Bible by heart'. When older, he was described in local records as 'tall and graceful', and with a 'style of brilliancy and eloquence'. A painting of him in his youth shows a handsome face, with even, expressive features and dark hair and eyes. Whether this is a truthful portrait is unknown, but according to the Sussex Gazette he was not lacking in charisma: 'He had the attractive personality of an actor, a voice of great power, and with clear enunciation and pleasing musical cadences he could hold his listeners spellbound.'

But as the son of a bootmaker, the young Gideon Mantell was educated with great frugality. Because of his father's nonconformist beliefs as a Methodist, the six children were excluded from the local grammar school; the twelve free places each year were reserved for those brought up in the Anglican faith. Instead, Gideon was sent to the dame-school among the labourers' cottages in St Mary's Lane. Here, under the simple guidance of an old woman, he was taught the rudiments of reading and writing in her front parlour, and he became so great a favourite that on her death the teacher left Gideon everything she had. After this, he went to the school of a Mr John Button, an exuberant philosophical radical, 'where a sound and practical commercial education was given by a gentleman whose political sentiments were so accordant with those of Gideon Mantell's father, that he was known to be on the Government black list'.

Mr Mantell's political views are not stated; however, as a radical Whig, it seems likely that he associated with the campaigning Thomas Paine, well-known reformer and also an inhabitant of Lewes. Paine was a keen debater at the Headstrong Club which met at the White Hart in the High Street. He openly challenged the value of the British monarchy at a time when the Revolution raged in France, he denounced cruelty to the poor, demanded the abolition of the slave trade, and later wrote The Rights of Man.

After two years with Mr Button, Gideon was sent away for a period of private study with his uncle, a Baptist minister, who had founded a 'Dissenting Academy for Boys' near Swindon. When he returned to Lewes at the age of fifteen, with the assistance of the leader of the local Whig party who was impressed bv his diligence Gideon was apprenticed

Gideon Mantell, 1837.

to a local surgeon, James Moore. On his father's death in 1807 money was found for him, in the last year of his 'bondage' as apprentice, to study in London and 'walk the hospitals'.

At seventeen, Mantell went to London to study medicine, carrying a bag full of fossils collected from the chalk hills of Sussex. These curios, somewhat unnecessary for a student doctor, were nonetheless of such importance to Mantell that he had found room for his 'extensive collection' on the stagecoach to London. But if he was hoping for an opportunity that would allow him to immediately develop a career in geology he was soon to be disappointed. There were, as yet, no academic posts in the subject, and his father's Methodism and his educational background precluded him from university.

The main forum for geologists was in the scientific societies springing up in the metropolis such as the Geological Society and the longer-established Royal Society. But they were largely for gentlemen of rank and wealth, and gaining membership cost time and money. Of these, the Royal Society was the most famous; its Council had provided instructions for Captain Cook's voyage of discovery and advised the government on scientific matters such as the best form of lightning conductors for buildings. The membership list read like the entries of the fashionable new guide to Society, Debrett. Lords, knights and men who 'from their fortunes it might be desirable to retain as patrons of science' dominated the list of Fellows. A shoemaker's son, however brilliant, was largely invisible to this scientific community. But while in London, a chance meeting was to set Gideon Mantell on his future course.

In 1811, the year Mary Anning's brother found the skull of the Ichthyosaurus, a distinguished doctor, James Parkinson, published the final volume of his studies on geology, Organic Remains of a Former World. Mantell may have been drawn to Parkinson because, like his father, he was a man of conscience, interested in reform. Parkinson had published such inflammatory pamphlets as While the Honest Poor are wanting Bread and Revolution without Bloodshed, advocating universal suffrage. He had even come dangerously close to transportation to Australia in 1794, when he was arrested for an alleged connection with the 'Pop Gun Plot' to assassinate King George III with a poisoned dart while he was at the opera. He was exonerated from treason, but after this incident he restricted his political interests to social reforms, to improving conditions for pauper children, and to treatments for the insane in asylums. James Parkinson is now better remembered as the doctor who first defined 'Parkinson's disease', the degenerative illness marked by shaking and tremors.

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