A Hoax That Grew

R. Essex, M.Sc.

(An article appearing in the Kent and Sussex Journal,

July-September 1955, Vol. 2, no.4, P.94-95.

reproduced by kind permission of Whitethorn Press Ltd.)


A defence of Charles Dawson, the Uckfield solicitor and geologist. The firsthand account of some happenings of the years 1912 to 1913. Mr. Essex is the only scientist left who was in Uckfield and in day-to-day contact with Charles Dawson during the important years 1912 to 1913. He saw and remembers many things that recent investigators of the Piltdown mystery seem to have missed.


Two books have already appeared on the Piltdown Problem. The first is by J. S. Weiner The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford University Press), and it begins by tracing the steps that enabled a group of scientists to show that the Piltdown jaw was that of a modern ape, then it deals with the steps which led to the statement that all the Piltdown finds were planted and thirdly it gives the results of Dr. Weiner's conversations with a number of people living in the neighbourhood of Piltdown. As a result of all this, suspicion is pointed in Charles Dawson's direction.

The second book is by Francis Vere of Piltdown, The Piltdown Fantasy (Cassell) in which the author critically examines all the evidence, including some which Dr. Weiner did not consider. He comes to the conclusions, first that the hoax would have been short-lived had Smith Woodward not been quite so possessive and if he had, instead, allowed other scientists to examine the jaw itself instead of merely handling a plaster model of it: second that all the Piltdown finds were not planted, because the first finds, the skull parts, were discovered embedded in the gravel and had to be got out with a pick-axe. Thirdly, that if all the finds had been planted, the fluorine test could be ignored since it only applies in the case of specimens which come from the same deposit, and fourthly he comes to the conclusion that Dr. Weiner's travels in Sussex resulted in the collection of a lot of gossip about Charles Dawson which will not bear critical examination.

Being practically in daily contact with Charles Dawson during the important years 1912-15, the present author saw many things which those who have recently been investigating the hoax have ignored.

First. Another jaw not mentioned by Dr. Weiner came from Piltdown much more human than the ape's jaw and, therefore much more likely to belong to the Piltdown skull parts which are admittedly human. I saw and handled that jaw and know in whose bag it came to Dawson's office. The jaw was also seen by Mr. H. H. Wakefield, then an articled clerk of Dawson's, and he has given written evidence of seeing it. Dawson never saw it, and the owner probably never knew until 1953 that anybody but himself had seen it. It happened in this way. I was science master at Uckfield Grammar School, Charles Dawson was Clerk to the Governors and his office was quite near to the school, so near that in getting to Uckfield High Street one had to pass his office windows. One day when I was passing I was beckoned in by one of the clerks whom I knew well. He had called me in to show me a fossil half-jaw much more human than an ape's and with three molars firmly fixed in it. When I asked where this object came from, the answer was 'Piltdown'. According to the clerk it had been brought down by one of the 'diggers' who, when he called and asked for Mr. Dawson, was carrying a bag such as might be used for carrying tools. When he was told that Mr. Dawson was busy in court he said he would leave the bag and come back. When he had gone, the clerk opened the bag and saw this jaw. Seeing me passing he had called me in. I told him he had better put it back and that Mr. Dawson would be cross if he knew. I found afterwards that when the 'digger' returned, Mr. Dawson was still busy in court, so he picked up his bag and left.

From that time until December 1953, I was under the impression that I had had a preview of the jaw from Piltdown seen and examined by the experts. But when, a year and a half ago, I saw a photograph of the Museum jaw from the inner side, I realized that it and mine were not the same. I travelled down from York and put all my information on the matter before the experts at the British Museum. One big difference regarding the jaws was that whereas mine had three molars firmly fixed, the long accepted jaw had two and a cavity or empty socket. An interesting point arises here. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says the jaw had two molars and an empty socket. Chamber's Encyclopaedia published in 1950 says it had three molars in position.

Some time after my visit to Dawson's offices, related above, I was near Piltdown with one of my colleagues when we met Robert Kenward, son of the owner of the farm on which the Piltdown gravel pit lay. He asked us if we had seen X (naming the owner of the bag). X apparently was distractedly searching for something he had lost and would not tell Robert what it was.

The third link is this. I was standing outside Dawson's office talking to him and to John Montgomery, the Headmaster of Uckfield Grammar School and himself a member of the local Archæological Society, and a little apart were two or three others talking. When Charles Dawson said he had never seen anything like the 'sixteen-inch bat' found at Piltdown, Montgomery told him he had seen one in the Dordogne. Montgomery told me afterwards exactly how he saw it, but the point is that as soon as Montgomery said 'Dordogne', Dawson's eyes glanced across to the nearby group of people, one of whom was the owner of the bag. Then he turned abruptly indoors. That information I gave in much more detail, to the experts months before their report was issued.

I am certain Dawson suspected something, although at the time I had no idea what he suspected. He was not the man to broadcast suspicion. In support of this, there is a fact not generally known. It is on record that Dr. S. Allison Woodhead, then Head of the Agricultural College at Uckfield and afterwards County analyst did one analysis for Dawson. As a matter of fact he did several. I knew Dr. Woodhead very well, and I am certain that even to him Dawson never mentioned this suspect or his suspicions in general.

Dr. Weiner mentioned Dawson's experiment with bones and seems to think that Dawson was trying to fake. He was trying to see if they could be faked, which is not the same thing. Further the tale of the boiling of bones in Dawson's office is a complete fairy tale. Dawson did not know enough chemistry to do any real work on such matters; he might have made a few simple tests suggested by Dr. Woodhead. Unfortunately, Dawson died before he could finish.

It might be asked why suspicion has turned on to Dawson. Amongst the people who know the facts there is not one who suspects him.

I have given all the above facts to the scientific team in charge of the matter. I have named X and I have identified him. It is not my business to pillory him publicly. He conceived a joke. It worked far better than he could have hoped in one way and in another it failed; but that was not his fault. It was in a measure the fault of the scientists who did not subject the 'jaw' itself to critical examination and partly it was due to the fact that the people concerned became scattered. Dawson died, Smith Woodward retired; and X ? If Dawson had lived I am certain he would have found out the whole affair, and I should have loved to have been there to listen to the dressing-down to which X would have had to listen. Then he would have had to collaborate in cleaning up the mess.

Incidentally the hoax was not conceived as a whole. It grew. When the first bait was swallowed and the hoaxer did not get the satisfaction of seeing the face of his victim when he realized he had been galled, he tried again and again and in the end all the hoaxer had was the knowledge that in the British Museum was his hybrid offspring which he could not publicly claim, together with a few teeth and a bat.

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Defending DAWSON