The Dog and the Dinosaur
The true story of the great brontosaurus hunt; PLUS Charlton brothers, lost brothers, new David Grann
Two days before Christmas in 1919, Captain Leicester Stevens, a British military officer, set off from London with his rescued war dog Laddie on a ten-thousand-mile journey into the unexplored heart of Africa to hunt for a dinosaur. There had been a flurry of reported sightings in the Belgian Congo of a huge monster, which witnesses identified as a brontosaurus. Newspapers reported a $5 million reward for its capture – dead or alive. It was an improbable quest that would grip the world.
Today, Philip Stevens must reach deep into his mind for memories of his father. Philip was just eighteen when Leicester died. Father and son had a complicated and detached relationship. Leicester never spoke of the dinosaur hunt, nor of his war exploits, or his past as a successful golfer. Now in his 80s, Philip explores his father’s remarkable story for the first time and attempts to reconcile the angry and impatient man he once knew with the heroic adventurer who made headlines a century ago.
My latest feature-length true story involves great bravery on the First World War’s deadliest battlefields (where Leicester rescued the faithful Laddie, a German barrage dog) and a colourful and extraordinary dinosaur frenzy (given credence by the world's most respected newspapers and experts). It’s set in an era of colonial ignorance and misplaced derring-do that drew men like Leicester into “deepest, darkest Africa”.
It’s also a story about family and how we connect (or fail to connect) with our ancestors. In a remarkable twist, Philip reveals that his daughter (Leicester’s granddaughter) is a palaeontologist at London’s Natural History Museum. Lil Stevens never knew her grandfather, nor anything about him, but – in a coincidence she can hardly believe – she is also a dinosaur hunter.
Go on, read it. Then come back for a glimpse behind the scenes…
Oh, and in case you missed it, the Dog and the Dinosaur trailer is here.
I first stumbled upon the story of Leicester and Laddie and their hunt for a dinosaur in a hundred-year-old newspaper clipping while thumbing through library archives in search of something far more prosaic.
“WAR DOG TO TRACK BRONTOSAURUS” was the eye-catching Daily Mail headline from December 15, 1919. The newspapers were bound into heavy volumes, their century-old pages yellowed and brittle. After several hours of musty page-turning, the diverting story appeared next to an advert for Harrods’ Christmas gifts and a report of the theft of £500-worth of blouses from an Oxford Street store.
And what a diversion: a First World War hero; his rescued dog; an unexplored region; a seemingly-extinct dinosaur; a huge reward. It was a crazy tale, presented at face value by the Mail and – the archives subsequently revealed – many other newspapers around the world.
I needed to know more and spent more than a year trawling the archives and tracing ancestors through England, Europe, and Africa in the hope of finding living relatives of Leicester who might be able to help me understand him.
Eventually, through the seemingly incongruous Southern Wales Regional Group of the UK’s Geological Society, I found Roger Stevens, Leicester’s grandson. Roger is a Cardiff-based geophysicist who never knew his grandfather but was amazed and enthused by the dinosaur story. It was Roger who put me in touch with his father (Leicester’s son) Philip, an equally enthusiastic chap who was very keen to help.
It turned out that Philip didn’t know much about the dinosaur hunt or Leicester’s early life. His father (perhaps in common with many First World War veterans) did not talk much about his past. Philip stumbled upon a brief mention of the dino hunt in a golf magazine after his father’s death. But it wasn’t until I contacted him with a ream of newspaper cuttings that he learned the full story and realised how famous (albeit briefly) Leicester and Laddie had become.
Although Philip thought his recall might be “a bit hesitant”, he kindly and diligently answered my questions and set about pulling out documents and photo albums that he said were stashed in various cubby holes around his farmhouse, secluded near a tiny village, about a 30-minute drive from Taunton in Somerset. (You can see several of his photos with the story.)
Philip also put me in touch with his daughter (Leicester’s granddaughter) Dr Lil Stevens, who is a palaeontologist (actually a palaeobotanist) and curator at the Natural History Museum. When I reached out to Lil, she was working on a huge fossil find in the Cotswolds. It was a remarkable coincidence. Although Lil never knew her grandfather nor knew much at all about him, they were both searching for long-lost creatures from the Jurassic age. And, although [spoiler alert] Leicester never found his dinosaur, Lil has found thousands of them.
I first spoke to Philip and Lil (and numerous others) in the summer of 2021, when coronavirus lockdown measures were just being eased in the UK. Since then, this story has taken different formats, shapes and sizes, and has gone down various routes of possibility that have delayed its release. (Could it be a book, a film, a podcast?) But now is the time to publish. It’s been a long time coming.
And it’s a long story, although, at about 7,000 words, I still had to leave out a lot. (It really could have been a book.) In particular, I had to skirt over the details of Leicester’s early years, his golf achievements, and his war experiences. I wanted to say more about war animals like Laddie, and more about the numerous supposed dinosaur encounters and speculations. I had to omit details of an interview with Sarah McNair, the granddaughter of Elizabeth Moolman, who Leicester married in Africa. And there is plenty more that missed the cut.
Next time I’ll write more about Leicester and Laddie and include some of the good stuff that didn’t make it into the story. Think of it as The Dog and the Dinosaur’s deleted scenes. Until then, I hope you enjoy reading the story. And do tell everyone you know about it.⧫
Now please enjoy the following recommendations, both about lost brothers:
Two Brothers by Jonathan Wilson (book)
An extremely readable biography of the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jack, who left the mining village of Ashington to become successful footballers, respectively for Manchester United and Leeds United, and together became World Cup winners for England. Bobby survived the Munich air disaster and was forever changed. Jack became a successful international manager (and honorary Irishman) for the Republic of Ireland. Both were diagnosed with dementia, possibly exacerbated by heading footballs. Jack died in 2020, with the two brothers mostly estranged. It’s a very human story of a fractured relationship shaped by tragedy and triumph. Get the book.*
Origins: The Lost Brothers by Jack El-Hai (article)
Jack El-Hai has featured in a previous edition of this newsletter. He’s a journalist, author, and editor of the excellent Damn History newsletter. He’s currently publishing a series of “Origins” articles over at Medium about the inspiration for and development of some of his work. You can start with this piece about Lost Brothers, an article, book, and podcast investigating the disappearance of three young brothers in Minneapolis in 1951. Check out Jack’s Medium page for more.
Also look out for the hotly-anticipated new book by Lost City of Z author David Grann. The Wager* is a tale of shipwreck, mutiny, and murder aboard a British vessel in the 1740s. It’s out on 18 April in the US and 11 May here in the UK, and will no doubt join the Singular Discoveries recommended list sometime after that. You can order the book here* and read an extract in the New Yorker.
(As an aside, the celebrated explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett from David Grann’s Lost City of Z also appears in The Dog and the Dinosaur. Fawcett believed there was a brontosaurus-like creature living in the Congo…)
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another excellent piece of research