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Thomas Chatterton 1752 - 1770

Poet - Playwright - Forger?

Quick Link to All Works & Correspondence :  View

Breaking News !

Chatterton's letter to Mary 30th May 1770    :    View

Up for auction at Bonhams 20th June 2024.

Introduction & Preview

The TCMP (Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project) is an altruistic, self-funded endeavour, relying on the pro bono supply of photographic reproductions of Chatterton related manuscripts.


Original Chatterton manuscripts (I include George Catcott's manuscripts in this list) are spread far and wide, with most held by the British Library, followed by various American universities, and lastly by Bristol Reference Library and Archives, with the odd Ms. in private hands.

My hope is that these institutions will reach down from their illustrious heights and support the aims of a mere bookworm, while he strives to complete a task already ten years in the making; this would cost them so little for such an illustrious gain.  No, I am not talking about money, but instead to be granted access to examine, photograph, and publish the original manuscripts on this website.  I should add that I am willing to hand the entire website and all of the research and files to any university or Library that undertakes to maintain the website and make the contents freely available to all.

So, no flimflam from me, just the facts of the case backed up with copies of the original manuscripts, 

along with the earliest printings and backed up with links to background and supporting information.

This will aid research and help to defeat the obfuscation surrounding our understanding of Chatterton and his works. 

A quote from Tyrwhitt in his 1777 edition of the Poems of Chatterton - Rowley

The snippet above is from the first collected edition of Chatterton's works; it appears on page xii of  Thomas Tyrwhitt's 1777 edition of 'Poems, Supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and others, in the fifteenth century...'  View  

This was the edition that kick-started the controversy that had its birth in October 1768, when the first 'Rowley' work to be published, The Mayor's First Passing over the Old Bridge, was printed in a Bristol newspaper: View


Thomas Tyrwhitt was the highly esteemed writer of a number of deeply academic tomes, including Fragmenta Plutarchi II. inedita; and Dissertatio de Babrio,  and he was especially highly regarded for his five volume set of The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, 1775-8.  All of which sets him up as the man best placed to determine who wrote 'Rowley's' works. Well, he thought about it, he even wrote to Catcott with a long list of questions, and finally he had to decide; was Chatterton the author, or was it the imaginary Rowley.......and Tyrwhitt plumped for Rowley.  

It seems to me that Tyrwhitt was wavering before the printing of the first edition, but at that point it was too late and too costly to publicly change sides.  However, by the time of the third edition, in 1778, he had made his mind up, and changed his plump. He accepted that Chatterton was the writer of Rowley's works and, anyway, there was always money to be made in controversy.

Gathering the Manuscripts

 - Our successes to date -

Our Thanks go to the following for their help with the project  : 

  • Bristol Reference Library & Archives : Second only to the British Library in its store of Chatterton autograph Mss, but ahead in its range of  other related manuscripts, especially the Mss notebooks of George Symes Catcott & Richard Smith (Bristol surgeon).   Photographed by [.QE!.] 


  • The British Library : The main repository of Chattertonian manuscripts.  My thanks go to Catherine Angerson, who has been very patient in reaction to my extended requests, and has helped me get prepared for my visit (which will hopefully be during the early months of 2024), by supplying me with advice and key images of the main sets of Chatterton's autograph manuscripts.


  • The Bodleian : It was a true joy to visit the Bodleian in 2023. The arrangements for my visit were made in quick order and I now have photographs of Chatterton's handwritten works, which he wrote onto the end papers of Catcott's  'A Treatise on the Deluge.'  Photographed by [.QE!.] 

  • The Turnbull Library, New Zealand : Supplied the TCMP with images of Catcott’s Autograph Ms on  25 blank pages bound with a 1778 edition of ‘Rowley’s’ Poems.  My thanks go to Anthony T. MA FSA, Curator Rare Books and Fine Printing  :  View

  • QE! :  The author and editor of this website and founding member of the Thomas Chatterton Society (2002), has supplied images galore of Chattertonian works from his collection of early periodicals and editions, many of which are not available online. Plus a copy of the lower portion of Chatterton's letter to his mother, 14th May 1770 :  View 

  • Tom Routledge :  A much admired friend and founding member of the Thomas Chatterton Society (2002). Tom gathered a fine collection of Chattertonian first editions, which, after Tom's passing, now reside at a Canadian university.  He kindly supplied me with photographs of his fragment of Chatterton's letter to his sister and allowed us to publish it in the project  :  View   

Gathering the Manuscripts

 - Copies Required -

Location of Manuscripts

Requests for pro bono images are in with the following :

  • The British Library :

The BL is the repository of William Barrett's Chattertonian manuscripts. Barrett gave his collection of manuscripts to Dr Glynn with the intention that they would end up in Bristol Library/Museum, however, Dr. Glynn's bequest donated them to the BL.  See the above panel for our progress to date regarding the Mss held by the BL ; the help and commitment received so far is simply wonderful!.

  • Harvard Library

I opened an account 23rd August 2023, via Harvard Hollis (Harvard On-Line Library Information System), and have asked for the pro bono supply of the following:


  • ITEM Identifier: MS Hyde 10, (128): Chatterton, Thomas, 1752-1770. Autograph letter, signed, Redclift Hill, Bristol (England), to James Dodsley, 1768 Dec. 21., 1768

  • ITEM Identifier: MS Hyde 10, (129): Chatterton, Thomas, 1752-1770. Sly Dick: autograph manuscript, [1764], [1764]; Also includes his A Hymn for Christmas Day.

  • Notes : concerning Thomas Chatterton : manuscript, 1792 Catcott, George Symes. Houghton Library  Gen (MS ENG 506).

  • Columbia University - Phoenix Library :

The Thomas Chatterton Notebook - Written by the hand of Chatterton - contains six important works.

Find it in the Library if you can - I've tried and failed.​


More to add in due course.

Internet Archive !

'Isn’t it true !

That you never really own a book,

But, instead,

Every book is forever out on loan -

- No matter where it is!

For it is only a matter of time,

Inconsequential time,

Before all ‘libraries’ great and small,

Crumble and fall !'

Risteard O'Fionnalain

Timeline of Chatterton's Life
with links to important phases -

Chatterton's short life lasted from 20 November 1752 to 24/25 August 1770.  

A bald and stark statement of a tiny existence  - a total of 17 years and 9 months.

When you break it down it becomes truly stark: 

At 5 or 6 years of age he joined Pile Street Charity school, but lasted only 4 weeks after being rejected as being too dull to learn: ...more


He spent the next 109 weeks at home without formal education.  It is clear to me that Chatterton's mother, Sarah, was a force in his life. It is clear too that Chatterton had an enquiring mind and would have kept his mother busy with continuous questions. It seems that she had a plan for his continuing education and managed, somehow, to get him enrolled in Colston's Charity School. 


This phase, as a pupil at Colston's Charity School, saw him practically imprisoned for 359 weeks.

Colston's was a boarding school where only basic education was taught, consisting of reading, writing, accounts and maths, along with religious indoctrination - just enough education to ready him for his future occupation as an apprentice scrivener :  ...more


On the 1st July 1767, he started his unpaid training as a Scrivener's apprentice at Lambert's, a Bristol attorney.  He also lodged at Lambert's house, sharing a bed with another boy. His apprenticeship was cancelled after just 143 weeks  : ...more

After his indentures were cancelled he moved to Shoreditch, London, where he shared a bed with the son of  his relative, Mrs Ballance; this stopover lasted for just 37 days : ...more

This is the point when he made his final move.  He took an attic room in Mrs Angel's house, in Brooke Street, Holborn, London  :  View 

At last he had some privacy - but his freedom lasted just 85 days and he died on the 24th / 25th August 1770! ...more

A short life indeed!  But as short as it was he still got his wish to have his name blown about the world; his fame reached many countries & stretched across the centuries. 

Not bad for a poet who was 'But a boy!'

Who Wrote Rowley's Works ?  
- Chatterton versus Rowley -

The arguments raged on for years, with some famous academics and writers, such as Jacob Bryant,  claiming that the works were written by Rowley and not by Chatterton. Often, the main reason in favour of Rowley, was that such wonderful works could not have been written by an uneducated and therefore, ignorant working-class boy, and they set out to prove it in various publications.


However, some other famous people, such as Samuel Johnson, disagreed and were sure that Chatterton was the author of 'Rowley's' works. 

The protagonists in this argument are listed in the two galleries below.  The list of names comes from Hyett & Bazeley's Chattertoniana : View.

Gallery 1
The Anti-Rowleians

Gallery 2
  The Rowleians

Gallery 1 : The Anti-Rowleians, 

The Anti-Rowleians were convinced that Chatterton was indeed the author of the works of Rowley, as well as the works of the other characters he created.

Gallery 2 : The Rowleians

The Rowleians were convinced that Thomas Rowley, priest, was the true author of 'Rowley's works, and that it was impossible for a young and poorly educated boy, such as Chatterton, to have written such an amazing body of work.

Then there were those who were Rowleians to begin with but came to accept that Chatterton was the author; they appear in both Slide-Galleries.  Thomas Tyrwhitt is an example; he was a Rowleian right up until he published the first edition of the collected works of 'Rowley's' in 1777; and still he published with caveats rather than risk committing to Chatterton as the author; this is clear in Tyrwhitt's correspondence with George Catcott :  View.

 Was Chatterton a Forger?

Chatterton was no more a forger than Walpole was when he published the Castle of Otranto under the name of a fictitious writer.

Herbert Croft also votes in Chatterton's favour, see the the four page explanation below :  Forgery Vote :  No

Love and Madness p.155
Love and Madness p.156
Love and Madness p.157
Love and Madness p.158

Rev. William Dodd, Forger, Executed 1777.

The Rev. William Dodd, the man who brought us The Beauties of Shakespeare in 1752, paid with his life for a little forgery - there is no doubt what he did was definitely a forgery. Here's a paragraph on it from Wiki:

"In February 1777, he [Dodd] forged a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield, to clear his debts. A banker accepted the bond in good faith, and lent him money on the strength of it. Later the banker noticed a small blot in the text and had the document re-written. When the clean copy was presented to the Earl to sign, in order to replace the old one, the forgery was discovered. Dodd immediately confessed, and begged time to make amends. He was, however, imprisoned in the Wood Street Compter pending trial. He was convicted, and sentenced to death. Samuel Johnson wrote several papers in his defence, and some 23,000 people signed a 37-page petition seeking a pardon. Nevertheless, Dodd was publicly hanged at Tyburn on 27 June 1777."

Forgery Vote :  Yes - but execution was a bit harsh.

Compare Chatterton's 'forgery' when he created a family pedigree for the gullible Henry Burgum.  The pedigree was offered without a request for payment, however, Burgum was so impressed with his new found status he gifted five shillings to Chatterton, with the promise of a second payment if Chatterton discovered more about Burgum's illustrious past.  To read Chatterton's  'Account of the Family of the De Bergham's' : View


So, was it forgery?  Check out an important 18th century review of forgery, The Punishment of Forgery in Eighteenth-Century England  by Randall Mc Gowen - it's well worth the read  :  View

Forgery Vote : No.  

Samples of Manuscripts & Early Editions


A small gallery with

Samples of manuscripts

Early Editions

Thistlethwaite 1782  annotated Title small

Jeremiah Milles, gifted the above to James Thistlethwaite, a friend of Thomas Chatterton. 

Ephemera - Postcards - Pewter - &c

This delightful pre-1918 postcard, tells the story of Chatterton's 'discovery' of the 'Rowley' manuscripts, which he claimed to have discovered in the coffers stored in the Muniment Room of St Mary Redcliffe church; it goes on to picture his sad demise in the pose from Henry Wallis's famous painting, 'The Death of Chatterton.'

In 1777, The Annual Register published one of the earliest printings of the 'Birth Certificate of America'  The American Declaration of Independence.   In the same edition it reported on Tyrwhitt's recently published 1777 edition of 'Rowley's' works, and included a mini-bio of Chatterton's  life, along with printing his Bristowe Tragedie in full : 

  • 'An Account of the finding or forging of some very ingenious Poems, attributed to Thomas Rowley, a Priest of Bristol, in the fifteenth Century...'

  • 'Bristowe Tragedie or The Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin...'  and  'A Short Account of William Cannings, the Person so often mentioned in the preceding Article, Founder of  St. Mary Redcliffe's Church in Bristol, Wrote by the foregoing Thomas Roulie, Prieste, in the Year 1460.'

A total of 21 pages for Chatterton and just 10 for the article on the American Declaration of Independence.  A silly but fun fact!   Click the links below the images to read the works:

A 1776 edition of The Annual Register American Declaration of Independence Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedie
Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedie: Or, The Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin, printed in the Annual Register for 1776.

A Review of Chatterton's Life & Works :

 Pages 155 to 165 :  View

A page from the Annual Register for 1776 showing Thomas Chatterton's poem, The Bristowe Tragedie.

Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedie :  

Pages  211 to 221  :  View

A page from the Annual Register for 1776 showing an early copy of The American Declaration of Independence.  Thomas Chatterton's poems appear in the same volume.

The American Declaration of Independence :

 Pages 261-270  :  View

Analysis & Research

Here's a treat for you puzzlers ; We know that Bristows Tragedy was written by Chatterton, so that is not the puzzle. What we need to work out is, which, if any, of the various copies of this work are in the handwriting of Chatterton himself.  


The manuscript shown above, is an example of the differing opinions of the experts, some say it is in Chatterton's handwriting, others say it's a copy by an unknown hand.  

This is where The Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project comes in handy.  You can now compare the handwriting of  the various manuscripts of this specific work, and see if you can decide which is the original. 

I use this manuscript as the backdrop for the website, so you can guess my view.  Click the link below to visit the the manuscript page for this work and compare the various manuscripts  :  View to read more

Chatterton's Alter Ego - Thomas Rowley

According to William Barrett, via Samuel Seyer, via Meyerstein and on to us, it is likely that Chatterton got the name 'Rowley' from William Barrett himself.  See p.59, in Meyerstein's A Life of Chatterton', (I show p.59 below for ease of reference).

Take a close look at the brass plate shown below; notice that the spelling of Rowley is actually spelled as 'Ronley,'  which is as Chatterton first wrote it before showing it to Barrett, who corrected it to Rowley.

It is worth noting that Meyerstein credits Chatterton with the guile to manipulate Barrett into correcting his Ronlie, to the name he wanted to use and the one we all know and accept :  'ROWLEY.'

Rowleys tomb bristol museum
Rowley Brass St Johns Bristol Museum
Rowley Brass St Johns Bristol Museum
Meyerstein Rowley Ronley
Chatterton is Rowley
Rowley is Chatterton

More than 20 years after Chatterton's death his works were still being published as Rowley's.

The examples above are quite stunning.  The first example is in, of all things, Bristol : An Abstract of the City Charter (1792). Where the editor includes the Song to Ella:

Title page to Bristol: An Abstract of the City Charter, which also contains Thomas Chatterton's Song to Ella

Bristol : An Abstract of the City Charter (1792) - Title Page

  View the whole book

Page 50 An Abstract of the City Charter with Thomas Chatterton's A Song to Ella.

Bristol : An Abstract of the City Charter.

Song to Ella

View page 50 onwards

Another example is in Old Ballads by Thomas Evans, 1784, which includes The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin (aka Bristows Tragedy or the Death of Sr Charles Bawdin).  This is the first poem in Volume 2 .  Evans also includes The Song to Ælle in Volume 1.   As far as the editor is concerned, Rowley is the author and Chatterton is not mentioned in the book.  A new edition of Old Ballads appeared in 1810 but without 'Rowlie's' works. Perhaps the editor had realised his mistake.

Thomas Evans' Old Ballads from 1784, showing Thomas Chatterton's 'The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin.

Old Ballads by Evans 1784

Volume 1   -   Volume 2

The Death of Chatterton

Did Chatterton commit suicide or was his death a tragic accident?

View the latest evidence, which indicates an accidental overdose.

On the 24th August, 1770, when Thomas Chatterton, was 12 weeks short of his 18th birthday, he swallowed a 'kill or cure' potion of opium and arsenic. It must have been an horrific sight when they broke into his attic room on the morning of the 25th and found him dead on his bed, with scraps of torn manuscripts scattered about the floor and an empty phial of the hateful medication on the windowsill.

His tragic end as a supposed suicide is portrayed romantically in a painting by Henry Wallis, and horrifically in various engravings. It is well to remember that Wallis's painting does not tell the true story of that night, instead we should refer to the engraving by Orme, which is closer to the truth of it  :  View  

Some might think that merchandising is a modern invention, however, after his death, Chatterton achieved the fame that eluded him during life. Dozens of books were written about him and his amazing works. His story also appeared in newspapers and magazines; plays were written by the likes of De Vigny, which are still performed today.  And it goes on, with stereoviews; photographs; postcards; linen handkerchiefs; Royal Doulton pots. He even has a life size statue, in bronze, sitting on a bench in Bristol. He has also been memorialised by a Bristol Lodge of the Freemasons : View to read more

And still, we should be wary of everything we see or hear, for the image shown above was not drawn to represent Chatterton, instead it was engraved for the poem Retirement by James Henry Leigh Hunt, and can be seen in his book Juvenilia, 1802 - but, but, but, we could confirm the truth of it if we had sight of Raphael Lamar West's original painting with whatever title he gave it :  View

Timeflow of Influences
Timeflow of some Chatterton influences

Links to Chatterton's Works & Correspondence

   Call it what you will, authentic, doubtful, lost, or plainly wrong - if it was linked with Chatterton it will be included in Chatterton's Works & Correspondence.  This will be the base point from which we can examine every piece of work, and add notes and links accordingly.  


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