Thomas Chatterton 1752 - 1770

Poet - Storyteller - Playwright - Bristowyan



The Aim of the Chatterton Manuscript Project sounds simple enough; It is to present a complete view of Chatterton's Life & Works through original manuscripts & important early printings - not so simple then! Especially as the project has grown to include biographies, bibliographies, associations & influences, & much more besides.  Scroll or click to read more about this.

But first consider the following snippet concerning the Chatterton / Rowley controversy, which 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:

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Quote from Tyrwhitt's first edition of 'Rowley's' Works, 1777.

A rogues gallery of those for and against Chatterton


The Chattertonians


Cell: 2
Thomas Chatterton


Cell: 3
The Rowleyites

Here we have the 'Usual Suspects'; The lists of protagonists in cell: 1 & cell: 3 comes from Hyett & Bazeley's Chattertoniana. Do note that 'Chatterton', in Cell: 2, switches his view from the Rowleyites to the Chattertonians. The image facing the Chattertonians dates from 1837 and is the infamous Dix frontispiece; the image facing the Rowleyites is known as the Goggle Eyed Chatterton, from The Monthly Visitor for 1797 by H. D. Symonds, which also has a small biography of Chatterton.  It seems to me that the 'Goggle Eyed' Chatterton is an attempt to pick up on the claim that Chatterton had eyes that blazed, especially his left eye!

In Cell: 3 are the Rowleyites; those fools who believed it impossible for a young and poorly educated boy to produce such an amazing body of work.

In Cell: 1 are the other 'fools' who were convinced that Chatterton was indeed the author of the works of Rowley, as well as the works of the other characters he created.

Then there were those who were in Cell:3 to begin with but who came to accept that Chatterton was the author and are now in both Cell:1 and Cell:3.  This is why Thomas Tyrwhit appears in both Cells but he won't be lonely as a few more 'experts' have already joined him in both Cells. Tyrwhitt was a Rowleyite right up until he published his first edition of 'Rowley's' works in 1777; and yet he published with caveats rather than risk committing to Chatterton as the author - this is evidenced too, in his correspondence with George Catcott (working on this upload, link to follow).

But none of the controversy could happen until after that horrible night of the 24th August, 1770, when Thomas Chatterton, who was 12 weeks short of his 18th birthday, swallowed a 'kill or cure' potion of opium and arsenic. Imagine the 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 - Wallis's fabulous painting tells not the true story of that night, instead we should refer to the engraving by Orme after Ralph Lamar West, which is closer to the truth of it - but that was not the end of Thomas Chatterton, not even close to the end; in the years ahead he would achieve the worldwide fame that eluded him when he was alive! ...Read more

Cell: 2 continued
Thomas Chatterton


There are many 'images of Chatterton'

 But which, if any, are genuine? ...Read more

C hatterton'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.

Break it down and it becomes truly stark: 

260 weeks as a pre-school child in Bristol;  4 weeks at Pile Street Charity School.  

(expelled as too dull to learn at just 5 or 6 years of age); 109 weeks home schooled by his mother, Sarah, & sister, Mary;  359 weeks 'imprisoned' as a pupil at Colston's Boarding School (basic education only, consisting of: reading, writing, accounts, maths, along with religious indoctrination - just enough education to suit his future work as a Scrivener).

143 weeks as an unpaid scrivener at Lambert's Solicitors and lodging at Lambert's house, sharing a room with another boy; 37 days in Shoreditch, London, sharing a bed with the son of  his relative Mrs Ballance; 85 days in Brooke Street, Holborn, London - some privacy at last - lodging in the attic room in which he died, in the house of Mrs Angel, a Sacque Maker.  He died 24th / 25th August 1770!

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!'


Chatterton's poems fill an 8vo book

But which ones are really his?

Read more....


Who is Thomas Rowley, priest?

Was he discovered or invented?

(No Link - yet!)


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

Check the latest evidence, which indicates an accidental overdose.

The Chatterton Manuscript Project

Presents original documents to make research & analysis a joy!


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muniment room with story 2
muniment room with story 2

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press to zoom

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 show his sad demise, pictured in the pose from Henry Wallis's famous painting, 'The Death of Chatterton.'   The Chatterton Manuscript Project goes a little deeper & to the source!

A Sample of Chatterton's Works at 15 Years of Age.

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The American Declaration of Independence. 

In 1777, The Annual Register published one of the earliest printings of the 'Birth Certificate' of America. 

In the same edition it printed some of Chatterton's works: 

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

Along with

'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 pages for the article on the American Declaration of Independence.  A silly but fun fact!

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Bristowe Tragedy Annual Register 1.jpg

Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedie :  

View pages 211 to 221.

A Review of Chatterton's Life & Works :

 View pages 155 to 165

American Declaration.jpg

The American Declaration of Independence :

 View pages 261-270

Analyse, Research, Consider & Decide

Is the following Manuscript the original? or is it a copy by an unknown hand? Some people say original, others say copy! Compare the handwriting - what's your opinion?  This is a good one to investigate.

I use the Bristol Library original manuscript as the backdrop for the website.

Click the image below to

Bristows Tragedy Manuscript

Bristows Tragedy or the Death of Sr Charles Bawdin

Composed by Chatterton in 1768.

Thomas Rowley is Alive and Well!

Fourteen years after Chatterton died, his works were still being published as Rowley's.

The following is an example of this:

The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin (aka Bristows Tragedy or the Death of Sr Charles Bawdin) is the first poem in Volume 2 of Old Ballads, 1784, by Thomas Evans. 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.

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Old Ballads by Evans 1784

Volume 1   -   Volume 2

The Aim of the Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project, continued:

Bristol, as the birthplace of Chatterton,  really should have, at the very least, photographic copies of all of Chatterton's Manuscripts.  Instead, his manuscripts are often hidden away in the vaults of wealthy Institutions, where ownership rather than education seems to be the key.


I am hopeful that The British Library, who were fortunate to receive Dr Glynn's bequest, which included William Barrett's working papers and Chatterton's manuscripts, appreciates the need to decentralise by making the provinces central to their future planning; too much in one location limits our understanding of the past and undermines a balanced future.  It is now 250 years since the BL got their hands on Chatterton and, for the present, his Manuscripts still remain hidden to the vast majority of us.

The people of Bristol look forward to thanking the British Library for presenting copies of all Chattertonian manuscripts to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Chatterton (2020 delayed).

I write this on behalf of all those who do not have accreditation, a letter of introduction or money to waste on overnight trips to the great metropolis. The provinces are severely restricted and placed at a serious and unfair disadvantage by some of the outdated policies of the library. 

The Death of Chatterton continued

It is now thought that Chatterton was hoping to use the hateful mixture to clear an STD and stop the fire raging within his body - he was 12 weeks short of his 18th birthday!  

Chatterton became famous the world over; 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 these days. His tragic end as a supposed suicide is portrayed romantically in a painting by Henry Wallis, and horrifically in various engravings. There were also stereoviews; photographs; postcards; linen handkerchiefs; Royal Doulton pots. He has also been memorialised by a Bristol Lodge of the Freemasons.

Chatterton quickly became the talk of the Town & Country magazine and his story went viral worldwide. Surely it was not possible that a poorly educated and, worse still, working-class, Charity School boy had created such works? The arguments for and against Chatterton raged on for years.  He went on to become the Darling of the Romantics and a true Influencer of his own times & beyond.

But stop for a moment and think of any teenager of your aquantance - what I see through his letters and works is a Mother's loving son, a cheeky monkey, a Sister's loving Brother, a Bristowyan, a Poet, a Storyteller, a Journalist, a Playwright & Wit, a Bit of a Wag:  Young Villain with Wings.

Our working-class boy had exceptional & extraordinary abilities, it is true, but we should also note that his life is as important as his works.  For to truly appreciate the song you must also appreciate the singer!