top of page

Home Page

Thomas Chatterton 1752 - 1770

Poet - Storyteller - Playwright

Introduction & Website Preview

The initial aim of the Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project (TCMP), was to present a complete view of Chatterton's Life & Works through original manuscripts & important early printings, however, the Project has now grown to include biographies, bibliographies, associations & influences, & much more besides.

 

Bristol is the birthplace of Thomas Chatterton and for this reason alone his home city should be the main repository of Chattertonian manuscripts.   However, we are unlikely to persuade the major institutions to give up their treasured manuscripts and so we aim for high quality photographic reproductions instead; and we won't rest until Bristol has a copy of every Chattertonian manuscript; for surely the only true way forward in research and discovery is to view and read the original documents.

We are fortunate that Chatterton's works have been analysed by the likes of the 'Romantic Poets' and by more academics than you can shake a stick at; the list of these commentators stretches from the 1770s to the present day and can be read here  :  View.    

Evaluating the quality or technical contents of Chatterton's works rests with anyone capable of picking up the Strunge Bataunt  and running with it!  However, I can recommend the books and lectures of Nick Groom, and so you might like to read his recent 'Chatterton Lecture' regarding Chatterton's 'anti-slavery' works, the African Eclogues  :  Nick Groom's 'Chatterton Lecture : View

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

The above cutting is from Tyrwhitt's edition of 'Rowley's' Works, 1777  :   View.

Tyrwhitt was the first editor to publish a comprehensive collection of Chatterton's works, which 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

Project Update

 

The Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project (TCMP) is an altruistic, self-funded, endeavour, which relies on the pro bono supply of photographic reproductions of the manuscripts held by wealthy institutions and others.  

 

Our Thanks go to 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   

Location of Manuscripts

-:- Copies Required -:-

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 the 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).

More to add in due course.

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: ..read 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 basic education only 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 :  ..read more

 

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

The Rowley / Anti-Rowley Debate  

The argument for and against the authenticity of Chatterton's 'Rowley' works raged on for years.

Slide Gallery 1
The Anti-Rowleians

Slide Gallery 2
  The Rowleians

   The list of protagonists in Slide Galleries 1 & 2, comes from Hyett & Bazeley's Chattertoniana : View.

Slide 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.

Slide Gallery 2 : The Rowleians

The Rowleians were convinced that the works were genuineit, and that it was impossible for a young and poorly educated boy to produce such an amazing body of work.

Then there were those who were Rowleians to begin with but who came to accept that Chatterton was the author, so they appear in both Slide Galleries.  Thomas Tyrwhitt is an example; he was a Rowleian right up until he published his first edition of 'Rowley's' works 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.

Samples of Manuscripts & Early Editions

Manuscripts

A small sample of manuscripts

(In a slide gallery)

Early Editions

Thistlethwaite 1782  annotated Title small.jpg

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

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.'

The Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project  

Goes a little deeper & to the source!

A copy of the 1776 edition of The Annual Register. Contains The American Declaration of Independence, and a poem of Chatterton's 'Bristowe Tragedie or The Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin...' and 'A Short Account of William Cannings.

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...'

  • '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 cuttings to read the works:

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

Chatterton manuscripts are often a challenge. The following Manuscript is an example; is it the original, or is it a copy by an unknown hand?  Opinions differ, some say original, others say copy!  

 

Thanks to the Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project 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 the manuscript shown below as the backdrop for the website, so you can guess my view. 

Click the link below to visit the page and compare the various manuscripts.

Thomas Rowley  -:-  Chatterton's Alter Ego

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

The two following examples 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 from a copy of An Abstract of the City Charter, which shows Thomas Chatterton's A Song to Ella.

Bristol : An Abstract of the City Charter Song Ella

View page 50 onwards

The second 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.

A page from 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  

After his death Chatterton achieved the fame that eluded him while he was alive. 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. There were also stereoviews; photographs; postcards; linen handkerchiefs; Royal Doulton pots. He has also been memorialised by a Bristol Lodge of the Freemasons View to read more

Surely it was not possible that a poorly educated, working-class, Charity School boy had created such works? The arguments for and against Chatterton as the author of Rowley's works raged on for years.  He went on to become the Darling of the Romantics and a true Influencer of his own times & beyond.

Our working-class boy had exceptional & extraordinary abilities, 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!

Timeflow of some influences d.jpg
Death of Chatterton continued
top of page
Rowley and Anit-Rowley
bottom of page