The Chatterton Family Bible

First Sample of Chatterton's Handwriting? 

Chatterton Family Bible
Chatterton Family Bible Script
Chatterton Family Bible Spine.JPG

(For the sake of continuity, the whole of the script from the previous page has been carried over):

The rediscovery, in 1881, of this strangely dilapidated old bible, created much excitement at the time.  It was claimed to be the original Chatterton family bible complete with handwritten details of the Chatterton family. 


It went on to create a bit of a spat, handbags at dawn, you might say, played out in various editions of a magazine of the day, The Athanaeum, between John Taylor,  the Bristol librarian & author, and John Ingram, author of The Life of Thomas Chatterton. 


Their letters for and against the genuineness of the bible were also published in 1883, by William George, a Bristol book dealer, in a booklet, New Facts Relating to The Chatterton Family.  William George's family donated the bible to the library in 1900.

The bible in question is Laurence Clarke's, A Compleat History of the Holy Bible, which ran to at least three editions, 1737, 1739, 1740. It is assumed that the Chatterton bible, which is missing some pages, including the title page and some of the engraved plates, is the 1737 edition - but is it?


One task is to determine the edition, the other is to determine who made the entries in the bible; it seems clear that there was more than one writer. The obvious contenders are Chatterton's father, Thomas; his mother, Sarah; his sister, Mary; perhaps even his Grandmother (we don't know her name); and of course young Thomas himself - so, does this bible contain the earliest sample of Thomas's handwriting?

Chatterton was taught his letters using an old, French, music folio that his mother was tearing up for thread papers, and was taught to read using the family bible, so it is highly likely that he was greatly influenced by the stories and engravings in it; for this reason it would be useful to see the bible as it was when Chatterton was learning to read from it. 

The label with the bible states that it is the 1737 edition, but I wondered how, without the help of the title page, they arrived at that date - was it simply guesswork?


Fortunately, I have managed to obtain copies of all three editions and am in the throes of comparing and collating the contents - this project has been delayed by the virus.

When the research is complete I aim to use images of what remains of the bible and build it up with the addition of images  of the missing pages and engravings from whichever edition the original family bible resolves itself to be.

Heads up! When you work with old documents and are trying to determine who the handwriting belongs to, it is as well to note the career of the American counterfeiter & murderer, Mark Hofmann. His counterfeiting shenanigans should give you pause for thought!  


He was in Bristol in 1973 for his two-year Mormon mission and it seems certain that he would have helped himself to blank pages from antiquarian books in our reference library. 


He even bought an antiquarian bible from an antique shop on the Christmas Steppes, Bristol, which formed part of one of his early frauds upon the Mormon Church. 


It is thought that Chatterton was one of Hofmann's inspirations and that he chose Bristol for his mission because it would bring him closer to a depository of antique documents!

© 2019 by Thomas Chatterton Manuscript Project