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A Compleat History of the Holy Bible

by Laurence Clarke

Chatterton Family Bible
Chatterton Family Bible Spine.JPG

Lost for over 100 years but rediscovered in 1881, this dilapidated old Bible, which is missing many pages, is for the first time available for online viewing or research, or perhaps just for the sheer joy of it!  This hugely important book contains two pages of handwritten details of the Chatterton family. 


 It is likely that some of the entries were written by young Thomas Chatterton himself.  He was proud of his family and certainly did some research into his own family history. 


The newly discovered bible created a lot of fuss in Bristol and further afield, with especially vitriolic arguments between John Taylor, a Bristol librarian & author, versus John Ingram, author of The Life of Thomas Chatterton (1910). Their arguments for and against the genuineness of the entries in the bible, were played out in The Athanaeum, an important academic magazine of the day. 


Read on to immerse yourself in the argy bargy, it is a wonder to behold - why anyone would read a novel when a ringside seat is available to live through the events of the 1880s is beyond me - this is time travel at its best!

Chatterton Family Bible Script
New facts William George.JPG

William George, a famous Bristol bookseller & publisher, joined the argument on the side of John Taylor, and printed a pamphlet covering the disagreement : New Facts Relating to The Chatterton Family : View.

William George was the last owner of the bible. His children donated it to Bristol in 1900. It is now in the care of Bristol Reference Library.

It would be useful to know the provenance of the bible, and to determine when the horrendous staining occurred. What I can say is that George Symes Catcott once had his hands on the bible, a fact that appears to have been unknown to William George, John Taylor, or John Ingram. 


George writes about an entry in the bible, which confirms that the bible is genuine.  I believe that he would have obtained the bible from Mary sometime after the death of her mother in 1792.   George writes in his copy-book, reference number B5342 : '...the following memorandum extracted from his father's MS in a blank Leaf of a family Bible Viz: Thomas the son of Thomas and Sarah Chatterton was born November 20th 1752. On a Monday night between 6 & 7 O Clock, and was baptized at St Mary Redcliff Church the first day of January following.  Full moon 22nd at 3 in the afternoon.' 

Don't you just love a bit of research!  If you do, then click the link above and see the entry for yourself and then compare it to the entry in the bible.

Obviously, George is wrong in his assertion that Chatterton's father made the entry, bearing in mind that he died 3 months before his son was born - does this mean that John Taylor did know of George Catcott's note's re the bible? A small point but worth considering.

The family bible is also mentioned by Jeremiah Milles in his 1782 edition of 'Rowley's' Works, where he describes Chatterton discovering one of the parchments, which his father had used to cover Clarke's History of the Bible.  I must say that I love Milles' book and not just because of the excellent quality of the paper, but also because Jeremiah had the courage of his convictions (or simply didn't like being proven wrong).

Vol 1 - p. 590 & 591 - B21121 bible clar

The heavily stained pages of  the bible can be seen above.  What made the stains?  Were they caused by a mixture of arsenic & opium? How old are the stains, and are they coincidental with Chatterton's Opium Stained Notebook?  The stains in the bible are of a darker colour than the notebook, but perhaps this might be due to the type of paper used.


I have been working with 18th century books for the last 30 years and have never seen the like before.  This is probably because a book so badly stained and damaged would be thrown out - would you put a book like this on your bookshelves?

Now on to the handwriting in the bible. The entries seem to have been made by more than one person.  There are five possibilities:  Chatterton's Mother & Father; Mary, his sister; his Grandmother; and young Thomas himself.  The big question is, does the Bible contain the earliest sample of the handwriting of Thomas Chatterton? You must examine the manuscript pages and decide for yourself.

The Chatterton Family Bible is stated to be the 1737 edition but I wonder if this claim is correct? There are three editions (as far as I know), 1737, 1739, & 1740.

The problem with the Chatterton family bible is that it is missing a lot of pages and some engravings; including the title page with its date of publication.

Chatterton learned his ABC from an old French Music Folio but was taught to read using the family bible. It would be interesting to see the bible in its original condition to determine Chatterton's earliest influences - the missing engravings are key to this.

Over the last few years I have obtained copies of the 1739 & 1740 editions of the bible, and have recently added the 1737 edition to the set. The idea is to compare and collate the three editions with the remains of the Chatterton family bible and, with luck, recreate whichever edition the Chatterton bible resolves itself to be!

The reconstruction starts below :-

If the Chatterton bible is the 1737 edition you can now see the missing title page in all its glory (from another copy in my possession).

Ah! but wait - the added complication is that the bible comes in two volumes, sometimes bound as one, sometimes not, and each volume has its own title page.  You will often find that the two volumes are of mixed dates, volume 1 might be 1737, and volume two might be 1739, for example. 

The Title Page of my   Imperfect Copy of 1737.  Missing from Chatterton Bible.

I would be very surprised if this rather wonderful engraving of 'The Creation of the World,' didn't influence Chatterton; always supposing, of course, that the edition owned by the family really was the 1737.

I should add that this is not a 'BlackLetter' Bible, as many commentators have stated.

A 'blackletter' book uses gothic type that fills the page and makes it hard to read. However, some bibles print the word of God in red and the rest of the script in black and would be known as a red-letter bible, whereas a bible using only black type would be known as a black-letter-bible, even without the gothic type. In the case of the commentators mentioned above, I am fairly sure they are referring to a bible with gothic print. The Chatterton bible uses gothic print only on one line of text, on the title page. I hope that's clear now!

 Heads Up!


When you analyse old documents it is as well to note the career of Mark Hofmann, the American counterfeiter & murderer. His counterfeiting shenanigans should give you pause for thought!  


Hofmann was in Bristol in 1973 for his two-year Mormon mission. While in Bristol he bought an old Bible from a shop on the Christmas Steppes and used it in one of his frauds upon the Mormon Church.  Talk about the kettle calling the pot black!


It is likely that Chatterton was one of Hofmann's inspirations and is probably why he chose Bristol for his mission. He had a habit of 'collecting' blank pages from old books and it is certain that he helped himself to blank pages from antiquarian books in our own Bristol Library, and then used them when creating his forgeries.

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