Death of Chatterton

24th / 25th August 1770

Accident or Suicide?

Age 17 years 9 months. Brooke Street, Holborn

Chatterton's Opium-Stained Pocket-Book 

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History of the Pocket-Book & Chronology of the stains:

1769: Mary, Chatterton's sister, gives the pocket-book to Chatterton.

1770: On the 24th August Chatterton, according to a note by Dr Lort, buys calomel and vitriol from Cross the Apothecary.  

1770: Pocket-Book returned to Chatterton's mother, along with Catcott's letter and some other papers, probably during September 1770.

1792:  Sarah Chatterton dies. Mary inherits the family belongings.

1803?: Mary Newton, née Chatterton, sells the Pocket-Book to Mr Joseph Cottle. Too late, supposedly, for any of the contents to be included in the 1803 edition.

18??: Joseph Cottle gives the Pocket Book to Bristol Library

1874: Walter de Gray Birch draws attention to a deep stain that had penetrated the last leaf and can be traced through nineteen leaves.

1907: In W. R. Barker's catalogue, the stain is described as a strong acid.

1947: The first analysis of the stains, were arranged by Meyerstein.  I have this information from the Wedmore Memorial Lecture, which Meyerstein read in April 1947. Dr Wallis states 'I cut a piece out of the stain on the back page and tested this. It gives a positive reaction for opium alkaloids (i.e. morphine, etc.).


2014: Michael Doble, the chairman of the Thomas Chatterton Society, arranged for new tests to be carried out. They can be viewed here. Suffice it to say that these new results confirm the earlier tests.

The earliest mention of the opium-stains to the pocket-book, seem to be back in 1874. So, what are the possibilities regarding the creator of the stains? Here are my key questions:

Did Cottle make a note regarding the condition of the book when he got it from Mary?

What date did Cottle donate the Pocket-Book to Bristol Library?

Did the library make a note of the condition of the book when they received it from Cottle?

Sarah, according to Nick Groom, never got over the death of her son.

Mary, was, for a time confined to an asylum

Joseph Cottle

It is assumed that calomel and the vitriol were in separate containers, each with a cork stopper. Chatterton was carrying his pocket book in the same pocket as the phial of opium. The opium leaked from the phial and stained the pages - hence no traces of arsenic in the stain. 


Both Donal Taylor & Dr. Nick Groom have evaluated Chatterton's income and expenditure and come to the conclusion that Chatterton had ample funds to buy food and cover his other expenses, so it wasn't want that took him to the grave. 


Back in 1952 Donald S. Taylor wrote this excellent booklet on Chatterton's

Herbert Croft visits Chatterton's Garret

Love and Madness p.223 visit to Chatterton's room Brooke Street

Herbert Croft, in Love and Madness, writing in the guise of James Hackman, very movingly describes how strongly he felt when he visited the room in which Chatterton died.

Chatterton was found dead on the morning of  25th August 1770. Did he commit suicide or was he self-medicating and his death a horrible accident? And was it really as romantic as depicted in Wallis's painting or, in reality, more like the depiction in Bartolozzi's engraving?

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The two engravings on The Death of Chatterton, are an example of the confusion running throughout the Chatterton story, but if you think that the confusion or obfuscations ended when our 'modern' times arrived you would be wrong. Part of our brief, is to cut through the confusion and discover the truth of it! 

We all know that George Meredith was the model for Wallis's famous painting; but did you know that the gruesome image with the rats, by Bartolozzi, which was listed as The Death of Chatterton by the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, is not a representation of the death of Chatterton at all - or is it? 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.

Compare the pose and especially the position of the head in the Bartolozzi v Singleton/Orme images. It looks to me that Bartolozzi was 'inspired' by the Singleton/Orme image, in which case would you be wrong to believe that the Bartolozzi image does, in a way, portray the Death of Chatterton, even though it was used for a different subject?

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'Death of Chatterton'

Edward Orme, after Henry Singleton.
Stipple Engraving, Pub. 1794

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You can now add the delightful little watercolour by John Absolon, 1815-1895, to the list.  It was up for sale during 2020, and was listed by the auctioneer as 'The Death of Chatterton' simply because someone had written that title on the back of it.  After a little research I found that the actual title is 'The First Night in a Convent'. The model lying in the Chatterton pose, is actually a young nun - and she is sleeping, not dying!

Now take a look at the manuscript below. It was written by the hand of Rev. Michael Lort and records a conversation he had with Mr Cross the apothecary.  I will put the whole document on in due course - with a transcript.  In the mean time, here's Meyerstein quoting Lort from this very document: 'Mr Cross says he [Chatterton] had the foul disease which he wd cure himself and had calomel and vitriol of Cross for that purpose who cautioned him against the too free use of these particularly the latter.'


Rev. Lort's Ms. re Cross & Chatterton

Where is Chatterton Now?

Was Chatterton thrown into a pauper's grave in London, or was he brought back to Bristol and buried in the family grave in St Mary Redcliffe church? 


The less romantic among us would go with the general consensus, which is that he was buried in a pauper's grave in the burial ground of Shoe Lane Workhouse. Working on this at the moment - bear with me.  Got to find the supporting documents.


Even though we have proof that Shoe Lane was his first resting place.  There is nothing to stop the first visitors to Holborn from Bristol arranging to have him brought home - why else would they have gone there?

Some questions remain unsolvable, but Sherlock Homes had the right idea; 'when you have excluded the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth'. I only mention Holmes because there is a scene in a Sherlock Holmes movie with Sherlock lying on a bed in an attic room in the Wallis pose - coincidental or intentional?

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Howe woe-be-gone, how withered, forwynd, deade! (.QE!.)