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24th / 25th August 1770

Age 17 years 9 months. Brooke Street, Holborn

How and why did Chatterton die?

Was it accident or suicide?

Opium Stained Notebook
Chatterton's Opium Stained Pocket-Book

Let's see now, how can we be sure of anything that happened 250+ years ago and counting?  Well, I believe there is a consensus among those of us living in the Chatterton Universe :

Both Donald S.Taylor & Dr. Nick Groom have evaluated Chatterton's income and expenditure and arrived at the same 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.  

To read Donald S. Taylor's analysis of Chatterton's entries in his Pocket-Book, click the image below:

Taylor's Analysis of the Pocket-Book
Timeline of the Opium Stained Pocket-Book
  • 1769: Mary, Chatterton's sister, gives the pocket-book to Chatterton, as a gift.

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

  • 1770: The Pocket-Book is found in Chatterton's room and is returned to his mother, along with Catcott's letter and some other papers, probably during September 1770.

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

  • 1804: Mary Newton, née Chatterton, presented (according to Meyerstein) the Pocket-Book to Mr Joseph Cottle. Too late for any of the contents to be included in the 1803 edition. I doubt that Mary would 'present' anything, it is more likely that, with a thought for her daughter, she was paid for the 'present.'

  • 18??: Joseph Cottle presents the Pocket Book to Bristol Museum or 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 on the stains in the Pocket-Book. They can be viewed here, but, basically, they confirm that 'the spillage was indeed due to laudanum.'

So, how sure can we be that Chatterton caused the stains to the notebook?


It is safe to say that when Chatterton collected the calomel and the vitriol from Cross, they were supplied unmixed. It is reasonable to assume that he kept the 'drugs' safe by placing them in separate pockets. One of the two drugs was contained in a phial, in the liquid form of Laudanum. So, did the phial of Laudanum end up in the same pocket as his Pocket-Book, and hence no traces of any other chemical? If it is true that Chatterton was trying to treat gonorrhœa, then you need to read how horrendous it could be, or, rather, how horrendous the treatment itself could be. A warning: before you click the previous link, please, if you are a male,  cross your legs firmly.

The earliest mention of the opium-stains on the pages of Chatterton's pocket-book, seem to date from 1874. So what are the possibilities regarding the origin of the stains? 

  • Is there really no mention of the opium stains before 1874?

  • Did Joseph Cottle note 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?

  • The notebook was given to Sarah after the death of her son - did she cause the stains?

  • Mary, Chatterton's sister, was, for a time, confined to an asylum; did she have the little pocket-book with her - and was she treated with opium? 

  Herbert Croft visits Chatterton's Garrett

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.

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

Henry Wallis's painting The Death of Chatterton is beautiful indeed, but it depicts a deeply romanticized version of Chatterton's death. To get a little closer to reality take a look at the engraving by Bartolozzi. 

The two engravings are an example of the confusion running throughout the Chatterton story.

Wallis chatterton 1866.png

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, above, with Singleton/Orme image, below. 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?

Chatterton by Orme NPG.jpg

'Death of Chatterton'

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

The Death of Chatterton
or, actually,
'The First Night in a Convent'

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!

john absalon death of Chatt saleroom mar
Chatterton had 'The Foul Disease' ?

The manuscript below is in the hand of the Rev. Michael Lort. It 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 Buried ?

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?

The Death of Chatterton
(Sherlock Holmes as Chatterton)
sherlock holmes sized 1.jpg

Howe woe-be-gone, how withered, forwynd, deade! 

Film stock from the 2009 film 'Sherlock Holmes, Holmes for the Holiday' staring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, & Rachel McAdams : View

Links to All Works & Correspondence

   Call it what you will, authentic, doubtful, lost, or plainly wrong - if it was linked with Chatterton it will be included in Chatterton's Works & Correspondence.  This will be the base point from which we can examine every piece of work, and add notes and links accordingly.  

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