Wessex Worthies: Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was Bristol's very own rock'n'roll suicide, 200 years before rock'n'roll was born. A precocious child, he was, by the age of 12, able to pass off his poetry as the work of a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowley. The forgery was convincing enough to take in the antiquarian William Barrett (1733-1789).

Chatterton's father died before he was born, and it is thought that this motivated him to create the character of Rowley as a father figure-cum-imaginary friend. He saw his poetry as a way of rescuing his mother from poverty, and pursued a literary career from childhood, writing for the Bristol Journal at 11 years old. He sought a patron in Bristol, but was unable to find one who paid enough, so he left for London aged 16 in the hope of convincing Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford (1717-1797) to publish the works of the mythical Rowley. Walpole initially agreed, but on discovering Chatterton's age, he became suspicious, and soon figured out that Rowley's work was a forgery.

Snubbed by Walpole for his poetry, Chatterton concentrated on political writings, penning polemics for Town and Country and the Middlesex Journal, the latter under the pseudonym of Decimus.

In April 1770, he penned a satirical Last Will & Testament, in which he left "all my vigour and fire of youth to Mr. George Catcott, being sensible he is most want of it...unto the Reverent Mr. Camplin senior, all my humility. To Mr. Burgum all my prosody and grammar, --likewise one moiety of my modesty; the other moiety to any young lady who can prove without blushing that she wants that valuable commodity. To Bristol, all my spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods, unknown on her quay since Canning and Rowley!" He predicted that his death would happen on the following day, Easter Sunday.

This proved to be sadly prophetic. In August of that year, when walking in St Pancras churchyard with a friend, he fell into an open grave, On being helped out, he remarked that he had been at war with the grave for some time. Three days later, three months shy of his 18th birthday, he retired to his room and drank a fatal dose of arsenic.

His suicide went largely unremarked at the time, and he was buried in the graveyard of Shoe Lane Workhouse in Holborn. But his reputation grew after his death, both in England and France, where in 1835, the playwright Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863) wrote a drama based on his life; while much later, Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) wrote a song entitled Chatterton. Recognition in his native Bristol was less forthcoming, however. In 1886, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and the architect Herbert Horne (1864-1916) campaigned unsuccessfully to have a plaque erected in his memory at his old school, Colston's School. A statue was erected at St Mary Redcliffe church, but was later removed when it became unsafe. A later bronze statue now stands in Millennium Square on Harbourside., while the house where he was born is now a cafe in Redcliffe Way, while one of the walls of the school where his father taught (now otherwise demolished) can still be seen next door.

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