Thomas Chatterton was born on 20th November 1752 at Pile Street School, opposite St Mary Redcliffe Church in the city of Bristol, England. Chatterton's father had been employed as the school’s writing master, but died three months before his son’s birth. The young Chatterton was consequently brought up by his widowed mother, grandmother, and his older sister, Mary, in a house on Redcliffe Hill. He was subsequently dismissed from Pile Street School, for being ‘a dull boy, and incapable of improvement’ and learnt to read at home.
Mary recalled that her brother became enraptured by the illuminated capitals of a medieval folio volume, and that once he could read he enthusiastically studied a wide range of subjects, including divinity, heraldry, archaeology, history, philosophy, and literature. In his seventh year, Chatterton was sent to Colston’s Hospital for Boys, a charity bluecoat school founded by the seventeenth-century Bristol merchant Edward Colston to provide pupils with a basic education and a route into local apprenticeships. Although harsh by modern standards, Colston’s was considerably more liberal than comparable establishments, and allowed Chatterton enough time to continue his independent reading, and to start composing his own poetry at about the age of eleven.
Chatterton left Colston’s aged fourteen to join the office of a Bristol attorney, John Lambert, as an indentured scrivener – a job that entailed copying legal texts by hand. Although the work was onerous, Chatterton had plenty of time to write his own verse, and before his sixteenth birthday had a piece published in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, a local newspaper. Over the next two years, between the summers of 1768 and 1770, Chatterton developed into a prolific writer, writing poems, elegies, odes, eclogues, epistles, political letters, satires, and social sketches under his own name and other pseudonyms, as well as a major body of quasi-medieval work attributed to ‘Thomas Rowley’. Rowley was supposedly a 15th-century monk, whose poetry and prose Chatterton claimed to have discovered in a chest in a room above the north porch of St Mary Redcliffe Church. Chatterton composed this work in quasi-medieval language and spelling, even transcribing some pieces onto antique parchments as if they were actual medieval antiquities. Eventually, in an attempt to break his indentures, Chatterton threatened his employer with suicide and wrote a mock ‘will’ declaring that he would be dead within a day if not released. Despite this being a clearly comical threat, Lambert released Chatterton from his apprenticeship, and the young poet left Bristol to pursue a career as a professional writer in London.
Chatterton in London
Chatterton left Bristol for London on 24th April 1770 and stayed with relatives in Shoreditch until June. He then moved to lodge with a Mrs Angell at 39 Brooke Street Holborn, perhaps so that he could have a room of his own rather than sharing a room and a bed. He occupied a garret room in the eaves of the house, writing extensively. He had started publishing his contemporary work in London journals when he was already in Bristol and continued to do so in London, but only one of his ‘Rowley’ poems was published in his lifetime: ‘Elinoure and Juga’ appeared in the Town and Country Magazine in May 1769 when he was sixteen.
Chatterton’s sudden death occurred in his room at Brooke Street on the night of 24th August 1770. Although the inquest ruled that he had committed suicide, this verdict has since been questioned and recent research has revealed that it is unlikely that Chatterton deliberately took his own life. It is a more likely explanation that he inadvertently overdosed on medicinal drugs.
After his early death, a fierce literary controversy arose over the authorship of the ‘Rowley’ works. Although close scrutiny of the poems by antiquarians of the time pronounced them to be modern, few believed that they could be the work of a fifteen-year-old boy, and it was not until 1782 that ‘Rowley’ was accepted as the work of Chatterton. It is upon this achievement, as well as on his anti-slavery poems, that established Thomas Chatterton among the first of the English Romantic poets, and on which his literary legacy primarily rests today.
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