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Chatterton - Bristol's boy poet
Painting of Chatterton from Bristol City Museum THIS STORY LAST UPDATED:
09 September 2002 1437 BST


If you live in Bristol for any length of time you will get to hear about the city's big C's, the great historical figures of Caynge, Colston, Cabot and Chatterton.
The young Chatterton is pictured in a painting by Ernest Board called Some Who Made Bristol Famous which is displayed in the city's museum
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Thomas Chatterton Society

Selected poetry of Thomas Chatterton

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But who were these men, and what was their contribution to the city in which they are remembered?

Well controversy surrounds several of them, and none more so than Chatterton, the boy poet.

Many regard him as a forger and a drunken womaniser, and a statue of him which once adorned St Mary Redcliffe's church was apparently removed by God-fearing folk unhappy with his reputation.

Born near St Mary Redcliffe in 1752, Thomas Chatterton spent his early years in relative poverty.

His father, a choirmaster at the church, had died three months before Thomas was born, and Thomas was brought up by his devoted mother.

Colston School

At the age of eight Thomas was sent to the school founded by one of his fellow "big C's" Edward Colston.

Colston's School was a charitable institution that took in poor boys, and it was here that young Thomas met like-minded youths who wrote poetry for local magazines.

His love of poetry continued after he left school at the age of 14, and started work at a local company copying legal documents.

Any free time was spent writing his own works, but it was for work passed off as someone elses that he eventually made his name.

Through his family connections with St Mary Redcliffe, Thomas had access to the church's coffers where legal documents were stored.

Forgery

It was here that he claimed to have discovered poems written by a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowley.

The poems were hailed as a magnificent find and experts were unstinting in their praise of the work.

That is until the Rowley poems were found to have been the work of young Chatterton himself.

Moving to London and hoping to make a living as a poet, Chatterton managed for a time to eke out a livelihood writing political works.

Literary greats Keats and Coleridge, later wrote poems about this romantic and rebellious youth, and Wordsworth dubbed him "the marvelous boy."

There is even a painting of Chatterton by Henry Wallis hanging in the Tate's London gallery.

Death of a poet

But like great artists Chatterton died alone and in poverty. His body thrown into a mass grave.

It is generally argued that on the point of starvation, but too proud to borrow or beg, he committed suicide by deliberately taking poison.

But other commentators believe his death resulted from an accidental cocktail of arsenic and opium.

He was only 17 when he died.

Chatterton never lived to see an edition of his poems published or see the monument his well-wishers had placed outside St Mary Redcliffe.

That same statue was removed during church renovations and never replaced because officials felt it was blasphemous to keep a monument to a suicidal boy on holy ground.

When last seen the statue lay forgotten in a council storage shed.
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