Today (August 24) in London History – Chatterton’s “suicide”

The conception moment for Romanticism took place on this day, August 24th, 1770. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s one of the great sob stories in English Literature. But it ain’t true.

I’m talking of course about the great romantic myth of the world’s cold indifference to genius, of the beautiful boy poet starving in a London garret and driven to take his own life. Take his own life on this day, August 24th, 1770. The boy genius is seventeen years old. His name, of course, is Thomas Chatterton.

Whatever the hard facts – and I’m going to do the hard facts here – we will forever see him as Henry Wallis portrayed him in his sensational 1856 painting. The painting is at the Tate Britain. The best possible course of action would be to go see it in the flesh, so to speak. But failing that, bring up the reproduction on the Tate’s website.

There’s the newly dead youth on his tiny bed in that cramped little garret room. His right arm is hanging off the edge of the bed. Clenched in his right fist a crumpled piece of paper. There on the floor, inches from his right hand, an empty phial of arsenic. Out the garret window, St Paul’s can be seen in the distance. 

For the record, I’ve just asked our art historian extraordinaire Helena to do a full-fledged podcast – and maybe a virtual tour – of the painting. The garret room was in a house in Brook Street. A house of ill repute, I hasten to add. Chatterton biographer Nick Groom says Wallis did the painting in the very garret room itself. What an extraordinary thought that is. Imagine the company Wallis would have kept in that room – in short, the resident ghost. Wiki though begs to differ – says it was painted in a nearby room at Gray’s Inn, a room with much the same view of St Paul’s in the distance. Everything about the painting is extraordinary, including the model. The model was a young struggling poet and novelist himself, George Meredith. Meredith and Wallis were friends. Were friends. The friendship ended when the artist’s wife ran off with Meredith. Chatterton would have enjoyed that denouement no end.

Anyway, thanks to Wallis’s unforgettable, deservedly famous painting of the death of Chatterton 

the boy poet will forever live as the beautiful, cruelly unrecognised youthful genius – not 18 years old –  starving in a garret, driven at last to take his own life.

In Nick Groom’s words, the conception moment, “the genesis of Romanticism.”

And there’s not a shred of truth to it.

Chatterton died from an accidental overdose of arsenic and opium (laudanum).

The youngster made a rookie mistake. He mixed his venereal medicine and his recreational drugs. 

The combination proved to be lethal.

Ok, a quick run-through, a biographical sketch – and then we’ll get to the London Walks bit, we’ll connect some dots.

Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol on November 20th, 1752. His father, who never saw his son, he died three and a half months before Chatterton was born, his father was an antiquarian and a writing master at a local school. His mother was a seamstress. His father’s drug was booze. He was apparently a carouser. As was his son. Chatterton senior’s mouth was said to be so wide he could put his clenched fist into it. 

The boy was sent to his father’s school. He didn’t impress. He was said to be a dull boy and incapable of improvement. That may be the most spectacularly wrong-headed school report ever.

The kid turned out to be a genius. A boy genius. He was precocious and prodigious. He read voraciously. When he was 15 he was apprenticed as a legal scrivener to an attorney. His indentures laid down the law. “Taverns he shall not frequent, at Dice he shall not play, Fornication he shall not commit, Matrimony he shall not contract.” Well, all but the last of those weren’t worth the paper they were written on. 

But his debaucheries and dissoluteness were in the future, not that he had much future ahead of him. In the meantime, he had to get a literary career on the launchpad. This is a fourteen or fifteen-year-old kid, remember. He becomes a literary forger par excellence. Forging the works of an imaginary 15th-century monk he named Thomas Rowley – variously a priest, a poet, an antiquarian, a connoisseur, and the literary agent, biographer, and confidant of an actual historical figure, a real-life five times mayor of Bristol.  It was a huge literary enterprise. The kid did it all. The words the monk purportedly composed and set down, the mediaeval calligraphy and spelling – all written out in aged ink on old vellum.

It is, frankly, almost inconceivable. If I had a time machine one of the first things I would do with it is fetch Thomas Chatterton and put him in a room with a 2022 sixteen-year-old. And then excuse myself and repair to the observation room with the one-way mirror.

The next two steps are entirely predictable. Chatterton starts writing to publishers and other literary figures in London. On April 24th, 1770 he leaves for London. And here’s a parting gift for you, saying goodbye to his friends, he doles out gingerbread to them. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. 

His friends – his mother – won’t see him again. He’s got four months to live. He lives those four months at full throttle. There was his prodigious literary output, there was networking, there was socialising, there was getting and spending money – Chatterton was vain, a bit of a dandy (he wrote to his sister, “I employ my money now in fitting mysef fashionably” – there was his recreational drugs habit, there was his huge sexual appetite. In the words of a contemporary, he was partial to the society of abandoned women. Arriving in London, he stays in Spitalfields with a relative. 

He’s there for two months. In June he moves to Brooke Street, almost directly across the way from Staple Inn. Brooke Street today doesn’t look anything like the Brooke Street Chatterton knew. But Staple Inn he’d certainly recognise. That’s where I’d set our time machine down. 

In Brooke Street he lodges with Mrs Angell – great name. Mrs. Angell is a dressmaker. A dressmaker with a sideline. Mrs. Angell runs a bawdy house. Our priapically as well as poetically inclined youth grabs all the gusto he can. He sleeps with his new landlady and her girls. Mrs Angell puts his rent up. For good measure, she – or one or more of her girls – puts him in the way of venereal disease. Ergo the concoction that kills him in a matter of weeks.

You wonder how he found time but in June 1770 he had no less than seven pieces published. By the time he died this seventeen-year-old had published 53 pieces and secured a book contract. The London publisher Archibald Hamilton was insistent that Thomas Chatterton did not die for want. 

But to use Shakespeare’s famous line in a rather different vein, “nothing became him like his death.” It’s like the tail of a comet. 

A rock star’s ending. Wallis’s painting of course. And the tale that he fell into a grave shortly before he died. And that he ate oysters voraciously with Mr Cross, the Brook Street apothecary he got his medicinal and bouncing powder  from

 (oysters were, let us not forget, another aphrodisiac, or so it was believed). And that he was refused a loaf on credit. Those are just the rumours, the tales. The facts are no less extraordinary. 

Chatterton was declared non compos mentis and buried in Shoe Lane burying-ground. He was buried under the wrong name. William Chatterton. 

Why the declaration of non compos mentis? Saying the deceased had been insane was a way of avoiding the ghastly public spectacle that was customary practice for the remains of suicides. Namely burial at a crossroads and often with a stake through the heart. Parliament finally got around to condemning that barbaric practice in 1822. What concentrated those great minds in the talking shop on the Thames was the suicide of one of their own, foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh. Castlereagh didn’t get the cross-roads treatment, he got a room at a rather better inn, Westminster Abbey. The next year, 1823, Parliament passed an act that allowed suicides private burial in a churchyard but only at night and without a Christian service. The matter was revisited in 1882. That act allowed burial for suicides in daylight hours. Then, in the wild and woolly out-of-control sixties – 1961 to be exact – Parliament decriminalised suicide. 

Two final points about Chatterton’s Shoe Lane burial. It was a pauper’s burial. But he’s not there now. The day came when the bodies were disinterred from Shoe Lane, the ground was levelled and developed. 

Chatterton’s final resting place is unknown. So, yes, Shoe Lane. Chatterton’s not there now. Instead, he’s everywhere. In all our heads.

One more London Walks connection. 43 Hatton Garden is very near Brook Street. It was a charity school, a blue coat school. Above the door – on the street side – are two statues – a little boy and little girl – in their blue costumes. Blue because it was the cheapest dye and these were charity schools. And remember the school Chatterton attended as a child was Colston’s, Bristol’s blue coat school.

Now thinking about his youthful career path – it was of course only ever youthful – as child Chatterton was bewitched by the medieval. And as I’ve already implied, at Colston’s the boys wore Tudor blue coats and had their heads tonsured in monastic fashion. And therein, it’s been suggested, you have the genesis of Thomas Rowley, the monk Chatterton dreamed up and around whom he wove his astonishing literary forgery. 

The point being – and this is all good London Walks stuff – Chatterton will have known that Hatton Garden school just as he will have known Staple Inn. Just as the names Brooke Street and Shoe Lane are Chatterton hot buttons – so are those two wonderful old buildings. Setting eyes on them is tantamount to rubbing the magic lantern – you know the story – and now you do – the genie Chatterton’s going to rise up before you.

And – almost goes without saying, this – the Today in London recommendation is a trip to the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. Not sure they’ll have any of their Chatterton holdings on display but you’ll certainly see a Shakespeare First Folio and there is a connection – the great Victorian artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti considered Chatterton comparable to Shakespeare. 

And this one’s tenuous but no less fascinating for being so. Chatterton’s mediaeval forgeries were made on vellum he’d pared from the edges of old documents he found in the scrivening office where he was an apprentice. The mediaeval Magna Carta you’ll see at the British Library was discovered in a tailor’s shop in the 17th century. What was it doing there? It was going to be cut down and the pieces fitted into gentlemen’s collars as stiffeners. 

London. Age cannot wither nor custom stale its infinite variety.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all.  See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *