This year is the 250th anniversary of Thomas Chatterton’s death. Nicknamed Bristol’s Shakespeare, Chatterton was the boy poet who died at just 17 years old, having already penned an incredible array of work – from poems and elegies to political letters and satires.

He is most well-known for his Medieval-style poems, which he claimed to have discovered in a chest in a room above St Mary Redcliffe Church and passed off as belonging to a (fictional) 15th century monk, Thomas Rowley.  

Chatterton left Bristol to pursue his writing career in London in April 1770. Just four months later, he died in what was once thought to be a suicide after his failure to find success and wealth but is now considered an accidental overdose. Either way, his death at such a tragically young age was part of what cemented his legacy as a romantic figure.

Death of Chatterton painting by Henry Wallis

Image - Henry Wallis, ‘Chatterton’, 1856, © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (unported)

Controversy over who had authored his works followed his death, as few people believed they could be written by someone as young as Chatterton. Eventually, it was accepted that the Rowley poems were his and Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley would later be influenced by his story and writing.  

With help from Bristol Poetic City, we explore Bristol locations with connections to Chatterton’s life and legacy below. 

Chatterton’s school and birthplace

Chatterton was born in the schoolmaster’s house of Pile Street School in 1752. His father – a writing master at the school – died before his birth. The family moved away to a relation’s house on Redcliffe Hill after Chatterton’s christening in 1753.

He briefly attended Pile Street School but was turned away as his teacher thought he was too ‘dull’ to keep up with lessons. A short time later he would become a precocious student at Colston School, fascinated by the medieval period.  

Pile Street School was demolished when the street was widened to become Redcliffe Way but the building’s façade was attached to the former schoolmaster's house that stood behind it. Today, you can see a commemorative plaque here as well as step inside for a taste of fresh local coffee and homemade food and cakes at the aptly named Chatterton’s Café.

St Mary Redcliffe Church

The magnificent St Mary Redcliffe Church inspired Chatterton’s early writing and the creation of the medieval monk, Thomas Rowley. A memorial monument to Chatterton used to stand outside the church but was demolished after falling into disrepair and the figure of him that was on top is now in Bristol Museum’s store. The Muniments Room from where Chatterton’s father had been allowed to take old papers to research his family history is now referred to as the Chatterton Room.

The church is open to visitors from 8.30am until 5pm Monday to Saturdays or 9am until 4pm on bank holidays – go along to admire the church’s fine gothic architecture, learn more about its place in Bristol’s past and discover why it was a source of inspiration for Chatterton.

Inside St Mary Redcliffe church

Image - St Mary Redcliffe

Colston Hall

Near to the city’s largest concert hall (currently closed for a major transformation) once stood Colston School, which Chatterton attended as a charitable pupil from 1760. The school had been founded c1708 by Edward Colston, a merchant and philanthropist who made much of his wealth through the transatlantic slave trade, to provide pupils with a basic education and a route into local apprenticeships.

Exterior view of Colston Hall

Image - Colston Hall, credit Liz Eve Fotohaus

Plaques and statues

A plaque related to Chatterton’s literary legacy lives on number 49 of the High Street in the city centre, marking the location of Joseph Cottle’s publishing business in the late 18th and early 19th century. Many of the first key Romantic works were published here and it’s also a stone’s throw from the birthplace of a prominent Romantic poet, Robert Southey. Although Southey’s original house at 9 Wine Street is no longer there, a plaque has been placed on a building in a similar spot today.

It was Cottle and Southey who collaborated on the publication of an edited collection of Chatterton’s work in 1803. Southey also lived with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Bristol for a period of time, who wrote the poem ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’.

A bust of Southey was created in his honour in 1843 and is still on show in the north choir aisle at Bristol Cathedral, where Chatterton’s father was once a chorister. A five-minute walk away in Millennium Square is also a bronze statue of Chatterton by Lawrence Holofcener.

Over in Cliftonwood, a plaque on what is now Brandon House commemorates the site of the Jacob’s Well Theatre, Bristol’s first purpose-built playhouse that opened in 1729. Chatterton wrote disparagingly about the theatre, describing it as “…a hut in Jacob’s Well… A mean assembly-room absurdly built…”. While true that it was small in size, the theatre actually played a big part in the local arts scene – stars of the day performed there and guests included well-to-do visitors to the spa at nearby Hotwells.

Where to mark the 250th anniversary of Chatterton’s death

Events are taking place throughout the year to reflect on Chatterton’s life and death as well as celebrate the city's current vibrant poetry scene, starting with the Lyra: Bristol Poetry Festival (13-22 March).

LYRA Bristol Poetry Festival promo image for 2020

Image - Lyra

Also in March, head to St Mary Redcliffe for the Does Thomas Chatterton's life and work speak to us today? (22 March) talk, where the BBC documentary The Myth of a Doomed poet will be shown alongside a talk by Chatterton expert Michael Doble.  

Look out for more announcements about talks, workshops, exhibitions, tours, readings and more special themed events at venues such as the RWA, University of Bristol, Glenside Hospital Museum and Bristol Libraries. 

Discover more about Bristol’s role in the Romantic movement on the Bristol and Romanticism walking tour, a self-guided walk in the footsteps of poets from the time.

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