439. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, October [1799]

439. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, October [1799] ⁠* 


As a subscription edition of all Chatterton’s remains [1]  is about to be published for the benefit of his sister and niece, [2]  I beg leave, by means of your Magazine, to invite the public attention to those circumstances which render this act of justice necessary.

It might have been supposed that the interest which the fate of Chatterton excited in the public mind, would, in some measure, have supplied his loss to his family, by procuring for them active and benevolent friends. The publication of all his works for their emolument, would at that time have secured to them the comforts of life. Your readers, Sir, will probably learn with surprize, that the whole sum they have ever received from the profits of his productions, amounts only to seventeen guineas and six pence. In this I do not include the voluntary assistance of those individuals on whose justice they had no claim. They remember with gratitude the kindness of Dr. Glynn, of Mr. Bryant, [3]  above all of Miss Hannah More and her sisters. [4] 

The papers and poems attributed to Rowley, had been procured from Chatterton, during his life time, chiefly by Mr. Barrett [5]  and Mr. Catcott; [6]  from the latter, the poems were purchased for fifty pounds, of which six guineas were given to the mother and sister. A great part of Mr. Barrett’s History of Bristol is composed of Chatterton’s communications; the only return the family ever received from him was his surgical assistance, gratuitously afforded to the sister, Mrs. Newton, once in a complaint of the breast, once in curing a whitlow on her finger.

When Chatterton was more particularly the object of public curiosity, a clergyman called upon his sister, presented her half a guinea, and requested to see what ever letters of her brother she had preserved. She produced them. He then begged permission to take them away for one hour, assigning as a reason, that it would be too painful to his feelings to read them in the presence of that sister, to whom they were addressed. On the same pretext he procured the letters in Mrs. Chatterton’s [7]  possession, who lived separately from her daughter; these also, he promised to return in an hour, and the present of a guinea, and the language of consolatory friendship prevented all suspicion; indeed, so consolatory and so full of religion was his language to the mother, that she said she almost looked upon him as a guardian angel.

A fortnight elapsed, the letters had not been returned, and they knew not the name of the person to whom they had entrusted them. At the end of the fortnight Mrs. Chatterton received a letter from that person, Mr. H—— C——. [8]  “Be not alarmed, Mrs. Chatterton,” he said, “all the little treasures shall be faithfully returned to you again;” with the originals he promised to send transcripts of all the letters, with which the curiosity of strangers might be gratified, while the hand writing of Chatterton should be preserved. He again consoled Mrs. Chatterton for the fate of her son. “Perhaps,” said he, “he now beholds with pleasure the deserved progress his reputation is making every day, and the friends and the assistances which his name brings to you and to his sister:” the date of the letter was Lincoln’s Inn, July 27th 1778.

In a second letter, August 24th 1778, Mr. C—— requested the sister to write to him, whatever she and her mother could recollect, concerning Chatterton. “Believe me you are writing to one who respects his memory, and wishes you both well;” the promise of returning the letters and magazines containing Chatterton’s pieces, which he had borrowed at the same time, were repeated; and in the course of the Autumn they were accordingly returned. Nothing more was heard till, in the following July, to the astonishment of the family, Mr. C—— published the letters, and the information he had obtained from Mrs. Newton, in his Love and Madness. [9]  The mother wrote to him, and upbraided him for duplicity; he replied, by sending ten pounds, to be divided between her and her daughter; again professing friendship for them, and saying, “Be assured the family of Thomas Chatterton shall never be forgotten by H—— C——.”

Four months afterwards he again wrote to justify himself, and used these expressions, “What has been done was with a view to pave the way for services to your family; and I hope, sooner than you think, to be of more service to you than any person who has hitherto enquired about your son, for I have a true regard for his memory.”

In November 1780, he wrote a fifth letter, desiring Mrs. Newton would send him a particular account of her circumstances, as he was about to promote a public subscription for her; and in April 1781, they received a note from him, requiring an acknowledgement of the ten pounds.

Here Mr. C—— dropt his correspondence with the family; they heard no more of the future services and the public subscription. His Love and Madness had a great and rapid sale, undoubtedly in a considerable degree owing to the letters of Chatterton; and his purpose was served. Luckily Mrs. Newton preserved his letters. In 1796, she was advised, by a gentleman to whom she had shewn them, [10]  to write to Mr. C——; the following is a copy of her letter.


The name of Chatterton is, perhaps, yet familiar to your memory. She, to whom he was endeared by the tender ties of nature, and who, contemplating his many virtues, would remember his errors no more, begs leave to address you with reference to your professions of attachment to the remainder of his family. Several years have now elapsed since you obtained of me his unpublished papers, and communicated them to the world. The disquietude I might have felt at such a transaction, was removed by an apprehension, that while you interested yourself, you would render considerable assistance to me. The popularity of the concern was an adequate ground for my expectations, which were heightened by the respectability of your connections in life. Justice to my situation would long since have compelled me to address you, but have been, till a few days past, unacquainted with your residence. If any thing in my favour be practicable, to which I trust you will not be indisposed, your early attention will greatly oblige,


Your obedient humble servant

Mary Newton.

H—— C——, Esq. Portman Square,

London, June 19th 1796.

As no answer was returned, a second letter was addressed to Mr. C——.

Reverend Sir,

A former letter of mine, addressed to you under the appellation of H—— C——, Esq. may probably have reached your hands; the same motive which urged me to engage in that, induces me to trouble you with this, and I again solicit your attention to the remainder of the family of Chatterton. Justice to myself, as I before observed, was the reason of my forming the application, on which I had the satisfactory judgment of some very respectable friends. As the subject of obtaining my brother’s papers, has of late been particularly investigated here, I trust you will not suffer an occasion for public censure, in a matter where my feelings are considerably interested. I am, Reverend Sir,

Your obedient humble servant,

Mary Newton

August 4, 1796.

Mr. C——’s answer, was as follows.

Mrs. Newton’s letter of August 4, is sent to me here; she is either ill-advised, or she has not told her advisers the money which I gave her, when I had the copies of the letters, and afterwards. The sort of threatening letter which Mrs. Newton’s is, will never succeed with me: but if the clergyman of the parish will do me the favour to write me word, through Mrs. Newton, what Chatterton’s relations consist of, and what characters they bear, I will try, by every thing in my power, to serve them; yet certainly not, if any of them pretend to have the smallest claim on me.

H—— C——

Exmouth, Devon, September 1, 1796.

The money Mr. C—— alludes to, is the guinea given to Mrs. Chatterton and the half guinea to her daughter, when he borrowed the letters for an hour, and the ten pounds sent after he had published them.

Mr. C—— has been privately addressed upon the subject, without effect; his conduct is now made public, in the hope that general liberality may be excited by general indignation.

The mother of Chatterton died in poverty; she suffered three years with a cancer, and till her death, experienced the kindness of the Miss Mores. Mrs Newton supports herself by teaching children to read; she is now advancing in years, and her sight begins to fail. She is a widow with one daughter. It is hoped that the profits of the proposed publication will render her old age comfortable.

The edition will comprize whatever Chatterton left. Miscellanies, the pieces attributed to Rowley, and the letters published by Mr. C——; some unpublished poems have been procured, and some magazine pieces which had escaped the collector of the Miscellanies. Dr. Gregory [11]  has promised to adapt the life of this extraordinary young man to the work; it will make two octavo volumes. The price sixteen shillings, the money to be paid on delivery. Mr. Kearsley [12]  receives subscriptions. The edition will be under my direction, and every care shall be taken to render it correct and complete.

Robert Southey.

Bristol, October, 1799.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 8 (November 1799), 770–772 [from where the text is taken]. BACK

[1] The Bristol poet Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770; DNB). Southey and Cottle’s edition of his Works was eventually published in 1803. BACK

[2] Mary Newton (1749–1804) and her daughter. BACK

[3] Robert Glynn (1719–1800; DNB) and Jacob Bryant (1717–1804; DNB), antiquarians who took the view that Chatterton’s Rowley papers were genuine, see their collaboration, Observations on the Poems of Thomas Rowley (1781). BACK

[4] Hannah More (1745–1833; DNB), writer and propagandist for evangelical and conservative causes. Her sisters were Mary (1738–1813), Elizabeth (1740–1816), Sarah (1743–1819) and Martha (1747–1819). BACK

[5] William Barrett (1727–1789: DNB), surgeon and Bristol antiquarian, author of History and Antiquities of Bristol (1789), which accepted the Rowley papers as geniune. Southey’s father was one of the subscribers to Barrett’s History. BACK

[6] George Symes Catcott (1729–1802), pewterer and patron of Chatterton. BACK

[7] Sarah Chatterton, née Young (1731–1796), Thomas Chatterton’s mother. BACK

[8] Southey and Joseph Cottle both disapproved of Croft’s exploitation of manuscripts obtained from members of Thomas Chatterton’s (1752–1770; DNB) family. BACK

[9] Herbert Croft, Love and Madness (1780). BACK

[11] George Gregory (1754–1808; DNB), clergyman and author of a Life of Chatterton (1789). BACK

[12] The London bookseller and publisher George Kearsley II (fl. 1790s–1810s). BACK

People mentioned

Cottle, Joseph (1770–1853) (mentioned 2 times)
More, Hannah (1745–1833) (mentioned 1 time)