Chatterton, Dan autobiography

Chatterton portrait & a cover of The Scorcher

Written a few years before he died, Chatterton describes his time as a lifelong London working class radical and revolutionist.

[The original printing of the Biography is reproduced here; ]

The subject of this Biography is one of the revolutionary type of workers for political and social advancement. Daniel Chatterton was born at Dorrington Street, Clerkenwell(1), London, August 25th 1820. His parents in a fair position(2), the eldest of three children - a lad of weakly constitution he was much petted by Father - and Mother, who spared no effort to preserve his life. His earliest recollections are the kindly care of a worthy couple at boarding school at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire where his father placed him to get pure air. After three years spent very pleasantly, he came to London, when his mother an earnest Christian woman tried hard to inculcate a belief in the teachings of Christianity. But Young Chatterton's Father, an Atheist, placed the contra side before his mental vision, telling him to hear both sides - he need not take the teachings of either as an accepted fact - but test everything by reason. His brain power. Today he reveres the memory of both. Yet he hails the effort that has preserved him from the enthrallment of that teaching which has worked such disastrous effects on the human race. His health again failing him he was sent to school at Barnet, where he remained until an accident deprived his father of his reason.

Brought home, Chatterton commenced active life at twelve years of age - before he was fourteen he was apprenticed to a Bootmaker. And now mixing with workmen who are proverbially thinkers, he gained much useful information - entering into business before he was twenty one he was not a successful trader. For some years as a Journeyman he earned a precarious crust. During the Chartist struggle of 1848(3) he was badly injured in defending himself - from an attack on the people by police on Clerkenwell Green. In 1855 he enlisted in 77th Foot Regiment, at the close of Crimean War he was discharged for ill health. He then married - of three children, Alfred survives.

In the contest when the Hyde Park railings were thrown down he again got roughly used(4). These were rough times, a brutal Tory Government shut the gates - result, rails went down before an enraged people. For three days fighting was the order of the day. Secretary Walpole was snivelling to an Officer of the Guards. The second day, Sir Richard Mayne, Commissioner of Police, was tearing over the Park on his white horse when a well directed brick sent him flying heels up. His head thud on Mother Earth, that settled him.

As a member of the Council of Land & Labour League(5) he was called to move a second resolution at the great Torchlight Demonstration in Palace Yard, about 1870 or 71. Resolutions all passed by acclamation. A sea of heads from Charing Cross, Whitehall - right up to entrance of the Lobby of House of Commons. About same date Chatterton, by order, hired the large room of the Old Bell tavern in Old Bailey for a meeting in protest against any dowry to Princess Louise. The landlord on night of meeting locked the door, saying disloyalty was not his forte - W. Osborn invited the Friends to adjourn to the Hole in the Wall. There it was resolved to have a Monster Meeting in Hyde Park on the next Sunday. G. Odger(6) was Chairman. By stress of weather meeting adjourned to Trafalgar Square on Monday night, returning to Kirby Street. Inspector Clark served the organisers with prohibitory notice of meeting. At once bills were printed. Chatterton posted the west district(7), giving special care to Scotland Yard, serving the officials with a bill to as a Proof of Intent to hold the meeting at all peril. Charles Bradlaugh(8) spoke at that meeting in defiance of the Government.

In the struggle for the Education Act of 1870 Chatterton was a member of London section of Birmingham Education League. In committee our old co-worker Thomas moved as Amendment to Resolution in favour of Unsectarian Education - one in favour of Purely Secular Education. It was lost in committee. At the big meeting at Exeter Hall Chatterton again moved his Amendment for Purely Secular Education. Patrick Hennesy seconded it - it got twenty votes in a meeting of 7000. He was well beaten, but today the world is easier - every loss is our ultimate victory. At G. Odger's second lecture on Capital & Labour, at Kingston on Thames, Chatterton accompanied a party from the Hall of Science formed to carry out the meeting. Odger and Fagan at first visit were mobbed by three hundred well dressed roughs. A capital lecture was delivered on the Fairfield, Chatterton selling the literature of the party despite the efforts of aristocratic roughs to break up the meeting, but who were routed. During that summer Chatterton conducted a bookstall for the sale of Freethought literature for the Kingston Secular Party in Kingston Market. The last night of the season it blew a big hurricane. The lamp fell over and the Blasphemy was all ablaze. After a warm job Chatterton squelched hell fire in Kingston on Thames. The publications stowed away, Chatterton gave a lecture on Kingcraft & Priestcraft. A redheaded bigot opposed, he was backed by a howling mob. It was arranged that by signal comrade Chandler and a few sturdy friends dragged Chatterton out and escorted to railway station. That was lively.

In February 1880 Chatterton challenged Archbishop of Canterbury Tait to debate his assertion that Atheistic opinion led to moral degeneration. The Bishop made a lame reply by letter. This correspondence was inserted in the daily papers. The Sunday Observer made a caustic attack on Archbishop Tait for not knowing better than to debate with an Itinerant Spouter of Blasphemy - giving a splendid advertisement to Atheism.

On February 20th 1880 the Christian Evidence Society(9) held an annual meeting at the Egyptian Hall, Mansion House. Bishop Claughton, Chaplain of the Queen's Army, expressed a wish to meet the Atheists. For furtherance of truth, C. Bradlaugh rose to speak. Alderman R. Carden ruled Bradlaugh out of order. He at once left the hall, then Chatterton essayed to reply. Bobby Carden ruled him out of order, sung the Doxology and closed the meeting. Resolved not to be defeated, Chatterton button-holed the Bishop as he left the platform, asking was God powerless to convince the Atheist? Turpin, Christian Evidence lecturer, brought a Police Serjeant. But Chatterton held his own, not leaving until the Bishop left the hall. Shortly after, Chatterton sent the Bishop a challenge, to debate the existence of God. The Bishop invited Chatterton to his house at Maida Vale. He went, was shown into a luxurious room. There for one hour did the Bishop and the Bill Sticker plead and paste God to their utmost ability. At parting, 'Chatterton', said the Bishop, 'I am afraid, it is as you were. But give me a promise - should God bring you to himself, come and tell me.' 'Oh yes Bishop,' said Chatterton, 'I will promise that - aye, and give you some advice with it. Don't you sit there until I get back, lest you get tired.' that Bishop is dead. Archbishop Tait is dead too. Turpin CEL is dead too. But Agnosticism, Secularism, Materialism - all Atheism, the outcome of cultured thought, is live and rampant as ever. Possibly Chatterton will die too. Yet our Women and Men have built biographies that have crushed your faggot & stake into annihilation.

As the author of several Atheistical & Revolutionary Pamphlets, he has worked hard; in 1884 he started Chatterton's Commune, The Atheistic Communistic Scorcher. The whole of his unique literary productions may be read at the British Museum Library. Today, realising all the grandeur of life that is worth living; the limpid gleam of love in his sister woman's eye, the thrill of gladness in the grasp of his brother man. As he goes his way it finds him an old man in the actuality of three score eleven. Yet making cheerily for that other fifty. Wanting no God, no fear of hell, no aspirations for heaven. Standing in the throes of eternity now. Matter always was, he is, matter always will be. The aged frame feeble, yet head erect, eye clear, brain strong, looking lovingly into the forces of nature, the indestructability of matter.

Such is Dan Chatterton - Atheist & Communist.

Printed by Dan Chatterton.
29 Goldsmiths Buildings,
Drury Lane, W.C.


(Note; for ease of reading, a few changes in punctuation, spelling and paragraphs have been made from the original. Some explanatory footnotes have also been added.)

Source; Chatterton's Commune, the Atheistic Communistic Scorcher, no 38, April 1894.

1) Dorrington Street is now part of Mount Pleasant, WC1, in the area between Gray's Inn Rd and King's Cross Rd. An old street name for Dorrington St can still be seen there on the row of buildings next to the Apple Tree pub.
2) Chatterton's father was an artisan japanner or furniture laquerer. But from his youth onwards, beginning with his father's mental illness and diminished earning capacity, Chatterton and his family were to become steadily downwardly mobile in terms of economic means and social status.
3) 1848 was the last high point of Chartist struggles and Clerkenwell Green in Chatterton's neighbourhood was the scene of numerous clashes between police and demonstrators. (For further information, see;
4) The reference is to the massive July 1866 demonstration called by the Reform League (formed in 1865 to campaign for manhood suffrage and the ballot). The police attempting to deny entry to the Park via the gates, the protesters instead broke down the railings to gain entry.
5) The League was set up by a coalition of O'Brienite Chartists and members of the International Working Men's Association (First International) in the 1860s to advocate land nationalisation. This is how Marx saw its relationship to the IWMA and the working class; "The English possess all material requisites of the social revolution. But they lack the spirit of generalisation and revolutionary passion. Only the General Council is able to inspire them with those qualities and thus to speed the revolutionary forces in that country and consequently everywhere. The only means to attain that object is to secure an unbroken contact of the General Council with English Labour. As General Council and Regional Council we can set on foot movements (as, for instance, the Land and Labour League) which appear in the eyes of the public as spontaneous manifestations of the English working class." (Importance and Weakness of English Labour, Marx, 1869;
6) Nineteenth century English trade unionist and member of the International Working Men's Association.
7) For much of his later adult life Chatterton was a bill sticker - ie, employed to paste up poster advertisements on street walls.
8) A well known 19th century Atheist and reformer, founder of the National Secular Society (still in existence). Became MP for Northampton in 1880. Despite being elected four times, he was repeatedly blocked from taking his seat in Parliament - due to his demanding the right to be allowed to affirm non-religiously rather than swear the religious Parliamentary Oath of Allegiance. When refused the right to affirm he agreed to take the Oath instead: but that option was then blocked. Finally allowed to take the Oath "as a matter of form" or formality in 1886, in 1888 he secured passage of a new Oaths Act which granted the right to affirm instead of taking the religious Oath.
9) Founded in 1870 - and still in existence - to defend Christianity against Atheism. Has included scientists among its members.


Apr 5 2010 19:32

Corrections to note 8:

Bradlaugh was MP for Northampton, not Norwich.
He did not refuse to take the oath - he demanded the right to affirm, and when that was refused said he would take the oath instead: but that option was then blocked.

Red Marriott
Apr 5 2010 23:45

Thanks, dannyno - now corrected.