There was something heroic about the life of Dan Chatterton (1820-1895). He lived in great poverty, yet ceaselessly peddled his self-published pamphlets - which became increasingly more ragged in appearance and insurrectionary in tone. He caught the interest of several novelists, and fictionalised portraits of him appear in the works of Richard Whiteing, John Henry Mackay and, arguably, George Gissing.
I wrote an article about Dan Chatterton in History Workshop Journal several years ago, I have posted the full text below. His life intersects with many of the key radical political movements of the nineteenth century, from Chartism to the artisan followers of Bronterre O'Brien to the socialist and anarchist milieus of the end of the century.
The image of him on the left is in the Nettlau archive at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam.
Another photograph of Chatterton, again from the Nettlau archive. He sold what he called 'cabinet pphotographs' of himself at a shilling each - I assume this is one of them - for his burial fund. It didn't work. He was buried in an unmarked grave,
This is a rather grand, posed image. Very different from the photo above, taken when Chatterton was working as a bill poster. He was brought up as an artisan, but towards the end of his life took a range of low skilled jobs. He also seems to have received some money from the National Secular Society.
The anarchist David Nicoll wrote evocatively of Chatterton in an obituary: 'Who does not remember, in the stormy days of '87, a pale, haggard old man, who used to climb the platform at meetings of the unemployed, or in the closely packed Socialist lecture halls, and pour forth wild denunciations of the robbery and injustice that flourishes in our rotten society, mingled with fearful prophecies of the terrible revolution that was coming. He looked as he stood in the glare of the gaslight, with his ghastly face and flashing eyes, clad in an old grey overcoat and black slouched hat, a red woollen scarf knotted round his neck, like some grim spectre evolved from the misery and crime of the London slums, and middle-class men who had entered the meeting from curiosity shuddered as they murmured to themselves "Marat". 'Yes, Marat come to life again, an English Marat.'
Chatterton's autobiography gives you a sense of both of his style of writing, and of the appearance of his pamphlets and tracts particularly towards the end of his life. He used either very rough paper or cheap yellow tissue, and it was said that he had to press each page with his hands on the roughly set type to get an impression.
The Dorrington Street in which he was born, by the way, is not the street of that name in Holborn, but a street at the back of Mount Pleasant. As far as I can work out, the house where he was born still stands, a few doors from the 'Apple Tree' pub.
His biography provides a lot of personal inforamtion in just a few pages - and those details which can be checked out, such as his account of enlisting during the Crimean War, are borne out by the official records.
Thanks to a reader of this page, I am able to provide a link to an online posting of 'Old Chat's autobiography and to some of his other pamphlets. And I've posted the full pamphlet lower down on this page.
In addition to his pamphlets. Chatterton - or 'Old Chat' as he sometimes styled himself - published every few months a paper called 'Chatterton's Commune, the Atheistic Communistic Scorcher'. He provided all the content. This is one of the more legible copies. Some others were, in essence, handwritten.
The British Library has a full set of 'Chatterton's Commune', which continued publication for more than a decade. It seems that Chatterton himself took care to deposit copies at the Library, where they were - and are - well looked after.
The circulation of the 'Commune' seems to have been very small indeed - perhaps no more than a hundred copies.
Chatterton wrote all the articles, did the typesetting, printed either on very coarse paper or on tissue paper in the most rudimentary of fashions, and then peddled the paper as well.
It seems that Chatterton didn't start writing and peddling political pamphlets until he was in his fifties. 'Babies and Bunny Rabbits: a popular educator' dates from 1883 - and as you can see, it was conventionally typeset and printed. It is in many ways the most remarkable of his titles, advocating contraception not simply out of Malthusian arguments about the shortage of food supply, but also so that women and men could enjoy sex without worrying about conception.
'Mothers of England, think well over this question - know that you are the framework of the evolutionary propagation of the forces of life; know that the means of restricting that propagation lies entirely in your own hands; feel that you may gratify, to your heart's desire, all the sexual pleasures of love, of life, of all desire, without have the bitter reflection that by your reckless act of reproduction of a greater number than your two selves, you have doomed all to the penalty of death by starvation.'
The tract mentioned withdrawal, the sheath and the vaginal syringe as suitable methods of contraception.
'Old Chat' in powerpoint
I've posted below a powerpoint presentation put together to accompany a talk on Dan Chatterton given at the Bishopsgate Institute in December 2010.