DAN CHATTERTON:

ATHEISTIC, COMMUNISTIC, SCORCHER 1820-1895


By Terry Liddle

 

In his history of British Anarchism, The Slow Burning Fuse (Paladin, London, 1978) John Quail wrote of Dan Chatterton that he deserves to be rescued from oblivion. In a period, the late 19th century, when remarkable people were common among both secularists and socialists, Chatterton was one of the most remarkable of all, a one man revolution against church and state.
Chatterton was born in August 1820 into an artisan family of fairly comfortable means in Clerkenwell in London. His mother was a Christian but Chatterton was early influenced by his father who worked as a furniture laquerer and who took the young lad to radical and freethought meetings at Richard Carlile's Rotunda in Blackfriars Road.
From an early age Chatterton suffered ill health and was sent away to be educated in Aylesbury and later Barnet. His father suffered an accident and changed his work from japaning to selling coal. Chatterton was apprenticed to a shoemaker in whose workshop he had his political education. Shoemakers were then in the vanguard of working class politics. Without success Chatterton tried to start his own business. By 1871 he was listed as a travelling bookseller and later as a newsvendor. In later years he made a slim living selling radical papers and posting bills. He claimed to have been a waiter in a coffee house and a baker's deliverer and even to have cut up a corpse for a doctor.
Chatterton became involved in Chartism and claimed to have been badly injured in fighting between Chartists and police on Clerkenwell Green. In 1855 Chatterton joined the army, doubtless like Bradlaugh for the bounty. He spent much of his two years service in a military hospital bed.
Returning to London, Chatterton married Emma Cook, who died aged 32 in St Pancras Workhouse. He married again in 1867 to Emily Scott aged 21. Her fate is unknown; she was not living with Chatterton in his later life. Several children died young. Only one, Alfred, reached adulthood. He was disabled and lived with Chatterton. His circumstances undoubtedly put a sharp edge on his politics.
In the 1860s Chatterton was active in the Reform League participating in the Hyde Park riot of July 23, 1866. In the early 1870s he was a leading figure in the Land and Labour League. He wrote for its paper the Republican and spoke at its meetings. Unlike many League members he was not influenced by the Chartism of Bronterre O'Brien. Nor was he a member of the First International. He was, however, involved with the Universal Republican League.
The National Reformer for 26 May, 1872 reported a URL meeting in Camberwell where 'citizen Chatterton' spoke on land and money lords. It is not recorded if he spoke at Church Street in the morning or at the Rose and Crown in the afternoon. Either way the land and money lords would be in for a good tongue lashing. Chatterton always admonished the poor to revolt against their oppressors and was always saddened when they didn't.
Chatterton was also in the Patriotic Society, which having been evicted from the Hole in the Wall near Hatton Garden, purchased what became the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell Green (now Marx House). He also served on the general committee of the Anti Game Law League.
Chatterton's first pamphlet (1872) was in support of Metropolitan police officers who were agitating for a pay rise. It became a diatribe against all social and political privilege. Chatterton argued that once the police and army started to think for themselves they would join a popular revolt.
For the next twenty years there followed a stream of pamphlets, increasingly intemperate in language and wild in appearance. All were militantly atheistic and denounced the evils created by gin and gospel. The royal family and capitalist politicians were favourite targets. Victoria, he said, should become a washerwoman and Gladstone a bus conductor.
In an 1882 open letter to the Prince of Wales, Chatterton wrote: "... the revolution of the belly without brains, a revolution that will sweep you, Prince, and the entire gang of royal lurchers into the ranks of labour or off the face of the earth, like the vermin you are." The Windsors don't have such critics nowadays.

The Commune In England

The nearest he came to a political programme was in his pamphlet The Commune in England. Everyone over 20 would elect a senate to draft laws to be submitted within a month to referendum. These laws would have included free secular state education and nationalisation of land.
Chatterton was an active freethinker and had an exchange of letters with the Archbishop of Canterbury which was published in The Times. Amongst the publications he hawked were the Freethinker and the National Reformer. He was also involved in advocating women's rights and family limitation in his pamphlet Babies and Bunny Rabbits. He was an active worker for the Malthusian League.


Chatterton's Commune


Around 1885 he established his own penny publication Chatterton's Commune which was often printed with odds and ends of type on flimsy yellow paper. Hand printed, it had a run of 100 copies. 'We are too hot for hell', he wrote, and 'Too mad for Hanwell'.
Chatterton was a powerful orator although many of his interventions were not well received. At a meeting organised by the Clerkenwell Branch of the Social Democratic Federation he threatened to decapitate the guest speaker Lord Brabazon. At a meeting at the Autonomie Club in 1890 the description by William Morris of the beauties of a socialist society had no effect on him. He merely remarked that hanging was necessary for the public good. EP Thompson deleted any mention of Chatterton from later editions of his biography of Morris.
Chatterton drifted towards the newly formed anarchist groups. He sold Freedom and spoke from the platform at a meeting to celebrate the Paris Commune and from the floor at a meeting addressed by Peter Kropotkin.
In a pamphlet Chatterton had written: 'Oh if there be a hell and the atheists are damned and double damned, at least give me warm quarters and respectable companions.' Chatterton wanted to be cremated. To fund this he sold photographs of himself at a shilling (5p) each. Alas he was to be disappointed. He was buried in a common grave in St Pancras cemetary in Finchley. The funeral ceremony was conducted by Robert Forder, a prominent secularist and radical publisher. Forder himself would be buried in a common grave.
Sadly, we only know of Chatterton because of his habit of placing his writings in the British Museum. He was an eccentric but he was the sort ofeccentric that secularism and socialism need. Without extremists like Chatterton there is a danger we will fall into the trap of wanting to offend nobody, even those who roundly deserve to be offended.

 

Originally given as a lecture to the South Place Ethical Society, 17 July 2005. Also published in their journal, Ethical Record, July/August 2005
Ethical Record, Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL
there's more about Dan Chatterton and radical Clerkenwell in Reds On the Green.

 

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