Poet credited with rise of Romantic movement
COMMUTERS travelling in and out of town on busy Redcliffe Way could be forgiven for wondering what a neglected looking piece of walling, with large windows, was doing, stuck out on its own, almost opposite St Mary Redcliffe church.
Those on foot, on the newly completed footpath known as Brunel Mile, would see more – a run down, boarded up, derelict-looking cottage lying behind the solitary walling.
Both buildings, in fact, commemorate Bristol's most famous poet-son, Thomas Chatterton, who was born in Redcliffe in 1752 but died, tragically young, in London, in 1770.
And both, believe it or not, have been Grade II listed by English Heritage, which means that they have to be preserved.
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The Redcliffe Way frontage in fact, is all that remains of the school that the poet attended, and which had been run by his late father, and the two-up, two-down cottage behind it was where he grew up, looked after by his mother and other relatives.
The rest of the school was unfortunately bulldozed when Redcliffe Way was built in the late 1930s.
Despite being lauded, by those in the know, as the pioneer of the Romantic movement, it's debatable just how many people in Bristol today even know that Thomas Chatterton came from the city.
To say that the poet has been neglected by Bristol – perhaps because his early death was seen as a suicide, rather than an accident – is an understatement.
"I was in Paris recently and the poet is certainly more well known there than he is in Bristol," says the chairman of the Thomas Chatterton Society, Michael Doble.
"A few years ago the house was put on English Heritage's At Risk register – which means that it was in danger of collapse if nothing was done. A council surveyor's report said that the building should be made safe, and that's what is happening now, essential repairs, which should be finished by Christmas.
"There's not a lot to see inside, but there were problems with the roof and trees growing out the brickwork.
"Some years ago there was someone living here – the modern extension you can see was the kitchen – but it's been empty for some years now."
In fact, the house was invaded by squatters last year, who had to be evicted.
"The council, who still own the property, are open to ideas about its future use, but have said that they would like to see a cafe opening here.
"The tendering for that, they say, would be sometime early next year.
"The society itself have considered three options – residential, commercial (the cafe) or cultural, something which would embody the building's literary heritage. That could be a museum – something which William Wordsworth and Oscar Wilde both wished for, but which never came about.
"In fact, Wilde's proposed inscription for a memorial tablet on the school read: 'To the memory of Thomas Chatterton, one of England's GREATEST poets and sometime pupil at this school'.
"Apart from a museum, we'd like to do something to benefit the local community. We've been talking to someone who runs a children's nursery in Redcliffe about the possibility of them moving in when the house is restored – perhaps with a museum as well.
"Whatever happens we would hope that it would have local appeal, and help promote Chatterton's name, too. The society could even take a lease on the building and run it with volunteers, of which we have plenty, but that's unlikely.
"Our grand idea – a master plan if you like – is to build a 'crystal palace' on the site, utilising some spare, council owned land at the side of the house. This would be a theatre of glass, promoting both the arts and sciences – Chatterton was keen on both – which could cater for everything from large, corporate events to small, local gatherings who would pay far less for its hire.
"The cost of the 'crystal palace', we are told, would be about half a million pounds – one million should some of it be built underground.
"The council's exciting plans for the whole of Redcliffe are now quite advanced and have, in fact, received Government approval.
"We would, of course, like to see the poet's house included in any future schemes for the area."