Tong and Little Nell
Written by one of our volunteer cataloguers, Anthony Price
While working on a project to record all the gravestones in St Bartholomew’s Church, Tong (East Shropshire), I came across an interesting anecdote about the death of Little Nell. Not only was there a gravestone in the churchyard made for Little Nell, her death was also recorded in the parish register!
The well known Charles Dickens novel The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Little Nell’s adventures upon leaving London, and coming to Wolverhampton. Following her death, the story told that she was buried in a village churchyard. Charles Dickens later confirmed that this was in Tong. Charles Dickens has an association with Tong. His grandmother worked at nearby Tong Castle. So he knew the area well. The story of The Old Curiosity Shop was published in monthly instalments, and the death of Little Nell caused much interest at the time.
The idea of marking Little Nell’s resting place with a grave came about much later, in the early part of the 20th century, at the suggestion of the post master and shopkeeper, George Henry Boden (1911 census), tried to get an ‘E’ carved on the back of a grave stone. Since then there have been at least 2 more plaques made, marking the resting place.
George Boden was born on Tong the son of a Blacksmith in 1857 and went on to become Parish Clerk and Post Master (1901 census).
It is claimed that a charge was made to see the grave and it also appears that an entry was forged in the parish register.
I checked the parish register; held at the Archives P281/A/4/1, and found an entry for Nell Gwyne recorded on 1 February 1841 just after the final instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop was published in 1841.
The age of Nell is given as 14, the same age as Little Nell. I can find no record of a Nell Gwyne born in the area 14 years earlier. The only suggestion I can think of for the name ‘Gwynne’ is a link to Charles 1st, who was at nearby Hubbal Grange after the Battle of Worcester.
The ink is clearly different, as is the attempted signature of the officiating minister.
I found an advert in The Salisbury & Winchester Journal, dated 18/1/1841 confirming that The Old Curiousity Shop was published mid January so the entry on 1 February is a very neat fit!
You can still see the grave at Tong Church and view the parish register, alongside other Shropshire parish registers up to 1900, on the FindMyPast website.
You can also read more about it BL 77 v.f. J Frost, Tong and Little Nell; the Rev. J.E. Auden and in an article on the BBC website from 201