Shropshire’s Spooky Tale of Two Nells

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Local legends of Charles Dickens’ Lilttle Nell and historical figure Nell Gwyn collide at a Shropshire churchyard in Shifnal, says ANDREW HOMER

An illustration of Little Nell and her Grandfather
An illustration of Little Nell and her Grandfather

Is a 16th century coaching inn at Shifnal in Shropshire haunted by Nell Gwyn (Gwynne), mistress to Charles II? Probably not, as Nell Gwyn never visited Shifnal as far as is known.

Why then should she be recorded in the nearby Tong Church burial records?

Even more confusing, the grave that the record refers to is supposed to be that of Nell Trent, the entirely fictional ‘Little Nell’ character created by author Charles Dickens for his serialised novel The Old Curiosity Shop.

Charles Dickens tends to be associated with Victorian London. In fact, he knew the Midlands very well including Birmingham and Shropshire. Indeed, his ghost is said to haunt Birmingham Town Hall at Christmas time where he gave the very first reading of his classic ghost story, A Christmas Carol, in 1853.

One of the reasons he knew the area so well was that his grandmother was employed as housekeeper at Tong Castle near Shifnal.

At the time Dickens was visiting his grandmother the old coaching inn would have been known as The Unicorn. It was a popular stop off point for horse drawn coaches to and from London.

The whole area would have been bustling with people and trade. Dickens is said to have based much of The Old Curiosity Shop on Victorian Shifnal. It would be very much later that The Unicorn acquired the name Naughty Nells.

Local legend of Nell Gwyn at The Unicorn

Local legend has it that The Unicorn was once the home of Nell Gwyn and where she would entertain Charles II in her bed chamber. When the inn was trading as Naughty Nells, her ghost would allegedly regularly disturb the sleep of terrified guests in one particular bedroom.

There is also a tradition in Hereford that Nell Gwyn was born in Pipe Well Lane, later to be renamed Gwynne Street. Unfortunately for these local legends it is much more likely that she was born and eventually buried at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

There are, however, royal connections with the area as Charles II himself was in hiding at Boscobel House and Moseley Old Hall after the battle of Worcester in 1651. During an aborted attempt at crossing the River Severn to escape to Wales, Charles was taken to Hubbal Grange near Tong. It is this connection that has no doubt led to the confusion between Nell Gwyn and Nell Trent.

Naughty Nells in Park Street, Shifnal
Naughty Nells in Park Street, Shifnal

Tong Church claims to have the grave of the fictional Little Nell and this seems to have been created for the benefit of tourists in the early 1900s at the instigation of the local postmaster and parish clerk, George Henry Boden. It appears to have been a money-making scheme together with numerous souvenirs to cash-in on people visiting the area due to the popularity of The Old Curiosity Shop.

The entry in the Parish Register is clearly a forgery but quite why this refers to Nell Gwyn and not Nell Trent remains a mystery. All this confusion would probably have very much amused Nell Gwyn as she was referred to by Samuel Pepys as, ‘Pretty, witty Nell’.

The two Nells seem to have become inextricably entwined in the local folklore.

The reputed grave of Little Nell
The reputed grave of Little Nell

Naughty Nells is said to be haunted by at least four ghosts. They manifest themselves through disembodied voices and loud banging noises coming from locked and empty rooms as though people were trying to get out. Shifnal suffered a great fire in 1591 and whilst the building was not destroyed it is easy to imagine people desperate to escape the smoke and flames.

If you visit Shifnal be sure to have a close look at the upstairs bedroom windows of Naughty Nells.

Even though the ancient inn is closed and lies empty after a cellar fire in 2010, you might just see an expressionless female face staring right back at you, although it is most unlikely to be Nell Gwyn!



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