["A Very Aged, Ghostly Place"] by George Cattermole. 3 ½ x 4 ½ inches. Wood-engraving. Chapter 46, The Old Curiosity Shop, Part 26. Date in serial publication 31 October 1840 (forty-sixth plate in the series) in Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 29, 55.

Context of the Illustration: The Trents and the Schoolmaster arrive at the Old Church

"See — here’s the church!" cried the delighted schoolmaster in a low voice; "and that old building close beside it, is the schoolhouse, I’ll be sworn. Five-and-thirty pounds a-year in this beautiful place!"

They admired everything — the old grey porch, the mullioned windows, the venerable gravestones dotting the green churchyard, the ancient tower, the very weathercock; the brown thatched roofs of cottage, barn, and homestead, peeping from among the trees; the stream that rippled by the distant water-mill; the blue Welsh mountains far away. It was for such a spot the child had wearied in the dense, dark, miserable haunts of labour. Upon her bed of ashes, and amidst the squalid horrors through which they had forced their way, visions of such scenes — beautiful indeed, but not more beautiful than this sweet airy distance, as the prospect of ever beholding them again grew fainter; but, as they receded, she had loved and panted for them more.

"I must leave you somewhere for a few minutes," said the schoolmaster, at length breaking the silence into which they had fallen in their gladness. "I have a letter to present, and inquiries to make, you know. Where shall I take you? To the little inn yonder?"

"Let us wait here," rejoined Nell. "The gate is open. We will sit in the church porch till you come back."

"A good place too," said the schoolmaster, leading the way towards it, disencumbering himself of his portmanteau, and placing it on the stone seat. ‘Be sure that I come back with good news, and am not long gone!"

So, the happy schoolmaster put on a bran-new pair of gloves which he had carried in a little parcel in his pocket all the way, and hurried off, full of ardour and excitement.

The child watched him from the porch until the intervening foliage hid him from her view, and then stepped softly out into the old churchyard — so solemn and quiet that every rustle of her dress upon the fallen leaves, which strewed the path and made her footsteps noiseless, seemed an invasion of its silence. It was a very aged, ghostly place; the church had been built many hundreds of years ago, and had once had a convent or monastery attached; for arches in ruins, remains of oriel windows, and fragments of blackened walls, were yet standing; while other portions of the old building, which had crumbled away and fallen down, were mingled with the churchyard earth and overgrown with grass, as if they too claimed a burying-place and sought to mix their ashes with the dust of men. Hard by these gravestones of dead years, and forming a part of the ruin which some pains had been taken to render habitable in modern times, were two small dwellings with sunken windows and oaken doors, fast hastening to decay, empty and desolate.

Upon these tenements, the attention of the child became exclusively riveted. She knew not why. The church, the ruin, the antiquated graves, had equal claims at least upon a stranger’s thoughts, but from the moment when her eyes first rested on these two dwellings, she could turn to nothing else. Even when she had made the circuit of the enclosure, and, returning to the porch, sat pensively waiting for their friend, she took her station where she could still look upon them, and felt as if fascinated towards that spot. [Vol. 2, Chapter XLVI, 55]

Commentary

Although Dickens might not have confided the precise location of the school and church which are Nell's final destination on the Welsh side of the West Midlands' Black Country, the actual setting is likely the historic village of Tong, now in the metropolitan district of the City of Bradford in West Yorkshire. In 1727 Sir George Tempest rebuilt the twelfth-century chapel, and in 1736 built the school and the nearby master's house.

In April 1840 John Forster and Dickens took the very road that Nell and her grandfather take through the Black Country in Chapter XLV. On 14 October 1840 Dickens told John Forster that in reading this passage "You will recognize a description of the road we travelled between Birmingham and Wolverhampton" (The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume Two, 131–2).

Local tradition has for over a hundred and fifty years identified Tong's Collegiate Church of St. Bartholomew as the setting for Nell's death because, when Dickens went to Tong Castle to visit his grandmother, who was the housekeeper there, he wrote the closing lines of the novel. In fact, he stayed at nearby Albrighton on that visit, and wrote the concluding episode of The Old Curiosity Shop there. Although the 15th century Church of St. Bartholomew, sometimes called "The Westminster Abbey of the West Midlands," does not much resemble Cattermoler's elegant architectural drawing, it is, as Dickens describes the church Nell visits, "a very aged, ghostly place" (55). Since the Gothic church is notable for its perpendicular architecture and fittings, including its fan vaulting in a side chapel, rare in Shropshire, and its numerous fine tombs, it may well have served as Dickens's model.

About 1910, George Bowden, the church's verger, inserted a forged entry into the parish register to the effect that a fourteen-year-old "Nell Gwyn" had been buried in the churchyard on 1 February 1841, just after the penultimate instalment of the novel was published serially. However, not especially afraid of being detected perhaps, Bowden had used Post Office ink rather than the normal ink used to make entries the register. Bowden went so far as manufacturing a false grave which he displayed to visitors as Little Nell's resting-place. This grave has moved around in the last century as real people were interred in the churchyard. "Despite being a fake and also that Nell is a fictitious character, the grave has attracted many visitors including some from as far afield as America" (BBC: "Shropshire Verger in Tong faked grave of Dickens' Little Nell").

Related Resources

Scanned image by George P. Landow; colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.] Click on the image to enlarge it.

Bibliography

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock. Illustrated by Phiz, George Cattermole, Samuel Williams, and Daniel Maclise. 3 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1840.

_____. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Charles Green. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. XII.

_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Edited by Angus Easson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1977.

_______. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume Two, 1840–1841. Ed. Madeline House & Graham Storey. The Pilgrim Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.

Hammerton, J. A. "XIII. The Old Curiosity Shop." The Dickens Picture-Book. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book, 1910. 170-211.

"Shropshire Verger in Tong faked grave of Dickens' Little Nell." BBC Shropshire. 20 January 2010.


Created 7 November 2009

Last modified 17 July 2020