Discovering Tong
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Some Victorian Curiosities - Chapter 13

In the last chapter of the book, the author shows how Tong influenced the literary works of Harrison Ainsworth; Charles Dickens; Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler and P.G. Wodehouse.

The flight of the future King Charles II after the rout at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 was turned into an adventure story by 'popular historian' Harrison Ainsworth. The King passed through Tong (Hubbal Grange) and hid in the Royal Oak in neighbouring Boscobel.

“Ainsworth is no longer a significant literary figure, but the effect of his book was to bring the events taking place around Tong and Boscobel into public consciousness, and to attract visitors to the area.”

Indeed a trip to Tong on the new railway became a popular weekend outing for people working in Wolverhampton and beyond.

To boast links with William Shakespeare would seem quite enough for a small village, but Tong can rightly claim links to a great Victorian writer too. Charles Dickens is believed to have set the famous scenes of one of his most successful books 'The Old Curiosity Shop' at Tong. It was this link that generated a new cottage industry at Tong and a number of new stories came to be made. The serialization of the book generated huge popular interest in Little Nell and her grandfather as the story unfolded week by week.

The Old Curiosity Shop caused a sensation when it was published just like might happen today when a serialised TV drama reaches a climax.

Cattermole illustration for the Old Curiosity Shop
Cattermole illustration for Charles Dicken's 'Old Curiosity Shop' with Tong Church in mind. Little Nell's grandfather grieves beside her grave.

“Dickens readers were drowned in a wave of grief no less overwhelming than his own. When Mcready returning home from the theatre, saw the print of the child lying dead by the window with strips of holly on her breast, a dead chill ran through his blood. 'I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain', he noted in his diary, 'I could not weep for some time. Sensations, sufferings have returned to me, that are terrible to awaken...' Daniel O'Connell, the Irish MP, reading the book in a railway carriage, burst into tears, groaned 'He should not have killed her', and despairingly threw the volume out of the train window. Thomas Carlyle, previously inclined to be a bit patronising about Dickens, was utterly overcome. Waiting crowds at a New York Pier shouted to an incoming vessel, 'Is Little Nell dead?'...”

Dickens undoubtedly did know about Tong:

“There is another connection. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, in 1812. His grandmother was Elizabeth Ball. She was the daughter of James and Amy Ball, of Claverley in Shropshire. She was baptised there, on January 10, 1746. Before she married, she was housekeeper at Tong Castle. She married William Dickens in 1781 when she was 36, so she may have been at Tong for some time.”

The description of the Church in the 'Old Curiosity Shop' is unflattering: 'A very Aged, Ghostly Place' but matches the state of the affairs prior to the Restoration of 1892 with only a little exaggeration for dramatic effect. Despite some scholars attempts to undermine the theory, there is little doubt that the closing scenes of the death of Little Nell and her grief-stricken grandfather were set with Tong in mind.

However the influx of visitors to see Dickens' Tong proved a valuable line of income for George Boden (the parish clerk) much to the annoyance of John Auden (the vicar). The tale had by then become embroidered with all sorts of errors, and there is still a place in the graveyard that has a plaque claiming it as 'The reputed grave of Little Nell'. Chapter 13 sets out the vicar's view on the matter.

“He denied that he encouraged this tradition. Boden persisted, in spite of the objections. Postcards were sold of Little Nell's House: and also china plates, cups, and teapots were produced. They depicted Little Nell and her grandfather. There was indeed money in it. George Boden could tell a good yarn. One person remembers coming to Tong when she was aged 8, and being so moved by his heartrending story, she cried all night. In 1933 George Boden told his yarn to the Wolverhampton Express and Star and the reporter believed it. It is an amazing fabrication.”

For more about Tong please buy the book. The profits from the sale of the book will go towards maintaining Tong Church.

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