Why I made Nell Gwyn the honorary ancestor to Nell Hobs in Will You Catch Me?

by Jane Elson

Every February the charity Nacoa run a Children of Alcoholics Week to shine a light on the hidden problem of parental drinking – 2.6 million children are growing up in the UK with a parent who drinks too much.

Nell Hobs, my eleven-year-old heroine in Will You Catch Me? has a mother who is alcohol dependent.

Real-life 17th century Nell Gwyn, who rose from being an ‘Orange Girl’, selling the fruit in London’s theatres to become one of the first actresses on the English stage, was a child of an alcoholic. She must have been brave and feisty, and strong of character. Everyone who has ever researched Nell Gwyn’s life ends up really liking her. I know I certainly did.

Nell Gwyn was just thirteen years old when she began work as an Orange Girl in the Kings Theatre, which was situated where the Theatre Royal Drury Lane stands today. At fourteen years old Nell’s enormous personality caught the attention of the actor Charles Hart who saw her potential and trained her for the stage.

What better honorary ancestor for Nell in Will You Catch Me? than her 17th century namesake? Nell Gwyn appears to Nell Hobs throughout Will You Catch Me? giving her strength and guidance when life is at its toughest.

The life of Nell Gwyn has always fascinated me as both of us worked on Drury Lane in our youth. In 1663 Nell Gwyn and her sister, Rose began working for ‘Orange Moll’ as orange sellers in the Kings Theatre, Drury Lane. In 1983 I got a job as an usherette at the Theatre Royal, the modern equivalent to Nell’s job, though selling ice creams not oranges! I also worked as an actress after I had finished my stint as an usherette.

Jane Elson at the White Swan pub next to Nell Gwyn’s portrait

Nell Gwyn was born in Cole Yard Alley at the top end of Drury Lane. She would have visited many of the pubs in the surrounding streets, as a little girl in search of her mum, Old Ma Gwyn, and later, as a drinking customer herself. A favourite of hers was The White Swan in Covent Garden, that to this day has a portrait of Nell Gwyn hanging on the wall. I can imagine Nell and her sister Rose as little girls, traipsing the streets of Covent Garden and Drury Lane calling out for Old Ma Gwyn.

When I worked as an usherette I always arrived at the theatre early and my first job of the day was to follow in Nell’s footsteps and tramp the pubs in in search of my boss. I had to get the keys off him to unlock the coffee bar! Altogether a very Nell Gwyn style experience, I like to think!

One day I was killing time before work, walking up Charing Cross Road, browsing the bookshop windows. There, in the window of Francis Edwards, was a second-hand Victorian book called The Story Of Nell Gwyn by Peter Cunningham. I knew I had to buy it but £20 was a lot of money to me then. It was my food money for the week but I decided to eat a little less that week and went off happily to Drury Lane with the book tucked under my arm!

Samuel Pepys records seeing Nell Gwyn in the doorway of her lodgings at the Cock and Pie pub on Drury Lane, where she lived whilst working as an actress. As a young Orange Girl she would have gone home to Cole Yard Alley to her drunken mother. What would that have felt like? Fast forward to today and the statistics are shocking. One child in five has a parent with an alcohol problem. How do they feel as they make their way home from school? What state will their parents be in? Will there be enough food in the house or clean clothes for the next day?

My funny, brave Year Seven-heroine from Will You Catch Me?, Nell Hobs, finds courage and hope when a new and inspiring history teacher comes to her school and teaches her about Nell Gwyn. She feels a deep connection to Nell Gwyn, who she is sure understands what it is like to be her.

As an author, I believe that every child has the right to see their story reflected in a book. Books should contain strong protagonists and wonderful characters, whether fictional or real, that readers can connect with and take inspiration from. And who might even give them the courage to speak out about what’s happening in their lives.

Reading that dusty, old book about Nell Gywn inspired me to pursue my dream of becoming an actress and author, despite the challenges my dyslexia imposes on this. Nell Gwyn could not read or write yet she performed in fifty plays in a season. I would so love to ask her; “How did you learn your lines? How? How did you even do that?”

In the back of Will You Catch Me? I pay tribute to Nell Gwyn and I am so glad she is part of Nell Hobs’ story.

Nell Gwyn always signed herself EG as she could not write her full name of Eleanor Gwyn.

So EG, I salute you with love, awe and respect for the path you blazed for actresses and for women.

This is a guest post by Jane Elson and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Will You Catch Me? by Jane Elson is published by Hodder Children’s Books. 

Click here for the website for Children of Alcoholics Week where children and adults living and working with children can get advice and info on how to help with this hidden issue. There’s also a downloadable #URNotAlone poster.

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