Little Nell's Return, After Perils Statue, Beloved Of Children, Is Back In Place

Posted: October 13, 1990

"Why doest thou lie so idle there, dear Nell," he murmured, "when there are bright red berries out of doors waiting for thee to pluck them!

"Why doest thou lie so idle there, when thy little friends come creeping to the door crying 'where is Nell - sweet Nell?' - and sob, and weep, because they do not see thee."

- Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

There is no more need to weep.

Little Nell - dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell - has returned to her home in Clark Park in West Philadelphia.

Her bronze hand is still worn where little children like to hold it. But her left leg, hair and pedestal - broken by vandals in November - have been

put back together again.

"It's good to have her back," said Martha Rosso, of the Dickens Fellowship, who brought a basket of gardenias - Dickens' favorite flower - to welcome her back to her accustomed spot yesterday.

Nell had arrived flat on her back, her legs sticking out of the back of a red Econoline Van.

With the help of a crane and harness, she was carefully lifted back onto the base of the world's largest statue of Dickens, nestled in the park at 43d Street and Chester Avenue.

For 90 years, the bronze Nell had gazed peacefully up at the stately Dickens, as he sat in a chair overlooking the park. (In her literary life, Nell died at age 14 despite pleas from readers of The Old Curiosity Shop's weekly installments).

Children sat in Dickens' lap and stroked the hand of the sweet little girl with her worn shoes and tattered clothes.

Then, on Nov. 13, the lovely bronze statue was ruthlessly torn from its pedestal by vandals, who may have had the wicked scheme of melting her and selling the bronze.

But Little Nell proved too much for the vandals to cart away. She was found face down, her left arm broken, her hair and shoes damaged, her pedestal in eight pieces.

Dickens lovers - on both sides of the Atlantic - were inconsolable.

Wasn't it enough that Little Nell led such a tragic life in the book, wandering around caring for her grandfather as they fled from a dwarf named Quilp, only to take ill and die in the end?

Could her fate as a bronze statue be so similarly cursed?

"I wrote to England, to our headquarters: 'Terrible news: Little Nell has been ravaged,' " said Rosso, who edits the local bulletin of the Dickens Fellowship. "We feel all the characters are alive."

And neighbors, especially the children, were heartbroken.

"The kids all really have a fondness for the statue," said David Cronrath, vice president of the Friends of Clark Park. "We had children selling lemonade for a nickel a glass" to raise money for its restoration.

The shocking act of vandalism prompted some Dickens lovers to propose moving the statue. "We wanted to move it to a more protected place," Rosso said.

But the Friends of Clark Park fought for their treasure, and the Art

Commission sided with them.

Nell then lay for months in a Recreation Department warehouse, awaiting the money and city approval for the repairs.

A month ago, Larry Welker, an artist at the Laran Bronze art foundry in Chester, offered to repair the statue at a price the neighbors could afford.

The actual repair work took just one day, he said. The granite pedestal was

sent to Alessi Memorials in Darby.

In all, Friends of Clark Park raised $6,500, which will pay for the $4,500 restoration and for other improvements around the statue.

Donors ranged from Dickens' great-great-grandson - the Bishop of Birmingham - to a group of students at St. Peter's School in Society Hill, who are studying Dickens.

The 1890 sculpture by F. Edwin Elwell ended up in Philadelphia after the sculptor failed to find a place for it in England. Dickens had said he did not want a statue of himself.

Tomorrow, the community will celebrate with a Victorian picnic. As Nell promised her grandfather in Curiosity Shop, she has come home:

"Why bless thee, child," said the old man patting her on the head, "how couldst thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee, Nell!"

"I would have found my way back to you, grandfather," said the child boldly; "never fear."

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