First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, has focused on a recently rediscovered topless potrait of Nell Gwynn painted by Simon Verelst in 1680.
'Pretty, witty Nell' (as Samuel Pepys described her) was one of the first female actresses to take to the stage, ending the period when all female parts were played by male actors. In her short life (1650-1687), Nell Gwyn became an early London superstar famed for rising from selling oranges around the inns of Covent Garden to becoming the mistress of Kings Charles II. She seems to have lived most of her life in central London, ending up at a house on Pall Mall and being buried at her death at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
So why is there to this day a Nell Gwynn Nursery School in Peckham, next to the police station on Meeting House Lane? The legend that Nell Gwyn had a connection with Peckham goes back at least 200 years, and seems to be based on the story that she was accustomed to entertaining the King at a house in the area. John Gorton's 'A topographical dictionary of Great Britain and Ireland' (1833) states that in Peckham there 'extends a branch of the Surrey Canal; and at a short distance from the basin connected with it formerly stood a house, where it is said Charles II was accustomed to visit his mistress, Nell Gwynn'. The canal basin was in the vicinity of the current Peckham Square, by the library, and was indeed the location of the Peckham Manor House belonging to Sir Thomas Bond - an associate of the King (after whom Bond Street is named, apparently).
Old and New London (1878) states in its entry for Peckham that 'A local tradition says that King John, hunting at Peckham, killed a stag, and was so pleased with the sport, that he granted its inhabitants an annual fair of three weeks' continuance; but no charter to that effect has been found. Another account says that it was granted, at the instance of Nell Gwynne, by our "merry monarch," on his return from a day's sport in the neighbourhood to the residence of Sir Thomas Bond... There was in the High Street a theatre, at which, says tradition, Nell Gwynne sometimes performed, and her royal paramour attended the entertainments'.
There was also a play published in 1799, entitled 'The Peckham Frolic; or, Nell Gwynn: a Comedy, in three Acts' by Edward Jerningham which dramatised these South London goings on.
However, the Peckham Society has acknowledged that the 'author of Nell Gwyn : A Biography (Macmillan, 2005), Charles Beauclerk, has found no reference to Peckham or Sir Thomas Bond' in records relating to Nell.
So the connection with Nell Gwyn and Peckham is perhaps rather slender - but hey she may have visited!