The story of Lionel ‘Nelo’ Newell – the Argentine football pioneer buried in Somerset

‘Nelo’ Newell

This article is a translation of an article that originally appears in Spanish on the Newell’s Old Boys history website PioneroDelFutbol.com

The history of the Newell family always provokes interest and intrigue. We already know a lot about Isaac Newell, an educator from Kent in England and a pioneer of South American football, and his son Claudio, founder of Newell’s Old Boys and an eminent athlete, lawyer and politician. Not so well known is the story of Isaac’s son and Claudio’s brother, Lionel Walter Newell.

As the younger of the Newell sons, Lionel or “Nelo” as he became more commonly known, followed his brother Claudio into a career in football. At just 13 years old and with a skinny physique, unlike his brother Claudio’s imposing and bulky stature, Lionel earned a place on the Anglo Argentino Commercial College’s school team3The history books show they played matches against the Central-Argentine Railway A.C., in which Isaac’s students were already beginning to show supremacy. In 1904, Nelo was a part of the Rosario Athletic team (Plaza Jewell), who became champion of the Competition Cup against CURCC (current Peñarol).. The records of that time remember him as an agile player, perhaps unusual for a player of that time, where physicality and tough tackling still prevailed in those early styles of football. Subsequently, Nelo was part of the Newell’s Old Boys team who won the Pinasco Cup in 1906. In that tournament, he played several games4Among them, a 6-0 win in the Clásico and the final against Argentino (who are now better known as Gymnasia y Esgrima) with his brother Claudio and other legends like Manuel Paulino González, José “Pinoto” Viale and Faustino González (the goalscorer in Newell’s first ever Clásico win over Rosario Central).

In 1908, Nelo became seriously ill and as a last resort to seek a cure for his condition, he decided to emigrate to his father’s birthplace, England. The medical treatment he received did not yield positive results and Lionel passed away in November at the age of 24. In Rosario, the Newell family received the sad news, receiving a photo of his grave in which a Shakespearean biblical proverb was highlighted: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me early in the morning, they find me“.

Nelo – along with his father, his brother and other former students of the College – were protagonists in the initial story of Newell’s Old Boys. But the final chapter of his biography was lost in time.

How could that chapter be constructued? Would we ever discover the fate of one of the two members of the Newell family who actually wore the glorious red and black in official games with the team named after their father?

Nelo Newell, third from the left.
Photo: nobhomenaje.blogspot.com.ar

After a period of intensive research, we came up with one piece of information: St. Cuthbert’s Church in Wells, Somerset, near the city of Bristol, was listed as Nelo’s final resting place. Intrestingly, his father’s town of Strood had not been the chosen location for his grave, as we might have assumed. The Newell family in England had taken different directions, and Isaac’s brother had actually lived in Bristol, where he worked in customs. Nearby, in the aforementioned town of Wells, Nelo settled. We went there, to try to rescue this Newell’s title-winner from oblivion.

The search was not easy. Our first steps led us to nothing: at St. Cuthbert’s Church, there was no traces of any cemetery. The imposing Wells Cathedral was presented as a possible alternative and we headed there with more hopes than certainties. It was quite early yet, so the site (a quintessential tourist spot in the town) was deserted. However, the main doors were automatic so we could walk right in. We entered the empty cathedral, until we arrived at an internal courtyard where a set of well-preserved tombs stood. We reviewed them one by one, but there was no sign of the one we were looking for. Before we were about to leave, we are approached by an adorable lady with pink cheeks and a shrill voice, who far from showing hostility to our presence as intruders, was enthusiastic about the story. She led us to an office where the pastor received us with kindness, but without any information that could further guide our search.

Wandering through the narrow streets of Wells, we opted for breakfast in a small family bar. Tea with cake was the obligatory choice and at the same time, the waiter started a conversation. Explaining the reason for our presence, he gave us a piece of information that gave us hope: the Portway cemetery, about 15 minutes away. “There are very old tombs there,” he said.

When we got to the Portway cemetery, we saw that it was quite large: four sections of tombs, tombstones and crosses, which we went examined one by one. There was no sign of the tomb we were after. None of them belonged to Nelo. While we were searching, we saw a car enter that parked in front of what appeared to be an administrative office. It was perhaps our last resort. We knocked on the door and Mark, a man in his fifties, greeted us with a friendly gesture. A mixture of surprise and enthusiasm lit up his face when we explained the reason for our visit. He immediately opened an old filing cabinet from which he extracted a large book. In this book, we found the date of Nelo’s death: November 9, 1908. His index finger went down line by line until he found the name: Lionel Newell. But no other information complemented the record. “If it’s in the file, it has to be here,” said Mark. A new book led us to the expected code: 6B13, the plot situated in a sector of the cemetery reserved for people with limited resources. The plan of the property indicated the exact place where the grave should be, and we went there. Hidden behind a huge bush on the edge of the land, the last stone cross that we hadn’t yet noticed in our initial search appeared. Deteriorated by the passage of time, but with a perennial flash of glory, the cross brought us the memory of that pioneer, rescued today from oblivion and now incorporated into the historical memory of the institution of Club Atlético Newell’s Old Boys.

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