Visitors to Tong, Shropshire over the centuries have been delighted when they discover this small rural village and in particular its fine fifteenth century church. Tong has many stories to tell, both the true and the fabricated, the book examines many of them.
Their enthusiasm is ably summed up by these quotations:
“Despite a motorway nearby, the church on its mound seems to exist in a time of its own. The little village gives plenty of signs of a dignified past, fallen into disuse but not much overlaid.” Robert Harbison 2006
“Tong Church! Did one in five hundred of all the Americans who have visited Haddon Hall in Derbyshire ever visit this little Westminster of the Vernons? It is doubtful. It is even possible that I am the first and only American who ever saw it. Even a man well read in the general history of the country will be astonished on entering this miniature cathedral, for such it is and looks in its interior and exterior aspects. In the first place, it is doubtful if any other village or provincial church in England contains within its walls so many beautiful and costly monuments to the memory of so many noble families as this little Westminster. You see here how and when these various families intersected with each other in wedlock and interweaved the new branches they put forth as a result of the union. Here you may read their histories, their graces and virtues, if you can decipher monumental Latin.” Elihu Burritt 1868
“If there be any place in Shropshire calculated alike to impress the moralist, to instruct the antiquary and interest the historian that place is Tong. It was for centuries the abode or heritage of men great either for their wisdom or their virtue, eminent from their station or their misfortunes. The retrospect of their annals alternates between the Palace and the Feudal Castle, between the Halls of Westminster and the Council-Chamber of Princes, between the battlefield, the dungeon and the grave. ” Revd R. W. Eyton 1854
The early history of Tong, Salop (1066-1760) is dominated by the Castle and the Lords of the Manor who owned the land. Tong Castle stood in the village for nine hundred years, controlling the community and providing employment for the villagers. As the eminence of the Castle owners ebbed and flowed so did the fortunes of the village.
“Over time the prosperity of the manor increased. As the population grew, these defences were, by stages, strengthened and extended; using stone instead of wood, to keep pace with the advances in the techniques of warfare. From the 12th century, most English castles were built or rebuilt in stone.”
Chapter 2 documents the lives of the early owners of Tong up to the middle of the eighteenth century. It includes a number of family trees that show how the ownership of Tong passed amongst the leading land-owning families of the time. These include the Montgomery - Earls of Shrewsbury ; de Belmeis family; la Zouche family; de Harcourt families. It was the Pembrugge family who made Tong Castle more of a home than a fortification. They had a major impact on the village by building the present Church and founding Tong College. Ownership passed by marriage into the rich and prominent Vernon family followed by the Stanleys (Earls of Derby). During the time of Sir Henry Vernon, Tong was at its height of national importance as the Vernon family prospered under <%XL (http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/aboutHenryVII.htm,Henry VII) %> (the Vernons had fought for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth). See also: Sir Richard Vernon; Henry Vernon; Sir William Vernon; .
Excavations of Tong Castle in the last 30 years have shown a very complex sequence of building and re-building confirming the Buck engraving as a fair representation of the Castle at the time.
“Prince Arthur spent time with Henry Vernon at Haddon Hall; where there is a room known as 'The Prince's Room'. His tutor would have been
there with him. One tutor was Arthur Vernon, son of Henry, who later became Rector of Whitchurch. The Prince had several tutors. The principal
tutor, appointed in 1496, was Bernard Andreas. (He was also Poet Laureate). Andreas was an Oxford graduate who was introduced to Henry VII by
Bishop Fox of Winchester (1401-29).
Prince Arthur moved to Ludlow Castle in 1501 and Henry Vernon witnessed the marriage contract of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon. The marriage took place in St Paul's Cathedral on 14th November 1501.”
When Tong was sold in 1603 to Sir Thomas Harries the country was in the troubled times of the Reformation and then the Civil War. Ownership passed on by marriage to the Pierrepoints (Dukes of Kingston). William Pierrepoint (William the Wise) was a trusted negotiator between King Charles I and Parliament after the 1649.
“William's home was Holme Pierrepoint at Thoresby in Nottinghamshire. He chose to remain there during the Civil War, and was buried there. Tong Castle was involved in two sieges during the hostilities between the Royalist and Parliamentarian sides. There was some damage to the east wing of the Castle, as well as to the Church. Afterwards, William Pierrepoint arranged for repairs to be carried out, and made other alterations, (including the creation of a hanging garden). The remains of the old keep were levelled and landscaped. New features included a fountain in a pool along the western promontory, and an Italianate garden to the east of the house.”
Tong became a distant outpost of their estate and not a permanent residence. It was not until 1764 when George Durant bought the Manor of Tong that any great changes took place.
Late fourteenth century pewter cruet unearthed during the excavation of Tong Castle.
By the mid-eighteenth century the mediaeval concept of Lords of the Manor changed. No longer was the importance of the village rooted solely in agricultural land and a tight knit group of feudal families. The increasing prosperity of England gave rise to a new order of gentry with abundant money to bestow upon their estates.
The village of Tong in Shropshire exemplifies this trend in as stark a fashion as possible. George Durant, who made it rich in the West Indies, buys the estate from the Duke of Kingston and makes his mark by rebuilding the Castle in a grand and bizarre style.
Chapter 3 includes newly available material to shows how George Durant came to his fortune and how it was spent at Tong.
George Durant led a remarkable life, as a young man he became infatuated with Elizabeth Lyttleton the second wife of George Lyttleton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The scandal was noted by his brother in a letter:
“This affair has now got wind and all town talk of it; report you may suppose has exaggerated the circumstances and 'tis generally said her ladyship was caught abed with the young man...her infernal temper has left her so few friends that I don't hear of a single person who speaks in her favour, or that abuses Sir George or his family for the part he has taken. On the contrary, his enemies ascribe great merit to him for his behaviour in this delicate business. ”
To escape the scandal George Durant was dispatched as Paymaster to the British troops in the expedition to Guadeloupe. From his diaries we read vivid accounts of the Battle of Guadeloupe (1758) :
“He reported that in the engagement, 150 troops were killed, and 200 wounded. He was appalled at the destruction, and when he landed, two days later,
the whole town was deserted. The pavements were hot from burning sugar and liquor.
He went into a church, not as badly destroyed as the other buildings. The description is vivid: 'It was covered with Rubbish & left in the utmost Disorder. The isles were full of Trophies & relicks, the pews were every where scattered with beads and Books; the vestries on each side of the Chancel were a foot deep in papers, prayer Books, Musick, was lights, massive Candlsticks & ten thousand nameless trinkets & all within the communion rails was crowded with those gaudy trifles which are held most sacred; so it was impossible to stir a Step without trampling on the Blessed Virgin Mary or kicking before you a wooden apostle or a maimed crucified Jesus.' ”
On his return trip to the Indies in 1762 he took part in the Battle of Havana, George Durant amassed a large personal fortune.
“The city capitulated on 14th August, and a large amount of booty was taken. It was from this venture that George Durant returned a very rich man with over £300,000. (The equivalent today would be around £15 million)”
The purchase of Tong was subject to considerable negotiation and haggling. George Durant despite his fortune drove down the purchase price, commenting on the poor state of Tong Castle he writes:
“'The Castle and the grounds are in a miserable state of repair. The rain is coming in through the leads and in need of re-roofing.'
Similarly the walled garden was collapsing, and many of the farms were in a poor state with broken fences. Some had not been occupied for a long time. Other correspondence revealed the truth of this and the fact that the wall of the mill had fallen down. ”
After purchasing the lease on the estate he set about building a mansion in the latest 'Moroccan' fashion with extensive landscaping based on plans drawn up by 'Capability Brown'.
The second generation of Durants at Tong in the early nineteenth century epitomised the indolent life of the new class of wealthy families.
Chapter 4 unveils the private life of George Durant II with shockingly frank reports of his many illicit affairs:
(Beati Qui Durant - The family crest of the Durants is a pun and can be translated as 'Blessed are they who endure' or 'Blessed are the Durants'. The presence of the Fleur de Lys created excitement in France as it is the Royal insignia and in true Durant style this was pure affectation, there is no evidence of any French aristocratic family connections.)
“The affair, with Elizabeth Cliffe, took place while Mary Bradbury was pregnant. Once, while Mrs Durant was away, he was found in bed with Cliffe in
the room opposite the Nursery. The servants were shocked, and pulled him away from her saying that he was 'always after her'.
This conduct, said the lawyer was "more immoral, more degrading and more disgraceful - making a brothel of his own house.... Scarcely disguising his guilt from his servants." In the end, Mrs Durant was granted a divorce and alimony of £600 p.a. The solicitor contested the amount of the alimony, and after two years' negotiations, it was reduced to £400. To celebrate this achievement, George Durant built a monument on Knowl Hill. It was a square building, two stories high, surmounted by pillars 80ft high. A stone over the door was inscribed with the words Optimo Adico TW (TW was the solicitor, who ended up in jail on other offences).”
“George Durant was reputed to have a child in every cottage on the Tong estate. He liked to be godfather to them, and gave them strange names like 'Napoleon Wedge', 'Columbine Cherrington', 'Gustavus Adolphus Martin', 'Luther Martin' and 'Cinderella Greatback'. It is almost as if he saw these children as playthings.”
After a long divorce case and the death of his first wife, he married Marie Celeste Lefèvre who was 25 years younger than himself. He had heated disputes with some of his many children. But he had his more compassionate and paternal side too; he took his responsibility as Lord of Tong seriously:
“They attended Church every Sunday. When in London, he went to Brompton or Kensington Parish Church. Celeste attended a Roman Catholic Church, and had several of her children baptised as Catholics. At Tong, Durant turned the Chantry Chapel into his family pew. The walls were panelled, and it had settees and a fireplace. Halfway through the morning service, a servant came up from the Castle with a donkey carrying Mr Durant's lunch. The servant carried the tray down through the Church into the Chapel. Every Sunday, after the vicar left, he catechised the children. Each year they were taken to Shifnal for a Confirmation service. A diary entry for 22nd January 1832 reads: "Mr Robinson (the curate) preached a very good sermon. Fine. Maria rode round the wood and the kitchen garden, I walked by her. We saw Frank on the road by the Convent and heard he was sent back by the Bishop without getting priest's orders" ”
Throughout his estate at Tong he built eccentric buildings and monuments, many of which can still be seen today. The book has a number of colour plates showing George Durant's own sketches of the buildings he designed including 'The Hermitage'; 'Convent Lodge' and 'Belle Island' published for the first time. He hired a hermit to live in the grounds of the Castle, following the fashion of the time. But he had squabbles with some of his 20 legitimate and many illegitimate children, as we can read from George Durant's letter of 1839.
“'On the 9th June Ernest and Anguish came into my yard with six dogs and beat my yard dog (a scotch terrier) to death while their mastiffs held him down.
They presented to claim access by a road through the yard which has been legally stopped for 26 years.
Ernest Durant has married a solicitor's widow and he is in a cottage adjoining my land where he increasingly has chimney fires and is firing guns
by my poolside and insulting members of my family whenever they are in sight. Please to say immediately how to proceed.'
Durant enclosed a set of signed witness statements. One is from George St George; two are from the village constable and a police officer; and the others are by servants. It is clear this was the culmination of a series of events instigated by Ernest and Anguish, asserting their rights to walk through the stable yard. Twice on previous days the village constable had been called to prevent it. But the real causes were deeper. On the 9th June they broke down the fence and came in with six dogs, three servants and a brace of pistols each. The disturbance bought the family out onto the balcony. The party included, George, the second Mrs Durant, their neighbour Mrs Bishton, George St George and Leonard Henry who had just become incumbent...”
The fraught family relations are exemplified by the behaviour of some of his sons on the news of their father's death:
“That night, the villagers of Tong did not sleep well. As soon as he heard the news, Ernest Durant mounted his horse, and galloped through the village shouting, 'The old man's dead at last'. At the suggestion of their late brother George, Ernest and Frank gathered together a number of workmen from the estate. They went up to the offensive monument on the Knoll that their father had erected to his corrupt solicitor. They placed 70 lbs of gunpowder underneath, and blew it up. The explosion shook the Village. Some thought the end of the world had come. The stone, with the offensive inscription, was ground into powder and mixed into a heap of manure. Justice was done at last! ”
By the mid-nineteenth century the industrial revolution brought further changes to Tong. The Durant money had all but gone and maintaining such a grand mansion as Tong Castle proved costly. George Durant IV sold the estate to the Earl of Bradford in 1854. This extended the Bradford estates that existed to the north of the parish. The Castle was then rented out to the industrial entrepreneur John Hartley, Mayor of Wolverhampton and owner of collieries, ironworks and glassworks. John Hartley was a leading local figure and dubbed the 'Squire of Tong'. Once again, Tong was following the national trend that replaced 'colonial' money with 'industrial' money. However funds were insufficient to repair and refurbish the castle.
“Mrs Christabel Werstley (Mrs Hartley's great grand-daughter) recalled splendid Christmas celebrations. However, all the events took place on the ground floor,
because the upper rooms were not safe. At the slightest shower of rain, hipbaths had to be placed all over the building to catch the water, which was pouring through the roof.
When Mrs Hartley died in 1909, it was decided to sell the remaining contents of the Castle. The sale catalogue listed the contents. There were nearly 1,000 items, plus the contents of 25 Bedrooms, and 18 reception rooms. There were still 130 oil paintings, and six carriages. There were 759 books; 161 bottles of wine; musical instruments; crockery; cutlery, and vast amounts of furniture. The sale took place over 3 days at the end of September. Mr Ingram Brown told me that he attended with his father, taking their purchases away in a horse and cart. During the sale, the main staircase fell in.”
One hundred years on and the Castle had become a dangerous ruin. Chapter 5 describes its eventual demise in 1954:
“On the night before the demolition, two girls from the village reported that they had encountered the ghost of a monk leaving the Castle. Then, on 18th July 1954, a large crowd gathered to watch this historic event (illustration page 71 of the book). The operation was conducted by the 213 Field Squadron Royal Engineers (T.A.). 208 boreholes were placed around the building, using 136 lbs of plastic explosive, and 75lbs of amatol. The Church windows were opened to cope with the blast. At 2.30 p.m. Lord Newport fired the charges. There are some fine photographs of this event, with the whole base of the Castle covered in smoke. A great cloud of dust and debris covered most of the buildings in the village. Tong Castle was no more. Among the people attending was Anthony Durant (later the M.P. for Reading). It was an event that the first and second George Durants could not have imagined.”
The Castle's secrets did not have to wait long before they were uncovered. Alan Wharton carried out a rescue archaeological dig in 1976-1980 to better understand its nine centuries of history. The M54 now cuts a path directly through the middle of the site of the castle, small portions of the remains can be seen on either side of the motorway.
For more about the nine distinct buildings on the Tong Castle site unearthed by Alan Wharton please visit our Castle Excavation pages.
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