Part 4. Literary Tong

This page describes part of the contents of the Discovering Tong book including selected extracts from the book.

Chapter 12. The Shakespeare Connection

Sir Thomas Stanley
The effigy of Sir Thomas Stanley, the inscriptions run along the base of the tomb.

William Shakespeare is such a domineering figure in English literature that any village that has a connection with him will receive the interest of a host of scholars seeking out the man behind the plays. In the last few years fresh insights into the great playwright have associated him with leading Catholic families at the time of the emergence of the Protestant supremacy. At Tong one of the most elusive connections to Shakespeare has been known to exist for some centuries. In this chapter the author unravels the host of theories concerning Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Stanley's tomb in Tong Church.

“In 1929, a Mrs Esdaile wrote a pamphlet entitled Shakespeare's verses in Tong Church. She asserted the authenticity of Shakespeare's verses. She pointed out that doggerel rhymes, like those on Shakespeare's own memorial in Stratford-on-Avon Church, were written because they were easy for the stone carvers. She mentioned the Shakespeare connection with the Stanleys. A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for the wedding of Ferdinando (fifth Earl of Derby ) in 1588. Ferdinando had taken over the patronage of Shakespeare's company of players in that year.”

The connection between of William Shakespeare and Sir Edward Stanley is not open to debate. It is also well known that Shakespeare's patron the Earl of Southampton 's wife was a Vernon to whom the Stanleys are closely related.

In his summing up using all the latest sources and scholarship Robert Jeffery unravels the common myths that have sprung up on this topic.

“The Stanley tomb has also attracted the attention of those who wish to undermine Shakespeare as the author of the plays. One theory ascribes them to William, Earl of Derby , arguing that he wrote the words on this tomb in 1632. The evidence above undermines this and other theories.

“Ask who lyes here but do not weep
He is not dead he doth but sleep
This stoney register is for his bones
His fame is more perpetual than these stones
And his own goodness with himself being gone
Shall lyve when earthlie monument is none.
Not monumental stone preserves our Fame
Nor sky aspiring pyramids our name
The memory of Him for whom this stands
Shall out live marble and defacers' hands
When all to tyme's consumption shall be geaven
Standley for whom this stands shall stand in Heaven”

The lines attributed to Shakespeare on the Stanley tomb at Tong Church.

Shakespeare's Stanley Epitaphs in Tong, Shropshire

Shakespeare Epitaphs at Tong

A book about the verses on the tomb of Sir Thomas & Sir Edward Stanley in St Bartholomew's Church Tong, with their first ever biographies. By Helen Moorwood, published by RJL Smith and Associates, Much Wenlock.

This book plays the role of 'prequel' to a re-investigation of the 'Lancastrian Shakespeare' theory, which claims that young William Shakespeare spent some time in Lancashire with the Catholic Hoghtons and Heskeths. One family that has now emerged as crucial in explaining Shakespeare's ancestry and early biography, including his spell in Lancashire, is the Stanley Family, Earls of Derby, 'Kings of Lancashire' and Lords of Man. Sir Edward Stanley, the 'hero' of this book, born in Lancashire, was a grandson of Edward 3rd, a nephew of Henry 4th and first cousin of brothers Ferdinando 5th and William 6th Earls of Derby.

Sir Edward received in 1601-3 from his friend William Shakespeare two Verse Epitaphs for his family tomb in Tong, Shropshire. These are the only ones still to be seen today except for the one on the Bard's own gravestone. Sir Edward, through his Stanley cousins, his Vernon mother and his Percy wife, happened to be rather closely related to three Earl Alternative Authorship Candidates, several characters in Shakespeare's Lancastrian History Plays and several candidates for the 'Dark Lady' of the Sonnets. Sir Edward can thus be seen as a pivotal figure in the Shakespeare-Stanley constellation. This book concludes with the first ever biographies of of him and his father Sir Thomas Stanley, who suffered for planning to help Mary, Queen of Scots escape from Chatsworth in 1570.

This book includes 29 Chapters, 12 Appendices, an 8-page colour block and 99 black and white illustrations, and a comprehensive Bibliography and Index.

172 mm x 240 mm, 472 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9573492-2-3

To order a copy please visit :

Chapter 12 also covers some other intriguing literary associations including John Milton ; Lady Venetia Stanley ; John Evelyn (the diarist) and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu .

Chapter 13. Some Victorian Curiosities

In the last chapter of the book, the author shows how Tong influenced the literary works of Harrison Ainsworth ; Charles Dickens; Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler and P.G. Wodehouse.

The flight of the future King Charles II after the rout at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 was turned into an adventure story by 'popular historian' Harrison Ainsworth. The King passed through Tong (Hubbal Grange) and hid in the Royal Oak in neighbouring Boscobel.

“Ainsworth is no longer a significant literary figure, but the effect of his book was to bring the events taking place around Tong and Boscobel into public consciousness, and to attract visitors to the area.”

Indeed a trip to Tong on the new railway became a popular weekend outing for people working in Wolverhampton and beyond.

Cattermole illustration for the Old Curiosity Shop
Cattermole illustration for Charles Dicken's 'Old Curiosity Shop' with Tong Church in mind. Little Nell's grandfather grieves beside her grave.

To boast links with William Shakespeare would seem quite enough for a small village, but Tong can rightly claim links to a great Victorian writer too.Charles Dickens is believed to have set the famous scenes of one of his most successful books 'The Old Curiosity Shop' at Tong. It was this link that generated a new cottage industry at Tong and a number of new stories came to be made. The serialization of the book generated huge popular interest in Little Nell and her grandfather as the story unfolded week by week.

The Old Curiosity Shop caused a sensation when it was published just as would happen today when a serialised TV drama reaches a climax.

“Dickens readers were drowned in a wave of grief no less overwhelming than his own. When Mcready returning home from the theatre, saw the print of the child lying dead by the window with strips of holly on her breast, a dead chill ran through his blood. 'I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain', he noted in his diary, 'I could not weep for some time. Sensations, sufferings have returned to me, that are terrible to awaken...' Daniel O'Connell, the Irish MP, reading the book in a railway carriage, burst into tears, groaned 'He should not have killed her', and despairingly threw the volume out of the train window. Thomas Carlyle, previously inclined to be a bit patronising about Dickens, was utterly overcome. Waiting crowds at a New York Pier shouted to an incoming vessel, 'Is Little Nell dead?'...”

Dickens undoubtedly did know about Tong:

“There is another connection. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, in 1812. His grandmother was Elizabeth Ball. She was the daughter of James and Amy Ball, of Claverley in Shropshire. She was baptised there, on January 10, 1746. Before she married, she was housekeeper at Tong Castle. She married William Dickens in 1781 when she was 36, so she may have been at Tong for some time.”

The description of the Church in the 'Old Curiosity Shop' is unflattering: 'A very Aged, Ghostly Place' but matches the state of the affairs prior to the Restoration of 1892 with only a little exaggeration for dramatic effect. Despite some scholars attempts to undermine the theory, there is little doubt that the closing scenes of the death of Little Nell and her grief-stricken grandfather were set with Tong in mind.

However the influx of visitors to see Dickens' Tong proved a valuable line of income for George Boden (the parish clerk) much to the annoyance of John Auden (the vicar). The tale had by then become embroidered with all sorts of errors, and there is still a place in the graveyard that has a plaque claiming it as 'The reputed grave of Little Nell'. Chapter 13 sets out the vicar's view on the matter.

“He denied that he encouraged this tradition. Boden persisted, in spite of the objections. Postcards were sold of Little Nell's House: and also china plates, cups, and teapots were produced. They depicted Little Nell and her grandfather. There was indeed money in it. George Boden could tell a good yarn. One person remembers coming to Tong when she was aged 8, and being so moved by his heart-rending story, she cried all night. In 1933 George Boden told his yarn to the Wolverhampton Express and Star and the reporter believed it. It is an amazing fabrication.”


Tong Church
St. Bartholomew's Church, Tong

In the Epilogue Robert Jeffery brings together his astute observations on how the local history of the village of Tong in Shropshire typifies the concept of a unique 'place' and how stories have grown and evolved over the centuries.

“Less easy to define is the way a community is given identity by the way people experience it and talk about it. Tong Village is a distinctive entity, the outlying areas less so. A good view, a fine building, trees and vegetation can lift our hearts or as Tony Hiss puts it:

'Particular places around us, if we're wide open to perceive them, they can sometimes give us a mental life.'

But there must be that willingness to see it. Through it comes the understating that our environment is actually life sustaining. We need a place where we can be. Where we live also conditions what we do and what sort of people we become. This would have been particularly the case in an enclosed feudal environment, but in so far as people can choose where they live, they both mould and are moulded their surroundings. Winifred Gallagher calls this "psychological ecology" she quotes the work of Roger Barker looking at people's behaviour:

'The more he watched all sorts of people go about their business in shops, playing fields, offices, churches, and bars, the more certain he became that individuals and their inanimate surroundings together create systems of a higher order that take on a life of their own.'

This can lead people to be very keen to maintain things the way they are, and only take to change slowly. This goes some way to explain why people stick to myths and legends. The story has, in some way, become part of their identity.

It is this matter of story, which seems to dominate over all other aspects of what makes up a community. The storytellers sustain it. Every person, every building, has its own story and together they make up the story of the community. The stories are passed on. They are altered and enriched in the telling. Some stories are forgotten. Some are rediscovered. Those who have examined the nature of story, point out that there are only a certain number of basic stories and many of them (like The Old Curiosity Shop) involve a journey. Many are essentially the biography of a person or a place. Tong tells its own ongoing autobiography. ”

To find out more about Tong please buy a copy of the Discovering Tong book; the profits from the sale of the book will go towards maintaining Tong Church.

Copyright © 2007 through 2018 Discovering Tong