Tong Castle: A Shropshire Brown Commission
Written by Dr Paul Stamper, English Heritage
Tong stands close to Shropshire’s eastern boundary, unknown to most who thunder past on the M54 motorway. But it well merits a detour for the discerning traveller, especially one with an interest in Capability Brown, for in the village, and scattered among the surrounding countryside, hamlets and farms, are vestiges of an extraordinary lost landscape.
From the Middle Ages Tong was one of those places that, later on, would be characterised as belonging to the gentry class. It had a castle, standing on a slight bluff on a dogleg bend taken by the Tong Brook 600m south-west of Tong church, and by 1273 a deer park. In 1381 the castle’s owner, Sir Fulk Pembridge, acquired a licence to crenellate, although what if any work was undertaken as a consequence is unknown. Little of it survives today, but Tong church, endowed in 1410 by Fulk’s widow Isabel as a college of priests to serve what was the family mausoleum, reflects the family’s wealth and aspirations; its collection of tombs is among the country’s finest.
At the end of the Middle Ages, tantalisingly, the story of Tong goes cold for 250 years, and during that period Tong is only occasionally glimpsed in the historical record. Then, in 1764 Tong (which, as an aside, tradition says had seen the birth eight years earlier when tenanted by the Smythes of Acton Burnell of the later Mrs. Fitzherbert, the unlawful wife of George IV) was sold for £40,000 to George Durant, who although only in his early thirties had already acquired a large amount of capital, probably while paymaster to the forces in the Cuban expedition of 1762. This was an instalment in the Seven Years War of 1756-63, and it may have been the sack of Havana which provided Durant with a substantial personal fortune. This enabled him to fulfil his ambition of buying an estate in the neighbourhood of Worcester, where the family had lived in the 17th century. Tellingly, Durant was later to name one of his newly-created inclosed farms in the northern part of Tong ‘Havannah’, presumably as an ever-present reminder of the source of his wealth. Or at least a part of it. The Very Reverend Jeffery, who has made a study of the Durants, has had sight of family papers which indicate an involvement in the slave trade, and notes the frequency of the name Durant in the modern Windward Isles.
Within a year or so of purchasing Tong George Durant had brought in Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to put in hand improvements both to the house and to its surrounds. Brown at this time was well established as England’s leading place-maker, and in the previous year had been appointed as royal gardener at Richmond, St. James’s, and Hampton Court where he moved into Wilderness House. His practise was active at several places on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border in the early 1760s, and it would seem that, one way or another, one contract flowed from another as good reports circulated of the amiable and able landscape gardener. About 1760 he had begun work at Chillington (Staffs.) 7 km. to the east of Tong, while 1765 was also the year he began work for Sir Henry Bridgeman at Weston Park (Staffs.), the estate immediately to the north of Tong (for Chillington and Weston see English Heritage 2005). At Tong, house building probably preceded park-making. Probably incorporating parts of the early 16th-century building, Tong Castle was reconstructed on a grand scale in the new gothick style, its first appearance in the county. The east (front) and west (garden) facades were symmetrical and different, although both were heavily dressed with loopholed towers, ogee-headed openings, and bay windows, and topped with battlements, a baroque dome, and Jacobean cupolas; locally it was said to have a Moorish flavour, and if academically incorrect this does capture something of its exotic character. Internally, the arrangement of space was equally up-to-date: the hall was no bigger than either of the drawing rooms, was smaller than the dining room, and was less than half the size of the saloon. While it is not impossible that a local architect was employed to work on the project – and Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, the conceiver off the iron bridge is a strong candidate - the concept was probably Brown’s and his account book for 1765 (at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library) includes [fol.95] ‘Various Plans for the alterations of Tong Castle. My journeys there several times’ and [fol.119] ‘George Durant Esqr of Tong Castle in Shropshire. Various plans & elevations made for Tong Castle & for journeys there £52 10s. 00’. He certainly employed this type of Strawberry Hill gothick elsewhere, probably in the same year, for instance, for the unexecuted lodge at Rothley in Northumberland. Johnny Phibbs tells me that this charge, 50 guineas, was a middling one by Brown’s standards, and would have provided for outline plans and proposals both for house and grounds, but not the execution thereof.
Within the landscape at Tong, modifications matched those at the castle. An estate map of 1759, perhaps drawn up in anticipation of the sale of the estate, shows the house standing on a slight peninsula, above a stream already dammed to make a pool. Eastward of the house was a wilderness, and a simplified patte d’oie arrangement of avenues of trees which ran across inclosed fields, the northerly arm leading to the church and the most southerly to the edge of the former medieval deer park. This was disparked by 1725, although probably not long before, as while the 1759 map shows the park to be inclosed and under arable cultivation it also shows the pale as still standing. Tong Park Farmhouse, a five-bay brick building which stands within the former park and which has a 1736 date stone, was clearly built to cultivate what would have been a reasonably large farm by contemporary standards. By 1759, although clear traces of former open field land can be seen on the map, all of the parish’s arable lands were in several (that is private) cultivation. While some areas of straight-edged fields (as in the former park) hint at recent improvements, Norton Heath and Tongue Knoll (or Knowle) survived as large open commons in the north part of the parish along with a third, Tong Heath, half a mile west of the castle.
Brown – or whoever was executing his vision - began by constructing a large dam near the castle and thereby extending the pool around it to some 1,400m in length, the part nearer the castle being called Church Pool or North Pool, and that beyond the Newport Road Castle Hill Pool. George Durant petitioned to do the work in 1770, and was presented at Quarter Sessions in 1775 for ‘digging a pool across the highway’, so lake making may have followed on from the work on the house. Another dam was used to extend the pool south of the house eastward to the Wolverhampton road. Tong Castle now appeared to stand on a great river, a typical Brownian conceit.
Other engineering projects followed before the death of George Durant in 1780, notably the creation of an interlinked pair of lakes, Norton Mere to the north of Tong Norton, and Lodge Lake to the west of the castle. Again, the scale, ambition and indeed the very concept itself suggests the design was Brown’s (he lived on until 1783), although as we have heard he probably played no part in overseeing the works. Norton Mere was probably created at much the time that Norton Heath was inclosed, and partly encroached upon it. The former heath was divided into straight-sided fields and an improving farmhouse built, named Havannah in memory of the place which brought George Durant good fortune thirty-odd years before (above). Similarly Lodge Lake occupied the area of the former Tong Heath which was inclosed by 1796 as was the third large common, Tong Knoll. While probably ornamental in its own right, and later planted around with trees, the principal purpose of Norton Mere was apparently to act as a supply for Lodge Lake by means of ‘The Cut’, a 1,800 m long channel ‘several yards wide and three or four feet deep’. A subsidiary purpose of The Cut (a device used by Brown elsewhere, for instance at Chillington (Staffs.), where the river-like Canal is 1,000 m long) was to water meadow land – the 1891 Ordnance Survey six-inch map shows a sequence of nine sluice gates (the last removed in the early 1970s) for this purpose – and again this chimes with what is known of other designs by Brown. Johnny Phibbs has made the point that his parklands – and this was what the area north of the castle was being made into at this time as old field boundaries and the avenues of trees were removed – far from being ‘bare and bald’ were in fact hay meadows ‘which brought the central, socially levelling episode of the agricultural year right into the heart of the estate.’ Elsewhere he has suggested that mowing ‘was a spectator sport, to be enjoyed from the windows of the big house’. At Tong Castle a climb to the battlements and a telescope would probably have been needed to enjoy a distance glimpse of the mowers, although they could have been seen from several of the public roads around the village as well as by anyone walking or riding in the park. A somewhat crude estate map of 1796 records the Brownian landscape, and shows the house, park (divided into compartments), new waters, and kitchen gardens sited just outside the park. The map is too badly drawn to allow certainty, but it is highly likely that other improvements visible on later maps had also been made during the same period beyond the new park, notably to the parish roads which had been straightened and rationalized, and to fields which had had their boundaries and sizes regularized notably north and east of Tong Norton.
Therefore, by the time George Durant the elder died in 1780 it would seem Brown’s vision of house and park had been realised over the previous fifteen years alongside wider estate improvements. Something of the purity of the Brownian parkland - and its perhaps deliberate contrast with the gaudy house - can be seen in 19th- and 20th-century views and photographs.
Other illustrations – family sketches and watercolours – record some two dozen follies and embellishments to the park like a whale jaw-bone arch over a drive (arguably to its detriment rather than betterment) introduced after 1797 by George Durant (II). He died in 1844, and by the mid 19th century the castle was in poor repair and was sold. It was last occupied just before the First World War, was stripped of fixtures soon after, and its shell blown up in 1954 with Lord Bradford, its owner, firing the charges in person. Then, in 1983, the M54 motorway was built over its site. Sadly, today only fragments of the Brownian park landscape survives. A view which can still be enjoyed from Tong churchyard of the North Pool curving out of sight, and a few 19th-century photographs, are tantalising remembrances of what has been lost.
This is an abbreviated version of a paper published as Paul Stamper, ‘ “Of Naked Venuses and Drunken Bacchanals”: Tong Castle, Shropshire, and its Landscapes’, pages 181-94 in Michael Costen (ed.), People and Places: Essays in Honour of Mick Aston (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2007). That gives full references to the sources cites, as well as a full consideration of Tong’s extraordinary later 19th-century history and buildings. Many of those are illustrated in R.M.J. Jeffery, Discovering Tong: its History, Myths and Curiosities (2007). This links to a useful ‘Discovering Tong’ website, with several maps of the parish and the Durant-period park, available at http://www.discoveringtong.org/reference.htm