A brief history of Tong
Wednesday, 04 December, 2013 - Modified on Wednesday, 04 December, 2013 at 10:06 pm
The village of Tong (or Tonge) in Shropshire, a parish in the Shifnal division of Brimstree hundred, sits near the town of Albrighton, just near to Junction 3 of the M54 motorway. The village is situated near the river Worfe, here formed by the union of two brooks, and on the A41 leading from Newport to Wolverhampton.
The village itself is small with three red-brick Georgian houses, a large Victorian house and pretty black and white cottages tucked away into each corner.
It was in Tong that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) set the closing chapters of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. Within the local churchyard is the supposed grave of Little Nell, a character within the storey.
It is believed that the grave came about because ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ was serialised and shipped over to America. As a result American visitors came to Shropshire to visit the setting for Charles Dickens’s novel. The tourists recognised the references to Tong church from the book and came to view the grave, which of course was not there.
However, the church verger and local postmaster, Gorge H Bowden (16th August 1867 – May 1943) asked for local people to contribute to a fund that would pay for a headstone. Bowden is alleged to have forged an entry in the church register for burials (the apparent giveaway being that he used post Office ink to do this) and he then charged people to view the grave. The headstone has been moved several times over the years to make way for genuine graves.
Beyond the man road is an ornamental lake, which is all that remains of Tong Castle, remodelled by Capability Brown in 1765. The Castle was demolished in 1954 to make way for the M54 Motorway which runs right through the centre of the ruins. It is suggested that Charles Dickens visited Tong originally when his grandmother worked at Tong Castle.
The church itself was originally a Collegiate church although the college buildings which are referenced as having included ‘a warden and four priests, two clerks and thirteen poor people’ have long since gone.
There are surely very few villages in England which have had their church compared to Westminster Abbey. It was the American consul to Birmingham, Elihu Burritt who referred to Tong church as a ‘Little Westminster’. He may have been overstating it a little, but the red sandstone church has a central tower rising to a pinnacled spire. There is certainly a wealth of impressive and beautiful monuments inside to noble families.
Perhaps the most noted monuments are those of the Vernons, amongst whose tombs lies the resting place of Sir Richard Vernon, a 15th century Speaker of the House of Commons, and his wife Benedicta. Another link with the Vernon family is the Great Bell of Tong which was given to the church in 1518 by Henry Vernon.
The bell has been recast twice in the centuries since and it now weighs over 2 tons. A list provides visitors with details of when the bell is rung. These include Royal births, Royal visits to Tong, and visits by the head of the Vernon family.
Nearby to the Vernon monument lies the grave of Sir William Vernon, a Knight constable of England and Margaret, his wife.
Perhaps the oldest grave here is that of Sir Fulke de Pembrugge, who held the position of Lord of Tong from 1371 to 1409. His second wife Isabella, lies by his side and she is the lady who founded the church in 1410 so that masses could be said to Sir Fulke and her two other husbands, Thomas Peyteveyne and John Ludlow.
The church of St. Bartholomew’s in Tong was chosen by Simon Jenkins of The Times as one of the best 1,000 churches (out of 15,000) in England (1999). He awarded the church, which was mostly rebuilt in 1409, three stars out of a possible five. He refers to the almost unmatched collection of village tombs.
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