Tong Castle Excavation

In tribute to Alan Wharton, who has recently died, this page describes some of the archaeological excavations he carried out at Tong (1975-1986).

Tong castle
A sandstone engraving of the Durant Tong Castle that used to stand at the main entrance gates. Image by R.J.L. Smith.

Background

When the New Town of Telford was built it needed a Motorway link to attract new businesses. Telford was one of the last New Towns to be built in the U.K., it was intended to regenerate the run down areas between Ironbridge and Wellington. This whole area had grown up after the Industrial Revolution had started at Ironbridge, it became a ramshackle sprawl of open cast and deep coal mines; small scale ironworks and light industry. When coal mining became uneconomic the area fell in to decay with high unemployment. At the same time the prospect of a New Town offered the allure of new housing for those in the poorer districts of Birmingham and the Black Country only thirty miles away. Potential employers required a good link to the road network to tempt them into relocating to a town tucked away in the heart of 'rural' Shropshire. So the Telford Development Council issued plans for a Motorway link from Telford to the M6.

Routes and Inquiries

There were three proposed routes for the new M54 road all with their various pros and cons. The favoured route came through Tong and right across the site of Tong Castle. Public meetings led to appeals and the setting up of a lengthy public inquiry. The result was that the inquiry favoured finding an alternative route. To the dismay of the villagers of Tong the findings of the inquiry were summarily over-turned by the Minister. To this day many people believe that the results of a public inquiry have some clout, not so, a Minister can ignore them and is not obliged to give reasons. So the M54 was to come through Tong no matter what the local people thought about it.

Tong castle on M54
The castle site cut in two by the M54, one of the few ancient monuments sliced up in this way. The early castle walls are visible on the left. Image by R.P. Stallard.

Tong Castle Site

The archaeological report for the route was either negligent or even worse connived with the planners by reckoning there was nothing of value at the site of Tong Castle. It reported that if there were any buildings prior to the Durant building they were probably small and completely destroyed when creating the Tudor or the Durant 1765 building. In the 1890s George Griffiths had produced a History of Tong and Boscobel which seemed to show that the Tong Castle site had been in use for hundreds of years. The book is not a wholly accurate historical document, as can be guessed by the first Chapter that links Tong with Merlin and the time of King Arthur [If there was any link it would probably be to Tong in Kent ]. Griffiths was tapping into the resurgent Victorian interest into all things Arthurian.

There is very little documentary evidence for an old castle, this can be mainly explained by the many changes of ownership over the centuries with ample opportunities to 'lose' documents. There was a fire at the Pierrepont library at Thoresby in 1745 that may have destroyed a great many Tong documents.

So the main piece of evidence of a substantial castle prior to 1765 was based on the Buck engraving of Tong Castle in Shropshire. This evidence could not be disputed but some experts put the castle site at Tong Norton where it would not have been disturbed by the Motorway.

Alan Wharton comes to Tong

The Midland Road Construction Unit (MCRU) who controlled the M54 construction had no plans to excavate the Castle site and the date of the Motorway construction loomed ever closer. One villager in Tong tried to find out what was happening about the site and by good fortune Alan Wharton, then working at Rowley's Mansion museum at Shrewsbury became involved with the project.

Bizarrely, an initial concern was the rescue of the Durant 'Gazebo' (an ornamental roadside pulpit) in the grounds of Convent Lodge rather than the castle itself.

After a letter in the Shropshire Star newspaper, mounting public pressure resulted in acceptance of a plan for small scale rescue archaeological work and a little delay to the construction plans. The castle site is part of the Bradford Estate and was carried out with the kind permission and interest of the landowner - the Earl of Bradford . The principal aim was to confirm that the plan of the Castle shown in the Buck Engraving (about 1731) bore some relation to the structures in the ground. The season started in the long, hot summer of 1976 . All the excavations were carried out by volunteers. Alan had to beg for little bits of funding from many sources : Local landowners, the Walker Trust, Ancient Monuments and local villagers. Alan lived in very limited accommodation, initially in a caravan and the archaeological finds were stored in a disused hen house.

Alan Wharton
Alan Wharton working at the castle site

Alan's news for 28 January 1976

“My provisional programme is a Survey and investigation at the base of the north wall during April, surface excavation on the top of the original North-West Tower during the Spring Holiday and excavation to determine the build and possible moat to the East of the Tower in July and August.”

The initial plan for the summer more than met Alan's expectations, wherever that was dug found more structures were found that needed more trenches to work out the inter-relationship and age. Evidence showed that there was a massive ditch across the N.E. side, making the site highly defensible - the other sides were hemmed in by steep sided valleys. The ditch was strong evidence for a substantial, early mediaeval castle. Indeed when investigating the east-most area of the site a storage pit was uncovered with undoubtedly early content.

Initial trenches were uncovering finds from as early as the 12th century and so at least 800 years of occupation on the castle site. Many archaeologists tend to avoid these types of site because it is so difficult to work out in which order buildings were made and modified; they much prefer to tackle a site that was occupied for a short time as it gives a clear snapshot of life at one time rather than a blurred and incomplete picture of a site under continual change. The castle at Tong was altered and rebuilt several times. For example, there was fortification in response to the Peasant's revolt of the fourteenth century, and a rebuild after damage in the Civil War .

Most significantly was the creation of a brick mansion in the time of Henry Vernon c.1515. Bricks were found everywhere in all shapes and sizes. A brick building hardly seems a remarkable thing to find, but at the time it was built, a brick mansion was in this part of the UK an innovation and the most fashionable building material that only the very richest people could afford.

Alan held an exhibition of the finds in Tong village hall in October 1976 showing clear evidence of occupation back to the12th century and a very impressive range of pottery, bones and clay pipes.

All the work had been on the front of the site, as far as finding buried walling. The rear of the promontory (south-west end) wasnot considered a target area. However it was in this area that much of the early history took place. The later 'mansion' houses at the front of the site had left these earlier structures undisturbed as ruins in the rear garden.

Over the next few years Alan's excavations identified plans for nine distinct 'builds' of castle on the same site from the 11th century through to the final Durant mansion of 1765. It was an excavation with many exciting discoveries as so little was known about the castle beforehand.

The Well

Finding a mediaeval Well was one of the main highlights of the dig. A Well is important for two reasons the material naturally forms sealed 'datable' levels the earliest at the bottom and also the material is often well preserved due to permanent presence of moisture.

Alan's news for 23rd October 1976

“...I saw a depression in the ground, in from the wall and cut a circle in it and told Don that if he dug he would find a Well. Lo and behold we now have 2 courses of a oval shaped red sandstone Well...”

Excavating a deep, narrow Well poses a great many problems and it took a lot of ingenuity and not to say hard physical effort to clear it out - all 12.5m (40ft) of it. One problem was getting down into it, a conventional ladder did not fit the bill so a purpose built ladder made from neighbouring trees was constructed and permanently lashed into the Well.

Over the next eighteen months a great many important finds came out of it, including a leather shoe; candle holder; double sided comb; well bucket and chain; various keys; a gilt-bronze ewer and a gold ring.

Another of the exciting finds on the site was an underground chamber, which was very finely built. It had rib fan vaulted ceiling made up from individually crafted bricks and dated from the Henry Vernon's castle of the early 16th century. The chamber was located on the South wall some way from the mansion/castle and was obviously built to be concealed from view. A trackway from the castle meant that if it came under attack the family could escape to the chamber undetected. It was in use during the Civil War and was then repaired shortly afterwards.

Vertical profile of the Keep Well

The Ice House

The Georgian Durant mansion came with one of the latest innovations - an Ice House . Providing blocks of ice for cold storage of meat and vegetables greatly enhanced the variety of food available for the castle's inhabitants, as well as providing ice cubes and ice cream on demand. The system relied on collecting and cutting ice in the winter months from the nearby Church Pool. The existence and location of the 1765 ice-house was well known. The ice-house is a large barrel shaped brick structure 12m x 5m mainly buried underground. A complete, early example of an ice-house is extremely rare, and the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings at Stourbridge decided to rescue the structure. So the Ice House at Tong was taken apart brick by brick, transported to Avoncroft and re-built. A full report was produced describing the Ice House in great detail.

After the Castle the College

After many delays the Motorway that was due to be built in 1976/1977 actually was bulldozed through in 1982. Alan had to fight long and hard to get the dig completed satisfactorily. The construction team feared that any additional archaeological work might lead to considerable delay and expenditure.

The saving grace of the whole project was that it was decided quite independently that to save money the motorway was reduced from six lanes to four lanes. Reducing the width of the required cut for the road through the castle site resulted in the preserving of some of the castle remains. Particularly gratifying is that the earliest remains on the SW tip of the promontory were saved and can now be seen as you drive along the Motorway.

Alan then moved on to investigate the site of Tong College. There was known to be a College close to the church founded in 1410 at the same time as the church. The site had been sketched in 1911 when a dry summer left outlines of the walls of the College as parch marks in the grass. When the Tong bypass was built in 1963 one corner of the college remains was disturbed. By coincidence these again became clearly visible in May 1982 when Alan was working on the castle giving the impetus to check out the ground plan. The main area measured 22 x 22 m (or 72 x 72 feet) so it was a substantial site. Alan quickly established an earlier building had existed, in an area close to the present church, dating from the 12th century with tantalising evidence pointing to the early Norman period when the first stone church was built.

Alan's interest in learning more about the history of Tong never went away, there are still many archaeological finds that await someone of Alan's energy and enthusiasm to unearth. It is certainly true that Alan Wharton like many other visitors to Tong have been somehow by the village and community and never really conquered their desire to discover more about Tong.

The plan of Tong College

Alan's Discoveries

This site publishes an extract of Alan's reports on his discoveries, it is produced as a series of pages one for each of the nine distinct builds of Tong Castle from the 11th century to the 18th century. Click on a link in the following table to find out about Tong Castle at a particular period of English History.

During the Reign ofLord of Tong ManorCastle ConstructionDate
William I1066-1087Earl Roger of
Montgomery
Defensive areac.1090
William II1087-1100 
Henry I1100-1135 
Stephen1135-1154Philip de BelmeisDefensive Castlec.1150
Henry II1154-1189Alan la ZoucheDefensive Castle -
Extensions
c.1185
Richard I1189-1199 
John1199-1216 
Henry III1216-1272Henry de PembruggeDefensive to a
Residential Castle
c.1270
Edward I1272-1307 
Edward II1307-1327Fulk de Pembrugge IIManorial Castlec.1315
Edward III1327-1377 Castle Renovation c.1350
Richard II1377-1399Fulk de Pembrugge IVCastle Fortificationc.1381
Henry IV1399-1413 
Henry V1413-1422 
Henry VI1422-1461 
Edward IV1461-1483 
Richard III1483-1485 
Henry VII1485-1509Sir Henry VernonPalatial Castlec.1500
Henry VIII1509-1547 
Edward VI1547-1553 
Mary I1553-1558 
Elizabeth I1558-1603 
James I1603-1625 
Charles I1625-1649 
Parliament1649-1660William PierrepontCastle re-styled
& repaired
c.1650
Charles II1660-1685 
James II1685-1688 
William III
& Mary II
1688-1702 
Anne1702-1714 
George I1714-1727 
George II1727-1760 
George III1760-1820George Durant IGothic Styled Castlec.1765
George IV1820-1830 
William IV1830-1837 
Victoria1837-1901Earl of BradfordCastle rented out1855
Edward VII1901-1910Castle unoccupied1906
George V1910-1936 
Edward VIII1936 
George VI1936-1952 
Elizabeth II1952-Castle demolished
Castle excavated
1954
1976

Please note that the contents of this page are not included in the Discovering Tong book.

Copyright © 2007 through 2015 Discovering Tong