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29 October 2014

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Portrait of Durant (I) by Sir Joshua Reynolds
George Durant (I) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The infamous George Durant

In 1764 George Durant bought the entire village of Tong near Shropshire's eastern border. He was a colourful character with a colourful bank balance, but it's believed the money came almost entirely from the slave trade.

George Durant was the son of the Rector of Hagley in Worcestershire. He was educated at Oxford and on his return home brought shame upon the family by having an affair with Lady Lyttelton, of Hagley Hall, the wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was a great embarrassment to both George's father and Lord Lyttleton. So as punishment, and to get him out of the way, the Chancellor appointed George as clerk to the pay office in 1757.

A year later, he acted as deputy paymaster to the forces in their expedition to Guadaloupe during the seven years war. But it was his second trip with the forces in 1762 which made his fortune.

"The Durant family bought the whole of Tong in 1764 and it was mainly built out of the slave trade."
Robert Jeffery

He had taken part in the Sack of Havanah and gained many spoils. Those in the pay office were often able to make money for themselves by currency exchanges and various other dubious means - but Durant's wealth exceeded that. He came home with what amounted to about £15m in today's money.

Research suggests that much of Durant's wealth was acquired through the slave trade. The family papers include a list of slaves and an agreement about a subject 'never to be mentioned again' with pages torn out. It also emerged later that on one island in the Windward Islands, nearly everyone has the surname Durant and that was because slaves always took the surname of the slave owner.

Tong Castle
Tong Castle

When George Durant returned from the West Indies with his considerable fortune, he decided that he wanted to have an estate of his own. He entered into negotiations with the Duke of Kingston upon Hull who owned the village of Tong in Shropshire, and after wrangling over the valuation of properties, Durant bought the whole estate in 1764 for £40,000.

George then proceeded to partially demolish the existing 16th Century Tudor castle belonging to Tong, and started to construct what was the first real gothic building in Shropshire. Tong Castle became an enormous building, decorated with excessive treasures from the West Indies and many paintings. The Castle was described by Lord Torrington in 1792 as full of "overgrown taste" requiring "a very large fortune to maintain".

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George employed virtually the whole population of Tong at that time - which was roughly in the region of 400 people - and it became a completely self-contained community, which he ruled over almost like a king.

George Durant plaque

Later, George decided that he wanted to become a member of parliament and, after one failure, he bought the seat of Evesham through a friend. He also decided that it might be timely to get married and so he eloped with a Quaker lady, who was the daughter of a vinegar brewer from Lambeth - although he was also conducting another affair around the same time. His original affair with Lady Lyttleton resulted in two children, the second one being born after his marriage.

George Durant was 46 when he died in 1772 and his son was only four. The new Tong Castle was incomplete, with many bedrooms half built. His widow then married a friend of his, Major Benjamin Charnock Payne, who had been with George in the West Indies.

It seems from records that the couple then tried to steal the estate from George's son-and-heir, but they were unsuccessful, and George Durant Junior eventually inherited Tong. He continued the eccentric building of the castle and his life proved to be even more strange and eccentric than that of his father.

In the end, the whole of Tong was dominated by the Durant family from 1764 until 1854, when the fourth George Durant sold the estate. Unfortunately, Tong Castle no longer stands.

It started collapsing around about the time that the estate was sold and it was uninhabitable by 1910. Becoming an increasingly unstable structure it was blown up in 1954. Today the M54 passes where it once stood and all that remains are a few bits of rubble. 

Want more information?

Our thanks go to Robert Jeffery, whose research helped to unearth the story of George Durant and the links Tong had with the slave trade. Discovering Tong: Its History, Myths and Curiosities is released on 27 April 2007.

Discovering Tong >
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last updated: 10/04/07
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