On high ground in Weston Park, ancestral seat of the earls of Bradford, stands this prospect tower. Although Weston Park is in Staffordshire, the knoll on which the tower stands is just over the border into Shropshire, and it was formerly home to another monument, allegedly built for the most repulsive of reasons.
Until 1855 Tong Knoll was part of the Tong Castle estate which adjoined Weston Park. In 1760 George Durant (1731-1780) purchased the Tong estate from the Duke of Kingston and set about remodelling the house and grounds. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown provided plans, but sadly little archival evidence survives to record how the works were implemented, and it was later reported that Durant was ‘his own architect’.
Durant died in 1780 when his son, also George, was still a minor. After taking control of the estate when he came of age, George junior (1776-1844) indulged in his two favourite pastimes: embellishing the estate with countless architectural curiosities, and exercising his droit de seigneur. This latter activity led to the local legend (which may not have been stretching the truth too far) that he had a child in every cottage in the village, as well as the fourteen children that were the legitimate issue of his marriage to Mary Ann Eld of Seighford, Staffordshire.
His wife was understandably unable to tolerate his constant philandering, and in around 1820 demanded a divorce: Durant v. Durant kept the legal profession busy for a number of years. Throughout the proceedings George Durant played for time with the help of his attorney, Thomas Wood of Wolverhampton, sniffily described by his wife’s London legal team as ‘a country lawyer not known in this court’.
All of this was reported in the national and local papers, but after Durant’s death another story emerged. The tale told is that Durant baulked at the £600 of alimony awarded to his ex-wife: his bumpkin brief successfully appealed, and the sum was reduced to £400. To mark the occasion Durant built a ‘conspicuous object’ on Tong Knoll, clearly visible from the road between Wolverhampton and Tong. Historians give different accounts of the design of the building – was it square or octagonal, two storeys or three? Sadly, no views are known to survive.
There is also disagreement about the wording Durant added over the door: one writer says OPTIMO ADICO TW and another OPTIMA AMICO TW. But whether the plaque commemorated the best of outcomes, or the best of friends, all are agreed that ‘TW’ was a tribute to the lawyer Thomas Wood. The case may have been a career high for Wood as he was described in 1847 as an Insolvent Debtor ‘formerly of Wolverhampton […] afterwards a Prisoner in the Fleet Prison, lately a Prisoner in the Queen’s Prison, and now deceased.’
The monument had but a brief existence, being destroyed in a dramatic fashion soon after Durant’s death in November 1844. According to a story which appeared in the local paper only days after Durant’s demise, his eldest legitimate son, George, who died in 1831, had made a death-bed plea to his younger brothers that they would one day avenge their father’s betrayal of their mother. As soon as news of their father’s death reached them, Ernest and Frank gathered together 29 labourers and made their way to the tower. A few minutes later, thanks to 50lbs of gunpowder, the building was blown up ‘without accident’ and George’s wish that the monument should perish with its builder was granted. The explosion was heard for miles around, with some locals fearing it was an earthquake. News of the blast soon travelled, and the pile of rubble briefly became a tourist attraction.
In 1855 the Durant family offered the Tong estate for sale, and the successful purchaser was the 2nd Earl of Bradford of Weston Park. The earl’s daughter, Lady Charlotte Bridgeman, was delighted that her father had secured the land, writing ‘Hurrah for Tong Knoll! We may walk straight to the top as often as we like’.
In 1883 the 3rd earl of Bradford topped the knoll with a new tower at a cost of £634.1.0. No documentary evidence for the architect has yet been found, although John MacVicar Anderson (1835-1915) was updating the house in the same period and must be a contender.
The prospect-cum-banqueting house was built as an eye-catcher from a number of viewing points in the park, and the land around it was managed for hunting, so the tower would have been a lofty grandstand for viewing the chase, and a comfortable space for refreshments. The Tong Knoll Gallops, where the earl’s racehorses were exercised, were also nearby, and the tower appears in the background of a portrait of the earl’s prizewinning Retreat (who later enjoyed a contented retirement put out to stud).
The tower soon became a local landmark, and the family welcomed local charities such as the Band of Hope Trust, who climbed the tower after a tea party in 1896.A Bridgeman family anecdote tells that it was Britain’s two times Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, who suggested that a tower be built on the site. Disraeli was a friend of the family, and often visited Weston Park, but sadly he would never see the tower as he died in 1881.
The 7th and current Earl of Bradford gave Weston Park to the nation in 1986, and the Weston Park Foundation was formed to manage the estate. By 1992 the foundation had turned its attention to four ornamental garden structures which were in need of restoration and a purpose: the Knoll Tower, the Temple of Diana, the Pink Cottage and the Boat House. They were offered for sale or lease in 1992, with the foundation retaining the option to buy them back after 21 years.
Although there was interest, the rigorous vetting process only found the right candidate for the Boat House, which is let to a fishery operator. But that is good news for holidaymakers, as the Knoll Tower (grade II), the Temple of Diana (grade I) and the Pink Cottage (grade II) were later restored by the estate and are now available to rent.
Tong Castle was damaged by fire in the early years of the 20th century, and demolished in 1954, but a few of George Durant junior’s curious structures remain for intrepid folly-spotters to find.
For more on staying in the amazing properties at Weston Park see https://www.weston-park.com/visit/stay/
The Temple of Diana and the Knoll Tower can be seen from walks on days when Weston Park is open to the public, and the Pink Cottage can be glimpsed through the trees https://www.weston-park.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Weston-Park-Walks-Leaflet-.pdf
Thanks to Gareth Williams, Curator and Head of Learning to the Weston Park Foundation, for his help with this post. For more on the estate see his new book https://boydellandbrewer.com/9781783276127/weston-park/