An unusual Avranchinais: Baron Henry de Tonge

Translated from an original essay, ‘Un avranchinais peu ordinaire: le baron Henry de Tonge’ by Nicole Collette, published in the journal : ‘Revue de l’Avranchin et du Pays de Granville’ : tome 91, March 2014.

Translation by Anne Falloon, Middleton Archaeological Society.

An unusual Avranchinais: Baron Henry de Tonge

Henry Asheton de Tonge would have stayed relatively anonymous if the destruction of his home in the Ragotin (named after the neighbourhood of Avranches where it stood) had not reawakened interest in him.  This English soldier, native of Lancashire, does not seem only to have stood out by his marriage to a French woman in an era when such marriages outside the local community were rare.  Henry Asheton de Tonge revealed  himself to be even less predictable than he might have seemed.  His decision, ten years after his arrival in the country, to assume French nationality (a decision that none of his fellow members of the English colony in Avranches had ever taken) is the most significant example.

It would be overly hasty to impute this decision simply to his marriage to a Frenchwoman, his links with his native land being,  to say the least, complex.  He never left Avranches after he settled down there and for thirty years, right up to his death in 1917, he led the life of a landowner on his estate at Ragotin with his wife, Melanie Puchot, his six children, three domestic servants and a gardener.  This choice of lifestyle implies more significant sources of income than could have been supplied by his military career, already at an end when he arrived in France.[i]  This date is not, by the way, that of his arrival but of his marriage, the record of which is absent from the register of the town of Avranches where it was supposed to have been celebrated.  As his wife came from an extremely modest background, there remains the hypothesis that he had a personal fortune whose origin could only be in Great Britain.

Family origins

The father of Henry Asheton de Tonge was called simply Tonge, he was a ‘corn miller’, the son of a carpenter.  Two questions pose themselves: why did the son change his surname and how was this miller, whatever his wealth might have been, able to provide such significant annuities to each of his six children?

James Tonge was born in 1789 at Worsley, to the east of Manchester, in West Yorkshire.  When he was 56, his son Henry was born, the last of his six children and the last of his four sons.  Both father and son were in the military at the start of their careers.  James Tonge was captain of militia in Pontefract, Yorkshire, to the south east of Leeds, and was part of the army that was raised at the time of the battle of Waterloo, protecting the country against the menace of invasion by Napoleon.  Henry was captain of dragoons, but, unlike his father who followed another professional path after his military career, Henry did not take up any other career himself.  In the 1891 Avranches census, when he was 44, he described himself as ‘former captain of dragoons’.

The Tonge family lived at Sowerby Bridge, a town to the east of Halifax.  James Tonge chose to locate his mill, Watson Mill, there because of the many assets occurring naturally  in the landscape.  The hydraulic power supplied by the River Calder, a strongly flowing river which rises in the Pennines, the dorsal spine of Great Britain, was important there and the trade of manufactured products was enabled by the two canals, the Calder and Hebble Navigation and the Rochdale Canal which formed the foremost line of waterways crossing the Pennine chain and linking Manchester to the port of Hull.

There exist few records from this period in James’s professional life when he was defined indifferently under the term ‘corn miller’, miller and ‘corn and flower dealer’, a trader in corn and flour. [ii] His name appears in only a few legal transactions in relation to insolvent clients and this relative anonymity would have persisted if, when he was nearly 70, his name had not been associated with that of the powerful Briggs family.

The Briggs family were Unitarians [iii] settled in Hull since the 17th century.  They headed up an important textile export business whose commercial success rested on the rivers, canals and the sea thanks to their fleet of boats.  Manufacture, commerce, banking, the three pillars of Victorian success, were here united: the Halifax Commercial Bank became eventually Halifax Commercial Banking Co Ltd before merging with Barclays Bank.

James Tonge became a shareholder of the Halifax Commercial Banking Co Ltd then became the proprietor of a mine, the Methley Junction Colliery, in association with the vice president of the bank, William Briggs.  West Yorkshire coal was a gift that businessmen could not overlook.  It was exploited by a multitude of small mines, used equally by industry and for domestic purposes and the seams, mostly shallow ones whose exploitation was less expensive, made them more competitive in the market.  Other members of the Briggs family were already involved in mining before William Briggs and James Tonge acquired their mine.  Henry Briggs, the younger brother of William, had delegated the running of the Hull business for which he had responsibility to other members of the family so he could dedicate his time to it.  Despite the opening of four new pits on land owned by the Duke of Mexborough[iv] , he did not experience the success he had hoped for.

In 1860 the two Briggs brothers, William and Henry, decided to consolidate their mines and capital.  James Tonge, William’s business partner, was quite naturally integrated into the newly formed company, Henry Briggs and Sons and Company.  He became one of the four company directors, beside the Briggs brothers and Henry Briggs’ son, something without precedent in the history of the Briggs family: no outsider had ever been associated with the strictly family-based running of the business, its members, women included, were called on as and when needed.   Henry Briggs, his son and James Tonge[v] were majority shareholders in this company with an investment of £52,000, with William investing just £8,000.

This new company was set up in a rather unpropitious time.  Between 1860 and 1865, strikes, absenteeism and political agitation grew and the return on investment was weak.  The 1863 strike that lasted thirteen weeks, and worse, the death threats aimed at Henry Briggs, led him to form the first profit sharing scheme in the history of British mining.  The Briggs company, formerly private, became a public limited company of which part of the capital was offered for public sale with priority given to prominent locals and the workforce.  A bonus, divided into equal shares between the shareholders and the workers, was also planned in the event of there being surplus profits.  This plan had one proviso: any conflicts had to henceforth  ruled by arbitration and not by strikes.  The reaction of the union was overwhelmingly hostile and only 30% of the miners supported the plan, but a year later, the profits and the bonuses to be redistributed were such that the percentage surpassed 80%.

Henry Briggs and Sons and Co. went on to prosper and this ensured the transport of coal via its own boats, two of them travelling from Goole [vi] to Hamburg, two others from Goole to Rouen.  In 1870, and this measure remained in place until in 1886, a fifth company director was chosen from the workforce and elected by them.

This prosperity had however aspects that one cannot ignore and of which the most sordid is child labour.  It would not be until 1878 that the length of the working day moved very slowly from 12 hours a day to a half day and the legal age from 6 to 10, then 11 in 1891.  Children working in the dark and heat, be they ‘hurriers’ (they pushed the coal wagons along rails, challenging work) or as the youngest be they ‘trappers’ in charge of maintaining the ‘traps’ on which depended the mine’s air supply, lonely work carried out in the cold and against air currents.

James Tonge’s children benefited  greatly from their father’s involvement in the coal industry.  Richard and Samuel, his elder sons, joined the Briggs company in 1872 when they were 44 and 38 respectively.  Samuel had already been involved in his father’s mining business, James Tonge and Son, from 1871.  As for his other two sons, Christopher and Henry, they seldom appear in the records, Christopher only in his father’s 1873 will alongside his elder brother, and Henry not at all, his military career keeping him perhaps distanced from his family.  Henry was only 26 when, with his brother and sisters, he came into his father’s inheritance.  Between this inheritance, received relatively late in his life, and his arrival in France, ten years passed, during which time an event took place whose nature remains unknown, but whose authenticity his descendents confirm, an event which would force Henry Asheton de Tonge to leave his native land.  ‘He was, for some reason, obliged to leave England’. [vii] His choice of France and more particularly Avranches can be understood as the desire to make a new life for himself in which he could forge a different identity from that of his near relatives and to appropriate to himself his family’s more distant past.

The Tonges of Tonge

The surname Tonge, sometimes written Tongue, did not appear until the end of the 14th century and is widely dispersed in  Great Britain.  It seems here linked to the name of the land situated on the borders of the estate of Alkrington, near Middleton (County of Greater Manchester) whose lengthened shape evokes a sort of tongue.  Alkrington belonged to a great Lancashire family, the Prestwiches, whose name was taken from the ancient diocese of Prestwich to the north of Manchester.  Adam de Prestwich’s daughter, Alice, born in 1315 married Thomas de Wolverley and had three children.  Thomas, one of their sons, born in 1334, left a parcel of land in Alkrington in his will to a certain Henry, his illegitimate son.  No other information is available about this Henry and no indication concerning who his father was.

Henry’s descendents went on to take the name of Alkrington, then in 1390, when the part of Alkrington that had been left to them first appeared under the name of Tonge or Tongue, they took the name of their piece of land.  Henry Tonge, the first who took the surname, went on to claim, Alice de Prestwich’s descendent, the right to the Prestwich family’s inheritance.  Many court hearings placed him and his descendents in opposition to the Langley family, a powerful family whose members had made alliances with all the great Lancashire families and in particular with Johanna de Tettelawe, herself a descendent of Alice de Prestwich.  The illegitimacy would be held against Henry Tonge, but with the passage of time, his cause must have prevailed, because in 1542, one of his descendents, Thomas, died in possession of three ‘messuages’.[viii]

The ancestors of Henry Asheton de Tonge held the rank of knights and held their land of the king with the usual requirements to serve the crown.  In 1678, Jonathan Tonge de Tonge, attested during the visitation made by Sir William Dugdale, herald for the county of Lancashire, that his ancestry went back four generations which gave him no entitlement to nobility, but was simply a recognition of his origins.  The rank held by the Tonge family corresponded in the modern era to that of ‘gentry’ or more accurately, ‘the landed gentry’, the class that lived ‘in’ and ‘off’ their lands.  If this class is well represented in Great Britain, its boundaries are blurred.  Usually situated just below the nobility, its members sometimes receive titles, hereditary or awarded and they have the right to bear arms.  All the descendents of the Tonge family, and they are many, claim possession of arms.  Those of Richard Asheton de Tonge and of Henry Asheton de Tonge appear in a work dedicated to family arms edited in 1899 [ix]and they appear respectively as proprietors of ‘Tonge Hall’ and ‘Chateau de Ragotin’.

Tonge Hall

What remains of this imposing Tudor manor house was built in 1580 by Christopher Tonge (died 1601) on a dominating height above Middleton.  The building is characteristic of the Tudor style in vogue from 1485 to 1603 with its quatrefoil panels painted black on a daub background, its stone pediment, its pitched roofs covered in grey slate, its doors and windows high and narrow, its little oriel bays, all corbelled, its high brick chimneys fixed diagonally, their pots decorated  with ornamental crowns.

Tonge Hall has not had the same fate as Agecroft Hall [x](which fell into ruins and was transported to the United States), built in the same style a few miles away a century later, which was the home of the Langley family, linked like the Tonges with the Prestwiches.  Tonge Hall has had the luck by comparison to remain where it was built, but it has suffered a dilapidation worse than that of Agecroft Hall while escaping total destruction.  Having belonged to the Tonge family, it passed through many hands and each time the destruction of the fabric worsened.  In 1865, according to an account given to the ‘Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society’ by Henry Fishwick [xi]: ‘A great part of the building has been destroyed and that which remains is used as a farm house’.  The Hall’s bad luck seemed to be turning when, in 1890, William Asheton Tonge, one of the descendents of the original family (of the ‘old stock, according to the expression used) and one of the sons of the Richard Tonge who directed the Briggs mines, acquired it.  He restored it and in 1902 offered it to the town of Middleton as a museum.  This offer was refused on financial grounds.  The succession of owners went up to the Wolvencroft family who were the last owners.  The family carried out considerable work, equivalent to millions of pounds without much help from English Heritage [xii] and Greater Manchester which Middleton was part of.  It was a criminal arson attack in 2007, one of many acts of vandalism, which was to finally change public opinion about the fate of the building whose existence the local population seems only lately to have discovered.  The house is now placed in the ranks of the most ‘at risk’ buildings and its importance in the history of Middleton has been widely reported in the press.  What remains of the manor house, less than half its original volume, is now protected from further damage and is in the process of restoration with help from the Committee for the Protection of Public Buildings North east.

The evolution of the surname

The exact surname of the Tonge family would have been ‘Tonge of Tonge’ or ‘Asheton Tonge of Tonge’.  This forename, Asheton, placed between the forename and the surname of certain family members, is what the English call the ‘middle name’ , which is different from the ‘first name’, the name given to the individual person, and the ‘last name’, that of the family.  It serves to differentiate the members of the same family who have the same first name.  As to the choice of the middle name, Asheton, it seems to have been the fashion with this family since a marriage in the 17th century with the Asheton family.

The surname under which Henry Asheton de Tonge appeared in the accounts of the archaeological society of Avranches of which he was a member, varies, changing from ‘Mr Asheton Tonge of Wales’ [xiii] or in the same year of 1890 to ‘Mr Asheton de Tonge’ and again in 1894 to ‘Mr Asheton Tonge de Tonge’[xiv].  In 1906 and 1907[xv], finally came the mention of ‘the Baron Henry Asheton de Tonge, Treasurer’.

The alteration carried out on his surname by Henry received some pointed comments from a well-known genealogist of the period, Henry Massue, in his work ‘The Nobilities of Europe’. [xvi]  ‘Tonge: Henry Asheton Tonge of the Chateau of Ragotin, Avranches, Manche, sometimes an Officer of the British Army (fourth son of James Fletcher Tonge, of Tonge) having returned to live in France, has changed his name to de Tonge, and assumed  the style and title of BARON DE TONGE, such being, as he maintains, the rank held by his ancestors before they came to England’.  Many aspects of this comment are interesting, and show the alteration to the name Asheton de Tonge was resented.  For the historian, Massue, the name had not been altered but ‘changed’; in the eyes of a Briton, the logic by which it had been constructed made no sense.  The particular case where the surname was strictly identical to that of the lands owned involves a rather infelicitous repetition which, if it was used in Great Britain, where the Tonges were numerous and needed to be differentiated from each other, would be less needed perhaps than in France.  One can then, to a certain extent, understand the Gallicisation of his name carried out by Henry Asheton de Tonge, a Gallicisation that would accord with the traditionalist society of Avranches in which the lower and middling rural nobility were strongly represented.  One might think however that he ought not to have ignored the fact that Anglo-Norman families had abandoned the particle ‘de’ from the 13th or 14th centuries.

The expression ‘having returned to live in France’ also draws our attention.  It seems he gave credence to the hypothesis of French descent and supports the family legend according to which the Tonges descended from one Nigel or ‘The Black One’, called by  British historians ‘Nigel de Cotentin’ [xvii] who came to fight the Welsh on the Cheshire border at the request of Hugh d’Avranches.  This Nigel is presented as if he were a friend of ‘Hugh the Wolf’, count of Avranches, or as a cousin come to offer a strong arm with the help of his five brothers, of whom the eldest was called Houdard and who was afterwards recompensed with lands and privileges.  Jacques Desroches made extensive mention of these characters [xviii] just as the local history of Cheshire, with reference to the Domesday Book, refers to the presence of a barony of Halton, [xix]of which the first baron would have been Nigel de Cotentin, hereditary constable of Chester, who would have fought the Welsh at Rhuddlan [xx] and who built at Halton the castle-fort of which only ruins remain.  Besides, as it says in the essay written  by Henry Fishwick, the lands of Asheton and Weston which were given to Houdard, one of Nigel’s companions, were from their geographical situation an ‘integral part of the territory where Tonge Hall is located today’ [xxi].  Did Nigel then already bear the title of baron as Henry Asheton de Tonge seems to claim or did he become one on his arrival in Great Britain?  Were Nigel or Houdard really present at the origin of the Prestwich line?  These are questions only a genealogist would be able to answer.  What is significant here is that Henry de Tonge was able, by one means or another, to substantiate his right to the title which continues to be  borne by his descendents.

In July 1949, more than three years after the death of the last owner, the town of Avranches acquired Tonge’s  property after a court adjudication.  This purchase would have allowed the creation on this urban road of a school and some social housing.  The prefect of La Manche insisted particularly on the last point, adding that the purchase of these lands for building these dwellings should be declared ‘urgent and in the public interest’.  Along the new road to Verdun were built after all on the Tonge lands, a kindergarten and a set of little pavilions some of which still stand.


The history of the Tonge family illustrates an aspect rarely brought to our attention of a Lancashire which is perhaps representative of a country which in 1860 produced 60% of the world’s coal and  which was showcased in the first Great Exhibition of London in 1851.  Tonge Hall and the chateau de Ragotin symbolize two essential stages of the rise of this family, from its ancestral link with the land of its regeneration, thanks to the considerable fortunes borne out of industry.  Baron Henry Asheton de Tonge had embodied in his own singular way these successive inheritances, the passing splendour, the romance of Norman origins, the pragmatism of laying claim to social status backed by  a fortune, an complex of motivations that could shine forth  through the device he chose: ‘Tenebo…Je tiendrai’ – ‘I will hold’.

[i] He arrived in Avranches around 1883, it seems, when he was no more than 36.

[ii] Pigot’s Directory: Profession and Trades for Halifax (1834)

[iii] Unitarian: a doctrine which holds that the god of Christianity is one person only and not three as is maintained in the principle of the Trinity.

[iv] He is an example of those aristocrats, owners of vast domains, who instead of selling their lands as they were forbidden to do by ancient law, rented out the ‘underground’

[v] James Tonge brought in £15,000 on his own account, a sum that signifies previous financial success.

[vi] Port situated on the Humber estuary, on the east coast of England

[vii] This phrase is taken from an unusually well informed internet site: Miscellaneous information regarding the French ‘de Tonge’ family descended from the Lancashire Tonge family of Tonge Hall

[viii] Henry Fishwick, Tonge Hall, in the parish of Prestwich-cum-Oldham, in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, X, 1892, p. 26-32

[ix] Armorial Families: A directory of Some Gentlemen of Coat-Armour, Showing Which Arms in Use at the Moment by Legal Authority (London, Edinburgh, T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1899) p. 81-82

[x] Since it fell into ruin, Agecroft Hall was bought at public auction in 1925 by Thomas William, a rich American who had made a fortune in tobacco.  He had the house dismantled, transported by boat then by train to Virginia where it stands today in an environment similar to its original one in Great Britain.  This event which was initially seen  in British public opinion as a despoiling of British history (the subject was even debated in Parliament) was eventually considered as an opportunity of keeping an ancient building going.


[xii] Independent organisation responsible for preserving the historical heritage of England

[xiii] Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Avranches, t. V (1890), Meeting of 23 July Society

[xiv] Ibid., t. VII (1894)

[xv] Ibid., t. XIII (1906-7)

[xvi] Henry Massue, Marquis de Ruvigny Melville, The Nobilities of Europe (1910), p. 395

[xvii]  I. J. Sanders, English baronies: a study of their origin and descent (1086-1327), (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1960)

[xviii] Abbe Desroches, Histoire de Mont Saint Michel et de l’ancien diocese d’Avranches, (Caen, Mancel, 1838), p. 190-191.

[xix] H. F. Starkey, Old Runcorn (Halton, Halton Borough Council, 1990), p. 8

[xx] Arthur Whimperley, The Barons of Halton, (Widnes, MailBook Publishing, 1986)

[xxi]  Henry Fishwick, Manoir de Tonge (s. l., s. d.) This seems to be a translation into French from an article that appeared in Volume X (1892) of the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, op. cit.

One Thought on “An unusual Avranchinais: Baron Henry de Tonge

  1. Terry Keen on 23/01/2022 at 09:40 said:

    I have been researching my family tree and found that I am related to James Fletcher Tonge. In my reading of the above and many other records I have noted that people refer to Worsley, Salford/Manchester as their place of origin. I believe that this is incorrect and should be Warley which is a village just outside Halifax. All the other records refer to places around Halifax – Norland, Skircoat (which I lived in for 4 years).

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