How Thomas Telford stole the glory in Shrewsbury Castle project

The late 18th century remodelling of Shrewsbury Castle has been held up as one of the early great works of Thomas Telford and evidence of his emerging genius.

The pristine lawns at Shrewsbury Castle
The pristine lawns at Shrewsbury Castle

But has the focus on the Scottish civil engineer who became Shropshire's first public surveyor – and ultimately gave his name to an entire town in the county – stolen the glory which rightly belongs elsewhere?

According to Gareth Williams, who has researched Telford's role in the Shrewsbury Castle scheme, later historians have been so starry-eyed about Telford that the true kingpin of the project, the architect and interior designer Robert Adam, a fellow Scot, has been more or less literally written out of history.

Gareth, who is curator and head of learning to the Weston Park Foundation, has written about the Shrewsbury Castle project in the Georgian Group Journal.

Thomas Telford often gets credited for the 18th century work at the castle.

Telford himself wrote that Sir William Pulteney had invited him to Shropshire to "superintend" some alterations to the castle to turn it into a temporary residence. Gareth says the inference of this is that Telford was working to somebody else's designs.

"It was only later writers who assumed that the design of the alterations and ancillary structures, rather than merely its execution, was Telford's – the first being Henry Pigeon in 1837, from whom subsequent writers have taken their cue in the absence of alternative documentary evidence," he says.

"Posterity has credited him with its design rather than just the execution, and poor Robert Adam – who gave a reference for Telford as clerk of works at Shrewsbury Prison – has been overlooked."

He adds: "The insistence of subsequent writers for the pre-eminence of Thomas Telford and his unquestionable abilities has denied a consideration of any other hand having been engaged at Shrewsbury Castle."

Another view of the former drawing room of Shrewsbury Castle in about 1890. Alterations in the mid 1920s erased this room. Picture: David Trumper.

Together with a paucity of records and subsequent alterations to the castle, it has conspired almost to erase the contribution of Robert Adam.

"Shrewsbury Castle can be seen not only as a notable, previously unrecognised, part of Adam's Gothic oeuvre, but also as further proof of this significant architect's support for Thomas Telford's career in Shropshire and beyond."

Sadly Adam's designs for the castle's grand rooms have been destroyed along with much of the 18th century layer of the castle's history.

Gareth says the tenth Lord Barnard sold the castle in 1924 to Shropshire Horticultural Society, who in turn gifted the property to Shrewsbury Borough Council.

The drawing room of Shrewsbury Castle in about 1890. Picture: David Trumper.

"The 18th century layer of the building's history was largely disregarded by the architect Sir Charles Nicholson when he undertook a restoration for Shrewsbury council in 1926-27 to remedy the effects of the neglect and to restore the medieval features of the building."

Among other things, this 20th century work led to the creation of the current first floor entrance and steps.

"Most destructive though was the reconfiguration of the interior as a council chamber, which saw the removal of the 'handsome stone staircase', the stripping of the first floor drawing room, and the removal of the ceiling between the first and second floor within the hall range, in order that the carved early 17th century beams of the roof structure could be exposed to view.

Robert Adam was a celebrated 18th century architect and interior designer

"Today, sadly, few of the 18th century rooms remain."

With Thomas Telford being involved in a vast number of projects big and small in his lifetime, the suggestion that his direct personal role has been over-emphasised in some of them is not new – and it has been claimed that in his autobiography he sometimes downplayed the major contributions of others.

One work in the town of Telford often attributed to him is St Leonard's Church in Malinslee, which closely resembles Thomas Telford's church in Madeley. But according to renowned expert Nikolaus Pevsner the builder John Simpson may also have been the designer, and he pointed out that Malinslee's church was not listed as a Telford work until 1830 – 25 years after it had been built.

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