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Shrewsbury Castle, Shropshire: designs for interior decoration for Sir William Pulteney, thought to have been executed, c1768-87 (3)

Shrewsbury Castle was originally an Anglo Saxon timber fortification, built to protect the town of Shrewsbury, and with the town walls projecting from the structure. The timber building was replaced with a red sandstone structure by Roger de Mortimer, Earl of Shrewsburgh in c1070, and it was this fabric which was famously besieged by King Stephen in 1138 during The Anarchy. The only part of Mortimer's building to survive is the gateway, owing to large-scale rebuilding work under King Edward I in c1300. The castle had passed into the possession of the monarchy in 1102, and was only sold into private ownership again by Queen Elizabeth I. During this time there were various programmes of alteration, but it slowly fell into decay. The castle passed through various hands, including, in the eighteenth century, Sir William Pulteney.

William Pulteney (formerly Johnstone) (1729-1805) was the third son of Sir James Johnstone, 3rd Baronet, of Westerhall, Dumfriesshire. He began his career as a lawyer, being admitted to the Scottish bar in Edinburgh in 1751. In 1759 William moved to London when he acquired a position in the Customs and Excise Office with a salary of £400 per annum. This enabled him to marry, in 1760, Frances (d 1782), daughter and heir of Daniel Pulteney, a cousin to the wealthy 1st Earl of Bath. William took the name of Pulteney in 1767 when his wife Frances succeeded to the estates of the Earl of Bath, including Shrewsbury Castle. He then succeeded his brother, Sir James Johnstone, as 5th Baronet in 1794 to both the Westerhall estate and plantations and enslaved poeple in Granada, Tobago and Dominica. This made Pulteney one of the wealthiest commoners in the country. Sir William remarried in 1804, Margaret, daughter of Sir William Stirling, 4th Baronet, of Ardoch, and the widow of his close friend, Andrew Stuart. Sir William also served - actively - as MP for Cromartyshire in 1768-74, and Shrewsbury in 1775-1805. He took an interest in East India affairs and was sympathetic to American objects to taxation without representation, albeit opponent of American independence.

The Pulteney's only child (Henrietta) Laura Pulteney inherited on her mother's death in 1782, although Sir William remained responsible for the management of the estates until her marriage in 1794 to a cousin, Sir James Murray, 7th Baronet. Moreover, through his political influence, Sir William contrived to have his daughter created Baroness of Bath in 1792, and Countess of Bath in 1803.

Further to his political career, Sir William's other great interests were agricultural and architectural reform, and he was a member of the Board of Agriculture from 1793. He made improvements to his own estate at Westerhall, as well as all of those belonging to his wife, including the land around Shrewsbury Castle, which remained his principal country residence, even following the death of his wife. Having fallen into decay during its long history, Sir William found it necessary to make improvements to the castle, and to renovate the interior into a state fit for domestic usage.

Sir William had been friends with Robert Adam since their time in Edinburgh, and it was to Adam that he turned to make designs for Shrewsbury Castle. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it was Adam whom Sir William commissioned to make designs from 1768 for schemes to improve Frances’s estates in Bath. They built Pulteney Bridge across the River Avon, with the intention of developing a new town suburb at Bathwick. At Shrewsbury Adam made interior designs in a gothic style. These are thought to have been executed under the superintendance of executant architect, Thomas Telford (1757-1834) in 1787-89. Adam's designs are undated, but can presumably be assigned a date range of between 1768, when Adam made his first designs for the Pulteneys at Bath, and 1787, when Telford was made executant architect at Shrewsbury.

The castle was purchased by Shropshire Horticultural Society in 1924 and given to the people of Shrewsbury. This was followed in 1926-26 by a series of works by Shrewsbury Council to restore the medieval features of the building, but unfortunately this destroyed most of the eighteenth-century interiors. Still owned by Shropshire Council, since 1985 the building has housed the Shropshire Regimental Museum. The building was damaged by an IRA bomb in 1992, and only re-opened in 1995.

See also: Bath: Pulteney Bridge, Bath Prison, and the new town scheme.

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 28, 84; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, p. 181; J. Newman, and N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Shropshire, 2006, pp. 535-36; History of Parliament online: 'Pulteney, William (1729-1805), of Westerhall, Dumfries and The Castle, Shrewsbury'; Oxford dictionary of national biography online: 'Pulteney [formerly Johnstone] Sir William, fifth baronet (1729-1805)'; Legacies of British Slavery database, UCL: www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs; G. Williams, 'The Hidden Hand of Genius: Robert Adam and the Pulteney Estate in Shropshire', The Georgian Group Journal, 2016, pp. 65-80

Frances Sands, 2013

Updated by Frances Sands, 2023, thanks to information from Gareth Williams.
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