Prestigious Shrewsbury School was built for a very different purpose, writes Chris Upton.

Shrewsbury School looks imposingly down from Kingsland Bank above the River Severn towards the Shropshire town with which it has been associated for more than 450 years.

Exactly as it should do, might comment the casual visitor, for Shrewsbury School has for centuries been one of the foremost educational establishments in the country, the alma mater of both Philip Sidney and Charles Darwin. Georgian grandeur and a lofty perch suit it perfectly.

But there’s a surprising catch. The building which seems so perfectly to embody the high aspirations of independent schooling had very different origins.

The central buildings now occupied by Shrewsbury School were constructed, not to accommodate the sons of the elite, but the country’s wretched orphans, the victims of “murder, exposure and exploitation”.

You would be hard pushed to find, anywhere in England, a building which has so radically changed its spots.

It was in 1742 that Captain Thomas Coram created his famous Foundling Hospital in London to take in the abandoned, neglected and orphaned children of the capital. Such was the fame of the institution, and its considerable financial backing, that it evolved from a private to a public charity, and soon began to receive children from much farther afield, and by the mid-1780s the orphanage in Coram’s Fields was overflowing.

The decision was therefore taken in 1756 to establish further hospitals elsewhere in country, one for the north at Ackworth in Yorkshire and one for the Midlands at Shrewsbury.

Initially a house was set aside in Dog Lane, while plans for a much grander institution were drawn up.

The architect selected for the scheme was Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, himself a native of Shrewsbury, who was then in his early 30s.

Pritchard would, in the course of the next 20 years, become the leading architect in the Welsh borders, with a range of commissions that included Ludlow Guildhall, Shipton Hall and Croft Castle, and he could turn his hand to anything from Gothick to Rococo.

In the mid-1750s, however, the one major contract Pritchard had undertaken had been the rebuilding of St Julian’s church in the middle of his home town. It was a perfect opportunity to show what he was capable of.

Pritchard drafted his design in 1759. The Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital was to be an impressive building of three storeys and no less than 13 bays, together with cross wings and pavilions, together with the necessary stables, kitchen, matron’s room and servants’ hall. Land was secured at Kingsland and work began.

Pritchard appears to have designed with little concern as to the cost. After all, Thomas Coram’s hospital in London had attracted the patronage of the great and the good, including Hogarth and Handel, as well as the financial backing of Parliament, and there was no reason why the Shrewsbury version should not do so too.

There were enough lords, local gentry and MPs on the hospital committee to cover the estimated £10,000 cost with ease.

Work began on the hospital in September 1759 and progressed, with only minor delays, through to 1762, when muttering began among the committee and outside it over the cost of the project. As costs rose (eventually reaching more than £17,000) the money expected from Parliament was beginning to look less and less likely. An impression was growing that, whatever Thomas Coram had achieved in London and at Ackworth, the Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital ought not to be seeking to match it.

By the time the Shrewsbury hospital was completed in 1765, it was already looking like a lost cause.

The promise of government funding had deterred many of the local gentry from contributing, but then (to add insult to injury) Parliamentary support was first cut back, and then withdrawn altogether. Pritchard’s hospital had been built on a financial plan which could no longer be maintained. The withdrawal of funding affected the children too.

The number of orphans the charity could afford to take in inevitably dwindled, and by 1772 – just five years after it opened – the building was almost empty. The most impressive public building in Shropshire had become a white elephant.

By the time Thomas Farnolls Pritchard died in 1777 his great commission was an empty embarrassment, and so it remained until 1784, when the various Shrewsbury parishes clubbed together to buy the buildings and land for a knock-down price, and convert the hospital into a workhouse.

It was, without question, one of the grandest (and most expensive) workhouses in the country. And so it remained almost for a century, to 1871.

And then the most recent occupants moved in. Shrewsbury School had been looking for new premises since the mid-1860s, and when the paupers moved out, the boys moved in.

The buildings were purchased in 1875 and conversion began. Architect A.W. Blomfield was given the job of “lifting” Pritchard’s Georgian austerity, which he did with the aid of a clock tower and cupola, Doric pilasters and pink Lascelles cement.

The frilly additions helped to make the building less like an orphanage or a workhouse and more like a public school. Having got that out of the way, Blomfield could be more of his own man in supplying a new Gothic chapel, a school house and other ancillary buildings. They have continued to add to the site ever since, of course.

But the heart of the school remains Pritchard’s original hospital, a grand statement of beneficence and paternalism that turned out to be misplaced.

That ought not to reflect badly on Pritchard himself, but hardly showed Parliament and the local Shropshire gentry in a particularly good light.