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Pulteney Bridge, Bath, Somerset: executed scheme commissioned by William Pulteney, 1770 (6)

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.

Frances Pulteney’s estates were principally confined to London and Bath, and it was in Bath that William Pulteney sought the most development. In 1769 he acquired a Private Act of Parliament to build a bridge across the River Avon between the old city on the west bank, and the 600-acre Bathwick estate on the east bank. Pulteney’s fellow Scot, Robert Adam, was commissioned to made designs for this bridge – later known as Pulteney Bridge – as well as a new town development for Bathwick.

Rowan has noted that as Pulteney had been a lawyer in Edinburgh, he would have been familiar with the Edinburgh North Bridge, which was built to connect the old town and land to the north of Bath on which the New Town was to be built. The Pulteney Bridge and new town scheme were an emulation of this, allowing Pulteney to develop his wife’s estate at Bathwick as part of the city. In 1769 a Private Act of Parliament was acquired for building a bridge between Bath and Bathwick. In 1769 a bridge was designed by Thomas Paty (c1713-89), and partly constructed, before Pulteney changed his mind and decided to build Adam’s design instead. Work on Adam’s bridge began in 1770 to a design very roughly based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with three high segmental arches of equal span, surmounted by a terrace of eleven shops on each side of the roadway. It was constructed of limestone ashlar with Welsh slate roofs, and was opened in 1773, and finally completed in 1774 having cost almost £11,000. However, none of Adam’s schemes for the New Town of Bath were executed. The American War of Independence halted building in Bath, and for many years Pulteney Bridge led only to the small village of Bathwick and surrounding fields.

In 1782 Frances Pulteney died, leaving their only child, Henrietta Laura as her sole heir. William Pulteney managed the estates on his daughter’s behalf, using his influence to have her created Baroness Bath in 1792, and Countess of Bath in 1803. Pulteney himself succeeded his brother, Sir James Johnston, in 1794, becoming 5th Baronet and inheriting Westerhall in Dumfries. He married again in 1804, Margaret Stirling, the widow of his friend Andrew Stuart of Craigthorn, Lanark, and died a year later, being buried next to Frances in Westminster Abbey.

Pulteney Bridge has been much altered since its construction. In 1792 Thomas Baldwin (c1750-1820) extended the attic storey across the full width of the shop terraces, removed Adam’s domes on the northern pavilions and his Tuscan porticos, and altered the shop fronts. Just three or four years later the north-west pier became unstable, and in 1802-4 John Pinch (1769-1827) reconstructed the entire north side of the bridge to a less ornamented design. A century later in 1902-3, street widening was undertaken and Adam’s south-west pavilion was demolished, and rebuilt in place of the three south-west shops to an Adamesque design by Charles Gill and Benjamin Morris. Between 1937 and 1951 the south river front was restored with some alterations made to designs by J.F. Bevan Jones, and in 1975 John Vivian added timber shop fronts. Despite all of this, however, the bridge is Grade I listed.

See also: Bath Prison; New Town, Bath.

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 3, 84; D. Yarwood, Robert Adam, 1970, p. 165; G. Beard, The work of Robert Adam, 1978, p. 48; J Manco, ‘Pulteney Bridge’, Architectural History, Volume 38, 1995, pp. 129-145; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume 1, pp. 32, 39-41; A. Rowan, Vaulting Ambition: the Adam brothers, contractors to the metropolis in the reign of George III, 2007, pp. 68-69; A. Foyle, and N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Somerset, North and Bristol, 2011, pp. 138, 173; ‘Pulteney Bridge’, British listed buildings online; ‘Pulteney, William (1729-1805), of Westerhall, Dumfries and The Castle, Shrewsbury’, History of Parliament online; ‘Pulteney [formerly Johnston], Sir William, 5th baronet (1729-1805)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography online; Legacies of British Slavery database, UCL: www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs

Frances Sands, 2015
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