When John Wood the Elder was building Bath he was aware of Bathwick’s 600 acres, a prime location on the other side of the river Avon. In 1726 the land was purchased by William Pulteney MP for Hedon in Yorkshire, who later became the Earl of Bath. The land had sitting tenants who held life leases, these were gradually transferred to short leases, which took time. When Pulteney died sixteen years later the land was still a rural parish. The land and his wealth passed to his brother General Henry Pulteney, as his son and heir had died the previous year. Henry died three years later and his second cousin Frances Johnstone, daughter of Daniel Pulteney MP, inherited everything except for the title which became extinct.
Frances had married William Johnstone on the 10 November 1760. They had met when Johnstone had arrived in London and secured a post in Customs and Excise. He was the son of a Scottish Baronet from Dumfries, a successful Edinburgh lawyer and partner in the Dumfries bank. They returned to Edinburgh living an ordinary life with their daughter Henrietta Laura, until Frances inherited this immense fortune.
Johnstone changed their name to Pulteney and moved back to London taking up residence in Bath House, Piccadilly. Pulteney entered Parliament spending his time in politics and managing his wife’s London and Bath estates. He now took on a new role as property developer in Bath.
Bath Corporation had plans for the city which included a new guildhall and market space; Pulteney believed it was his opportunity to increase the value of his wife’s land on the other side of the river. He entered into negotiations with the Corporation to discuss his idea for a bridge linking Bath with the Bathwick estate. On 2nd January 1769 they gave their consent. After obtaining a private Act of Parliament as the land was held in trust, he was able to proceed. He purchased some land north of the area designated for development by the Corporation, this would ultimately be the location for the access point for Pulteney’s bridge across the river.
Robert Adam’s Design for Pulteney Bridge
After obtaining an initial low key design from Thomas Paty, Pulteney approached Robert Adam. Adam together with his brothers John, James and William were working on the Adelphi Buildings, a large neoclassical scheme in London between the Strand and the River Thames. The Adam brothers were sons of the very successful Scottish architect William Adam. Robert and James travelled abroad visiting Italy. Robert spent nearly four years studying with Charles-Louis Clerisseau and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The Adam brothers set up their practice in London designing complete schemes, designing every detail of the finished project. Pulteney believed Robert Adam was the architect capable of producing spectacular plans for the bridge and a development on the east side of the river.
The influence for Adam’s design came from his time in Italy visiting Florence and Venice. The Ponte Vecchio and the Ponte di Rialto are two beautiful shop lined bridges. His design was inspired by Andrea Palladio’s rejected plan for the Rialto. Adam’s produced a symmetrical design striped of unnecessary ornamentation but included practical features. The circular windows to provide light for the shop cellars. The middle arch of the bridge is crowned by a large Venetian window. On the road side the corresponding Venetian window contained a glass door, so as preserve the overall design. On either side of this large central window are a row of uniform rectangular windows allowing light to enter the interior space.
Robert Adam’s Design for the Roadside Shop Fronts
The roadside design was very similar to the riverside view. On either side of the large central Venetian window were three arched openings, containing solid windows and Doric pilasters. Each shop front consisted of a large bay with a narrow bay on either side. The entrance doors were set between each shop front.
The bridge was officially completed in early 1774. Unfortunately work to develop the Bathwick estate and other building work in Bath had to be halted due to more pressing matters such as the American War of Independence.
The building of the Bridge was set with controversy due to Adam being favoured over local architects, the decision to include shops and also the overall cost. When building work resumed in 1788 it was Pulteney’s daughter Henrietta Laura who employed the City Surveyor Thomas Baldwin to undertake the development on the east side of the river. His designs were mainly in the Palladian style and paid homage to Adam. Building was rapid, which ended in bankruptcy for the builders and again the development was halted.
Originally when the bridge was completed the north and the south side were identical. In 1792 shortly after the death of Adam, work began to alter the bridge. The small shop units were converted into larger units. The roof line was raised to provide higher ceilings and larger windows. This marked the start of many alterations the bridge was to endure.
View of Pulteney Bridge from the south side
The high floods at the end of September 1799 put a strain on the piers of the centre arch. Buildings over the fracture were removed and contrary to some people’s wishes to fully open up the bridge, Henrietta Laura (now Baroness Bath), employed John Pinch the Elder to repair the damage. Just days after completing the work on the foundation to one of the piers, the other pier collapsed due to further heavy flooding. The damage only effected the north side. Another Act of Parliament was required to rebuild the bridge. Pinch undertook the work in his own style rather than recreating Adam’s design.
View from West looking towards Great Pulteney Street and Holburne Museum. The Bowed Shop Front left of picture and rebuilt Pavilion on the right
Robert Adam’s original bridge had the four end pavilions with porticoes of Doric columns, arranged in pairs with a wider central opening, the outside columns were closed with balustrades at the base of the column. At some point the columns were removed. When Pinch rebuilt the north side, the pavilions disappeared and one was replaced with a bowed shop front.
View of Pulteney Bridge from the north side
Over the years the bridge was neglected and shopkeepers built wooden structures to their own design over hanging the river. These structures served as toilets allowing the waste to be deposited directly into the river. The bridge was now an eyesore.
By 1900 there was a new appreciation for Adam and his work. Pulteney Bridge was not an acceptable advertisement for Bath and Adam. In 1903 the Corporation decided the bridge needed to be shortened on the South Side as it protruded to far into the Grand Parade. They purchased and demolished the three shops at the west end. Gill and Morris designed a new pavilion with Adam style recessed arched windows to three sides. This new pavilion was positioned over the end pier.
The Gill and Morris Pavilion
The west end section of the bridge was restored, and by 1916 Bath City Council had purchased the east end, though it remained dilapidated. In 1936 the bridge became a scheduled national monument. Plans were put in place to restore the south side to Adam’s design, but this work had to be postponed until well after the war. In 1955 the bridge became Grade 1 listed.
View of Shops on South Side
View of Shops on North Side
North Side of Pulteney Bridge
Sadly the north side remains a mess, but you can still see part of Adam’s design of the triangular pediment over an unmoulded arch.
The photos and artwork are from the author’s own collection.