Ralph Allen and Prior Park

It is impossible to look at the development of Combe Down without reference to Ralph Allen (1693 – 1764) and to Prior Park – ‘the architectural jewel of Combe Down’. Prior Park and Ralph Allen’s stories are generally well known and there are a number of books[1] that give quite detailed accounts. However, it is worth covering the basics.

Early life

Early life

He was born in Cornwall in 1693 and baptised at St. Columb Major on 24 July 1693[2]. His father, Philip is said to have kept a small inn called the ‘Duke William’ or the ‘Old Duke,’ at St. Blazey. His grandfather was Reskymer Allen and his grandmother Gertrude Kete. A Reskymer and Gertrude Allen kept the St. Columb post-office where he worked and stayed as a teenager and who are often described as his grandparents, though, according to Boyce, who is probably incorrect, they were his Uncle and Aunt[3]. According to Rev. Richard Graves (1715 – 1804), rector of Claverton and a friend of Ralph Allen, he seems to have attracted the notice of the post-office inspector leading to an appointment in the Bath post office in 1710:

"He there discovered a turn for business, a cleverness in arithmetic, and a steadiness of application, which seemed to indicate his future eminence. The Inspector of the post-office having come into Cornwall, and among other towns having visited St. Columb, was highly pleased with the uncommon neatness and regularity of young Allen's figures and accounts, and expressed a wish to see the boy in a situation where ingenuity and industry might have a wider scope and more encouragement. Not long afterwards Allen's friends consented to his leaving Cornwall, and he appears to have come to Bath."

Move to Bath

He arrived at just the right time as, in 1711, the Acts relating to the Post Office were completely remodelled[4]. One of the major changes was the introduction of cross posts.

According to William Lewins the new acts stated that:

 “The principal deputy postmasters are empowered to erect cross-posts or stages, so that all parts of the country may have equal advantage as far as practicable, but only in cases where the postmasters are assured that such erections will be for the better maintainance (sic) of trade and commerce, and mutual correspondences."

At the age of 19, on 13th February 1712, Ralph Allen became the Deputy Postmaster of Bath[5].

In 1715 Ralph Allen learned of a Jacobite plot and wrote to Major General George Wade about it. Wade was sent to Bath, which was strongly Jacobite, in command of two regiments of dragoons. He found eleven chests of firearms, swords, cartridges, three pieces of cannon, one mortar, and moulds to cast cannon, which had been buried underground. Following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688–89, James II fled to exile in France. Later, Presbyterianism was established as the state religion of Scotland and, the Act of Settlement of 1701 settled the succession of the English throne on the Protestant House of Hanover. The Act of Union of 1707 applied the Act to Scotland. This was not popular with all and in 1715 Jacobites arose to restore the Stuart King and his heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Jacobite strongholds were the Scottish Highlands, Ireland and Northern England. Significant support also existed in Wales and South-West England.

It has also led certain sources (inc. R. E. M. Peach) to state that he married the general’s daughter Miss Jane Erle. There is no evidence of this and, indeed, Wade who died unmarried left four illegitimate children, George, John, Jane and Emilia and his will refers to his daughter as Mrs. Erle[6].

One reason this idea may have arisen is that in the short book ‘Ralph Allen and Prior Park’, by Robert Francis Kilvert (1857) he has an Appendix that purports to be from Richard Jones’ (Ralph Allen’s Clerk of Works) diary and this states “Married Wade’s bastard daughter”.

Postal Entrepreneur

Ralph Allen, Postal Entrepreneur

By 1719 Ralph Allen must have seen an opportunity and was confident enough to make a proposal to run the postal service which was not profitable. His relationship with Wade probably helped him and it is possible that Wade acted as his bond or guarantor.

William Lewins states:

“The improvements introduced by the bill of 1710 had the natural effect of increasing the importance of the Post-Office institution, and of adding to the available revenue of the country considerable sums each year. For ten years no further steps were taken to develop the resources of the service; but in 1720 Ralph Allen appears, another and perhaps the most fortunate of all the improvers of the Post-Office. Up to this year, the lines of post had branched off, from London and Edinburgh respectively, on to the principal roads of the two kingdoms; but the "cross-posts," even when established, had not been efficient, the towns off the main line of road not being well served, whilst some districts had no direct communication through them.

The Post-Office Bill had given facilities for the establishment of more "cross-posts;" but, till 1720, the authorities did not avail themselves of its provisions to any great extent. Mr. Allen, at that time the postmaster of Bath, and who must, from his position, have been well aware of the defects of the existing system, proposed to the Government to establish cross-posts between Exeter and Chester, going by way of Bristol, Gloucester, and Worcester, connecting in this way the West of England with the Lancashire districts and the mail route to Ireland, and giving independent postal intercommunication to all the important towns lying in the direction to be taken. Previous to this proposal, letters passing between neighbouring towns were conveyed by circuitous routes, often requiring to go to the metropolis and to be sent back again by another post-road, thus, in these days of slow locomotion, causing serious delay.

Allen proposed a complete reconstruction of the cross-post system, and guaranteed a great improvement to the revenue as well as better accommodation to the country. By his representations, he induced the Lords of the Treasury to grant him a lease of the cross-posts for life. His engagements were to bear all the cost of his new service, and pay a fixed rental of £6,000 a year, on which terms he was to retain all the surplus revenue. From time to time the contract was renewed, but of course at the same rental; each time, however, the Government required Allen to include other branches of road in his engagement, so that at his death, in 1764, the cross-posts had extended to all parts of the country. Towards the last, the private project had become so gigantic as to be nearly unmanageable, and it was with something like satisfaction that the Post-Office authorities saw it lapse to the Crown.

……… Notwithstanding the losses he must have suffered through the dishonesty or carelessness of country postmasters, the farmer of the cross-posts, in an account which he left at his death, estimated the net profits of his contract at the sum of £10,000 annually, a sum which, during his official life, amounted in the total to nearly half a million sterling! [7] Whilst, in official quarters, his success was greatly envied, Mr. Allen commanded, in his private capacity, universal respect. In the only short account we have seen of this estimable man, a contemporary writer states that ‘he was not more remarkable for the ingenuity and industry with which he made a very large fortune, than for the charity, generosity, and kindness with which he spent it’”.

This is confirmed by H. B. Joyce[8]:

“In 1719 Allen offered to take in farm the bye and cross-post letters, giving as rent half as much again as these letters had ever produced. It was a bold offer, and, coming as it did from a young man only twenty-six years of age, and presumably without capital, not one to be accepted precipitately. Allen proceeded to London and had frequent interviews with the postmasters-general. The earnestness of his convictions and the modest assurance with which he expressed them invited confidence, and on the 12th of April 1720 a contract was signed, the conditions of which were to come into operation on the Midsummer Day following……………………. On the bye and cross-post letters the postage for the year 1719 had amounted to £4000. Allen was to give £6000 a year; and in consideration of this rent he was for a period of seven years to receive the whole of the revenue which these letters should produce……………………. at the end of three years Allen, far from realising the promise of the first quarter, found himself a loser to the amount of £270. Although things now began to improve, the improvement was slow, and in June 1727, when the contract expired, Allen had established his plan completely on only four out of the six main roads of the kingdom. On the Yarmouth road he had established it only partially, and on the Kent road not at all.

Circumstances so far favoured Allen that the demise of the Crown, which must in any case have terminated his contract, took place within a fortnight of the date on which the contract would have expired in the ordinary course. The period of seven years for which it was made expired on the 24th of June 1727, and the King died on the 11th. A renewal of the contract could not in justice be refused. Not only had Allen been obstructed in the execution of his plan and put to heavy expenses which, except for such obstruction, would not have been necessary, but in fixing the amount of his rent a mistake had been made to his prejudice. He had agreed to pay half as much again as the bye and cross-road letters had ever produced, and it is true that the postage represented by these letters had amounted to £4000 a year; but it had been overlooked that the whole of this amount had not been collected, and that for the purpose of fixing the rent the sum of £300 should have been deducted on account of letters which could not be delivered, and on which, therefore, no postage had been received.

Allen, while making no claim for the return of the amount overpaid, pleaded the fact of overpayment as an additional reason for enlarging his term. The postmasters-general were not less solicitous than Allen himself that his services should be continued. They had, during the last seven years, received on account of bye and cross-post letters £6000 a year, where before they had received only £4000, or, allowing for the sum not collected, £3700; and during the same period the country letters, far from falling off as had been predicted, had improved to the extent of £735 a year, a result which was attributed to the vigilance of Allen's surveyors. These reasons were regarded as conclusive, and, subject to the condition that he should appoint an additional surveyor and lose no time in completing his plan, Allen's contract was extended for a further period of seven years.”

Marriages and Quarries

Ralph Allen’s first marriage and stone quarries

Ralph Allen, from The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park by R E M Peach 1895

Ralph Allen, from The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park by R E M Peach 1895

In 1721 Ralph Allen married for the first time. He married Elizabeth Buckeridge[9] (1687 – 1736), who was the daughter of Seaborne Buckeridge a London merchant who had left her one sixth of his estate when he died in 1701[10]. In 1725 they had a son, George, but he lived for only three months and was to be Ralph Allen’s only child.

By 1724 Ralph Allen, along with Anthony Buckeridge his wife’s brother, had invested in a company to develop the Avon as a waterway between Bath and Bristol and had started to consider buying the old stone quarries on Combe Down as well as on Hampton Down.

On 4th July 1725 he became an Alderman on Bath Corporation and met John Wood in the same year. By 1727 he completed the purchase of the old stone quarries on Combe Down and had determined that a railway was the way to transport the stone from Combe Down to the river at Bath.

Between 1729 and 1731 he engaged engineer John Padmore to build a wooden railway 1.25 miles long at a cost of £10,000. The wagons were low loading flatbed carriages, 13′ long x 3′ 6″ wide, with hinged side-panels. The four flanged and spoked wheels, the first in the world to made of cast-iron, ran on 5″ wide timber rails, with a gauge of 3′ 9″ on 6″ x 5″ sleepers. The carriages ran free downhill and were controlled by a brakesman on foot by means of adjustable hand-brakes on the rear wheels which could be tightened with chains whilst the front wheels could be locked by bolts or sprags pushed through the spokes.

Padmore's crane for sale - Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 31 August 1769

Padmore’s crane for sale – Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 31 August 1769

When fully loaded with 4 tons of stone, the carriages could easily be towed by two horses on the flat or uphill when empty.  Horse powered cranes were designed by Padmore to lift the stone from the mines onto the carriages. On the wharf, was another crane was designed to transfer the worked stone from the yard at Dolemead onto boats.

The local roads had improved sufficiently for the railway to be dismantled and sold off soon after Ralph Allen’s death in 1764. In 1765 the quarries were leased to various tenants.

Technical drawings of John Padmore carriages for Ralph Allen quarry tramway

Technical drawings of John Padmore carriages for Ralph Allen quarry tramway

He also built housing for his workers on Combe Down at what is now De Montalt Place.

From 1729-1736 John Wood the Elder (1704-1754) built Queen Square on land owned by the Duke of Chandos and Robert Gay using much stone from Ralph Allen. The “building of Bath” had started.

In 1728 Ralph Allen had failed in a bid to supply Bath stone to build Greenwich Hospital and was considerably annoyed by this. He had also purchased the Prior Park (so known because it had been the estate of the priors of Bath Abbey before the reformation) from the Duke of Kingston. He probably decided then to build Prior Park Mansion and commissioned John Wood to provide the plans.

In 1731 his sister Elizabeth died and he was left with the care of his niece Gertrude Tucker and his nephew William Tucker. In 1732 Ralph Allen’s brother Philip married Jane Bennett, the sister of Philip Bennett who owned Widcombe Manor, and they had a daughter Mary in 1734. Anthony Buckeridge, Ralph Allen’s brother in law, died in 1734 whilst he and his brother Philip joined the committee for the ‘General Hospital’ (The Royal Mineral Water Hospital). In 1738 after John Wood had found the land The Mineral Water Hospital was started, the original building being designed by John Wood the Elder and built with Bath stone donated by Ralph Allen. It opened in 1742.

His postal contract was renewed in 1735. His first wife Elizabeth died in 1736.

Ralph Allen’s second marriage and Prior Park

Prior Park, the Seat of Ralph Allen Esq. near Bath 1752 by Anthony Walker (1726-1765)

Prior Park, the Seat of Ralph Allen Esq. near Bath 1752 by Anthony Walker (1726-1765)

In 1737 Ralph Allen married for the second time. His wife was Elizabeth Holder (1696 – 1766) whose father Richard owned Hampton Manor which he bought in 1741.

Bathampton Manor sale, Journals of the House of Lords, Volume 26 1741

Bathampton Manor sale, Journals of the House of Lords, Volume 26 1741

The same year his postal contract was renewed again. To win it he had not only guaranteed higher revenues but also that the post would run every day of the week, except Sunday on some routes. In 1747 and 1755 when he again had contract renewals he extended the routes on which daily posts would run.

Also during 1737, no less than 55,200 trees, mostly elm and Scots pine, were planted on the slopes of the valley and along the tops of the downs.

Prior Park originated as part of a deer park owned by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, laid out by the Norman bishop, John of Tours, who moved from Wells to Bath after he was granted the Abbey and City of Bath in 1091 by William Rufus. The Western half of the park was granted to the Prior of Bath in the 13th century, and a grange and other buildings near the fishponds at the Northern end of the area here registered constituted the Prior’s county seat. The grange was reached from Church Lane on the line of an ancient track from Bath to Limpley Stoke, following the Saxon boundary of Widcombe.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the Priory suffered as a result in the decline of the woollen industry, and when Leland visited in the 1530s he found that the park walls were ruinous and that there were no deer. After the Dissolution in 1534-9, the park and other priory lands were subdivided between several owners and continued in agricultural use for the next two hundred years.

Ralph Allen bought the land in the 1720s and the original plan for Prior Park was to construct five buildings along three sides of a dodecagon matching the sweep of the head of the valley, with the main building being flanked by elongated wings based on designs by Andrea Palladio.

John Wood’s original plan for Prior Park

John Wood’s original plan for Prior Park

Work started in 1734 and the whole was not to be complete until just before Ralph Allen died, though he occupied the house from 1741-2. John Wood’s involvement ceased in 1748 and Richard Jones, Ralph Allen’s clerk of works, took over.

Ralph Allen could now start to fully enjoy the fortune he had created and Prior Park, the world’s most extensive show home. There were many visitors, from the poet Alexander Pope (who introduced him to Rt Rev Dr William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester (1698 – 1779) who was later Bishop of Gloucester and who married his niece Gertrude Tucker (abt 1727 – 1796 )), to Dr. William Oliver inventor of the Bath Oliver biscuit, William Pitt the Elder (who was M.P. for Bath from 1757 to 1766), author Henry Fielding, painter Thomas Gainsborough, actor & playwright David Garrick, composer George Frideric Handel, George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia and Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales (1 February 1707 – 20 March 1751). 

Very interesting Time Team Special including Prior Park’s gardens

In 1742 Ralph Allen became Mayor of Bath, succeeding General George Wade. In 1745 Gertrude Tucker became engaged to William Warburton. She was about 18 and he 46. Peach tells us that:

“From the time of his first introduction to Allen in 1741, and even after he became successively Dean of Bristol and Bishop of Gloucester, Warburton lived mostly at Prior Park until Allen's death in 1764”.

That same year, 1745, William Tucker (abt 1728 – 1770) went to the Royal Naval Academy and Ralph Allen raised a ‘company of volunteers’ 100 strong that he paid for a year to ensure stability locally during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 rebellion.

General Wade died in 1748 leaving a £100 bequest to Ralph Allen.

In 1754 John Wood and Henry Fielding died. In 1756 Gertrude and William Warburton had a son called Ralph Allen Warburton, Prior Park’s Palladian bridge was completed and the Seven Years War ‘started’. Ralph Allen’s friendship with William Pitt, who was a great supporter of the war, and his frequent visits to Prior Park probably led to his becoming M.P. for Bath in 1757.

On 2nd February 1758 Ralph Allen completed the purchase of the Claverton Manor estate of 1,300 acres. Claverton had been owned by Richard Holder (his father in law) but he had sold it, in 1714, to Dr. William Skrine, who was a Bath apothecary who had made his fortune. Dr. Skrine’s son was a heavy gambler (he committed suicide, in 1783, over a gambling debt) and had, it seems, mortgaged the property for £16,000. Peach tells us Ralph Allen had legal title to the property from 1752 but had to pay off the mortgage. Dr. Cathryn Spence says:

 “…………the purchase of Claverton can be seen as a forthright decision to reinstate the Holder family’s manorial standing [11]”.

He now owned pretty much all the land from Odd Down through Combe Down and Claverton Down to Bathampton.

In 1760 Ralph Allen’s postal contract was due for renewal yet again. He was now in his mid sixties and had held the contract for 40 years. This time the contract was scrutinised in more detail and he was asked to provide the accounts that he should have been providing and had not; however the contract was granted.

In 1763 the Seven Years War came to an end. Ralph Allen fell out with William Pitt over the wording of an address from Bath Corporation to the King about the peace which Pitt had described as inadequate. The address described it as adequate and Ralph Allen admitted he had suggested the word. Their disagreement became public and Ralph Allen was satirized by William Pitt’s supporters probably without his knowledge.

By now he was feeling his age and retired as an Alderman of Bath. His nephew Philip Allen (1736 – 1785) married Sarah Maria Carteret (d.1819) in December of 1763[12] and it seems that William Pitt and Ralph Allen had become reconciled as Ralph Allen added a bequest to Pitt in a codicil to his will.


Ralph Allen’s death

In 1764 Ralph Allen went on a journey to London but at Maidenhead decided to return to Bath due to illness. On 29th June 1764 he died.

Ralph Allen is buried in a pyramid-topped tomb in Claverton churchyard which was designed by Richard Jones. Allen’s second wife Elizabeth Holder (d.1766), his niece, Gertrude (d.1796) and his great nephew, Alan Tucker (d.1816) were also buried in the vault.

Remembering Ralph Allen in a book that was published soon after Richard Graves died he said[13]:

“…As I am not writing Mr. Allen's history, but only a few anecdotes, which have come to my own knowledge, it is not my business, in the style of a biographer, to give a formal character of him. The reader however, from what has been related, will observe, that he was a man of great benevolence, most extensive charity, and unbounded generosity: the latter in deed, he may be thought to have carried to a culpable extreme; as he left debts and legacies to the amount of seventy thousand pounds, which his executors had no more than thirty thousand pounds to discharge; without selling all the freehold property, which however, they were fully impowered to do, by his Will. This princely fortune, by virtuous industry, sobriety and a comprehensive mind, he was enabled to acquire, and from an humble origin to raise himself to a level with the first characters of the age…”

The Monument erected

In 1765 Bishop Warburton commissioned a monument to Ralph Allen on what is, now, known as Monument Field. It was a triangular Gothic building with a round tower on the top and a circular staircase inside.

Drawing of the memorial to Ralph Allen, 18th century, by Thomas Robins 1715 – 1770. Image courtesy of V&A

Drawing of the memorial to Ralph Allen, 18th century, by Thomas Robins 1715 – 1770. Image courtesy of V&A


Ralph Allen’s grave

Ralph Allen is buried in a pyramid-topped tomb in Claverton at the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin.

Ralph  Allen's tomb at Claverton

Ralph Allen’s tomb at Claverton