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.”

First marriage & 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 crane for sale bath chronicle and weekly gazette thursday 31 august 1769 300x132
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.

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

technical drawings of john padmore carriages for ralph allen quarry tramway
Technical drawings of John Padmore carriages for Ralph Allen quarry tramway

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 much of 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.

Second marriage & Prior Park

Second marriage and Prior Park

prior park the seat of ralph allen esq near bath 1752 by anthony walker 1726 1765 1024x681
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 Bathampton Manor from 1701 – 1706 when it passed to Richard’s brother Charles. Ralph Allen bought Bathampton Manor in 1743 when Elizabeth’s uncle, Charles, had become “financially embarrassed” and Ralph paid off his debts and purchased the Manor from him– see History of Bath Research Group.

bathampton manor sale journals of the house of lords volume 26 1741
Bathampton Manor sale, Journals of the House of Lords, Volume 26 1741
House of Lords Journal Volume 26: January 1743

Upon reading the Petition of Charles Holder of Bathampton in the County of Somerset Esquire and Elizabeth Holder his Wife, Edward Bushell Collibee Apothecary, and Charles Stone Vintner; praying Leave to bring in a Bill, to sell and convey an Estate at Bathampton aforesaid, in the Petition mentioned, to Ralph Allen Esquire, pursuant to a Contract and Agreement; and to apply the Money arising by such Sale; first, for discharging certain Mortgages affecting the same; and in the next Place, for the Purchase of another Estate, of the Yearly Value of Two Hundred Pounds, to be settled upon the Petitioners Charles Holder and his Wife, and their Issue, in strict Settlement; and to pay the Residue thereof to the said Charles Holder, for his own Use and Benefit:

It is Ordered, That the Consideration of the said Petition be, and is hereby, referred to the Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer and Mr. Baron A Abney with the usual Directions, according to the Standing Order.

The same year, 1737, 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.

Brief history of Prior Park

Little is known of the convent and monastery which existed in Bath in the centuries before the Norman invasion. A convent which is supposed to have been founded by Abbess Bertana in 675. In 757 a charter records a grant of land to the brothers of the Monastery of St Peter. At this point there may have been a convent and a monastery existing side by side. However there is no archaeological evidence although they probably occupied at least part of the site of today’s Abbey.

St Alphege (953 – 1012) was a Benedictine monk who was appointed Abbot of Bath around 980 AD by Archbishop Dunstan. He lived as an anchorite. He was particularly scathing about those who had taken the habit without fundamentally changing their way of life towards the Benedictine values of prayer, manual labour, and study. This brought him into conflict with the monks in Bath, who appear to have been extremely lax in their observance of the Benedictine Rule. Alphege reformed the monastery, and imposed his own the Rule.

Wulfwold was abbot in 1061 until 1084, After the Norman invasion Ælfsige also became abbot until he died in 1087, the same year as William the Conqueror.

William Rufus succeeded to the throne of England and early in the summer of 1088 the bishopric of Wells also became vacant through the death of Bishop Giso. His death opened the way for the union of the monastery with the bishopric of Wells and William Rufus conferred the bishopric on John de Villula.

The king made John de Villula a grant of the abbey of Bath and all its endowments in augmentation of the income of his bishopric. Then he obtained a licence to transfer the bishopric from Wells to Bath and assume the title of Bishop of Bath instead of that of Bishop of Wells, and lastly in 1091 he obtained possession of the city of Bath as his own property as bishop of the see. The church of Bath was raised to the rank of a cathedral church and the monks attached to it were brought into close relationship to their abbot bishop.

outline of the bishops park covering claverton down and widcombe 1024x572
Outline of the Bishops Park covering Claverton Down and Widcombe

When the monastery was reorganized in 1106 John de Villula gave the monks a Prior, named John, and the estates which their church had possessed before the Conquest. This placed them in a state of comparative independence. The estates included the Prior’s Park which was, then, a deer park that allowed the right to keep and hunt deer. Deer parks could vary in size from a circumference of many miles down to what amounted to little more than a deer paddock. The landscape within a deer park was manipulated to produce a habitat that was both suitable for the deer and also provided space for hunting. Tree, lawns and woods provided pasture over which the deer were hunted The landscape was intended to be visually attractive as well as functional but it was bounded by a ditch and bank with a wooden fence on top of the bank, or by a stone or brick wall to prevent the deer from leaving.

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:

“..a mile this syde of Bath by south est I saw 2 parks, enclosyd withe a ruinous stone wall, now witheout dere, - one longyd to the byshoppe, an other to the prior of Bathe.”

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.

The history of Prior’ Park from then on is described by John Hawkes in Survey of Old Bath No. 10, October 1998.

By 1539 the reformation had occurred and King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. On the 27 January 1539 Prior Holloway and eighteen monks surrendered the Priory to the King’s officials and signed the Deed of Dissolution. The Abbey, and other monastic buildings and land, were sold to private individuals.

On March 16 1543 the Priory lands including “..that wood called the parke...” were sold by the Crown to Humphrey Colles for £962 17s 4d and an anual rent of 8s 4d and by him on March 18 1543 to Matthew Colthurst. Colthurst died in 1559 and was succeeded by his son Edmund, who granted Prior’s Park to Robert Webb and Edward Langeford in 1582.

In 1592 Webb granted to John Fisher 60 acres “Grod, Soyle and Woody Grod. parcell of the sd.Grod.and Soil called Prior’s Park”, the Mill and 37 acres of “Wood, Woody Grod.and Soil ... pcel of a Grod. called Prior’s Park”. He also conveyed to Richard Shute 27 acres “Wood and Woody Grod...of Prior’s Park” and 67 acres “Past(ure) Grods...called the Lawnes of Prior’s Park....And also one Lodge...within the Circuit of sd.Lawnes.”

During the next 50 years or so the 27 acres had been improved with a barn and cultivated closes, the 37 acres a messuage or dwelling house, stables and other buildings and the 60 acres had a barn, a fishpond, orchard and hopyard at the northern end.

In 1646 the Western and Little Lawnes of 23 acres were assigned to Thomas Shute, and in 1685 the remaining 53 acres (7 had been sold) of the 60 acres were assigned to his son Thomas Jnr. of Monkton Combe. Shute Jnr. died c.1711 leaving Monkton Combe to his son, but the Prior’s Park lands to his widow Mary, who then married, Thomas Poole.

Poole erected a “Messuage or Tenemt.& Stable” on the 53 acres.

In 1651 the Eastern Lawnes of the 36 acres with the Lodge and the “Eastern” halfendale of the 27 acres including half the barn, were assigned to Ann Walter and in 1711 sold by William Walter to Edward Marchant. Four years later the “Western” halfendale of the 27 acres, including half the barn, a cottage and garden, were sold by William Walter to Edward Marchant.

In 1676 Thomas Collett acquired the 37 acres including a house and stables as well as 7 acres of the 60 acres including a Barn, Oxstalls, a Fishpond, Orchard, and a close called the Hopyard, and in 1698 acquired a field part of the “Western” halfendale of the 27 acres to create an estate of over 50 acres. Collett obviously improved the estate and by 1703 the house was known as “Pryor’s Park House”.

This has probably led to the traditions that an old Priory building stood here and was used in the construction of the Lodge or Priory higher up in the park, but no building seems to have existed in 1592.

So by the second decade of the 18th century the Park was held by three families - the Pooles, Marchants and the Colletts.

Ralph Allen’s first acquisition was the Western Lawns (23 acres) and the 53 acres of the 60 acres from Mary Poole in 1728. This allowed Allen to develop the carriageway from his mines in Combe Down to the River Avon and also in about 1735 to start work on the mansion of Prior Park. At this time Allen left Bath to live in Widcombe and it is quite possible that he moved into the Poole’s newly built house (c.1720). Pictures of the house Allen is reputed to have lived in are architecturally of this period and could have provided the views over Bath described by Pope.

This was the extent of Allen’s land in Prior Park when Thorpe carried out his survey of Allen’s property in 1741 and prepared his plan of Five Miles around Bath in 1742.

In 1743 Allen purchased the 50 acre estate from the Colletts, including the House, barn, stables, garden, orchards, fishpond and hopyard. Therefore, it was not possible for Allen to have carried out work, such as the dairy, in the Park House area before this date, as has been suggested.

In 1751 Allen acquired the 36 acres of the Lawns and the 27 acres (less Collett’s field) from Elizabeth Marchant (widow of John, Edward’s son). The buildings on Thorpe’s plan show the Lodge and the cottage and these could not be the house built for Allen’s gardener Dodsley in 1740 as is often supposed.

At Allen’s death in 1764 he owned the whole park except, it appears, the northern fields of Collett’s 37 acres, which are blank on the Survey of the Manor, shown on the 1799 plan as “Mr. West’s Freehold”, and not included in the 1828 sale of the estate.

In summary, in 1728 he acquired the Poole estate, enabling him to develop the carriageway for use with the stone quarries, and to begin on the mansion. When he moved into Widcombe to live, it may have been to a house lately built by Thomas Poole (see The House on the Fan). In 1743 he purchased the Collett’s estate of 50 acres including “Pryor’s Park House”. He cannot therefore have carried out work in the Park House area before this date, such as the dairy. In 1751 he bought land from the Marchants, the Lodge and cottage already existed by then and therefore neither could have been created for Allen’s gardener Dodsley as is sometimes suggested.
the house on the fan 1024x547
The House on the Fan
how ralph allen acquired prior park 1024x550
How Ralph Allen acquired Prior Park

In summary it may help if the owners and occupiers of Prior Park are listed, remembering that, until Ralph Allen, there was no mansion:

Owners and occupants of Prior Park since 1100

st paul damaged by bombs 1942
St Pauls damaged by bombs 1942

900 Bath Priory
1539 The King’s Commissioners – Expropriation
1543 Humphrey Colles – Purchase
1543 Matthew Colthurst – Purchase
1559 Edmund Colthurst – Inheritance
1582 Robert Webb and Edward Langford – Purchase
1592 John Fisher and Richard Shute – Purchased part
1646 Thomas Shute – Inherited part
1651 Ann Walter – Inherited part
1676 Thomas Collett – Purchased part
1685 Thomas Shute Jnr – Inherited part
1711 Mary Shute (later Poole) – Inherited part
1711 Edward Marchant – Purchased part
1728 Ralph Allen – Purchased part from Mary Poole
1741 Ralph Allen moves in to mansion
1743 Ralph Allen – Purchased part from Colletts
1751 Ralph Allen – Purchased part from Marchants
1764 Elizabeth Holder – Inheritance
1766 Gertrude Tucker – Inheritance
1770 Lord Kerry – Tenant
1780 Gertrude Tucker – Inheritance
1796 Cornwallis Maude, 1st Viscount Hawarden – Inheritance
1803 Thomas Maude, 2nd Viscount Hawarden – Inheritance
1805 Edward Candler Brown – Tenant
1807 Cornwallis Maude, 3rd Viscount Hawarden – Inheritance
1809 John Thomas – Purchase
1828 Western Apostolic District Theology College – Purchase
1850 Alexander Raphael MP – Purchase
1851 Edward Raphael QC – Inheritance
1856 Thomas Thompson – Tenant
1867 Clifton Diocese, Prior Park College – Purchase
1895 The Christian Brothers – Tenant
1902 The Christian Brothers leave
1904 Prior Park College shuts down
1914 The War Office – Tenant
1919 Cannington Industrial Reform School – Tenant
1921 The Christian Brothers, Prior Park College – Purchase
1940 Prior Park College & The Admiralty as tenant
1945 Prior Park College
1981 The Prior Foundation, Christian Brothers leave, Prior Park College stays

Prior Park Mansion

Ralph Allen’s 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 woods 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).

Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.

YouTube privacy policy

If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.

Time Team Special 33 2007 Secrets of the Stately Garden

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…”

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 tomb at claverton
Ralph Allen’s tomb at Claverton

[1] Ralph Allen: Builder of Bath by Diana Winsor (2010). The Benevolent Man, A Life of Ralph Allen of Bath by Benjamin Boyce (1967), The Life and Times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath, Introduced by a Short Account of Lyncombe and Widcombe, With Notices of His Contemporaries, Including Bishop Warburton, Bennet of Widcombe House, Beau Nash, Etc. by R. E. M. (Robert Edward Myhill) Peach (1895). Ralph Allen and Prior Park by Robert Francis Kilvert (1857)

[2] Ancestry.com. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

Original data: England, Births and Christenings, 1538-1975. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013. FHL Film Number: 90238

[3] The Benevolent Man, A Life of Ralph Allen of Bath by Benjamin Boyce (1967)

[4] Her Majesty’s Mails by William Lewins (1864)

[5] Ralph Allen’s own narrative 1720-1761 by Adrian E. Hopkins (1960)

[6] Ralph Allen’s own narrative 1720-1761 by Adrian E. Hopkins (1960)

[7] See Appendix 1

[8] The History of the Post Office by Herbert Joyce (1893)

[9] Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry: Founded 1836 by John Burke and Sir Bernard Burke, Volume 1

[10] The benevolent man: a life of Ralph Allen of Bath by Benjamin Boyce (1967)

[11] Without Pomp: Ralph Allen’s Romantic Haven at Claverton lecture by Dr Cathryn Spence (2011)

[12] Somerset Archive and Record Service, PITT FAMILY deeds, etc. DD\BR\rw/15 1746-1847

[13] The triflers. To which is added, The rout, also The farmer’s son by Richard Graves (1805)

Related Images: