John Thomas, the forgotten man of Prior Park

One of the owners of Prior Park has been almost forgotten.

Ralph Allen, Gertrude Tucker, Viscount Hawarden and Bishop Baines are all reasonably well known, but John Thomas (1752 – 1827) is not. He was a Quaker who owned Prior Park for over 15 years between 1809 and 1827 and certainly deserves to be better known.

He did not own Prior Park ‘by accident’: he paid £10,000 in 1809, which at today’s values is:

  • historic standard of living value: £648,000.00
  • economic status value: £11,550,000.00
  • economic power value: £41,450,000.00

Even though the Viscounts Hawarden had not been able to sell it for some years and he probably got something of a discount so that they didn’t have to concern themselves with Prior Park anymore it’s still a lot of money.

So, from where did he get his wealth?

john thomas kennet and avon canal 300x196
John Thomas, Kennet and Avon Canal

There were, apparently, rumours that he might have obtained the money from his work as Superintendent of Works for the Kennet and Avon canal, working with John Rennie (1761 – 1821) who was the engineer.

This may have arisen, like many rumours seem to because the cost of the canal spiralled by 450%. It was originally budgeted to cost £213,940 (about £1.8 billion in 2014 pounds) in 1790 but this increased to £377,364 by 1792 when John Rennie made changes to the canal’s route and rose even further after the French Revolution’s ‘Reign of Terror’ in 1793, so that when on 17 April 1794, the Kennet & Avon Canal Act received Royal Assent, the company was authorised to raise £420,000 (by 3,500 shares of £120 each).

When it was actually completed in 1810, having met many delays having to buy land, build the Bruce Tunnel, deal with water supply using pumping stations and build aqueducts the canal had cost £979,314 7s 9d (about £3.7 billion in 2014 pounds). His work on the canal is commemorated with a plaque on the Dundas aqueduct.

His obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review 1827 firmly rejects the view that he made anything other than his salary from his work on the canal. 

Family wealth

In fact, John Thomas had made his money as a grocer starting John Thomas, Sons & Co., which was trading as late as 1938 at 17 and 18 Redcliffe Street, Bristol,  and his family had been inventive and hard working.

His grandfather, also called John Thomas, had worked with Abraham Darby (1678 – 1717), the ironmaster and was responsible for helping him to perfect sand casting iron pots using re-usable patterns.

His grocery business certainly seems to have mad the family wealthy, when his son George Thomas (1791 – 1869) died he left £200,000 which at today’s values:

  • historic standard of living value: £16,500,000.00
  • economic status value: £173,900,000.00
  • economic power value: £360,900,000.00

His family history is given below:

John Thomas’ family

“John Thomas, the ironmaster and co-inventor with Abraham Darby of casting cooking pots in iron, was born near Welshpool in 1690. He was the second of the five sons of Robert Thomas, "who was not a Friend but a sober man," and his wife Priscella Evans. The wife was "a fair Latin scholar and for a while in the service of the Countess Conway."

Her parents were Edward and Katherine Evans, said to be natives of Radnorshire, but residing in Welshpool. They were imprisoned in November, 1662, for declining to take the Oath of Allegiance, where Edward Evans "being an infirm man and unable to bear the Filth and Dampness of the Place, laid down his Life, the unwholesome Confinement there having hastened his death." He was buried in St. Mary's Churchyard, Welshpool. His wife was imprisoned for five years.

John Thomas was first employed by Thomas Oliver, Coedcowrid, Dolobran, Meifod, "a Minister among Friends." Later he was shepherd to Charles Lloyd, the ironmaster of Dolobran. Here he succeeded in rescuing a flock of his master's sheep from a snowdrift, and late in the spring of the same year, during heavy rain and melting snow, he swam the Vyrnwy to fetch home a herd of mountain cattle. These he collected and drove to the river, but the ford had now become a boiling torrent. He nevertheless crossed it on the back of an ox, and brought home the whole herd in safety. As a reward for his courage his master presented him with four sheep for himself. He sold their wool in order to buy better clothing and afterwards disposed of the sheep so that he might obtain money wherewith to travel to Bristol to seek his fortune.

This was in 1704. Afraid of being taken for a soldier if found in Bristol out of work, it being the time of the Duke of Marlborough's wars, he requested his master to recommend him as an apprentice to a relative, Edward Lloyd, a wine merchant, who was one of the partners of the Baptist Mills. The boy was accordingly sent into the brassworks until he should procure employment.

As he was looking on during the trials of the Dutch workmen to cast iron, he told Abraham Darby that he thought he saw how they had missed it. He begged to be allowed to try, and he and Abraham Darby remained alone in the workshop the same night for the purpose. Before morning they had cast an iron pot. The boy Thomas entered into an agreement to serve Abraham Darby and keep the secret. He was enticed by the offer of double wages to leave his master; but he continued nobly faithful, and afterwards showed his fidelity to his master's widow and children following the untimely death of Abraham Darby. From 1709 to 1838 the Thomas family were confidential and much valued agents to the descendants of Abraham Darby.

For more than one hundred years after the night in which Thomas and his master made their successful experiment of producing an iron casting in a mould of fine sand, with its two wooden frames and its air-holes, the same process was practiced and kept secret at Coalbrookdale, with plugged keyholes and barred doors.

John Thomas married Grace Zeane in Bristol in 1714, and died in 1760. Their son Samuel settled at Keynsham as a wire drawer, and married Esther Derrick in 1746.

They had a son John, born in 1752, who commenced business as a grocer on the Somerset side of Bristol Bridge, the business being still carried on under the name of John Thomas, Sons and Company. In 1776 John Thomas (the second) married Elizabeth Ovens, of Bristol and they had ten children. The chief interest of this John Thomas's life was the promotion of waterways for the facilitating of trade, especially the Somersetshire Coal Canal, and the proposed Kennet and Avon Canal to connect Bath with London. John Thomas retired in 1812 and purchased Prior Park near Bath, where he died 3 3mo. 1827, aged seventy-five.

The fifth son of John and Elizabeth Thomas was George Thomas, the noted Bristol Quaker Philanthropist. He was born 1791 and died s. p. 1869.”

From: Gibson, Charles R.: The Romance of Coal. London, Seeley Service Co., 1923. Journal Friends Historical Society, Vol. 17, 1920, pp. 19-32. Pamphlet by J. F. Nicholls, Bristol City Librarian, c. 1870.

John Thomas is said to have met Queen Charlotte (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz 1744 – 1818) the wife of King George III on her visit to Bath in 1817.

The health of that tough old lady, Queen Charlotte, was beginning to fail, and her physicians recommended her to go to Bath, for the waters, and, in November, thither repaired, accompanied by the Duke of Clarence.

The illustration gives an extremely graphic idea of the effects of the Water upon the afflicted Queen. It is called "A Peep into the Pump Room, or the Zomersetshire folk in A Maze".
a peep into the pump room or the zomersetshire folk in a maze

A Peep into the Pump Room, or the Zomersetshire folk in A Maze

The following anecdote of her sojourn is dated "Bath, October 28th". The Queen wishing to ride through Prior Park, the property of John Thomas, a very rich Quaker, a footman was sent forward to the house to ask leave for the gates to be opened. Mr. Thomas received the Queen very respectfully at the park gate, and addressed her as follows: " Charlotte, I hope thee is very well: I am glad to see thee in my park; thou art very welcome at any time, and I shall feel proud in opening my gates for thy pleasure. I hope thou receives benefit from the Bath waters. I wish thee well."

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Social England under the Regency, Vol. 2 (of 2), by John Ashton

from the juvenile tourist or excursions into the west of england into the midland counties with part of south wales and into the whole county of kent concluding with an account of maidstone and
From The juvenile tourist ; or, Excursions into the west of England: into the Midland counties, with part of South Wales ; and into the whole county of Kent ; concluding with an account of Maidstone and its vicinity – John Evans 1 January 1818, Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy
carlisle patriot saturday 06 december 1817
Carlisle Patriot – Saturday 06 December 1817

John Thomas also helped to develop  Prior Park Place, on two and a half acres taken from adjacent parcels of land – Forefield and Forefield Orchard – purchased from Philip Bennet VI (1771 – 1853), owner of Widcombe Manor.

Bennet put the estate up for auction in 1813 and the freehold was bought by John Thomas. Matthias Harris, a silversmith and jeweller proposed a property development scheme.

In 1818, for a ‘consideration’, John Thomas offered a 999 year lease of part of the two plots of land at an annual rent of £62 l0s to Matthias Harris. In 1820 this was changed to £85 for 1,000 years (the Harris descendants redeemed the charge in 1896 for £2,090). A deed of the following year reiterates this obligation, but proposes the selling of plots with houses upon them and Prior Park Place was built in 1821 – 1822.

The Survey of Bath and District. The Magazine of the Survey of Old Bath and Its Associates. No.16, November 2001. Editors: Mike Chapman Elizabeth Holland

 John Thomas’ life at Prior Park was, it seems, not flamboyant:

"It was afterwards purchased by Mr. John Thomas. a member of the Society of Friends, whose death we have recorded in 1827. Ostentation certainly formed no part of this purchaser's object here; for it will scarcely be believed that, on taking possession of that splendid mansion, Mr. Thomas divided it, by stone partitions, into three parts — one he occasionally let, a second he shut up. and only inhabited the third, to avoid the heavy charge of Government taxes! and he also hewed down a magnificent row of elm trees leading to the mansion, to assist in completing the purchase of the estate!

It is said, that the spirit of Ralph Allen was disturbed by that piteous outrage on the exquisite skill and taste of Wood, and " doom'd, for a certain time, to walk the night" in the unfrequented portions of the building. If, however, the frugality of John Thomas amounted, in some instances, to parsimony, he was, nevertheless, a worthy man, kind-hearted, and truly charitable."

Annals of Bath, from…1800 to the passing of the new municipal act By Rowland Mainwaring

After John Thomas’ death Prior Park was sold. It was put up for sale at £25,000 but did not reach it’s reserve and was withdrawn. In December 1829 it was sold to Bishop Baines for £22,000.

sale of prior park 1828
Sale of Prior Park 1828

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