Monuments to Enterprise

In 1693 a man was born who would change the country’s postal service and create the City of Bath as we know it.

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Ralph Allen

Ralph Allen was from Cornwall and from a very early age he helped his grandmother run the St Columb’s post office. In 1708 he went to work for Joseph Quash, the Exeter post master. About a year later Quash was granted the contract to extend the cross post between Exeter and Oxford via Bath. When Mrs Mary Collins, the post mistress of Bath, resigned in 1712 over allegations of nepotism, Allen was appointed in her place. Allen built his reputation on hard work and honesty, gaining the friendship and backing of notable people. In 1715 Allen came across a Jacobite plot and informed General George Wade who successfully confiscated a shipment of arms and horse from the West. Wade built a house in Bath and was elected MP for Bath in 1722.

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General George Wade’s House with the later Regency Shop Front 

Wade’s house dates from about 1720 and is architecturally important as it is the first house in Bath to use the Palladian giant order. There is no documentary evidence as to who was the original architect, various names have been put forward such Thomas Greenway who was probably responsible for an adjoining property. Lord Burlington has also been mentioned simply because he designed Wade’s house in Cork Street London.

In 1718 the Countess of Kingston was granted the lease of the Post House in Lilliput Alley, on a property dating from c1620. Ralph Allen became the subtenant in the same year and ran his business from the building. In 1720 he successfully negotiated his first contract with the General Post Office for taking over the cross post between Exeter and Oxford and all bye-posts. The contracts were renewable every seven years, which he did up until his death. He completely reformed the postal service, opening up more routes, allowing mail to be delivered efficiently and securely throughout England, eventually without having to go via London. In the beginning he ran the business at a loss, but as time went on and he introduced his new methods he became a wealthy man.

Allen a young man with a head for business, created his own luck, he was the right person in the right place at the right time. He married his first wife in 1721, Elizabeth the daughter of a London merchant and his fortunes were on the rise. When Wade became MP, he was able to help Allen, as a result Allen became chief treasurer of the Avon Navigation Scheme in 1725. The scheme was to improve access between the Port of Bristol and Bath by deepening the river, bringing down the cost and ease of transporting goods. It would also provide an alternative means of transport for potential visitors to the spa resort, especially when the road system was dangerous and impassable at times. The same year saw him become freeman of the city and a member of the council.

Ralph Allen’s Town House

In 1722 Ralph Allen acquired the lease on the Post House in Lilliput Alley. He built a north wing, which was originally attached, at a right angle so its principal front faces east and overlooked a large garden. The new Palladian front contained a rusticated ground floor with a central wide arch with narrow arched openings on either side. Above this is a large central arched window with rectangular windows on either side there are blind balustrades at the base of each window. There are three smaller windows on the second floor, sandwiched by four columns with moulded bases on plain pedestals with Corinthian capitals. The steeply pitched triangular pediment is framed by a modillioned cornice with three acroterial ornaments of stone balls. The centre contains a small circular opening surrendered by elaborate scrolled foliage. From the windows he could view Claverton Down. There is a pen and ink 18th century drawing showing the town house as a U shaped mansion with wings on either side, this has been disputed for making the property grander and larger than it actually was. At a later date it was subdivided into three properties, the original Post House became 1 and 2 North Parade Passage; the detached north wing is now known as the Ralph Allen Town House.

In 1726 Allen bought land south of the River Avon, which included the Combe Down followed by Bathampton Down mines in 1727. These underground workings had been used since Roman times to extract Oolite limestone for building. The stone had to be mined rather than quarried, this hilly area around Bath was a mass of honeycombed excavations. The top layer of stone was suitable for paving and the Lower layers could be used for building, but the process was not straightforward. Though the stone is relatively easy to extract, because it is soft and can be sawn in any direction, it needs after care. The honey coloured stone must be allowed to mature in the open air for weeks so the water drains away. The stone dries out and becomes a pale white or grey colour. When building a wall the stone must be laid in the same position as it was extracted from the mine or otherwise it will crack and decay.

Allen experienced a very negative response to Bath stone when he tried to obtain the contract to supply building material for Greenwich Hospital in 1728. The Governors preferred the cheaper Portland Stone. To counteract this negativity he needed to undertake a large building project to show off the versatility of the stone closer to home.

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Principal Front of Prior Park

Prior Park was designed by John Wood the Elder based on designs by Andrea Palladio. The property would consist of a central house with wings on either side connected by arcades. The wings would be used for administration of his postal business and stables. The principal front is the north facade overlooking the park where the ground falls away down to lake. The Portico has six giant columns with an additional full column on either return and a half column against the building wall. The columns have moulded bases and the plain shafts are topped with Roman Corinthian capitals. These support an entablature with a triangular pediment. The balustrade on the parapet flanks either side of the triangular pediment and is above each window, which is segmented by a plain solid section.  The whole house would be used to publicise the wonders of Bath stone. Every Thursday afternoon he opened the grounds to the public to showcase the wonders of Bath Stone. The beautiful gardens were full of ornate features and statues as examples of the stones versatility.

Bath Stone can vary in type and from quarry to quarry, therefore the stone proved to be versatile. Once the Kennet and Avon canal was completed in November 1810, it enabled a more efficient and cost effective means of transporting the quarried stone to London. Its use for building in London and beyond became more wide spread.

Unfortunately Prior Park ended Allen and Wood’s friendship and working relationship. Wood’s design was in the style of a Palladian villa and based to some extent on Colen Campbell’s Wanstead House design, which appeared in Vitruvius Britannicus (1715), and was never built. Wood’s design was altered by Richard Jones the Clerk of Works, causing an argument between Wood and Allen, resulting in Wood’s dismissal. Jones completed to his own design the east wing as one pavilion instead of two, and completely changed the west wing’s intended appearance as a Palladian agricultural building.

Allen purchased the lower slopes in 1743 and created the lakes and Richard Jones built a Palladian Bridge in 1755. This is a copy of the bridge at Wilton Wiltshire designed by Robert Morris (1737), and to a lesser extent the bridge at Stowe in Aylesbury Vale Buckinghamshire attributed to James Gibbs (1738). The roofed bridge has two end pavilions with an open colonnade with four Ionic columns on either side. Unlike Wilton the width between the middle columns on either side is wider. Also the ceiling is plain plaster with a simple entablature, whereas Wilton’s ceiling is coffered and the entablature is carved.

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Palladian Bridge

The Open Colonnade and the Ionic Columns

In 1830 Prior Park became a Catholic College it has endured two fires, the first severely damaged the interior in 1836, which was rebuilt using the salvaged interior of Huntstrete House, Marksbury Somerset. The major damage to the building was a result of the 1991 fire. It started in the roof and the downward destruction eventually obliterated the roof, third floor and a majority of the second floor. Half of the first floor and two thirds of the ground floor survived. The massive work of reconstructing the building was undertaken and completed in 1995.

Prior Park college is a Catholic independent co-educational public school and the  28 acres of landscaped gardens and pleasure grounds have been the property of the National Trust since 1993.

Allen moved into Prior Park in 1735 living in one wing while the work progressed on the main block. Two years later he purchased Bathampton Manor the home of his second wife’s family, it became the residence of his brother Philip Allen (1694-1765). Later he built a house in Weymouth as a summer residence for his wife. The final edition to his property portfolio was Claverton Manor. Ralph Allen purchased Claverton Manor for £18,000 in 1752 as it adjoined Prior Park and consisted of 1300 acres, a great edition to his landscaped park. Though he did not live in the Elizabethan manor House he occasionally used it as a entertainment venue.

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The American Museum

In 1817 John Vivian, a barrister purchased the manor and built a large house above the village. This new Claverton Manor is now the American Museum. The original property was not maintained and ultimately demolished in 1823. The remains of the original manor house’s terrace garden is grade 11* listed. The lower terraces still retain the garden walls of pierced strap work stone, with two balustrades. There are gate piers with pierced stone obelisks and iron gates.

Pierced Strap Work Stone Wall

Pierced Stone Obelisks and Garden View

In 1764 Robert Parsons recorded in his commonplace book of a meeting with Ralph Allen to discuss designs for tombstones and memorials, the next day Allen died. It is believed that Allen’s mausoleum in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church Claverton is the work of Robert Parsons.

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St Mary’s Church Claverton 

Robert Parsons was a stonemason who made his living carving garden vases, ornaments and chimneys from Bath stone, though he also worked in marble producing chimneypieces and monuments. In 1751 he became a Baptist minister in Bath, and a year later he built a meeting house in Southgate Street. He also built a meeting house for the Anabaptists in Horse Street. He was employed by both John Wood the Elder and Sanderson Miller, working on the Bristol Exchange and the new gothic hall at Laycock Abbey.

Ralph Allen’s Mausoleum

Ralph Allen’s mausoleum is a square grade 11* structure of ashlar raised on two steps. The walls comprised of three arches each side, which were originally open, but at a later date railings were inserted. Behind the ashlar parapet the stone slab roof rises to a pyramidal shape. Below the parapet is a moulded cornice echoing the moulding on the arches piers and the tombs cornice.

View of Arches and Pyramidal Shape Roof

On the interior the pyramid has a vaulted ceiling, and the mausoleum contains a stone chest tomb with inscribed marble inserts. The tomb contains not only Allen and his second wife, but later members of the family, the last interned was in 1993. The mausoleum was restored in 1975 by Bath Preservation Trust.

Interior Vaulted Roof and the Stone Chest Tomb

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

Author: heritagehistorian

I am a historian, writer and editor. I spend my time researching architectural history, people and places.

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