Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Ralph Allen - Weymouth's first Georgian tourist

Ralph Allen  from The life and times of Ralph Allen  of Prior Park, Bath, by REM Peach (1895)
Ralph Allen
from The life and times of Ralph Allen
of Prior Park, Bath, by REM Peach (1895)
Ralph Allen (1693-1764)

Ralph Allen was an influential businessman who helped reform the postal service and successfully managed the quarrying and promotion of Bath stone.

Although Allen lived a little before my normal period, he was an important summer resident of the seaside town of Weymouth and I researched his story as background for my book on Georgian Weymouth.
Weymouth bay  from Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide  by E Groves (1835)
Weymouth bay
from Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide
by E Groves (1835)
Humble beginnings

Ralph Allen was baptized on 24 July 1693 in St Columb Major in Cornwall, the son of Philip Allen, an innkeeper. His grandmother kept the post office in St Columb where Allen helped out from an early age. (1) 

Post office career

Allen’s business ability impressed the post office inspector and he was given the chance to move to Exeter post office around 1708 and then Bath a few years later, where he became the deputy postmaster in 1712.

Bath Abbey
Bath Abbey
On 12 April 1720(2), Allen bought the right to run the cross-post and the bye-way post for the sum of £6000 a year. The cross-post was the relatively new system of sending mail directly from city to city by crossing post roads rather than going via London whilst the bye-way post delivered to the towns along the post roads. This was a risky move as the revenue was only expected to generate £4000 a year. Allen’s risk paid off. He improved the organization and the system spread across the country generating profits of around £12,000 a year.

The navigation of the River Avon

Allen became friends with Major General George Wade who was MP for Bath from 1722. They worked together on a scheme to make the River Avon navigable, which would enable building materials to be carried between Bristol and Bath. Allen was made Chief Treasurer in 1725 and the scheme was completed in three years.

Prior Park, Bath  from The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath by REM Peach (1895)
Prior Park, Bath
from The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath
by REM Peach (1895)
Marriages

According to Peach, Allen married Wade’s natural daughter, a Miss Earl, in about 1718 and acquired a large fortune in the process, but Buchanan does not mention this marriage at all.

According to Buchanan, Allen married a London merchant’s daughter, Elizabeth Buckeridge, on 26 August 1721. Sadly their only child died in infancy. His wife died in 1736 and on 24 March 1737 he married Elizabeth Holder, of Bathampton Manor House.

Bath stone

Allen invested his wealth in Bath stone – the distinctive honey-coloured stone for which Bath is famous. He acquired quarries at Hampton Down and Combe Down and ran a very profitable business, employing many local people and providing the architect, John Wood the Elder, with the building blocks with which to build Georgian Bath.

Prior Park

The mansion, Prior Park, Bath  from The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath by REM Peach (1895)
The mansion, Prior Park, Bath
from The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath
by REM Peach (1895)
Allen had a house near the Abbey in Bath which was enhanced with a new Palladian front designed by Wood. He also designed Allen’s mansion on his newly acquired land at Prior Park, overlooking the city of Bath.

The genial host

Allen was very hospitable and he was regularly visited by writers and painters including Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, Thomas Gainsborough and David Garrick. He was also visited by politicians such as William Pitt the Elder and by royalty including George II’s sister, Princess Amelia. Another frequent visitor was the Reverend William Warburton, later Bishop of Gloucester, who married Allen’s niece.

Philanthropy

Allen was generous with his money and funded the building of Bath General Hospital and housing for his workmen. He served as Mayor of Bath in 1742 and was a Justice of the Peace from 1749.

Weymouth

2 and 2a Trinity Road, Weymouth
2 and 2a Trinity Road, Weymouth
Allen’s wife Elizabeth (née Holder) suffered from bad health and it was suggested that seawater might alleviate her condition. Accordingly, in 1750, the Allens took lodgings in Weymouth and retained William Cuming, a Dorchester doctor, to attend her.

They liked it so much that on 18 September, Allen bought a property in the High Street on the Weymouth side of the town for £400. This house is now 2 and 2a Trinity Road. Weymouth’s first Assembly Rooms were just round the corner.

The Allens spent up to three months each summer in Weymouth, entertaining Allen’s wide circle of influential friends, which in 1758 included Frederick, Duke of York, George III’s brother. This helped to establish Weymouth as a successful seaside resort.

Plaque outside 2 Trinity Road, Weymouth
Plaque outside 2 Trinity Road, Weymouth
Death

Allen died at Prior Park in Bath on 29 June 1764 and was buried in Claverton Church on 5 July.

Memorial to Ralph Allen in Prior Park, Bath  from The life and times of Ralph Allen  of Prior Park, Bath by REM Peach (1895)
Memorial to Ralph Allen in Prior Park, Bath
from The life and times of Ralph Allen
of Prior Park, Bath by REM Peach (1895)
Notes
(1) The information about Allen’s early life is rather vague – these are probable rather than definite facts!
(2) From Peach's The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath (1895)

Sources used include:
Boddy, Maureen and West, Jack, Weymouth, an illustrated history (The Dovecote Press, 1983, Wimborne)
Buchanan, Brenda J, Allen, Ralph (1693-1764) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Jan 2009, accessed 18 Sept 2013)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign - King George III at Weymouth (The Dovecote Press, 2003, Wimborne)
Groves, E, The Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide (E Groves, 1835, Weymouth)
Peach, Robert EM, The life and times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park, Bath (1895)

Photographs by Andrew Knowles - www.flickr.com/photos/dragontomato

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