Most of us are familiar with the architects of Bath – John Wood senior and elder- who planned Queens Square and the development of the Upper Town. Less well-known is the man who provided the raw material for these elegant squares and crescents,Bath Stone. He was Ralph Allen, and this small but very readable book by Diana Winsor, published by Polperro Heritage Press gives us a short but comprehensive account of his life. Diana Winsor uses his extant correspondence but also invents extracts from his” diary” to fill in the blanks of his story for us.
Born in Cornwall in 1693, he moved to Bath in 1715. He had trained in the running of Post Offices at Exeter. He became Deputy Postmaster at Bath aged 19 and went on to reform the whole English postal system, winning a lucrative government contract to organise the post for many successive decades. He became Mayor of Bath in 1742, and was M.P. for Bath from 1757 untill 1764.
He invested his profits from the Post Office in the stone quarries that surround Bath high up on the downs . In conjunction with John Wood the Elder he promoted the use of Bath stone as an excellent building material, and the developments of Queens Square, Gay Street The Circus The Crescent and the Upper Town including the Assembly Rooms were built in this material. Bath stone is honey coloured when underground, but once mined and exposed to the air it becomes pale, and grayer. Anne Elliot in Persuasion disliked its pale appearance very much:
Lady Russell, convinced that Anne would not be allowed to be of any use, or any importance, in the choice of the house which they were going to secure, was very unwilling to have her hurried away so soon, and wanted to make it possible for her to stay behind, till she might convey her to Bath herself after Christmas; but having engagements of her own, which must take her from Kellynch for several weeks, she was unable to give the full invitation she wished; and Anne, though dreading the possible heats of September in all the white glare of Bath, and grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country, did not think that, every thing considered, she wished to remain. It would be most right, and most wise, and, therefore, must involve least suffering, to go with the others.
Persuasion, Chapter 5
Ralph Allen was an entrepreneur and an innovator. He built his impressive home, Prior Park on the outskirts of Bath as a testament to the excellent qualities of Bath stone as a building material and ornamented the surrounding landscape garden, which he designed with the help of “Capability” Brown and Alexander Pope, with delicious gardens features such as the famous bridge, below. All made of Bath stone, naturally.
© NTPL / Stephen Robson
The landscape garden is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.The mansion is now a boarding school and is not.
This book though small is an interesting read, and certainly filled in many blanks in my knowledge of this important figure in Bath history. The illustrations are mainly by Diana Windsor herself and I think are best in architectural pieces, as in this illustration of Ralph Allen’s town-house in Bath,
as her figures are, for me, sadly not as convincing as the buildings she portrays: