Of the three men generally held to have been responsible for the city of Bath’s sensational eighteenth-century development—Ralph Allen, Beau Nash and John Wood the Elder—Allen is arguably the most remarkable. He came to the city in 1710 from Cornwall, as assistant to the postmistress: and, after succeeding her two years later, he became the youngest postmaster in the kingdom, at a salary of £25 per annum. He won the patronage of General Wade in 1715, when he disclosed details of a Jacobite plot in the South West; and with the General’s financial support, he was able to institute a system of ‘cross posts’ that completely revolutionised the inadequate postal system, and made him a personal fortune.
In 1726 he bought the stone quarries at Combe Down, and built an ingenious railway to carry the huge blocks down the Bath, where the building renaissance, inspired by the genius of John Wood the Elder, was just beginning. This very astute enterprise earned him another fortune: and in 1735 he commissioned Wood to build Prior Park, a superb Palladian mansion overlooking the Widcombe valley and city. The quarrelsome eccentric, Philip Thicknesse, described the house, perhaps with some justification, as ‘a noble seat which sees all Bath, and which was built, probably for all Bath to see’.
Allen was now a very wealthy man, and at Prior Park he entertained many of the famous poets, politicians, artists and men of letters of his time, including Pope,Gainsborough, David Garrick, Henry Fielding and the elder Pitt. Fielding, it is said, took him as the model for Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones; and Pope paid him a modest compliment in the epilogue to his Satires with this couplet:
Let humble Allen, with an awkward shame,
Do good by stealth, and blush to find fame.
Whether by stealth or not, Allen was a warm-hearted philanthropist contributing generously to many worthy causes. He donated £1,000 towards the building of the Bath Hospital, as well as the stone from his quarries; and Fielding described him as ‘a munificent patron, a warm and firm friend… hospitable to his neighbours, charitable to the poor, and benevolent to all mankind’.
What remains of his town house in Bath can still be seen, in Lilliput Alley, close to the Abbey. From the end of the alley, the narrow but splendid Palladian east front can just be glimpsed: and if the visitor turns round at this point he will see, on the slopes of Claverton Down, the folly that Allen built there. It is called Sham Castle, and is a facade with nothing behind it; its purpose was simply to enhance the romanticism of the view from his windows.
Ralph Allen was an outstanding businessman and a legendary patron and benefactor. He was Mayor of the city only once—in 1742—but his influence on its development was profound. He died in 1764, aged seventy-one.