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Ralph Allen
Born 1693
St Columb Major
Died 1764
Bath
Nationality British
Occupation Postmaster
Known for Quarying of Bath Stone

Ralph Allen (1693 – 29 June 1764) was an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and was notable for his reforms to the UK postal system. He was baptised at St Columb Major, Cornwall on 24 July 1693. As a teenager he worked at the Post Office. He moved in 1710 to Bath, where he became a post office clerk, and at the age of 19, in 1712, became the Postmaster of Bath.[1] In 1742 was elected Mayor of Bath,[2] was the Member of Parliament for Bath between 1757 and 1764.[3]

Contents

Involvement in the postal system

At the age of 27 Allen took control of the Cross and Bye Posts in the South West under a seven-year contract with the General Post Office, although he had no official title. At the end of this period he had not made a profit, only breaking even.[2] But he had the courage to continue - with breathtaking success.

Over the next few years he reformed the postal service. He realised that post boys were delivering items of mail along their route without them being declared and that this was lost profit. He introduced a "signed for system" that prevented the malpractice. He also improved efficiency by not requiring mail to go via London.

Ralph Allen's reputation grew and he took over more and more of the English postal system, signing contracts every seven years until he died aged 71. It is estimated that he saved the Post Office £1,500,000 over a 40-year period. He won the patronage of General Wade in 1715, when he disclosed details of a Jacobite uprising in Cornwall.[4]

Quarrying of Bath Stone

With the arrival of John Wood in Bath, Allen used the wealth gained from his postal reforms to acquire the stone quarries at Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines.[2] Hitherto, the quarry masons had always hewn stone roughly providing blocks of varying size. The resulting uneven surface is known as "rubble" and buildings of this type - built during the Stuart period - are visible throughout the older parts of Bath.

Wood required stone blocks to be cut with crisp clean edges for his distinctive classical facades. Ralph Allen and John Wood had some difficulty persuading the Bath masons to comply with these new practices. Many got the sack and Allen brought in more willing labour from Wood's native Yorkshire. Allen built many cottages for his workers, but it was not an act of benevolent goodwill for local men as is often thought; it was a practical solution to house the strangers from Yorkshire who, as blackleg labour, were not welcome in Bath.

The distinctive honey-coloured Bath Stone, used to build the Georgian city, made Allen a second fortune. He was extremely astute at marketing the qualities of Bath Stone. The building in Bath which he used as a post office became his Town House in 1727 when a new facade and north wing were added, designed by John Wood the Elder.[5][6] Allen continued to live there until 1745, when he moved to Prior Park, and the townhouse became his offices.[7]

Prior Park House, home of Ralph Allen

Allen had the Palladian mansion Prior Park built for himself (1742) on a hill overlooking the city, "To see all Bath, and for all Bath to see". He gave money and the stone for the building of the Mineral Water Hospital in 1738.

Commemoration

Ralph Allen is buried in a pyramid-topped tomb in Claverton churchyard, on the outskirts of Bath.[8]

His name is commemorated in Bath in Ralph Allen Drive and Ralph Allen School, one of the city's secondary schools. Prior Park College, another local secondary school which is housed in Allen's former home, has a boys' boarding house named Allen House.

Henry Fielding used Allen as the model for Squire Allworthy in the novel Tom Jones.[2]

References

Bibliography

  • Boyce, B. (1967) The benevolent man: a life of Ralph Allen of Bath
  • Peach, R.E.M. (1895) The life and times of Ralph Allen
  • Hopkins, A.E. (ed.) (1960) Ralph Allen's own narrative, 1720–1761
  • Erskine-Hill, Howard (1975) 'Low-Born Allen': Ralph Allen (1693-1764) in: The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope
  • Davis, S. (1985) Ralph Allen: benefactor and postal reformer [Bath Postal Museum booklet]
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