Thursday, 15 March 2012

Ralph Allen by Marie-Louise Jensen

I think everyone who lives in Bath has heard of Ralph Allen, though he is not nationally known. A Bath state secondary school is named after him, the grand house he built on the southern slopes of the city is now a private school, and the steep road that leads to and past it is called Ralph Allen Drive.

Here in Bath, we know him mainly as a great entrepreneur who transformed the city: he had a vision of how the city could look if it were to be rebuilt. To this end, he opened a quarry on the downs on the southern side of the city and built a sort of tram/railway to bring the stone down. He built a show home (now Prior Park College) to advertise the wonderful mellow Bath stone and sure enough, the city was rebuilt. The honey-coloured Georgian buildings are one of the features that make Bath so popular as a city to live in and as a tourist attraction.
But all this was of local importance. Ralph Allen had very limited success marketing his stone further afield and so his influence did not extend beyond his own city.
But in fact he had been involved in events of national importance earlier in his life, when he was postmaster in Bath. He could even have been said to have helped shape British history.

In 1715, when the Jacobite forces planned to rise up against the newly-crowned Protestant King, George I, Britain stood at a crossroads. Parliament had chosen a distant heir to the throne who wasn't even British, to avoid what they saw as the calamity of another Catholic monarch on the English throne. They even made a law to support their decision. But many Tories and High Church supporters saw the betrayal and rejection of the true Stuart heir as an outrage. And so rebellion was planned, plots were laid; forces and weapons were concealed strategically.
Fashionable Bath was to be the centre of rebellion in the south. But somehow, the plans were foiled. The government forces knew where the weapons were concealed and which men were ringleaders. General Wade marched into the city and arrested them; the gunpowder and other weaponry was seized and the status quo was preserved.
The man who was the key to this defeat was none other than Ralph Allen himself. He used his position as postmaster to open and read mail; in effect he was a spy for King George. His reward was to be granted great influence in reforming the post office, where he then made his first fortune. His second fortune came from the quarries - he used the money he had made in the post office to fund his venture.
Whether you view Allen as a hero of the people who saved Britain from civil war, or the sneaking and treacherous letter-thief who prevented the accession of the true King to the throne will depend on your sympathies; Tory or Whig, Catholic or Protestant. Either way there was no doubt of his significance. It is a strange fact, though, that locally he is known only as postmaster and quarry owner. His role as spy is not general knowledge. But I have, of course, cast him in my latest book in this secret role.


  1. Sounds fascinating! Have bought your book to read for my Easter treat. For two years I lived in a sliver of Ralph Allen's town house by Abbey Green in Bath - no doubt in the servant's quarters, but I loved the feeling of really living with Bath's history.

  2. How brilliant, Michelle. I would love that too! Hope you enjoy it.

  3. Bath is such a beautiful city - how fascinating to read about Ralph Allen's part in it - as well as his less respectable activities...

  4. How interesting! I have a thing for 18th century spies...

  5. Fascinating post - I'm a Scot (though not a Jacobite!) who has lived in the area for years and was oblivious to Mr. Allen's other life!

  6. Imogen, now that I've read one of your books, I can say, of course, you would have. :-)
    Debutnovelist, I've lived in Bath on and off for 30 years and had no idea till I began researching year-before-last either. It's not one of the things you hear about him. I didn't know about the rebellion either. Glad you're not a Jacobite...don't want anymore gunpowder caches in the city! ;-)


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