A Tipperary Bank Is Declared Bankrupt

Before you all start to panic unduly, this is a true story from history and has no bearing whatsoever on our present banking difficulties.

Many readers, however, will identify similarities to the current prevailing individual greed recently exposed with regard to our present bankers, politicians and so called developers.

Until recent times at least, John Sadlier was the best known of all Irish fraudsters who came to prominence during the Victorian era.

John was born in 1813 near Shrone Hill, Co. Tipperary, of wealthy parents. Raised a Catholic he was educated at Clongowes Wood College, latter founded in 1814 by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).  His professional career began when he succeeded his uncle to a very prosperous solicitor’s practice in Dublin.

The once Sadliers Bank, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

In Tipperary there was no banking system which served the savings of small farmers, clerks and local shopkeepers, so he ventured a joint stock bank in 1838, known as Sadlier’s Bank. This new occupation as a banker was in his blood. His grandfather James Scully had established a bank in Tipperary town in 1803. This new bank was founded, with James Scully his uncle taking on the position of Chairman.

This new business set about targeting small farmers, tradesmen and clerks, and offered above average interest rates on deposits. The bank appeared to prosper and by 1845 there were numerous branches in operation, extending north from Tipperary, into Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, Athy, Co Kildare and into Co.Carlow. In Tipperary branches were established in Clonmel, Carrick, Tipperary Town, Thurles, Nenagh, Roscrea and even in the small remote village of Glengoole, near Thurles.

The Sadlier’s Bank premise in Thurles was then situated to the left of the old Constabulary Barracks, latter in use up to 1903, in Liberty Square, Thurles. ( See framed section in photograph.) It was behind the then Singer Sewing Machine shop, now Quigley’s Bakery, in a large three story house, which later became the ‘Thurles Poor School ‘. Both the Barracks and Bank house sites stood on the spot presently replaced in more recent years by the Ursuline Convent Primary school.

Among the early shareholders in this venture were James Sadlier of Shronell, Rev Thomas O’Mahony of Templebraden, Richard Scully of Tipperary, James Scully of Athassel, Pat Cleary Cahirvillahowe, James Sadlier Clonacody, Robert Keating Garrinlea and John Ryan Scarteen.

John Sadlier’s only visible vice’s were that he kept company with landed gentry, owned a stable at Watford from whence he hunted with the Gunnersbury hounds and to be consumed by attaining celebrity status and positions of power.

Following the death of chairman James Scully in 1847, John invited his elder brother James to become Managing Director.

John who was an agent for Irish railways, was elected the Liberal MP for Carlow in 1847, remaining unionist until 1848. In 1851, the Liberal government attempted to restructure the Catholic Church in England, a move which would inevitably undermine any Vatican influence. Sadlier, an ardent Catholic, led the opposition to the legislation and helped establish the Catholic Defence Association. He became a member of George Henry Moore’s ‘Irish Brigade’, otherwise known as ‘the Pope’s Brass Band’.  In 1851, he founded the Telegraph newspaper, then an organ of the Catholic Defense Association, chaired by Archbishop Cullen, and supported Charles Gavin Duffy’s Tenant’s League, latter which aimed to secure reforms in the Irish land system. Sadleir began dealing largely in lands sold in the Encumbered Estate Court in Ireland, including the Earl of Glengall’s estate in Cahir, Co.Tipperary. He began also financing railway developments in Sweden, France and Italy.

Sadlier’s apparent financial success now made him a household name in the 1850’s and his reputed great wealth was much discussed and lauded. He appeared to have the Midas touch and share holders were happy being paid a point or two more than other banking competitors were offering, receiving a healthy dividend of 6%.

When the Liberals returned to power in late 1852, Sadlier accepted a post as a Junior Lord of the Treasury under Gladstone, when the new Government was formed, a post he was forced to vacate in January 1854, having been implicated in an attempt to imprison a depositor of the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank, who had refused to vote for him.

On 13th February 1856, London agents of the Tipperary Bank, Glyn and Co, refused to cash drafts sent to them by Sadlier, returning them with the words “not provided for“. Rumours were quickly out. The payment of high dividends was being supported by fraudulent book-keeping which falsely claimed the bank had considerable reserves. The illusion that matters were fully above board had begun to fade as Sadlier’s fortunes began to sink. In order to prop up his empire he began resorting to wild speculations and illicit tactics, borrowing heavily from his own bank. He began courting Catholic heiresses and proposing marriage to them. He forged shares in the Royal Swedish Railway Company, of which he was Chairman.

Following the cash drafts refusal by London agents, he wrote a letter to a cousin, confessing to his ‘numberless crimes of a diabolical character’ which had caused ‘ruin and misery and disgrace to thousands – ay, tens of thousands‘. Other attempts to obtain fiscal assistance from wealthy acquaintances proved negative.

A few days before the crash, Peter Gill, editor and owner of the Tipperary Advocate, was offered £100 to write an editorial on the bank’s solvency but he smartly refused.

On a bleak February morning in the year 1856, a now distressed John Sadlier left his London home at midnight, informing his butler not to wait up for him. His frozen corpse was found by passers-by on a grassy mound one hundred and fifty yards from Jack Straw’s, (ironically, latter a comrade of Wat Tyler, leader of the 1381 peasants revolt against King Richard II) on Hampstead Heath, near London, the following morning. He had taken with him on that February night a small tankard, some knives and a phial of Hydrogen Cyanide (better known as Prussic acid) and successfully put himself beyond the reach of earthly law. He sent a suicide note to James’ wife Emma which read: “James is not to blame–I alone have caused all this dreadful ruin. James was to me too fond a brother but he is not to blame for being deceived and led astray by my diabolical acts. Be to him at this moment all the support you can. Oh what I would not suffer with gladness to save those whom I have ruined.

On Monday the news of his death reached Ireland. Country people stormed in to the towns, some armed with crowbars, guns, picks and spades, believing that if they could get into the Branch Offices, they could recover their small investments and hard earned savings. Elderly people were confused and openly wept hysterically.

The rich also were financially effected, as Sadlier’s debts were now estimated to be of the order of one and a quarter million pounds. In a letter written by Mr.J. Burke, solicitor, Liscahill, to Tom Cahill of Clonismullen, we learn the names of some depositors: Col.William Knox, Brittas Casle, Thurles lost £400; Phil Burke of Pallas lost £100; Mr Russell Ballyduag lost £900; Mr McCarthy Mealiffe lost £600 and Mr. Feehan, Rathcannon lost £500. The Irish press now referred to Sadlier as the ‘Prince Of Swindlers’.

Later a court inquiry disclosed letters written from John to his brother James which implicated James in organising the frauds. However, James Sadleir absconded on the 17th of June. Questions were now asked why no criminal charges had been brought against him at this stage. On 13 May, a letter from James Sadleir, posted in Paris, was published in the Dublin Evening Post. He denied involvement in the fraud, and stated that he had denounced his brother when he had learnt of the latter’s misdoings. This apology was swiftly denounced by James Scully, his cousin, who was also implicated in the scandal. He described James as a “notorious culprit“.

James Sadlier was now being maintained by an annuity paid by his wife’s family, the Wheatleys. He never returned to face justice, and moved to Switzerland in 1861, living in Geneva for a time and then later in Zürich.
He was expelled by the House of Commons on the 16th February and his estates and those of his wife were seized by creditors and sold off.

Sadlier’s suicide created a massive sensation, and revelations soon followed detailing his long career of fraud and dishonesty. The ‘Times’ for the 10th of March 1856 began with a leading article with the words ‘John Sadleir was a national calamity.’
It would later transpire that John’s personal overdraft stood at £250,000. His ruined banking empire owed the Bank of Ireland £122,000. He had also defrauded the Royal Swedish Railway Company of £300,000. Frauds in connection with this Railway Company, of which he was chairman, consisted in fabricating a large number of duplicate shares, and of appropriating 19,700 of these. His depositors, the farmers, clerks and labourers, lost £70,000. Local peasants who trusted this bank with the care of their hard earned cash would eventually end up in a pauper’s grave. It was later established that in several instances he had forged conveyance land titles in order to raise needed finance. The vast swathes of land he had purchased, during his reign were valued at over £250,000,000.

The total assets of the Tipperary bank were eventually found to be only £35,000 and the losses of the depositors and others amounted to not less than £400,000. The loss fell heavily upon many small farmers and clerks in the south of Ireland, who had been attracted by this high rate of interest, to deposit their savings in his bank.

John Sadlier would later be immortalized by Charles Dickens in ‘Little Dorrit‘, published in 1857, a work of satire on the shortcomings of government, in which the character, Mr Merdle, is based on Thurles banker John Sadlier.

Sadlier’s brother James was also to suffer a sticky end. Now twenty years later while an exiled resident of Zurich, he was murdered by a thief attempting to steal his gold watch, while he was out for a stroll, on the 4th June 1881.

Isn’t it marvellous how things have now changed for the better, in this green land of Ireland?


2 comments to A Tipperary Bank Is Declared Bankrupt

  • Ali Miremadi

    Thank you for this fascinating bit of financial history. Out of interest I came across Sadlier’s name in a furious comment in Trollope’s ‘The Three Clerks’ which, like ‘Little Dorrit’, is amongst other things a satire on government corruption. Trollope’s first post in Ireland was in Cashel so he must have paid close attention to the story.

  • Tom

    I am studying my family history. Both the Scully name & Sadlier name show up in family records. I am trying to get a backround on what life was like in those days. My mothers family was Landed Gentry outside Cashel up until about 1870. I think I know why that ended.

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