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The Rise and Fall of John Sadlier (1813-1856)

John Sadlier is arguably the best known of the Irish fraudsters who came to prominence in the Victorian Age. Banking was in his blood. His mother’s father James Scully established a bank in Tipperary town in 1803. Raised a Catholic and educated at Clongowes, John Sadlier’s professional career began when he succeeded his uncle to a prosperous solicitor’s practice in Dublin.

In 1838, he founded the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank with his uncle James Scully as Chairman. They focused on small farmers, tradesmen and clerks, offering above average interest rates. The bank prospered and by 1845 there were nine branches in operation, extending north from Tipperary into Thomastown (Co Kilkenny), Athy and Carlow.

When James Scully died in 1847, John invited his elder brother James Sadlier to become Managing Director. John was elected Liberal MP for Carlow that same year, with Captain William McClintock Bunbury representing the Conservatives. Sadlier took to politics in a seemingly calm, wise and practical manner. But behind those calculating eyes was a cold and rascally soul.

In 1848, Sadlier was appointed chairman of the London and County Joint Stock Banking Company, a post he retained until his death. Now a resident of London, he was perfectly poised to expand his networking into Europe. He began financing railway developments in Sweden, France and Italy. In 1851, he founded his own Dublin newspaper, The Weekly Telegraph. He purchased vast swathes of land, valued at over £250,000,000, and including the beleaguered Earl of Glengall’s estate at Cahir. But for all that he lived a rather frugal life. His only flamboyance was a stable in Watford from where he hunted with the Gunnersbury hounds.

Sadlier’s financial success made him a household name in the 1850s and much talk was made over his reputed wealth. He seemed to have the Midas touch; every venture he turned to came up trumps. The shareholders were delighted. They were being paid a dividend of 6%, a point or two more than their competitors.

In 1851, the Liberal government attempted to restructure the Catholic Church in England, a move which would inevitably undermine the Vatican’s influence. Sadlier, an ardent Catholic, led the opposition to the legislation; his supporters became known as the Pope’s Brass Band. That same year, Sadlier helped establish the Catholic Defence Association. When the Liberals returned to power in late 1852, the ‘ brilliant’ Sadlier accepted a post as a Junior Lord of the Treasury.

However, unbeknownst to everyone, the Sadliers were on very thin ice. The impression that they were flourishing was a grand illusion. The payment of high dividends was justified by fraudulent book-keeping which, for instance, falsely claimed the bank had reserves of £17,000.

The darkness began to fall in 1853 when Sadlier was forced to resign his seat, following an investigation into his 1852 election campaign. Pressure had seemingly been brought to bear by the Joint Stock Bank in Carlow upon 208 voters in the constituency. The word was out that Sadlier’s wizardry was not as magical as it might seem.

As Sadlier’s fortunes began to sink, he resorted to increasingly wild speculations and illicit tactics. He began to borrow heavily from his own bank. He began courting Catholic heiresses and proposing marriage to them. The bachelor began to forge shares in the Royal Swedish Railway Company, of which he was Chairman.

On 13th February 1856, the London agents of the Tipperary Bank refused to cash drafts sent to them by Sadlier. The following weekend, the depressed and bloated banker wrote a letter of grief and remonstrance to a cousin, confessing to the ‘numberless crimes of a diabolical character’ which had caused ‘ruin and misery and disgrace to thousands – ay, tens of thousands’. His body was found on Hampstead Heath on the Sunday morning, alongside a silver cream jug and a vial of poisonous prussic acid.

It transpired that his personal overdraft had climbed to £250,000. His collapsed banking empire also owed the Bank of Ireland £122,000. His depositors, the farmers and labourers, lost £70,000. Considering that the amount of deposits in all the Joint Stock Banks in Ireland was only £12,000,000 at that time, a loss of £400,000 in four counties was a very heavy calamity.[1] He had also defrauded the Royal Swedish Railway Company of £300,000.[2]

Ireland was stunned. The press called him the ‘Prince Of Swindlers’, a miser ‘wrinkled with multifarious intrigue, cold, callous and cunning’. Charles Dickens may have had a greater role in immortalizing him in Little Dorrit, published in 1857, in which the character Mr Merdle was based on Sadlier.[3] Sadlier’s brother James did not live happily ever after. He was expelled from the House of Commons and fled to Zurich where he was murdered while walking one day in 1811.

[1] Did Captain Bunbury invest in his bank?

[2] His own relatives were not spared – his cousin Vincent Scully, MP for Cork, was shocked to hear that, contrary to what he had been told, he still owned Castle Hyde. Sadlier had assured him he had resold the property, at a profit, to Hebert Ingram, MP for Boston, proprietor of the Illustrated London News. A court case, Scully v. Ingram ensued.

[3] “Mr Merdle was immensely rich … He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other.” Mr Merdle, MP, however, is a forger and a robber, and his fine career ends in suicide.

With thanks to Art Kavanagh, author of ‘The Tipperary Gentry’, and Michael Purcell.