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Wednesday 2 December 2009


Of course in family trees, you have to take the rough with the smooth. There’s one in every barrel, and apples don’t come much more rotten than my great great great great uncle John Sadleir MP. Not so great, as it turns out.

John Sadleir, MP and rogue (1813-1856)

Uncle John, third son of Clement William Sadleir, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, into an ancient family of the Protestant Ascendancy in County Tipperary. His seven-times great grandfather John fought at the Siege of Boulogne in 1544, and that John’s brother Ralph had served in extremely high office under four successive Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.

John himself rose easily, succeeding an uncle in a prosperous Dublin solicitors’ business, and becoming a director of the Tipperary Bank established by his brother James. He was also an active parliamentary agent for Irish Railways, and connected with various financial enterprises including the Grand Junction Railway of France, the East Kent Line, the Rome and Frascati Railway, a Swiss railway company and a coal company. It was a boom time for the railway industry, and John took full advantage.

He was a consummate opportunist, not only in business but also in politics. He was elected MP for Carlow 1847, a firm supporter of Prime Minister John Russell’s government until a controversial restoration of Catholic hierarchy in 1850 saw him switch sides to become the influential leader of “the pope’s brass band” and the “Irish brigade”. When he was deselected by his constituents in 1853 he simply switched constituencies and was elected MP for Sligo instead. The subsequent disclosure of irregularities in his election forced him to resign his junior lordship at the Treasury, but he kept the seat until his death.

But as all too often happens there comes a point when opportunism tipped over into criminality. John was living well beyond his means at a time of economic crisis. To raise money he began to forge conveyances for lands sold at the encumbered estate court in Ireland, which had been set up in 1849 to dispose of properties bankrupted by the Great Famine. He was also fabricating duplicate shares in the Royal Swedish Railway Company, of which he appropriated and falsely sold 19,700.

By February 1856 he was overdrawn in his account with the “hopelessly insolvent” Tipperary Bank to the extent of £200,000. On 16th February Messrs Glyn, London agents of the bank, returned its drafts as not provided for. The game was up. John Sadleir was seen in the city during the day and at his club till 10.30pm; next morning his body was found on Hampstead Heath with a silver cream jug and a bottle of poison.

Jack Straw's Castle, the inn on Hapstead Heath
behind which John Sadleir's body was found, 17th February 1856

The bank was found to have assets of only £35,000, and losses to depositors (mostly small farmers and clerks) amounted to £400,000. At least three major businesses went under too, including the Tipperary Bank itself. Sadleir was described by the Times (London, 10 Mar 1856) as “a national calamity”, by the Nation (Dublin) as “a sallow-faced man, wrinkled with multifarious intrigue, cold, callous, cunning”. Charles Dickens based Mr Merdle in Little Dorrit on “that precious rascality, John Sadleir”.

So, dodgy politicians and fraudulent bankers are nothing new. Nor, it seems, are conspiracy theories. Popular rumours in Spring 1856 that he was alive and well and living in America were, I’m amused to note, discounted at the coroner’s inquest.

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