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Saturday 26 September 2015


A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of writing a study guide to the great American author Mark Twain. I was asked to include some of his many witty aphorisms in an appendix, a terrible task of selection. One that didn’t make the cut was this definition: A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.

John Sadleir (1813-1856)

Which brings me to my ancestor John Sadleir, MP for Carlow in Ireland and a liar and swindler on a grand scale. In the end he took his own life, belatedly weighed down with remorse about the thousands of investors whose lives he ruined. One of them was, I believe, his cousin my great great grandfather Richard William Ralph Sadleir. John started out being fairly honestly successful in amassing wealth through business and land transactions. But when his financial star waned he turned to increasingly desperate and ill-judged speculation to fund his earlier investments. One of his more colourful get-rich-quick schemes was the founding of the Carson’s Creek Gold Mining Company in February 1852.

Gold was discovered in California at the start of 1848. Although word was at first slow to spread, the trickle of prospectors travelling to the territory soon became a flood. In 1849 some eighty seven thousand men (and three thousand women) joined the Gold Rush. Known collectively as Forty-Niners they found gold in abundance more or less lying around in surface ore. You didn’t even have to go underground – a stick of explosive would send up a shower of gold-bearing quartz, or you could just pan for gold in the silt of the rivers. 

A Forty-Niner (pictured in 1850 – picture from Wikipedia)

In 1849 the pan-handlers extracted $10 million worth of gold. In 1850 it was $41 million. In 1851 it was $75 million and in 1852 $81 million. It must have seemed the answer to all John Sadleir’s prayers, if he could just carve himself out a tiny fraction of the wealth being generated in California

He found his opportunity and went into partnership with the new American owners of a mine on Carson Hill, which stand above the Stanislaus River in central California. Carson Creek, through which the river flowed below the mine, was one of the early centres of the gold rush after James H. Carson found plentiful gold in the riverbed and staked his claim there.

But by 1852 the easy gold was running out. Now you had to dig for it, hard work with uncertain returns. In pitching to London investors Sadleir was able to assure them on the matter of legitimate ownership of the mine (previously occupied by illegal squatters); but there was no knowing how much ore the mine might deliver. But greed, like love, is blind: when Sadleir described the luxury in which the squatters had lived, and wheeled out a tame U.S. attorney eager to buy up any shares left over after the flotation, the money, £154,000 of it, poured in.

A mine and mill on Carson Hill, still being worked in the 1920s

And out again. John Sadleir, now the chairman of the Carson’s Creek Gold Mining Company, borrowed large amounts of money from it which he told investors had been earmarked for the purchase of mining machinery. He could not repay it when it became due in January 1855; so he lodged the deed of some of his Irish property with the London and County Bank as security. 

But he was also the chairman of the London and County Bank, and he quietly retrieved the deed without the knowledge of the bank’s directors and lodged it elsewhere as security against further loans – a bit like selling the land twice. At least the bank had directors; the Carson’s Creek company had none, and after John Sadleir’s suicide no one even knew where he had kept the invested sums, let alone that he had by then spent it all, every last fool's gold penny. 

When in the depths of his remorse he swallowed prussic acid one night on Hampstead Heath, his overdraft at the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank, of which he and his brother James were directors, had risen to around a quarter of a million pounds, while he and his brother had reduced the bank’s assets to only £75,000. Besides defrauding that bank's and the Carson’s Creek Mining Company’s investors, Sadleir had also been selling forged shares in the Royal Swedish Railway Company, to which he owed at the time of his death a further £300,000. 

Landmark sign in Carson Hill, now a ghost town

Gold extraction never again reached the glittering heights of that 1852 value. But nine months after John Sadleir’s death, Morgan Mine elsewhere on Carson Hill yielded a giant piece of gold weighing over thirteen pounds and worth $43,000 at 1856 prices. It is still the largest single nugget ever found in California.

Saturday 19 September 2015


After my father’s death I found two drawers in his writing desk stuffed full of large envelopes into which he had carefully sorted a lifetime’s correspondence from friends, colleagues and lovers. They span seventy years, and the letters from around the time of the Second World War are among the more poignant ones

One envelope is labelled “German”. Before the war my father and his father had many friends in Germany, and the advent of hostilities put many of those friendships under strain one way or another. Besides their names, I don’t know who any of the correspondents were and can only guess at the context of the letters and the reasons why my father kept them for so long. 

 Charles Henry Salter (1918-2008), right, 
with Peter Wright and Pat Duncan. Photograph taken by Steve Hallett in the Dolomites late in 1938

The following letter from Venice, for example, hints at many events. My father received it soon after he had returned from a ski-ing holiday nearby in northern Italy. The author Marianne writes, in German, from an inn in the city. She is reluctantly leaving Europe. Is she a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany or Austria, which had welcomed the Nazis' Anschluss (annexation) in March 1938? Had my father offered to find her safe refuge in England? When she makes offers to my father “in the name of her parents”, is she travelling with them? Are they family friends? Have they even survived whatever Marianne is fleeing? Did she, after all, escape? I’ll never know.

I apologise for my faltering translation of the letter, but I hope that my words convey some of the intensity of the original.

The white marble facade of the Church of San Zaccaria, viewed from a balcony of the Pension Casa Fontana

Pension Casa Fontana,
S. Provolo 4701,

My dear Charles,

A few days ago I received your so very lovely letter, for which I most heartily thank you. How kind of you to concern yourself with us so readily. You are a true friend. However your trouble has been for nothing because we have found something at last and we are actually going to Mexico. Before that we may have to stay another month in France; but as long as we leave Italy before the 12th March, our life is safe. 

Now that I know when we will be leaving the sunny South, I am sorry and sad; how many dear friends am I losing, and when will I return to Europe?

But we must thank god that at least he is saving us from certain death.

Venice today looks like something out of a fairy tale, like a beautiful colour postcard. The sun lights up the beautiful buildings and the white marble shines even whiter than before. A few warships lie off the Salute church, watching over the town.

The Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice in the 1940s, viewed from the dome of the Salute church

I wish I had come to England, and I wish I had seen you again; but it is not in God’s plan, and in my parents’ name you have an open invitation to visit us. I hope that you will always write to me, and that in your next letter you won’t forget to include your picture. I’m afraid I have no pictures left of me, but I will have some photographs taken in the next few day and then send you one immediately.

We were in Genova to get the visa for Mexico; it’s a beautiful town. On the way back I spent a few hours in Milan with my friend. Milan Cathedral is very beautiful and I liked Milan itself very much; it’s certainly a real city.

Now, dear Charles, I must finish because I have to rush off and will post this letter so that I don’t keep you waiting any longer. 

With all my heart, thank you again in the name of my parents for your efforts. Send me your photograph and write to me soon and often.

With fondest greetings,
The Pension Casa Fontana, now the Hotel Fontana, still stands in the Campo San Provolo in Venice. Perhaps it still has its old guest registers!

Saturday 12 September 2015


My Massy ancestors were, by and large a ruthless lot. They occupied large parts of Counties Limerick and Tipperary and pretty much did as they pleased, considering themselves to be firmly above the law, both moral and civil. 

The Hole in the Wall Gang, who hid out in the Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming, between crimes. Just like the Massys.

Take Hugh Fitzjohn for example, a nephew of my 6x great grandfather. He wanted a wife. More precisely, he wanted the money that a wealthy heiress would bring as a dowry if he were married to one. So he just went out and took one – and I don’t mean that in the archaic patriarchal sense of “taking a wife”. He stole one that not only didn’t belong to him but may well have belonged (in the archaic patriarchal sense) to another man.

Frances Ingoldsby was the daughter of another big landowner. The Massys and the Ingoldsbys had fought alongside each other during Cromwell’s suppression of the Irish, and had both been rewarded with large tracts of Irish land. Their shared history seems to have counted for nothing however when, late on the 13th November 1743, Hugh and a group of his friends and relatives forced their way into the rectory where Frances was staying. The Rev Thomas Royse, a relative of Frances by marriage, was helpless when menaced by the Massy party, which abducted Miss Ingoldsby and took her to a Massy stronghold in the Galtee Mountains.

The Galtee Mountains, home of kidnappers

Things got too hot for Hugh, however, when a reward was placed on his head. Travelling secretly with a reluctant prisoner cannot have been easy, but Hugh fled with Frances to France – Bordeaux to be precise. There, it seems, either Hugh’s charms or his brute force won Frances over; and reluctantly or otherwise the pair were married.

They returned to Ireland the following summer, perhaps because of the imminent birth of their first child Catherine – conceived, one imagines, under less than romantic circumstances. Hugh was tried twice for the kidnap of Frances, once in Cork and once in Limerick. But such was the power and influence of the Massy family in the region that he was both times acquitted. A claim by a servant in the Ingoldsby household that he and Frances had been secretly married before her abduction was never proved. The claim may have been a desperate attempt by the Ingoldsby family to invalidate Hugh’s marriage to Frances.

Frances and Hugh had another child, a son Hugh Ingoldsby Massy, in 1749. Perhaps the middle name was an attempt to patch things up between the two families. Frances died only six years later in 1755. Hugh Fitzjohn Massy died in 1770, and his son followed him to the grave only a year later at just 22 years old. Even at that early age Hugh junior left a widow, and one hopes very much that he won his bride with rather more finesse than his father won his mother.

I have the bare bones of this story mostly from Frank Tracy’s splendid study of the Massys’ history in Ireland, If Those Trees Could Speak. There is a much more detailed account of Frances Ingoldsby’s kidnap in a widely praised book by Toby Barnard, The Abduction of a Limerick Heiress.

Saturday 5 September 2015


In 1836 the Gentleman’s Magazine carried the following item in its Obituaries column:
Feb. 19. At the Hotwells, Clifton, aged 36, the Rev. John Warne, priest vicar of Exeter. He was of Trin. coll. Camb., BA 1823, MA 182-. [sic]
That was that, then. More of an announcement than an obit. Was there really nothing more to say about the late John Warne, my 3x great uncle? Was he not even worth discovering the date of his MA for?

We do know a little bit of his clerical career, which was remarkably unspectacular. He was a minor canon in Bristol, and a curate in the posh Bristol suburb of Clifton until on the 6th June 1830 he was (as the Hampshire Chronicle reported the following day)
collated by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter, to a Priest Vicar's Stall in their Cathedral, void by death of the Rev. Wm. Tanner.
Not by his own merits alone but by the death of poor old William Tanner! 

 Exeter Cathedral in 1830

Curate, minor canon and priest vicar are all variations of the same relatively junior role in the hierarchy of the Church of England. A curate was the local bishop’s man-on-the-spot, the cleric in charge of a particular church or parish – only after 1868 were such ministers formally known, as they are today, as vicars. A minor canon (for which priest vicar is simply another name) fulfilled the same tasks as a curate, but as part of a team of such clerics in a larger church or cathedral. Often they also had a choral role, leading the singing of high church calls and responses. Perhaps John Warne had a talent there, a sweet spiritual voice. But in a cathedral diocese they were the foot soldiers of the bishop, never part of his inner circle or chapter. So it was at Exeter Cathedral, and there John Warne remained until his own death six years later. 

His death – so often it is the manner of one’s departure that leaves the greatest impression; and, in the absence of much other information, so it is with Warne. The Hotwells of Clifton at which he died were, as the name implies, hot springs at the base of the cliffs of the Avon Gorge, now crossed by the Clifton Suspension Bridge. They have been known since at least the fifteenth century and the first attempt to harness their commercial potential came with the erection of a pump room in 1696.

The original Hotwells pump room, demolished in 1822

The original building was replaced in 1822 with Hotwells House, and a grand new pump room, based on those in Leamington and nearby Bath which Bristol hoped to rival. Presumably John Warne had some ailment which he thought would be improved by bathing in the warm waters. In the fifteenth century they were believed to cure scurvy; in the seventeenth, they were recommended for “hot livers, feeble brains and red pimply faces.” Warne’s death while actually visiting the spa cannot have been good for business. Perhaps he was simply overcome by the heat.

Hotwells House and pump room (1822)

The Hotwells’ location at the Avon Gorge was considered one of the most dramatically picturesque in England, and the spa had some success in attracting patrons to its supposedly restorative waters (later shown to be rather polluted). But it never competed with Bath, and Bristol’s real wealth was generated not by tourists at Hotwells Spring but by ships on the River Avon. If it was to continue to be accessible to ever-larger vessels, the port of Bristol needed to straighten the river bend on which the spa stood, and in 1867 the city’s merchant princes demolished the entire complex and the land it stood on.

If John Warne’s death is the most interesting thing about his life, it is not his greatest legacy. In 1832 he married Mary Laura Elizabeth Acraman (1802-1876), my 3x great aunt and a member of a prominent Bristol family of ships’ chandlers. In 1833, before the onset of whatever illness led him to the Hotwells, the couple had their only child, a daughter Elizabeth Ann. In time Elizabeth married and had children of her own. Mary Warne never remarried but, remaining in Clifton on a clergyman’s widow’s pension, outlived her husband by forty years.
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