John Sadlier (1813-1856) ‘Prince of Swindlers’

john sadleir 1814-1856-1
John Sadlier (1813 – 1856)

By Saoirse Reynolds, Special Collections & Archives

I cannot live – I have ruined too many. I could not live and see their agony. I have committed diabolical crimes unknown to any human being.

John Sadlier’s body was found in Hamstead Heath on Sunday 17th February 1856 . Lying beside him was a bottle labelled ‘poison’. There was a note identifying him and his address. His body was brought to the Hampstead Workhouse for an autopsy where they quickly brought a verdict of suicide. Why did this highly successful and well known man become so desperate that he committed suicide at the age of only 43? John Sadlier was born in Co. Tipperary, raised a catholic and educated at Clongowes, Co. Kildare. He was interested in banking and so in 1838 set up the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank with his uncle James Scully, the bank was very successful and by 1845 there were nine branches in Ireland. When his uncle died in 1847 Sadlier’s Brother James took over as managing director.

PP/18/6 Letter John Sadleir, to Michael Dunne. 5 January 1853
Letter John Sadleir, Carlow, to Michael Dunne. 5 January 1853

Sadlier decided to enter into politics; he moved to London and was elected Liberal MP for Carlow in 1847. He was very successful, he had his bank, was involved in railway financing in Sweden, France and Italy and was chairman of the London and county Joint-Stock Banking Company. He was described at the time by AM O’Sullivan: Whatever he took in hand succeeded; whatever he touched turned to gold. It seemed he had the Midas touch and many respected and followed him. In 1851 when the Liberal government tried to restructure the Catholic Church in England, Sadlier led opposition to the legislation. Those who followed him became known as the “Pope’s Brass Band”. But he soon lost much respect. After the 1852 election those who had been elected on the tenant rights platform promised to stay out of government. Sadlier was one of the Independent Opposition party leaders. He broke his promise and took a junior ministry job in the incoming government. Things started to fall apart in 1853 when he had to resign his seat after an investigation into the 1852 election campaign. People were beginning to doubt him but Sadlier still managed to keep up his façade by cooking the books. He had bought land through the Encumbered Estates Court and managed to get a duplicate of the Court’s seal to forge deeds which he used to get more loans.

PP/18/5 Letter from John Sadleir, 5 Great Denmark Street, Dublin to Michael Dunne. 2 January 1853
Letter from John Sadleir, 5 Great Denmark Street, Dublin to Michael Dunne.
2 January 1853

This could only work for so long and in February 1856 the London agents of the Tipperary bank would no longer cash drafts from him. When the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank crashed Sadleir’s overdraft was £250,000. He had also defrauded the Swedish Railway Company of £300,000 and the Bank of Ireland of £122,000. On Saturday 16th February he could no longer see a way out, he wrote a letter to his cousin Robert Keating MP:

To what infamy have I come step by step – heaping crime upon crime – and now I find myself (…) the cause of ruin and misery and disgrace to thousands – ay, to tens of thousands

His actions did affect many people as those who invested in the bank lost a lot of money, sometimes life savings. That night he got his butler to go out and buy him prussic acid. The butler did so and it is thought that when the household had all gone to bed, Sadlier snuck out to Hamstead Heath to take the poison and end his shame and misery.

PP/18/8 Part of a letter from John Sadleir, Carlow to Michael Dunne. He writes that Alexander is encouraged by the ' virulence & malice' shown by Lucas and Moore towards him. He adds that he always knew Moore to be a 'weathercock' and that he 'spent more time & money to create that party than he (Moore) dreams of but he is a vain creature'. He also writes that the Tenant League are also 'hard at work to secure my defeat' and that if they can convince five or six to abstain they will succeed in returning Alexander. 6 January 1853
PP/18/8 Part of a letter from John Sadleir, Carlow to Michael Dunne. 6 January 1853

In our collection there are letters from Sadlier to Michael Dunne who was a member of the Independent Opposition Party. In some of his correspondence he is looking for approval for taking his junior ministry position. A reason he may have taken the job was that it came with a salary and this was at a time that no payment was given to MP’s. Since he was in so much financial trouble he may have had no choice.

A display of some of the unique and intriguing items recently acquired by Special Collections & Archives will run in the library foyer until the end of August. Included are letters by John Sadleir.

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