Sadleir, John (1813–56), banker, politician, speculator, and swindler, was born 17 November 1813 at Shronell House in the parish of Shronell near Tipperary town, fifth of seven children born to Clement William Sadleir, a protestant farmer and middleman, whose earliest known ancestor is Henry Sadeleyer, accountant to Sir Edward Belcamp, chief butler to Henry VIII. The descendants of Henry Sadeleyer spread to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they were close friends and in-laws of the Shakespeares, and thence to west Tipperary in 1669 under the act of settlement of Charles II. John Sadleir's mother was Joanna Scully, daughter of the catholic James Scully (qv) of Kilfeacle, the proprietor of a small bank, who had amassed vast wealth in landed property during the penal laws years.
Sadleir was raised a catholic and, having been privately educated by a tutor in his own home, went to Clongowes Wood College (1826–31). In 1831 he was apprenticed to his cousin, Nicholas Sadleir, who had legal practices in Tipperary town and Dublin. He was admitted a solicitor in 1837, and from 1838 until 1846 practised with his brother William and several cousins, first in 88 Lower Gardiner St. and then in 5 Great Denmark St., Dublin.
In 1839 he was involved in the foundation of the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank, the brainchild of his uncle, James Scully, which eventually had nine branches in counties Tipperary, Carlow, and Kildare. As the Scully influence waned, Sadleir, through his influence with his brother James, the bank's managing director, gained unimpeded access to its funds.
In 1846 Sadleir went to London, where he had relatives and business contacts. He lived first at 171 Regent St., then in the Albany Club, and finally in 11 Gloucester Square. Although London offered a great variety of social pursuits, Sadleir's lifestyle was modest. He was described by his brother James as a ‘very temperate man’ who only drank ‘one glass of sherry or perhaps two, but nothing after’. He gambled occasionally at White's Club and hunted with the Gunnersbury hounds, keeping three hunters at Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. His romantic life was equally discreet, and while his enemies wrote about his physical characteristics in an unflattering manner, an extant photograph shows him as a handsome man with dark hair and sallow complexion. He never married, but courted Clara Morton, a dancer in Her Majesty's Theatre. He was also allegedly romantically involved with the grass widow of an MP, and when his financial affairs were beyond redemption he vainly pursued a catholic heiress.
Sadleir's main focus in London was on business matters. His experience as a solicitor and his commercial contacts convinced him that investment in land, railways, and banking was the path to wealth. He became a parliamentary agent and legal adviser to railway investors at a time of major development in the rail network throughout England and Europe. He soon progressed from adviser to investor and became heavily involved in the shareholdings of the Grand Junction railway in France, the Rome and Frascati Railway, the Royal Swedish Railway Company, and the East Kent line. He was also elected chairman of the London and County Joint Stock Bank, which had sixty branches and 20,000 accounts. Sadleir was also a major land speculator and spent almost £233,000 purchasing estates, 30,000 acres of which can be traced.
The real key to Sadleir's commercial success was political influence. His role as parliamentary agent made him familiar with the workings of Westminster and in the 1847 general election he contested the borough of Carlow, where, through ample use of the funds of the Tipperary bank, he ousted the sitting member. In his election manifesto he introduced himself as a liberal in politics who would, however, enter parliament ‘unfettered and independent of all government control’. By 1852 Sadleir had been joined in parliament by his brother James and his first cousins Frank Scully, Robert Keating, and Vincent Scully (qv). All five were grandsons of James Scully of Kilfeacle and they formed the nucleus of what became known as ‘the Papal Brigade’ to its friends and ‘the pope's brass band’ to its opponents, titles earned because of their vehement opposition to the ecclesiastical titles act of 1851. This group, of which Sadleir was a leading member, was pledged to a policy of independent opposition as long as the act remained on the statute books. Independent opposition was also mooted as a means of forcing the government to address the vexed question of tenant right for Ireland.
The policy was highly divisive and when Sadleir accepted the position of junior lord of the treasury in Aberdeen's government in 1853 he was denounced as a traitor, particularly by the adherents of the Irish Tenant League. Irish politics were convulsed by the defection, and ‘Sadleirism’ and corruption became synonymous. Obliged by law to have his acceptance of office endorsed by the electorate, he was narrowly defeated in the Carlow by-election of 1853, mainly because of an intense and hostile campaign by the Tenant League press. None the less, he soon succeeded in being returned for the borough of Sligo, where he was castigated by the League as the ‘vomit of Carlow’, the ‘jackal of John Bull’, and ‘the Judas pet of the murderous whigs’, Sligo itself being ‘renowned throughout the habitable globe for the prostitute venality’ of its electorate (Tablet, 11 June, 9 July 1853).
Sadleir's political machinations finally caught up with him when he was forced to resign his ministerial position in 1854, having been found guilty of masterminding a plot resulting in the imprisonment of a Tipperary bank customer for refusing to vote for him. Between 1854 and 1856 he was the subject of several inquiries investigating political corruption. By the end of 1855 his reputation had been badly tarnished, but previous problems were dwarfed by events unfolding in the early months of 1856 when it became evident that the Tipperary bank was insolvent due to his overdraft of £288,000. Sadleir had milked the bank, with the consent of his brother James, to fund a series of disastrous speculations in such commodities as hemp, sugar, and iron, while at the same time issuing annual reports showing the bank as a thriving institution.
In an effort to keep the bank afloat and prevent disclosure of his own financial straits he vainly turned to the London and County where he already had a massive overdraft, which, fortunately for the bank, was protected by adequate securities. Sadleir, however, purchased the small Newcastle upon Tyne bank using worthless Tipperary drafts and devoured all its assets to bolster the Tipperary. He then sold 20,000 forged shares of the Royal Swedish Railway Company, of which he was chairman, to his gullible cousin, Thomas J. Eyre of Bath. Eyre's wealth was sufficient to withstand the loss, but the railway company collapsed. Sadleir also raised money on forged land deeds, to which he fixed genuine seals of the incumbered estates court; he spent rents from properties he held in receivership; and he misappropriated marriage settlements entrusted to him as a solicitor. All were lost in disastrous speculations of at least £1.5 million, and rather than face the shameful consequences of his actions he committed suicide near Jack Straw's Tavern on Hampstead Heath on 17 February 1856 by consuming prussic acid. He is buried in an unmarked grave (plot no. 7158) in Highgate cemetery.
As shareholders Sadleir's family suffered severe financial losses after the collapse of the Tipperary as the depositors targeted their personal wealth, which was not protected by limited liability legislation, and James Sadleir's entire estate was confiscated. Vincent Scully was forced to sell 3,000 acres to meet his compromise of £10,000, and James Scully had to mortgage property for £14,000. The family was politically ruined and the shame of being connected to Sadleir severely strained relationships among them. The Scullys and Keatings severed relations with each other because of the close connection between Robert Keating, a director of the London and County, and John Sadleir. James Sadleir was declared an outlaw, but fled to Geneva before he could be apprehended and was murdered there in 1881, having lived on an annuity provided by his in-laws, the wealthy Wheatley family.
The memory of Sadleir's swindles, and especially the collapse of the Tipperary and the consequent suffering of many small depositors, lived on for decades in the county. Nineteenth-century novelists caricatured him in such characters as Merdle in Dickens's Little Dorrit, John Needham in Joseph Hatton's John Needham's double, Davenport Dunne in Charles Lever's Davenport Dunne, and Jabez North in Mary Elizabeth Bradden's Trail of the serpent.