Bianconi, Charles (1786–1875), transport entrepreneur, was born Joachim Carlo Guiseppe Bianconi on 24 September 1786 at Tregolo, near Como in Lombardy, Italy, the second of five children of Pietro and Maria Bianconi. His father owned a farm and a silk mill, and was agent for the estate of the Bonancina family in northern Italy. Carlo was educated for the priesthood, but at the age of sixteen was apprenticed to Andrea Faroni, a dealer in prints and art, and sent to the UK to break up an imprudent love affair. In 1802 they arrived in Dublin, and settled in Temple Bar, near Essex Bridge, where they sold cheap religious images and topical prints. Deciding to remain in Ireland, after Faroni returned to Italy, Bianconi travelled throughout the country selling prints. He applied his skills to other trades and, following a brief period as a carver and gilder in Carrick-on-Suir and Waterford (1806–8), settled in Clonmel (1808–9), Co. Tipperary. It was here that he first demonstrated his business acumen by dealing in the bullion trade, buying gold to pay the armies engaged in the war against Napoleon. Travelling around Ireland, he noticed that the country lacked a cheap and reliable coach service between rural towns. To remedy this, in July 1815 he started a new business carrying passengers, goods, and mail between Clonmel and Cahir in a one-horse, two-wheeled carriage. He had little success at first, but when he ran a competing service, concealing his ownership, the excitement produced by the publicity surrounding the ‘rivals’ created interest. He took advantage of a new carriage tax (which threw many jaunting cars on to the market) and the ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 (which made good horses available cheaply) to expand his services.
The success of the Cahir-Clonmel route allowed Bianconi to enlarge his transport network rapidly and the route was extended to Tipperary and Limerick. By the end of 1815 his cars, or ‘Bians’ as they became known, were running between Clonmel, Cashel and Thurles and in 1816 a service to Waterford was established with connecting routes to Dungarvan and into counties Kilkenny and Wexford. His coaching service spread further north and west over the next decade, with his various styles and sizes of coaches (from the larger ‘Finn McCools’ and ‘Massey Dawsons’ to the lighter ‘Faugh-a-Ballagh’ cars) all made at Bianconi's factories in Clonmel and later in Galway and Sligo. Coaching inns sprang up along the routes served by his coaches and in 1832 he owned around 300 horses, with his cars travelling around 1,800 miles per day. By the 1840s his service had become ubiquitous in the three southern provinces, and reached its zenith in 1845, when he owned 100 cars and 1,400 horses that covered around 3,800 miles a day, encompassing twenty-three counties and around 120 towns and cities.
This success was fuelled by cheap fares (around one and a half pence per mile) and the regularity of the service, which allowed him to make deals with local postmasters to carry the mail along several coaching routes after the success of his Clonmel-Cahir service in 1815. This became a major source of income and the reliability of his service and his personal contact with the postmaster general, the duke of Richmond, helped him secure lucrative contracts with the Post Office after 1830 (following the amalgamation of the Irish and British post offices) to carry the mail throughout the south and west of the country. Bianconi also became acquainted with Anthony Trollope (qv) who spent some time in Clonmel as a post office employee. An exceptional success in what was otherwise an economically depressed region, Bianconi was invited in 1843 to deliver a paper on his coaching business to the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cork – an invitation repeated for the Dublin meeting in 1857. He was a well-regarded and respected employer, being firm but fair with his workers, and he was particularly careful to ensure that his horses, the most important asset of his business, were properly fed and cared for.
The near monopoly that Bianconi held on the transport system ended with the coming of the railways in the 1840s. Yet as the railway system developed he was able to adapt his routes to act as feeder services to railway stations and he concentrated other coaches on areas not serviced by the trains. By 1861 he still had over 900 horses in his coaching business which operated on around 4,000 miles of road. He recognised that the railway would play a more important role in Irish transport in the future and he bought shares in the Waterford-Limerick rail company (which passed through Clonmel) before becoming one of its directors.
Bianconi immersed himself in the life and society of his adopted home of Clonmel and played an active role in the politics of the town. He was a devout catholic and had a liberal political outlook, supporting catholic emancipation and other reforms that furthered the position of catholics. He became a naturalised British subject in 1831 and in July 1834 was elected one of Clonmel's town commissioners, responsible for watchmen and for lighting the town. In the first elections for Poor Law Guardians in 1839 he topped the poll in the Clonmel electoral district. Bianconi was also elected as a councillor for Clonmel (1843) following the reform of municipal corporations in 1840 and was twice elected mayor of Clonmel in 1845 and 1846. A good friend of both Daniel O'Connell (qv) and William Smith O'Brien (qv), he was an important ally of O'Connell in Clonmel and south Tipperary and became a director of the Clonmel branch of the National Bank, established by O'Connell in 1834. O'Connell frequently visited Bianconi and they became related through marriage after Bianconi's second daughter Mary Anne married Morgan John O'Connell (1811–75), MP for Co. Kerry (1835–52) and a nephew of the Liberator, and his son Charles married a grand-daughter of O'Connell. Bianconi was also one of the main organisers of the Repeal ‘Monster Meetings’ for Tipperary in Cashel and Nenagh in 1843 and he had a conspicuous role in the celebrations that followed O'Connell's release from prison in 1844. As a leading lay catholic figure, Bianconi made generous donations to the church and a number of charities. He gave financial aid to the Christian Brothers and several national schools in the Clonmel area and in 1854 he played a part in the founding of the Catholic University in Dublin, contributing money and becoming a trustee of the university. He was well known by some leading religious figures, including Fr Theobald Mathew (qv).
Bianconi's large personal wealth allowed him to buy the trappings of the lifestyle of a country gentleman and in 1846 he purchased the estate of Longfield (which included a house and c.1,000 acres), at Boherlahan near Cashel, for £22,000. He added significantly to his property by purchasing another 6,000 acres before he died, much of which was bought under the terms of the Encumbered Estates Act (1849). During the Great Famine, he played an important role in relief efforts in south Tipperary and distributed large quantities of Italian foods, mostly polenta and macaroni, to the starving peasantry. His important contribution to Tipperary society was recognised in 1863 when he was appointed deputy lieutenant for the county. From this time he began to dispose of his business, selling many of his horses and coaches to his employees, and concentrated on improving his estates. He died 22 September 1875, and was buried in the mortuary chapel he had built on his estate.
On 14 February 1827 he married Elizabeth Hayes, the daughter of Patrick and Henrietta (née Burton) Hayes of Dublin, whom he had known since she was a child. They had three children: a son Charles, who died in 1864 aged thirty-one, and two daughters, Mary Anne, and Kate, who died in 1854. Mary Anne, the only child to survive her father, became his first biographer in 1878.