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Charles Bianconi

HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

CHARLES BIANCONI (1786 - 1875) – THE MAN WHO PUT IRELAND ON WHEELS

6 July 1815, Hearn’s Hotel, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. As his custom-built jaunting car clattered off down the road to Cahir on its debut journey, Charles Bianconi must have ruminated on whether his idea was a complete folly. The coach, pulled by a solitary horse, had left bang on time, in keeping with the 31-year-old Italian’s belief in absolute punctuality. But the six seats on board, three on either side, were empty. Undeterred, Bianconi made sure his coach departed at exactly the same time on the next day. And the next and the next. Still no one was prepared to expend one shilling and sixpence on the fare.

Bianconi came up with the solution. He secretly arranged for a second coach to line up alongside his own one, as if it was a competitor. The good citizens of Clonmel perked up as the two coaches simultaneously shot off to Cahir, albeit still empty. Before long a few people had finally paid to board one of these racing coaches. They were impressed by its speed. By the end of the summer, Bianconi’s horse-drawn carriage was so full that he laid on extra cars, and opened up new lines to Cashel, Thurles, Tipperary and Carrick-on-Suir. Bianconi’s cars were up and away.

Carlo Bianconi, as he was christened, was, by all accounts, a most remarkable, resourceful and good-hearted man. He was born on 26th September 1785, at Tregolo, an Alpine community in the Duchy of Milan (now Lombardy) in northern Italy.[i] Pietro Bianconi, his father, owned a small silk mill and farmed sheep and goats.

As a youngster he was sent to Caglio, near Asso, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother. His uncle Dr Mazza was provost of Asso; other family members were also influential in the church. [ii] He attended a distinguished school in Asso but the priest who ran it described him as ‘a troublesome dunce’ who left school ‘almost as ignorant as when he entered it and a great deal more wilful.’ At this time, he began courting the daughter of a wealthy neighbour. [iii]

In 1802 Pietro felt compelled to pay Andrea Faroni, an artisan colleague based in England, to take Carlo as an apprentice for 18 months. Faroni, a seller of prints, barometres and looking glasses, was advised that if things didn’t pan out, the youngster was to be placed under the care of Paul Colnaghi, the London printer, who was a friend of Pietro.

Before he departed, he visited his mother who fainted before telling him, ‘Whenever you think of me, and are at a loss to know what I am doing, I shall be at that window, from which I shall soon witness your departure, watching your return.’ [iv]

Contrary to the original plan, Faroni took the boy to Ireland instead of England, basing himself in Temple Bar, Dublin. Faroni’s marketing strategy was to send the handsome 16-year-old and other Italian boys in his employ onto the streets of Dublin on a Monday morning, armed with £2 worth of Italian prints set in leaden frames. Their brief was to sell all their prints before they returned on Saturday night with the proceeds.[v] Bianconi’s charm ensured he became a successful salesman and gradually, travelling on foot, a haversack full of prints on his back, his pedalling sphere was increased to include the wider county of Dublin, the seaports of the east coast and, latterly, Wexford and Waterford.

In later life, Bianconi often entertained his dinner guests by producing an oblong box from a cabinet, which was full of tiny busts and plaster casts of Napoleon, Shakespeare, Venus, Jupiter and such like. He would then tell how he had once carried this very box either on his head or slung over a shoulder and walked the roads of Ireland, selling his wares. [vi] On one such occasion, he was arrested at Parkgate, near Waterford, and imprisoned overnight for selling the busts of the tyrant Bonaparte. [vii]

However, the main lesson he learned from his travels was that Ireland was sorely in need of a public transport system and accommodation for travellers.[viii]

Bianconi’s excellent motto was ‘Earn a shilling a day and live upon sixpence’. By the time his 18-month apprenticeship had expired in 1804 he had saved £50. Faroni offered to bring him back to Italy but he declined, having decided to go into business on his own. He opened his first shop as a carver and gilder near Oven Lane in Carrick-on-Suir in 1806. [ix]

In order to acquire gold leaf for his shop, Bianconi had to walk to Waterford which, although just 16 miles from Carrick by land, could only be accessed by a four or five hour journey on Tom Morrissey’s boat, depending on the tide. On one particularly wet voyage with Morrissey, the Italian contracted a severe case of pleurisy which had him bedridden for two months.[x]

When he recovered, he initially lived and worked in Waterford but later, with the support of Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers, he opened a large shop in Clonmel. He also kept lodgers in the shop, including Edward Hayes, the portrait artist and future member of the RHA; the two became tremendous friends and the walls of Bianconi’s walls were later decorated with Hayes paintings of his family, as well as of Catherine Hayes, the celebrated Limerick singer.

As his savings increased, he purchased a horse and cart with which to transport himself and his stock. He found that he was frequently stopping to give a lift to those who could not afford to use the expensive mail coaches.

On 18 June 1815, the Duke of Wellington trounced the French at Waterloo and restored peace to Europe. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, so Ireland was abruptly flooded with cheap but ‘first class’ army horses.[xi] Bianconi snapped up a number of these for between £10 and £20 a head, including one particularly sturdy horse which, as he recalled, ‘drew a car and six persons with ease seven miles (11km) an hour.’ [xii] He then commissioned John Power of Carrickbeg to build his first modest vehicle for hire. On 6 July, the car set off on its debut trip down along the 18km road from Hearn's Hotel in Clonmel to the prosperous flour and corn centre of Cahir.[xiii]

After his crafty trick with the faux competitor, Bianconi’s car had a full load of passengers going either direction. In the late summer he also ran a car between Cashel and Thurles. Again, he didn’t have a single passenger for the first two weeks, but then it took off. By the end of 1815, he had cars plying between Clonmel, Cashel, Thurles, Tipperary and Carrick. The following year he brought them to Waterford and two years later he took in New Ross, Enniscorthy and Wexford.

He simultaneously increased his fleet of ‘Bians’ as they became known. Two-wheeled cars developed into four-wheelers and, depending on the requirements of his passengers and the quality of the road, he was subsequently able to bring in four horses to power the carriage along. His heavy cars were called “Finn MaCools”, the intermediates were “Massey Dawson’s”, and the lighter two-wheeled vehicles were known as “Faugh-a-Ballaghs”. Each new car was made at his factory in Clonmel.

Bianconi attributed his success to ‘perseverance, punctuality and good humour’. [xiv] Richness followed quick as, on average, his passengers paid 1 ¼d. per mile to travel on his cars. [xv] He also made a tidy fortune through lucrative mail delivery contracts with the Post Office.[xvi]

At his peak in 1845, he was one of the largest proprietors of horses and vehicles in Europe, with a fleet of 100 cars, 100 drivers and 1,400 horses, as well as 130 agents to look after the horses. The Bians covered over 4200 miles of Irish road daily, passing through 23 counties, and served 120 towns and villages in the Irish Midlands and South West. [xvii] Bianconi instructed his drivers to try and keep a vacant place on each car for ‘a man with a load, or a woman carrying a child on her back.’ [xviii] Many romances were also apparently kick-started in a Bian.

He also had 140 stations for changing horses, many of which became ‘Bianconi Inns’ where travellers could rest in basic comfort for the night.[xix]

Bianconi reputedly knew each of his driver by name, although he paid the bare minimum and they generally had to rely on passenger tips for their bonus. In later years, many of those drivers too old or infirm to work came to reside in the yard and basement of Bianconi’s home at Longfield where he referred to them as his ‘fire-side fellows.’ [xx]

He was also renowned for looking after their families when times were hard. In one typical instance, he learned of the premature death in Waterford of a driver called Keys who left a destitute widow and six children. Bianconi personally made his way to Royal Oak in County Carlow where Mrs Keys lived and reassured her that he would look after her family. Mr Hackett, presumably his agent, then paid the widow her husband’s weekly wages until her family were raised. [xxi] He behaved in an identical manner to the family of another driver called Thomas Dillon, many of whom went to work with him. Moreover, every Christmas, he would ensure that all drivers and helpers in his employ received ‘a quantum of prime beef to help them to pass the festival more comfortably.’ [xxii]

In another show of munificence, and presumably to encourage good timekeeping, he donated a town clock to every town in Ireland where he had an office.

His cars operated on six days a week as no cars, excluding those connected to the postal system and canals, were permitted to travel on Sunday. He maintained the six-day week was to his advantage as the horses benefited from a day off.[xxiii]

However, not everyone was complimentary about Bianconi. ‘All men will speak well of thee, when thou doest well for thyself’, observed Asenath Nicholson, an American missionary who visited Ireland in 1845. She was deeply critical of Bianconi’s service and bemoaned “the unmerciful loading (ie: overcrowding) of cars and coaches in Ireland, the whipping of the horses, and driving to “keep to time”, has no parallel in any country I have travelled. A lame and worn-down horse is often loaded with six or seven passengers, and all necessary luggage, often with a galled back (chaffing sores), and then beaten till I have, when expostulation was unavailing, jumped from a car ready to resolve I never would ride a mile upon any vehicle drawn by a horse while in the country’.

Nonetheless, Bianconi’s service was an extraordinary achievement and did an enormous amount to open the island up economically and socially, particularly the hitherto remoter regions.[xxiv] As Bianconi himself observed, ‘a farmer who formerly drove, spent three days in making his market, can now do so in one, for a few shillings; thereby saving two clear days, and the expense and use of his horse.’[xxv] He also maintained that ‘this freedom of communication has greatly added to the elevation of the lower classes’, not only by enabling them to travel much quicker but also because ‘travellers by my cars’ were now ‘mixing with the better orders of society’.[xxvi]

The arrival of the railways in the 1830s inevitably affected business and Bianconi was gradually obliged to terminate 37 of his cars.[xxvii] However, undaunted as ever, he not only invested heavily in railway shares with the Waterford and Limerick Railway (becoming a director in 1846) but also opened up new fields, linking rural villages with the new railway stations.[xxviii] By 1858, the ‘monster car proprietor’ as the traveller Stark called him, still had over 900 horses and 67 vehicles covering 4,224 miles daily.[xxix] Receipts from passengers and freight totalled approximately £40,000 a year. [xxx]

Bianconi was a devout Catholic who ran through his Rosary beads every night without fail. He also supported Emancipation from at least 1826, becoming so friendly with Daniel O’Connell that following the Emancipator’s death in 1847, it was Bianconi who arranged for O’Connell’s heart to be buried in Rome.[xxxi] He was ‘eminently liberal’ to many charities associated with the Catholic church, yet he was also applauded for attending to charities connected to other religions.[xxxii] Among his other close friends was Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, whom he called ‘Toby’.[xxxiii]

In 1827, the 41-year-old Bianconi married Eliza Hayes, the daughter of Patrick Hayes, a stockbroker, and his wife Henrietta, who lived on Westmoreland Street in Dublin. Their daughter Kate (Catherine Henrietta) was born in 1828 followed by a son Charles Thomas Bianconi in 1832 and their third and last child Mary Anne in 1840.

Not surprisingly, Bianconi also threw himself into civic affairs, particularly after he obtained letters of naturalization in Ireland in August 1831. He was elected Mayor of Clonmel in 1845 and again in 1846. During his tenure, he was noted for his kindness towards the destitute and homeless, although he caused some alarm amongst his own councillors when, ever punctual, he fined them for being late for a meeting.[xxxiv]

During one of his journeys as a young pedlar earlier in the century, a weary Bianconi had found himself resting by a crossroads at the Moat at Ardmayle near Cahir. Looking across the River Suir, he espied a fine house – Longfield House – and wondered who lived there.[xxxv] In March 1846, Mayor Bianconi purchased Longfield with 622 acres. He later acquired a further 4400 acres of Tipperary and other lands in Galway.

During the famine, he halved the rents for his tenantry and employed many men on relief works at Longfield, including strangers from other parts of Ireland. When his steward argued that the work should be kept by men from the parish, Bianconi replied, ‘I don’t care where a hungry man comes from, I’ll employ him.’ [xxxvi] His fields were tilled for flax-growing for women and he also opened a soup kitchen in the basement of his house at which his wife Elizabeth and daughter Kate worked long hours serving the needy. Kate Bianconi caught a chill during this and never recovered, passing away in Pisa in 1854. [xxxvii]

There was further sadness with the death in 1864 of his only son, 34-year-old Charles, who was serving as Chamberlain to the Pope at the time. Charles Bianconi junior was survived by three daughters. [xxxviii]

He retired in 1865, the year of the Irish Royal at Clonmel, selling his business on liberal terms to his agents and employees. Two years later, 43 of the Bianconi coach stations were put up for sale.

For the last decade of his life, he lived at Longfield, enjoying his grandchildren and exercising his duties as a magistrate and Deputy-Lieutenant for County Tipperary. [xxxix]

Applauded for his lack of ostentation, he died at Longfield on 21st September 1875, five days before his 89th birthday and just over 60 years after his first coach ran. After a service at which Dr. Croke officiated, he was buried in the family vault of the Mortuary Chapel which he had built at Boherlahan. The first to be buried there was his daughter Kate to whose memory he commissioned Giovanni Benzoni to erect a beautiful marble monument. Many of his ‘fireside fellows’ are also buried outside the chapel, including his trusty butler, James Sweetman. [xl]

As the Tralee Chronicle put it in 1859, ‘Charles Bianconi is one of those remarkable men who, from time to time, are to be found in every country – men whom Providence sends forth from their own land, in a spirit of adventure, to invigorate the country of their adoption – to be at once the founders of their own prosperity, and the benefactors of society.’ [xli] The Morning Post concurred: ‘He has left behind him a name unsullied by a word of detraction, for he was beloved by all who knew him, and had gained the respect of all classes and creeds from the highest to the lowest.’ [xlii]

He was survived by just one of his three children, his youngest daughter Mary Anne. She married Morgan John O’Connell, the barrister and MP for Kerry, who was a nephew of Daniel O’Connell. Morgan predeceased Bianconi and died at Longfield.[xliii] She was author of the life of her father as well as ‘The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade’. [xliv]

NB: Bianconi's private papers were acquired by Dr Tony Ryan, the late aviation giant, in the 1980s. Dr. Ryan's father was a train driver from Boherlahan.

 

With considerable thanks to the wonderful researcher Maria O'Brien.


FOOTNOTES

[i] Tregolo is in the Costa Masnaga comune, about 35km north east of Milan.

[ii] The Life & Times of Charles Bianconi, Tralee Chronicle, 19 August 1859.

[iii] See http://www.bianconi-irital.com/story.html

[iv] The Life & Times of Charles Bianconi, Tralee Chronicle, 19 August 1859.

[v] The Life & Times of Charles Bianconi, Tralee Chronicle, 19 August 1859.

[vi] This story is told in Stark’s Tour in the South of Ireland (1850, beautifully printed in 1 vol. post Svo. with numerous illustrations by M. Angelo Hayes, Esq), an extract of which was published by the Irish Examiner, 7 October 1850. Michael Angelo Hayes was a kinsman of Bianconi.

[vii] The Life & Times of Charles Bianconi, Tralee Chronicle, 19 August 1859.

[viii] Prior to Bianconi’s innovation, the principal means of transport for most Irish people was their own two legs. The tax on carriages [how much?] was so high that only the very wealthy could afford such vehicles. Moreover, (until when?), Catholic were prohibited from owning a horse valued at more than £5 under the Penal Laws, ostensibly to keep horses suitable for military activity out of the majority's hands.

[ix] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[x] During this time he was cured by Dr. Francis White. The article in the Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society claims Dr White taught him to read books with titles such as ‘The Dunce and the Wildest Boy at School’ and ‘The Value of Time’ but I am not convinced by this!

[xi] Within a decade of the war, the demand and consequently the breeding of horses in Ireland had fallen to such an extent that Bianconi now needed at least two ‘inferior’ horses to draw any of his carriages, most of which could now carry eight passengers. Nenagh Guardian, 05.09.1857, page 4.

[xii] Nenagh Guardian, 05.09.1857, page 4.

[xiii] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xiv] His second in command was Dan Hearn of Clonmel ‘without whose honesty and unswerving loyalty I could not have bought my undertaking to success’. Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xv] Charles Bianconi in ‘A Compendium of Irish Biography’, 1878, at http://www.libraryireland.com/biography/CharlesBianconi.php

[xvi] Mail contracts were the preserve of the postmaster who were typically loyal Protestant appointees of the ascendancy. The Irish mail-coach service was inefficient and overpriced when Bianconi started and he quickly overtook it.

[xvii] Morning Post, 24 Sept 1875; Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xviii] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xix] ‘Bianconi Inns’ were to be found along virtually every main road in the land. Good examples can be found in Castleconnell, County Limerick (now PJ Guerin – The Kingfisher) and Roscommon (JJ Harlow's).

Bianconi apparently knew many of his horses by name. As he later observed, they consumed from 3,000 to 4,000 tons of hay, and from 30,000 to 40,000 barrels of oats, annually.

[xx] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xxi] ‘Mr Bianconi & his Employees’, Tralee Chronicle, 9 June 1863.

[xxii] ‘Mr Bianconi & his Employees’, Tralee Chronicle, 9 June 1863.

[xxiii] ‘Experience teaches me that I can work a horse eight miles per day, six days in the week, much better than I can six miles for seven days; and by not working on Sundays, I effect a saving of 12 per cent.’ Excerpt from a Paper read by mr. Bianconi at the cork meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, August 19th, 1843.

[xxiv] He claimed that fresh fish dispatched by communities on the west coast would reach their final destination by the following morning, even if that required more horses to the detriment of his own profits. Nenagh Guardian, 05.09.1857, page 4.

[xxv] Excerpt from a Paper read by mr. Bianconi at the cork meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, August 19th, 1843.

[xxvi] Nenagh Guardian, 05.09.1857, page 4.

[xxvii] He closed 32 Bians and five coaches. In 1834, the engineer William Dargan began constructing a railway track of 10km between Dublin and Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire). Up until this time, most freight was carried on the inland waterways, the navigable rivers and the man-made canals. Railway fever swiftly enveloped Ireland.

[xxviii] Morning Post, 24 Sept 1875; Charles Bianconi in ‘A Compendium of Irish Biography’, 1878, at http://www.libraryireland.com/biography/CharlesBianconi.php

[xxix] Irish Examiner, 7 October 1850; Nenagh Guardian, 05.09.1857, page 4.

[xxx] In 1857, he proudly remarked: “My conveyances, many of them carrying very important mails, have been travelling during all hours of the day and night, often in lonely and unfrequented places; and during the long period of forty-two years that my establishment is now in existence, the slightest injury has never been done by the people to my property, or that entrusted to my care; and this fact gives me greater pleasure than any pride I might feel in reflecting upon the other rewards of my life’s labour." (Letter read to the British Association and quoted in Nenagh Guardian, 05.09.1857, page 4. See also Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.)

This was not entirely true as the following notice appeared in the July 1st 1818 edition of the Clonmel Advertiser: - “Whereas on the morning of Tuesday June 30th last, the Limerick car was wantonly and outrageously attacked on the public streets of Cahir at the hour of 8 o’clock, and considerably injured, and the passengers put in fear of their lives by the mob. Now, I will pay the sum of twenty pound sterling to any person who will within 6 months from the date here of, give such information as will lead to the conviction of the instigators of this outrage. (Signed) Bianconi. (via http://www.bianconi-irital.com/storypage3.html)

[xxxi] O’Connell’s heart was placed in the wall of the church of St Agata dei Goti although its whereabouts remain a mystery. Liam Collins, ‘Daniel O'Connell: Losing Heart ‘ (2010) via http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/daniel-oconnell-losing-heart-26699406.html

[xxxii] Morning Post, 24 Sept 1875.

[xxxiii] One of Bianconi’s early memories of Ireland involved a punch up while lodging in Thurles in 1805. His opponent was a young man called John Hunt who was continually deriding papists. Bianconi won the fight and Hunt became a respectable solicitor but interestingly his ‘bottle holder’ at the time was Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, a lifelong friend whom he called ‘Toby’. See http://www.bianconi-irital.com/story.html

[xxxiv] Morning Post, 24 Sept 1875; http://www.bianconi-irital.com/storypage4.html

[xxxv] ‘I wonder will the day ever come when I’ll own a fine mansion like that’, he mused, according to his daughter. Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society. See history of Longfield at http://boards.ancestry.com/surnames.long/9126/mb.ashx

[xxxvi] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xxxvii] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xxxviii] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

The Cork Examiner, 1 March 1864: DEATH OF CHARLES BIANCONI, ESQ., JUN. We deeply regret to announce the death of Charles Bianconi, Esq., jun., only son of Charles Bianconi, Esq., D.L., of Longfield Park, county of Tipperary. This young gentleman, who had been for a very long time suffering from a severe illness, had reached his thirty-fourth year of age, and he was esteemed by those who knew him for his kindness of heart and amiability of disposition. He died on Wednesday morning at Holyhead, on his way to London. His remains will be conveyed for interment to the mortuary church of the family at Boherhalan.—Limerick Reporter.

[xxxix] Charles Bianconi in ‘A Compendium of Irish Biography’, 1878, at http://www.libraryireland.com/biography/CharlesBianconi.php

[xl] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

[xli] The Life & Times of Charles Bianconi, Tralee Chronicle, 19 August 1859.

[xlii] Morning Post, 24 Sept 1875.

[xliii] Freeman's Journal 22 Feb 1865: Feb. 21, at the Church of the Catholic University, Morgan John O'CONNELL, Esq., of Ballylean Lodge, county Clare, and the Temple, London, to Mary Anne, only surviving child of Charles Bianconi, Esq, D.L., Longfield, county Tipperary.

Freeman's Journal 5 Jul 1875: July 2, at Longfield, Cashel, the residence of Charles Bianconi, Esq., in the 64th year of his age, Morgan John O'CONNELL, Barrister-at-law and former M.P. For Kerry, of Ballyleane Lodge, county Clare,. See also Morning Post, 24 Sept 1875.

[xliv] Kilkenny People, 12 September 1953. Molly O’Connell Bianconi’s talk on ‘The Bians’ to Kilkenny Archaeological Society.

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