Infamous Irish Banknotes: Lord ffrench & Co (Tuam & Dublin)


ffrench’s Bank was probably, the most famous of the provincial private banks in Ireland and due to the frequency that they turn up at auction, they are amongst the most collectible of early Irish banknotes.  The bank was founded in late 1803 by Sir Thomas ffrench and William Keary.  The correct form for the surname is “double f” in lower case, i.e. ffrench.

Sir Thomas was the son of Sir Charles ffrench of Castle ffrench who was created a baronet in 1779. Sir Charles, a Catholic, was active in the cause of Catholic Emancipation.  Sir Charles was active in the service of Lord Westmorland (the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1789-94) who promised to get him a peerage for his services.

  • Unfortunately, King George III could not bestow this honour on a Catholic under the Penal laws
  • In 1798, the title Baroness was conferred on ffrench’s wife, a Protestant, with succession of title to her male heirs
  • Consequently, upon her death in 1805, her eldest son (Thomas) became Lord Thomas ffrench
    • His bank was then called ‘The Right Hon. Lord ffrench & Co’

By this time the bank had a discounting house in Galway City and had opened a branch at 21 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin.  This office was later relocated at 12 Upper Ormond Quay.  In 1814 the Irish Post Office re-numbered the Ormond Quay addresses and No.12 became No. 13 — some might say (in hindsight) an unlucky change !

From 1805 onward, the bank expanded its partners to include the following :-

  • In 1805 the Hon. Charles ffrench became a partner
    • born in 1786 and died in 1860
    • married to Maria, daughter of John Brown of the Moyne
  • In 1806 Henry Edward Taaffe
    • from Woodfield, Co. Mayo (his mother was Julia Bellew of Mount Bellew)
    • married to Eleanor Lynch—Athy of Renville
  • In 1807 the Hon. Thomas ffrench
    • born in 1790 and died unmarried in 1846
    • he lived in Galway and visited the various branches
  • In 1811 Lord ffrench retired and his third son the Hon. Martin ffrench became a partner
    • born in 1793 and died in 1871
    • married to Margaret, daughter of Major Thomas Bodkin of Rahoon

The other two partners were William Keary who managed the Tuam Office and Michael Morris who managed the Dublin Office.  Both Keary and Morris were Tuam businessmen.

  • 1814 – ffrench & Co (Tuam & Dublin)
    • During the Napoleonic War the circulating money in Co Galway was almost exclusively country bankers’ notes
      • Just two banks predominated – Lord ffrench & Co and those of Messrs. Joyce & Co
    • Partners visited major fairs / markets in Co Galway exchanging their notes for Bank of Ireland notes
      • Virtually all the banknotes in Connacht were Ffrench & Co notes by 1814
        • It was often said that ffrench’s banknotes were preferred to Bank of Ireland notes
        • This was partially due to the fact that ffrench’s notes were issued in Sterling (English pounds)
        • ffrench’s Bank notes were issued in the following nine denominations:
          • £1; 1 guinea; 25 shillings; 30 shillings; £3; 3 guineas; £4; £10; and 10 guineas
          • These banknotes were worth 8½% more than the equivalent Bank of Ireland notes
            • The Irish pound was valued at 18 shillings and 5½ pence (English)
            • The English pound at 1 pound, 15 shillings and 8 pence (Irish)
ffrench;s Bank, Dublin - 25 shillings, ireland, irish, banknote

ffrench’s Bank, Dublin – 25 shillings (one pound & five shillings)

ffrench's Bank, Tuam - one guinea ireland irish

ffrench’s Bank, Tuam – one guinea (21 shillings English, or 1 pound, 2 shillings and 9 pence Irish)

ffrench's Bank, Tuam - three pounds ireland irish sterling

ffrench’s Bank, Dublin – Three pounds (Irish)

Ireland, at that time, had no gold or silver coinage of her own.

  • The standard gold coins in circulation were the English guinea and half-guinea
    • These were valued at 21 shillings and 10 shillings & sixpence, respectively
    • The gold sovereign (pound coin) would not be introduced until 1817 (via the Coin Act of 1816)
  • In addition, there were the English crown (5 shillings), half-crown, shilling and sixpence (silver coins)
  • The new (Soho) copper coinage of George II had been introduced in 1805-06 (farthings, halfpennies and pennies)

Banknotes were not commonly used outside of the towns in Connacht.  Prior to the Great Re-Coinage of George III in 1805, Irish coins were in short supply and of poor quality.  Copper tokens were available in some of the larger towns and contemporary forgeries (despite the penalties) were commonplace.  As such, the people had more trust in tickets (IOU’s).

  • These tickets were traded at a discount, multiple times – until a form of ‘bridging loan’ was required
    • this resulted in ‘semi-legal’ usury and pawnbroking services (often at extortionate rates)
    • this fictitious and objectionable currency enabled the people to carry on their business in the towns
  • the Bank of Ireland intervened by issuing silver tokens (to the value of 5d, 10d and 6 shillings)
    • the people, distrusting of coins in general and ignorant of their new silver content, stayed loyal to the ticket system and the extortionate usury / pawning

The Banking Crisis of 1814

All seemed to be going well until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Prior to this, the wars had generated a huge volume of economic activity with agricultural prices high, export volumes up and, generally, the Irish economy was doing well.  When the war ended, the Dutch ports were opened up but prices still remained high and there was much optimism.  The Corn laws of 1791 and 1804 had demonstrated the political strength of the landlord classes and they were confident that foreign competition would not be a problem after the war.

The first jolt to their reality came in the Autumn of 1813 when, with record harvests, agricultural prices fell by 20% and fell further.  The economic result was severe and immediate due to the fact that over 33% of the population worked in the agricultural sector.  Country banks were affected most, as landlords, farmers and property speculators defaulted on loans and mortgages.  Provincial banks all over England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland began to fee the pinch.

  • In 1813, only 8 (out of almost 600 country banks) failed
  • By the summer of 1814, country banks began to fail all over the UK
  • In addition, over 100,000 labourers engaged in military supplies were out of work – further depressing the economy
  • All over Europe a similar story unfolded and their farmers struggled to find new markets for their produce
  • As English landlords campaigned for a new Corn Law (not enacted until 1815), Irish rural confidence floundered

On June 27th, 1814 ffrench’s Bank stopped payments and a commission of bankruptcy followed.  The bank has liabilities of £239,000 of which £175,000 was in respect of issued banknotes.  On the plus side of the balance sheet, the bank was owed £180,000 by its creditors but almost all of this was swallowed up by legal fees.

The estates of Keary and Morris were sold to pay some of the bank debts. Both later emigrated to America.

  • It transpired that some of the junior partners never paid their qualifying £5,000 to join the company
  • One of the Directors was overdrawn to the tune of £15,000
  • On December 9th, 1814, Lord ffrench shot himself in the head, in despair over the bank’s failure
    • According to The Gentleman’s Magazine, he shot himself in the head (in a room in Trinity College, Dublin)
    • He allegedly used his dueling pistols, one discharged into his head and the other into a chair in the fall
    • His titles and lands were devolved to his eldest son, the Hon. Charles ffrench, thence 3rd Baron ffrench
    • Lord ffrench (2nd Baron ffrench) was a Trustee of the Royal College of St Patrick, Maynooth at the time

It is not known if Lord ffrench was in Trinity to fight a duel or to practice but College Park, at the time, was a popular venue for such encounters.  While the modern DU Fencing Club was founded in 1941, its origins can be dated to the 1700s when a ‘Gentleman’s Club of the Sword’ existed, primarily for dueling practice.

  • In the 1790’s, Trinity Provost Hely-Hutchinson fought a duel with a Mr. William Doyle, Master in Chancery. Afterwards, he allegedly ‘allowed’ students to fight duels in College Park
    • One pamphleteer wrote “Scarce a week passes without a duel between some of the students; some of them have been slain, others maimed; the College Park is publicly made the place for learning the exercise of the pistol; shooting at marks by the gownsmen is every day’s practice; the very chambers of the College frequently resound with the explosions of pistols.”
  • The death rate for duels fought in Ireland was estimated to be 1 in 4, more than in England (death rate = 1 in 14)
  • A code of conduct was adopted in Clonmel in the summer of 1777 – the only surviving rules in the world
  • Dueling was so popular 1800, there were 19 companies in Dublin alone making or selling dueling pistols
  • Consequently, Ireland was the first country in the world to require gun licences

The collapse of french’s bank brought ruin to many in Co Galway.  Both landlords and tenants alike in the farming community and many business families suffered.  Several historians cite the collapse of ffrench’s Bank as the beginning of the decline of several East Galway estates rather than the famine some thirty years later.

Needless to say the creditors got very little and over 50% of the £300,000 worth of their banknotes in circulation were never redeemed.

 Tuam Bank, One Pound, 25 June 1813, no. 1037, for Hon Charles Ffrench, Henry Taaffe, Michael Morris, William Keary, Hon Thomas Ffrench & Hon Martin Ffrench (PB 332c). Bankruptcy stamp on front

Tuam Bank, One Pound, 25 June 1813, no. 1037, for Hon Charles Ffrench, Henry Taaffe, Michael Morris, William Keary, Hon Thomas Ffrench & Hon Martin Ffrench (PB 332c). Bankruptcy stamp on front

The legal aspects of the bankruptcy of the 3rd Baron ffrench went from 1816 to the 1840’s but he continued to live in the house his grandfather built (Castle ffrench) up until 1851 when the estate was sold in the Encumbered Estates’ Court to James Thorngate just after The Great Famine had ended.

Papers relating to law cases (1816, 1821, 1824, 1830, 1841) and to the bankruptcy of the family (1816-1821, 1833-1840) are held in the National Library of Ireland – if anyone is interested in seeking more information on this.

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