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Saunders and Sweetman letterbook, 1788-1804

3 centimetres of textual records

Administrative history
The Saunders and Sweetman firm grew out of a business formed at Placentia circa 1753 by Richard Welsh of New Ross, Ireland. Welsh arrived at Placentia in 1734, probably to work as an apprentice clerk or shopkeeper for one of the north Devon firms which dominated the migratory fishery at Placentia and routinely stopped at Waterford to pick up passengers en route to Newfoundland. Welsh was an important intermediary between the Irish servants and West country merchants, periodically called on to settle disputes. Welsh may have risen to the position of agent (manager) for one of the firms because, by circa 1750, he had acquired property at Placentia for his own mercantile premises. During Welsh's time, the cod fishery was changing at Placentia and elsewhere in that an increasing proportion of merchants' business was derived from the resident planters rather than the migratory trade. Nevertheless, like his predecessors from Bideford and Barnstaple, Welsh earned a considerable fortune from the Newfoundland cod trade. Upon his death in 1770, heirs to the estate divided £15,000, and son David acquired the business. The marriage of Welsh's three daughters - Bridget to Paul Farrell of Waterford, Ann to William Saunders of Bideford (whom he had hired as his agent at Placentia), and Mary to Roger Sweetman of Newbawn near New Ross - helped to reinforce his connections with the merchants of Waterford and Devon, and also established the framework for the firm's succession.

Paul Farrell died in 1774, as did David Welsh a short time later, making way for Saunders and Sweetman who became trustees on the £15,000 dowry for Bridget's marriage to John Blackney the following year - apparently the greatest portion of which was spent developing the Placentia trade. William Saunders assumed control of the firm after David Welsh's death and moved its English headquarters from Bideford to Poole which was rapidly becoming the mercantile centre of the Newfoundland trade. Saunders retired to Poole in 1783, leaving his younger brother Thomas in charge of what had become one of the most prosperous firms in the Newfoundland trade and the leading mercantile house in Poole, with several ocean-going vessels, a presence in a dozen southern European ports where their fish was shipped, and Newfoundland premises at Great and Little Placentia, Point Verde, Paradise, Marticott Island and a farm at Brule. William Saunder's death in 1788 resulted in the firm's change of name to Saunders and Sweetman, reflecting Roger Sweetman's significant share in its ownership. Pierce Sweetman, Roger's son, went to Placentia about that time to assist Thomas Saunders, William's brother, with the management of the firm.

When Thomas Saunders died in 1808, the business dissolved and the firm's holding were advertised for sale. Apparently the Sweetmans acquired the property and continued on their own with Pierce in charge at Placentia. Under his direction the firm continued to be a major player in the south coast despite the fact that the migratory fishery was being replaced by the resident fishery and fewer and fewer servants from Ireland were required at Placentia. In the 1820s, Pierce began outfitting vessels for the annual seal hunt, an enterprise hitherto prosecuted by firms on the northeast coast in closer proximity to the seal herds. In 1860, Pierce Sweetman died and his son, Roger, closed the business - no doubt because of diminishing returns resulting from increasing competition from local firms. Nevertheless, it was an extremely successful firm, outlasting most of its English and Irish contemporaries in the trade.
Sources: Mannion, John,' Irish Merchants Abroad: The Newfoundland Experience, 1750-1850', Newfoundland Studies, Fall 1986, Vol. 2(2), pp. 127-190

Scope and content
This is a photocopy of a letterbook, containing outgoing correspondence, business transactions and personal letters for the firm at Placentia, Newfoundland, 1788-1804.

Reference information
Copyright is held by the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Location: MF-0161A and B, Maritime History Archive

Administrative information
Copied from the original document held at the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, P7/A/22

Associated material
Sweetman and Co., Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, MG 49
Sweetman & Co., Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, MG 867

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