Bianconi – the Great Innovator
My name is Brian Daly and and I want to talk to you about Charles Bianconi the great innovator. Near the Black Abbey, at the Brega river, there is a 3 story building marked Bianconi Court. This was the Kilkenny depot of the Bianconi coach network which transformed travel in Ireland before the construction of the railways.
Who was this Bianconi?
It turns out that that he was the Michael O’Leary of his time and what O’Leary did for air travel in our time, Bianconi did for public transport in Ireland 200 years ago.
He came to Ireland from Italy, with 3 other teenage apprentices based in Dublin, walking the country, selling pictures to wealthy households. As a young man he set up his own business with a shop selling prints and gilding, looking glass and picture frames, first in Carrick on Suir , then in Waterford and finally in Clonmel where he prospered, always with the objective of returning to Italy to marry his sweetheart, Giovanna.
At that time, while there was a public mail coach service, the main mode of travel was by foot – a day’s walk to the next town, a day to do business and another day to walk home.
In the Summer of 1814, Napoleon was banished to Elba, the price of grain dropped dramatically and the demand for horses for service in the army also dropped. Bianconi now saw the opportunity to put his dream of travel for common people into practice.
He started by carrying “cross mails” on a Jaunting car which could carry up to 6 passengers from Clonmel to Cahir where the mail was delivered to the postmaster for onward transmission.
From this small start, a network of routes was established; at its peak, servicing the country from Wexford to Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway and north to Enniskillen and Strabane. He had his own workshops and forges to build and maintain his fleet, agents to manage his depots in all the main towns and a general manager Dan Hearn who was paid a salary of £2 a week, a tidy sum for that time.
The agents were tightly managed – passengers and goods were booked and fares collected, there was a way bill for every journey similar to our present airline travel documents, containing driver’s and horses’ names, time of arrival and departure at each town, and names of each passenger.
Every 3 days the agent returned the way bills to Head Office and each month a consolidated return of receipts and expenditure.
Every 10 days a report on horse’s consumption of oats, hay and straw for bedding had to be returned.
Bianconi studied his reports very carefully and insisted on the highest standards for his staff – anyone telling lies was instantly dismissed and the same punishment for drunkenness on duty. The wives of his grooms were forbidden to keep hens for fear they would divert the horse’s oats. His men were not allowed to marry without permission. This was to protect them from blackmail by women of the street! His drivers were not allowed to carry any letters except official mail –on the first offence they were fined and on the second, dismissed. On the other hand, a driver who had to retire because of accident or old age would be paid full wages during his retirement.
Bianconi became very wealthy, married and had a family, was a major figure in Irish society, but never returned to Italy to marry his sweetheart.