Modern duplexes now sit on a location in Placentia where years ago, the Sweetman family built Blenheim House. This would’ve been in the latter eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The Sweetmans were a noteworthy and eminent merchant family in Placentia during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The name chosen for the house in Placentia was identical to Blenheim Lodge, the estate of the Sweetmans in County Waterford in Ireland. The Sweetman family was well-established on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rise of the Sweetmans
The Sweetman mercantile firm in Placentia, at one time known as Saunders and Sweetman, developed from a business started in Placentia by Richard Welsh in 1753. Richard Welsh hailed from New Ross, Ireland and eventually founded and controlled a successful merchant firm based on the fishery. The success and strength of the firm was later fortified by marriages that united the three daughters of Richard Welsh with wealthy businessmen Paul Farrell, William Saunders and Roger Sweetman.
Photograph of Richard Welsh’s grave marker in Placentia, NL (Source: Lee Everts).
After the death of Richard Welsh in 1770, it was William Saunders who took control of the firm. He did so with the assistance of his brother, Thomas Saunders, David Welsh, Richard Welsh’s son, and Paul Farrell. However, with the untimely deaths of Paul Farrell and then David Welsh, both in 1774, William Saunders became the sole owner of the business. At this time, it became the William Saunders and Company.
Saunders and Sweetman
The Sweetman family and the Saunders were closely linked,1 as explained in a letter to Roger Sweetman of Wexford in the spring of 1788 from William Saunders. In it Saunders says he will “pay strict attention to the trade, hoping to carry it on in an amicable way and profitable for the benefit of all parties.” Saunders goes on to comment on prospects for the fishery, expressing the hope that Pierce Sweetman will arrive soon in Placentia. He sends regards to Roger Sweetman’s family and signs himself “assured friend and honourable servant.”
The grave marker of John Hamilton, died 26th January, 1826 (Source: Tom O’Keefe).
Pierce Sweetman, the son of Roger Sweetman and Mary Welsh soon followed in the footsteps of his grandfather. He joined William Saunders in order to learn the business. Then, following the death of William Saunders in 1788, his brother Thomas Saunders became director. Things had progressed so that Sweetman was a formal partner by the fall of 1789. At this point, the name of the Company shifted to Saunders and Sweetman.2
Development of Blenheim House
Richard Welsh possessed a “dwelling housing” in Placentia.3 It’s likely the Blenheim House was built on the same location in the latter eighteenth or early nineteenth century.4 By 1810, it and its belongings were actually being auctioned off.5
Roger Forstall Sweetman, Pierce Sweetman and Julia Forstall’s son arrived in 1813 in Placentia to take control of the business. Thomas Saunders had died earlier in 1808, leaving the Sweetmans in complete control of the business.
As Roger F. Sweetman continued to reside in the property, it is likely that it was his family who had gone on to buy the Blenheim House when it was auctioned off.
Except for a departure from Placentia between 1842 and 1850, following the death of his father, Blenheim House remained the home of the Sweetmans. In 1859, the firm of Roger F. Sweetman became insolvent. A few years later on the 27th November, 1862 Roger F. Sweetman passed away.
Later Years of Blenheim House
Harold Kalman explains that after the Sweetmans departed, the house was used “… as the first Placentia cable office of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company.”6 He noted that its architecture consisted of a “double-pile plan with a central hall, two chimneys, and a hipped roof.” The timing is uncertain, but they no doubt took place after Roger F. Sweetman’s death in the latter 19th century.
Blenheim House was demolished in the 1930s, a new house being built by a descendant, James Verran.7 Its absence does not detract from the significant role the Sweetman family has played in the history of Placentia. It was in the 18th century, when figures such as the Sweetmans and by extension, other notable figures such as the Welsh and Saunders families became intertwined in the history of the Placentia area.
While the wood, bricks and mortar of Blenheim House are now gone, there is still a tangible touchstone of the role the Sweetmans played in Placentia history. At some point during the life of Blenheim House, an interesting and odd thing occurred. It was linked to someone by the name of John Hamilton. Mystery surrounds Hamilton, as there are many questions tied to his true identity.
A quirky thing happened. Apparently, the headstone intended for John Hamilton was used as the doorstep for Blenheim House. When this occurred is unknown. Although the headstone states John Hamilton passed away on the 18th January, 1826.
An archaeological study done by Barry Gaulton and Matthew Carter for the Provincial Archaeology Office (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador) offers an explanation:
“The stone was then sent over as ballast in a ship owned by a Placentia merchant named Sweetman. When the stone arrived in Placentia there must have been some problems with payment or otherwise, for instead of using it as a grave marker, the stone was used as a front doorstep for the merchant’s house!”
A touch of mystery still suffuses the Placentia area in relation to Blenheim House. Nonetheless, it is doubtful anyone would deny places such as the Blenheim House are one of the primary intangible and tangible reminders of this chapter of Placentia area history.
1Mannion, J. 1986 “Irish Merchants Abroad: The Newfoundland Experience, 1750-1850” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 2(2), 127-190.
2Mannion 1986, 147
3“Last Will and Testament of Richard Welsh”
4In a painting by J.S. Meres entitled “A View of the Town and Harbour of Placentia from the Hill Aback of the Town,” the official artist who accompanied Prince William Henry in 1786 to Placentia, a dwelling house is located in the location of where Blenheim House would be built decades to come. This was likely the Dwelling House to which Richard Welsh referred.
5Royal Gazette – S&S Auction – 30 August 1810
6In A Concise History of Canadian Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 – p. 84).
7James Verran is the grandson of Harry Verran, a cornish miner, who married Mary Josephine Sweetman, the daughter of Roger F. Sweetman and his wife, Honoria Sweetman (née Sinnott).