A PhD thesis presented by Michael Ahern in 2003 (and subsequently published) explores the history of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, in County Tipperary from the mid-17th to early 20th centuries. In the text, Dr Ahern notes how, ‘One of the most remarkable achievements of this persecuted minority, consisting of farmers, tradesmen and small business people, was the manner in which they triumphed over adversity and, in the course of time, became successful and prosperous members of the middle class. Participation in the affairs of their own Society provided a sound training which enabled members to cope with the business procedures of the secular world. Although the administrative meetings of the Society generally related to religious concerns, a large proportion of their activities was strictly practical in content and created an environment which cultivated business and administrative expertise.’ During the second half of the 18th century, one of the businesses in which they came to have a powerful presence was milling. Certain urban centres likewise became centres for this activity, among them Clonmel, County Tipperary.’ Legislation passed by the Irish parliament in 1757 offered financial incentives for the land carriage of corn to Dublin; for every five hundred-weight of flour brought to market, a premium of three pence per mile (excluding the first 10 miles) was paid. The result was an explosion in both the production of wheat and corn, and the establishment of mills, especially in areas like Clonmel, which benefitted from fast-moving water (in this case, the river Suir). Anner Mill, the first such Quaker operation, was opened here in 1771 by John Grubb, whose family would become synonymous with the industry. Many more followed, so that in 1797 when legislation was proposed to abolish financial incentives, the business was sufficiently well-established as to be in no need of subsidy: ‘The principal millers in the neighbourhood of Clonmell,’ declared John FitzGibbon, Lord Clare, ‘a part of the kingdom from which there is a considerable influx of corn to the city, do not complain of the bill; on the contrary many have declared that they will not suffer any loss from it.’
Of English origin, the Sparrow family had settled in Ireland in the mid-17th century and soon converted to the Quaker faith. They were based in the Wexford region where one of them, Samuel Sparrow, participated in the 1798 Rebellion and then fled to the United States, were he remained for the rest of his life. Long before then, at some date during the first decades of the 18th century, Richard Sparrow moved from Wexford to Clonmel where he established himself as a baker. His son, Simmons Sparrow, was more ambitious and, like many other members of his church, became involved in the area’s burgeoning milling industry. In 1778 he opened a large mill on the north side of Suir Island, which looked across to Clonmel’s quays and which could take advantage of the river’s fast-moving water. This building continued in operation until 1801 when it was destroyed by fire; eight years later the site was sold by the Sparrows to another Quaker, Thomas Hughes. In the meantime, Simmons Sparrow opened another mill to the immediate west of the town at Toberaheena while for a period in the mid-1790s his son Richard leased another two mills still further west along the Suir. Following Simmons Sparrow’s death the business was continued by Richard but he seems to have lived beyond his means and eventually lost everything, dying in Clapham, outside London in 1814 after which his estate in Tipperary was auctioned to pay the deceased’s debts.
In 1798, the American Quaker preacher and abolitionist William Savery visited this country and noted with dismay that ‘Friends in Ireland seemed to live like princes of the earth, more than in any country I have seen – their gardens, horses, carriages, and various conveniences, with the abundance of their tables, appeared to me to call for much more gratitude and humility, than in some instances, it is feared is the case’. While in Clonmel, where he stayed with the successful miller (and Quaker) Sarah Grubb, Savery visited the home of Richard Sparrow, judging it to be ‘a very sumptuous establishment indeed, which I did not omit to tell him was quite too much so’, his stables being fit for a nobleman. The house in question was Oaklands, seen in today’s photographs. Little information exists about the building, the fine entrance to which was shown here last Saturday. Of three storeys over basement, it has four bays, with a central breakfront accommodating two and a plain limestone portico supported by paired Doric columns, behind which was a doorcase with fan- and substantial sidelights. The garden front featured a substantial canted bow and a flight of cast-iron steps giving access to one of the reception rooms. This was one of four such spaces on the ground floor of the ‘sumptuous’ interior, of which little now remains. Following Richard Sparrow’s financial collapse, Oaklands passed to the Rialls, another Quaker family involved in banking. However, within a few years their own fortunes suffered a setback when the bank, like many other such private establishments in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, failed and was forced to close in 1820 (its premises, for a long time part of the Clonmel Arms Hotel, have stood vacant and awaiting redevelopment for some time). In due course they were followed by Colonel Pownoll Phipps, a fascinating character who – for reasons too complicated to explain here – had as a teenage boy found himself stranded with is siblings, but without their parents, in Revolutionary France, and had then gone on to serve in the British army in India under the future Duke of Wellington; he died at Oaklands in 1858 and the estate was, at least for a while, owned by his eldest son. It then passed through a succession of different hands, and was still occupied, but in poor condition, fifteen years ago, later standing empty. The inevitable consequence of this was that the house attracted the attention of vandals and finally was gutted by fire in October 2017, leaving it in the state seen today.