Friday, 24 August 2007

Mercurial Millionaire

One of the most important men in the development of the early Welsh railways was the colourful character Thomas Savin of Oswestry in Shropshire. His Savin ancestry can be continuously traced back in the county to the seventeenth century, with the earliest surviving record of a Savin in Shropshire being an entry in the 1672 Hearth Tax return at Muckleton.

Born in 1826, Thomas was the son of John and Mary Savin of Llwynymaen and in 1847 started his first commercial venture in partnership with Edward Morris as a mercer, draper and grocer, until 1858.

The following story is often recited to demonstrate Thomas’s impetuous and impatient nature, which was both his making and undoing. Whilst still a draper he travelled to a Welsh border market town to sell his wares. It was the custom here for the farmers not to look at any other business until the livestock had been sold. But Thomas could not wait and so he rushed into the arena and bought a thousand sheep to end the livestock market.

Thomas Savin soon became acquainted with a Mr. David Davies, a highway contractor and became his partner in several important railway undertakings. The first of these was the railway from Llanidloes to Newtown, but before this was finished they completed the Vale of Clwyd line in 1858. They then completed the Oswestry and Newtown line in 1862, contracted for the Newtown to Machynnlleth line, which was finished in the same year and another line from Brecon to Merthyr. They also promoted a line from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth. But Thomas was not content with this and insisted embarking upon extensions to Pwllheli. He had a grand scheme of building luxury hotels at Aberystwyth, Borth and Aberdovery with the idea of offering package tours. But Davies could see that Thomas Savin was overstretching himself and dissolved the partnership in 1860.

In 1863 Thomas was elected Mayor of Oswestry, made a Lieutenant in the Montgomery Rifles and in 1864 appointed Captain of the 15th Shropshire. By 1866 he appeared to be at the pinnacle of his success and was familiarly known as “Savin the Millionnaire”. His net worth was more than a million pound sterling which is equivalent in today’s real terms of fifty million pounds. There was even speculation that he would enter into Parliament. The Cambrian Railway works were at his insistence constructed in his home town of Oswestry bringing much wealth to the borough and it was credited with doubling the population. However his continual acceptance of shares, instead of cash, for payment meant that he simply ran out of readily available money and went bankrupt in that same year.

After his failure Thomas took no further part in railway building but continued with his coal mining and limestone quarrying interests. But he still showed his vigour in a series of lawsuits, in particular with respect of the damage his traction engines did to the local highways which were publicised nationally by many references in The Times newspaper. In 1871 he was appointed an Alderman for Oswestry, an office he retained for the rest of his life and was also a Magistrate.

He died in 1889, aged 62, survived by his wife Elizabeth whom he had married in 1852, and two sons. His estate upon his death was only valued at £104 and 10 shillings.

Thomas Savin with his unconventional style, self promotion, involvement in railways and other businesses, challenges in the courts and rise at one time to great wealth could said to have been the “Richard Branson” of his day.

Source: Thomas Savin, Shrop. Family History Journal, June 2003 (A. Savin)

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