Saunders & Sweetman, an Irish-based mercantile company, was involved primarily in the Newfoundland fish trade, with headquarters in Poole, Waterford, and Placentia, Newfoundland. Like many businesses of its time, the corporate ties in the Saunders & Sweetman firm were reflected in marriages between heirs.
Saunders & Sweetman originated in a business established at Placentia, Newfoundland circa 1753 by Richard Welsh, New Ross, Ireland. William Saunders (17? -1788), a resident of Bideford, Devon, became involved with the Newfoundland trade as a clerk in the employ of Welsh. By 1744 Saunders was living in Newfoundland, where he leased pasture at Point Verde. Saunders eventually became managing agent for Welsh's firm at Placentia. Saunders also married one of Welsh's daughters.
Following the death of Welsh and his son, Saunders, as son-in-law, received a partial inheritance. By 1772, he had established his own firm, William Saunders and Co., with premises at Poole and Placentia. By 1786, William Saunders and Co. had become one of the most prosperous businesses in the Newfoundland trade and the leading mercantile house in Poole, with several ocean-going vessels, a presence in a dozen southern European fish markets, and Newfoundland premises at Great and Little Placentia, Point Verde, Paradise, and Marticott Island. Saunders also had a farm at Brule. The firm traded for provisions with Qu‚bec merchants and with New England merchants via Marmaduke Hart, St. John's.
After William Saunders' death (1788), his younger brother Thomas entered into partnership with Pierce Sweetman (fl. 1770-1841), formerly employed by William Saunders as agent at Placentia. Pierce Sweetman, a Catholic, was the son of Roger Sweetman, who had married one of Richard Welsh's three daughters. The firm became known as Saunders and Sweetman. The business expanded its connections to the markets of southern Europe, especially Bilboa and Oporto, facilitated by the close cultural and religious links between Catholic Iberia and Ireland. The company hired hundreds of men yearly from southeastern Irish ports to work in the Newfoundland fishery. Many families living in the Placentia area today attribute their presence to the firm's recruitment activities.
When Thomas Saunders died (1808), the business dissolved and the firm's holdings were advertised for sale. The Sweetmans acquired the property and continued operations on their own. By now, Pierce's brother Michael was in charge at Placentia. Pierce Sweetman settled in Waterford, but continued to direct company affairs from there. In 1813, Pierce sent his son Roger to Placentia to revitalize operations.
In the 1820s, Pierce Sweetman began outfitting vessels for the annual seal hunt, an enterprise hitherto prosecuted mostly by St. John's concerns and firms on the northeast coast in closer proximity to the seal herds. In 1841, Pierce Sweetman died and the business passed to son Roger.
Roger Sweetman continued the trade, despite increasing competition from local firms. The firm remained a major mercantile presence on the south coast and parts of the southern Avalon peninsula, although the migratory fishery was replaced by the resident fishery and few servants from Ireland were required at Placentia. The firm finally terminated operations in 1862, with the death of Roger F. Sweetman.
The Saunders and Sweetman family were an extremely successful family business, outlasting most of their English and Irish contemporaries in the trade. Their activities also illustrated a religious cooperation unusual among interest groups involved in the Newfoundland trade, as the Sweetmans were prominent Catholics and the Saunders, respected Anglicans.