The merging of Beneficial and WSFS is the latest wrinkle in the fabric of local banking history.
WSFS started out in 1832 as the Wilmington Saving Fund Society, and has grown and merged and gyrated around the banking industry until its present form with offices in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Nevada.
Beneficial was incorporated in 1853 in Philadelphia, and its roots went deeper than just some businessmen creating a financial institution. It was founded to serve Irish citizens when other banks wouldn’t. Irish immigrants had been pouring into Philly for years, because of the devastating potato famine in Ireland.
Potatoes are easy to grow. They were a practical crop on the tiny properties allowed by British landowners who controlled Ireland.
Historians say that the Irish in that period ate seven million pounds of potatoes a year. The average Irish man ate seven pounds of potatoes a day.
In the 1840s, a blight afflicted the potato crop. It lasted about seven years. About a quarter of Ireland’s population, about a million, died.
Another quarter of the Irish population came to the United States between the years 1851-1861. (Immigrants from other European countries were also coming to the United States for a better life.)
Many Irish citizens spent their last penny for the four-week journey, herded in ships like livestock. Many died and were “buried” overboard. Some had their fare paid by their British landlords, because it was cheaper than feeding them.
There was lots of nastiness between immigrants and natives, in Boston and other cities. Conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the United States had already broken out in violence before the first potato plant wilted in Ireland.
Anti-Catholic, anti-Irish mobs in Philadelphia destroyed houses and torched churches in the deadly riots of 1844.
Historians tend to write about rioting, religion and politics. A more subtle resulting problem was simple discrimination, with advertising of jobs specifying “No Irish Need Apply” and newspaper reports of crimes specifying that the culprits were Irish.
While Philadelphia had rioting and plenty of everyday discrimination, it also had many prominent Irish citizens, going back to the earliest days. The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick had been founded here in 1771.
The immigrants made their mark in various ways; consider education, with Villanova founded in 1842; Saint Joseph’s in 1851; and La Salle in 1863.
Yet prejudice continued. It included financial institutions that would not give mortgage loans or even savings accounts to Irish immigrants, or other Europeans.
In February, 1853, leading Irish Philadelphians had meetings in the rectories of St. Joseph’s Church, which was founded in 1733, and St. John’s at 13th and Market, then only 21 years old, to discuss starting a savings fund.
They sought the help and influence of Bishop John Neumann, who had recently arrived to head the diocese and lived at St. John’s, then the city’s cathedral. He was an immigrant himself, born in what is now the Czech Republic.
The Beneficial Saving Fund Society’s Act of Incorporation was passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature on April 20, 1853. Beneficial Bank opened for business on January 30, 1854, at 12th and Chestnut, where it was headquartered, erecting bigger buildings on the site through time, until 2001. Of the first 10 depositors, one was Prussian and nine were Irish.