Neilson, Samuel (1761–1803), United Irishman, was born in September 1761 at Ballyroney, Co. Down, one of at least three sons of Alexander Neilson, a presbyterian minister. Educated at home and in a local school, in 1777 he was sent to Belfast to take up an apprenticeship with his brother John, a woollen merchant. In September 1785 he married Nancy, daughter of William Bryson, a wealthy Belfast merchant, and that same year he established the Belfast Woollen Warehouse in High St. His warehouse rapidly became one of the largest in the town and in 1792 his fortune was estimated to be worth £8,000. In 1790, as the electoral agent for Robert Stewart (qv) (afterwards Viscount Castlereagh), he helped secure Stewart's election as MP for Co. Down. Neilson joined the Northern Whig Club and the 1st Belfast Volunteer Company. He was also a member of the Freemasons, Lisburn Lodge 193.
Neilson frequently attended the Third Presbyterian Church in Rosemary St. It was here that he met men such as Henry Joy McCracken (qv) and the brothers William (qv) and Robert Simms (qv). Neilson was a founder member of the Society of United Irishmen, established in Belfast in October 1791. Lord Edward Fitzgerald (qv) believed him to be the ‘life's blood of the endeavour [the United Irishmen]’ (Joseph Hamilton, An impartial enquiry respecting the betrayal of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Robert Emmet (1832), 15). Neilson travelled to Dublin in November 1791 for the inauguration of the Dublin branch of the United Irishmen. He was the key link between the Dublin and Belfast members of the United Irishmen. John Cleland (qv), a government agent, commented that ‘Sam Neilson . . . is the medium thro' which the North and South corresponded and are connected and their plans are laid’ (16 May 1796; NAI, Rebellion papers, 620/30/87). In 1792, with John Keogh (qv; 1740–1817) of the Catholic Committee and Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) he was involved in tackling conflict between Peep O'Day boys and Defenders in Co. Down. Later, during 1795 Neilson and John Magennis, leader of Co. Down Defenders, headed a committee designed to strengthen ties between the United Irishmen and Defenders.
Neilson was the driving force behind the establishment of the Northern Star newspaper. Published twice a week, it first appeared 4 January 1792 and it was the effective mouthpiece of the United Irishmen. There were twelve shareholders in the Northern Star, controlling, between them, forty shares. Neilson owned thirteen shares. He was unanimously elected editor and was entitled to an annual salary of £100. He remained editor until his arrest in September 1796. The Northern Star was the most successful Irish newspaper of its time: it had an average print run of over 4,000 copies and soon eclipsed its main rival, the Belfast News-Letter, which at the height of its popularity had a print run of 2,750. The newspaper presses also printed Paddy's resource, Bolg an tSolair, and a number of satirical serials including Billy Bluff and the squire.
The newspaper was the focus of unwanted government attention. On 30 December 1792 there was a failed attempt by government officials to arrest the proprietors of the Northern Star. The offices of the paper were threatened during the spring of 1793, resulting in some shareholders suggesting that the paper be sold to the government. Neilson strenuously and successfully opposed this. As a result the number of shareholders in the newspaper was reduced to five, and further reduced to four by February 1797. Neilson, along with the remaining proprietors and the printer John Rabb, appeared in court in May 1794 on charges of seditious libel. All except Rabb were acquitted. In a further attempt to close the newspaper, a second trial of the proprietors was held in November 1794. Again, Neilson and his co-accused were found not guilty. John Philpott Curran (qv) acted as counsel for the proprietors during both trials.
In June 1795, in the company of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell (qv), and Henry Joy McCracken, Neilson went to MacArt's Fort on Cave Hill overlooking Belfast. There they promised ‘never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence’ (Bartlett, 107).
With the suspension of habeas corpus in the autumn of 1796 the authorities again focused their attention on Neilson. On hearing of the warrant made out in his name he went to the Artillery Barracks in Belfast, where he voluntarily submitted to Lord Westmeath (qv), believing that his acquiescence would ensure an early trial. This was not to be the case. He was arrested on 16 September 1796, taken to Newgate prison in Dublin and then to the newly opened Kilmainham jail, where he remained until January 1798. He was never brought to trial. Without Neilson's direct involvement the Northern Star struggled, though he remained one of the proprietors and it was published until 19 May 1797, when the Monaghan militia ransacked the offices and smashed the printing presses.
By the time of his release his fortune was gone, his health was broken, and he had become heavily reliant on alcohol. After his release, on the grounds of ill health, he was forced to rely largely on the charity of John Sweetman (qv), a catholic merchant.With the arrest of the Leinster executive at the house of Oliver Bond (qv), Neilson became one of the five central directors of the national United Irishmen organisation. On 22 May 1798 a reward of £300 was offered for his arrest. The following day he was arrested outside Newgate prison, apparently reconnoitring the building before attempting to rescue Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
Neilson was instrumental in brokering the Kilmainham treaty of July 1798 by which the executions of United Irish prisoners were stopped in return for their agreement to give general information to the government. He was examined before the committees of the lords and commons on 9 August, and on 19 March 1799 was sent to Fort George in Scotland. While there, he lost faith in revolutionary politics, and wanted nothing to do with any further conspiracies. He remained in Fort George until his release in July 1802. His son, William, aged eight, joined him there for the latter months of his incarceration. The banishment act forbade Neilson from returning to Ireland, but on release he secretly travelled from Scotland to Hamburg and then to Ireland where, aided by James Hope (qv), he visited friends and relations in Dublin and Belfast. He left Ireland in December 1802 bound for America. He died suddenly of apoplexy 29 August 1803 at Poughkeepsie, New York, and was buried there. His widow, Nancy, remained in Belfast. Fearing persecution in the aftermath of the failed rebellion of Robert Emmet (qv), she sent all Neilson's letters and copies of the Northern Star to a friend in New York. After her death Neilson's son requested the return of these letters. They were put aboard the Shannon, a ship bound for Belfast, which was wrecked off the coast of Donegal with the loss of all passengers, crew, and cargo. Neilson had four daughters – Anne (1786?–c.1840), Sophia (fl. 1860), Jane (1790?–fl. 1880), and Mary (d. 1859), all of whom married – and one son, who died in Jamaica of fever in February 1817 aged 23.
Portraits include a miniature by Charles Byrne (1757–1810), engraved by T. W. Hoffman and reproduced in Madden (NGI 10,646) and a painting by an unknown artist (c.1795) in oil on cardboard after Byrne's miniature (Ulster Museum, Belfast). Neilson also appears in a group portrait of United Irishmen (Ulster Museum, Belfast).