Simms, Robert (1761–1843), United Irishman and businessman, was born probably in Belfast in March 1761 (he was baptised there on 20 March), the fifth child in the family of five sons and two daughters of Robert Simms, merchant and tanner, and his wife, Elizabeth Stevenson of Belfast. The Simms family was for over 140 years connected with the presbyterian congregation known as Third Belfast. In his business and political career Robert was closely associated with his brother William Simms (1763–1843), his junior by two years (he was baptised on 6 June 1763). The pair had an interest in a flour mill at Crumlin, Co. Antrim, and by 1799 owned a paper mill at Ballyclare.
Robert Simms, nicknamed ‘the Tanner’ by Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), was a member of the committee of the Belfast chamber of commerce. He was an active member of the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge and an organiser of its harp festival (July 1792). Robert and William Simms were, with Henry Haslett (qv), Samuel Neilson (qv), Thomas Russell (qv), and William Tennent (qv), members of the committee that founded the Belfast Society of United Irishmen in October 1791; Robert was its first secretary and both were among the twelve shareholders of its newspaper, the radical Northern Star (Belfast), which began publication on 4 January 1792 and was twice prosecuted for seditious libel (1793 and 1794). When Tone was in Belfast en route for America in June 1795, Robert Simms joined him, Neilson, Russell, and Henry Joy McCracken (qv) in climbing Cave Hill and, according to Tone, taking ‘a solemn obligation . . . never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and declared our independence’.
During the next eighteen months the United Irishmen became increasingly revolutionary in their aims and methods. Both Simms brothers wrote to Tone in America and encouraged him to go to France, William Simms lending him £200 for this purpose (September 1795). Both were members, with Neilson, Tennent, and John Campbell White, of the influential Ulster provincial directory in 1796. When, towards the end of that year, Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) considered going secretly to Hamburg, a neutral city, to open negotiations with the French directory, Robert Simms was one of four United Irishmen whose approval he sought, the others being Tennent, Richard McCormick (qv), and Edward Lewines (qv). Fitzgerald travelled to the continent accompanied by Arthur O'Connor (qv), who reached France and met General Lazare Hoche. On their return Robert Simms joined them and McCormick in forming a United Irish national directory (October 1796) and afterwards was host to O'Connor and Fitzgerald in Belfast (January 1797). In consequence both he and William were arrested and confined to Newgate prison, Dublin (3 February to 21 July).
About November 1797 Robert Simms agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to be United Irish adjutant general for Co. Antrim. When the United Irish of Ulster debated joining their Leinster comrades in rebellion, he was timid, or cautious, and resigned his command (1 June 1798). Although he took no further part in the rebellion, he was soon rearrested and faced prosecution, but no witness would testify against him. With other United Irish leaders he was sent to Fort George in the north of Scotland (March 1799). Released before the others (January 1802), he quickly took up business again and was able to buy a house in the country. For the rest of his life he avoided politics, though he did correspond with United Irish exiles in America such as White, Thomas Addis Emmet (qv) and John Chambers (qv).
Robert interested himself in the Hibernian Bible Society (founded 1806), on whose Belfast committee he served, and in the establishment of a college for presbyterians, the Belfast Academical Institution (it received its royal charter in 1831); he was one of the first three ‘visitors’ and his brother William was named as a ‘manager’ in the act of parliament incorporating the college (1810). In 1812 Robert became assistant secretary of the Belfast Academical Institution at a salary of £50 per year (raised to £100 when a government grant was obtained), which imposed on him many administrative duties that in the last ten years of his life were burdensome, as his health deteriorated. That he held this post until his death (a request by the college's board to the government in 1836 for a pension to enable him to retire having been refused) suggests that he no longer had any business interests. He died 23 June 1843, at his house in Franklin Place, predeceased by his wife, Mary (née Gilliland), who had borne him four daughters. William Simms died a few weeks later, 2 August 1843, at his home, the Grove, also predeceased by his wife, Eliza, who had borne him three daughters who died young and a son, Robert (1800?–1847).