The Northern Star

Francis Joseph Bigger
Ulster Journal of Archaeology
Second Series, Vol. I, No. 1

The first number of the Northern Star appeared on the 4th January, 1792, the first seven issues being printed by John Tisdall[1] (for the proprietors), and the subsequent numbers by John Rabb, at his printing house in High Street, Belfast, except the issues from 3rd March, 1797, till the last, which were printed by T. A. Corbett in the same street.

This newspaper, consisting of four pages (13 inches by 20), was published twice a-week, until its suppression in 1797, at the price of twopence, one-half of which was for the Government stamp.

The type was good, and the paper strong.

The twelve proprietors were opulent Presbyterian merchants in the town, who founded the Journal for the purpose of disseminating the aims of the newly-formed Society of United Irishmen, and advocating the revolutionary views that had been so successful in France.

The editor and principal proprietor was Samuel Neilson, whose shop and residence stood on the site of the present Commercial Buildings, and close to the famous hostelry from which was suspended an inverted crown at the end of a gibbet, on the occasion of some rejoicings in honour of a French victory.

Neilson’s father was the Rev. Alexander Neilson, the dissenting minister of Ballyroney, near Banbridge, where he received his early education before coming to Belfast to serve his time as a woollen draper, a trade in which he amassed a considerable fortune.

The other proprietors were Wm. Magee, printer and bookseller; Gilbert M‘Ilveen, jun., linen draper; Wm. M‘Cleery, tanner; John Haslett, woollen draper; John Rabb, clerk; Robert Caldwell, banker; and Wm. Tennent, William Simms, John Boyle, Henry Haslett, and Robert Simms, all merchants.

The principal contributors were Councillor William Sampson, born in Derry and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, a clever and well-educated advocate, who was imprisoned, and emigrated to America, where he died; Thomas Russell, subsequently executed at Downpatrick, and interred there in the graveyard of the Parish Church; Rev. James Porter, the Presbyterian Minister at Greyabbey, executed in 1798, between his meeting-house and residence, and buried in the old Abbey—the author of “Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand” (a satire upon Lord Londonderry, his chaplain, the Rev. John Cleland, and a farmer spy); Rev. Sinclare Kelburn, minister of Rosemary Street Presbyterian Meeting-house (now Rev. Wm. Park’s), who once preached in his volunteer uniform, with his gun, in the pulpit (he was several times imprisoned in Kilmainham); and the Rev. Wm. Steele Dickson, D.D., Presbyterian minister at Portaferry, who narrowly escaped the gallows. The narrative of Dickson’s confinement and exile (Dublin, 1812) contains many interesting details.

At one time the circulation of the Northern Star reached above 4,000, but its short career was a checkered one.

The proprietors were prosecuted in its first year, but acquitted, and subsequently entertained to a banquet by the Dublin citizens in the Star and Garter Tavern, Essex Street.

The sign of the Northern Star office was pulled down and the windows smashed by a military mob in 1793.

The next year, the printer, John Rabb, was imprisoned (the proprietors being again acquitted) for publishing the address of the United Irishmen to the Volunteers. Curran was counsel for the prisoners at this trial.

The issue of 16th September, 1796, gives a full account of the arrest of those connected with the Journal, in that month, by Lord Downshire, Lord Westmeath, and Lord Castlereagh.

The house of Councillor Sampson, in Belfast, was searched for Samuel Neilson by Lord Westmeath himself, who went into every room, closet, and pantry, even returning to search a hay-loft which he had overlooked; Sampson facetiously offering to open some bandboxes! Samuel Neilson, the editor, and particular object of the search, was at the time openly walking in High Street, and upon hearing what had happened, went into the Artillery Barracks in Ann Street (Cooney’s Court, close to Masonic Hall, but now removed) to surrender himself to Lord Westmeath, and from there he crossed over to the Library for Promoting Knowledge (Linen Hall Library), then in the same street, near Wilson’s Court, and surrendered himself to Lord Downshire and Attorney Pollock.

Thomas Russell subsequently surrendered himself, and was, with Neilson, Henry Haslett, and many others, conveyed to Dublin on a treasonable charge.

During the period of Neilson’s imprisonment in 1797, the editorial duties were performed by Thomas Corbett, and subsequently by Rev. James Porter.

The same office, which was in Wilson’s Court, High Street, was taken possession of by a King’s messenger and the military, under Colonel Barber, in February, 1797, and Robert and William Simms arrested and sent to Kilmainham.

Two months later the Rev. Sinclare Kelburn was arrested, and so were William Kean and William Templeton, both clerks in the Northern Star office; whilst on the following 19th May the paper was finally suppressed, the presses broken, and the type thrown into Wilson’s Court, portions being purchased by Doherty and Simms, two journeymen from the News-Letter office, who were then starting as printers.

The following petition, now first published, recently came into the hands of the writer, with other important papers relating to this period:—

To Lieutenant-General Nugent commanding His Majesty’s Forces in the Northern District. The Petition of Hannah Templeton of Belfast, Widow,

Humbly Sheweth—That Petitioner, about seven years ago, had the misfortune to lose her husband, on his passage from Liverpool home; at which time she was left with five small children, the elder of whom, William, was, some short time previous to the death of his father, unfortunately bound an apprentice to the printing business with the proprs. of the Northern Star; and having some little wages, was, with his own industry, the only support of her and the remainder of her children. In the course of two years after, Petrs. second son was able to give her assistance, but died shortly of a fever; and when numbers were arrested in this town, and sent to Dublin, Petrs. son William, her chief and only support at the time, was taken, with others belonging to the Northern Star office, and lodged in Kilmainham; where, after being confined thirteen months, and no charge found against him, he was liberated, and was returning home, when hearing of the disturbance lately prevalent in this part of the country, he stopped a few weeks at a friend’s house in the neighbourhood of Banbridge, and about five weeks since came down to Belfast, where he was again arrested, and is now a prisoner in the Donegall Arms.

“And as many through your goodness and clemency are daily liberated on bail, Petr. humbly hopes you will take her son’s case into your consideration and grant him the same privilege; and Petr. will ever pray.

Hanih Templeton.

Belfast, 20th August, 1798.”

Many of the above arrests were made on the information of the informer Newell, who had been a United Irishman; he went masked about the streets, with a military guard, pointing out the disaffected, for which he got large rewards.

William Templeton was arrested at the instigation of Newell, who swore he was a military officer of the United Irishmen.

Newell at this time lived with another informer, a hearth-tax collector, named George Murdock, in what is now No. 61, Mill Street, one door east of the “Cliff;” he was in favour at Dublin Castle, the local military officers, especially General Lake and Colonel Barber, being at his service.

They called upon each other daily, either the officers at Murdock’s in Mill Street, where a guard was posted, or Newell called upon the officers at their quarters in Barrack Street, often accompanied by Murdock, and, always by a guard.

Nothing is definitely known of Templeton’s subsequent career. The above facts are derived mainly from local tradition, the Northern Star, Benn, Madden, and Newell’s Life.


[1] Tisdall was a bookseller and printer whose place of business was opposite the Exchange. He printed the Belfast Mercury, or Freeman’s Chronicle. The firm was subsequently Rabb & Tisdall.