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A Portrait of Counsellor William Sampson

by E. J. Best
At Bowery Bay on Long Island, is the grave of an Ulsterman.
His tomb of white marble bears this inscription.
Beneath this stone lie the mortal remains of
Counsellor at Law 1764 - 1836
  • Born in Londonderry Ireland January 27 1764
  • Died in Now York December 28 1836 A United Irishman who defended the cause of Civil and Religious Liberty.
  • His countrymen requited his service
  • His enemies attested to his wisdom
  • And atoned for their persecutions
  • By adopting his measures.
  • The cheerful temper and invincible mind
  • That supported him in the dungeons of the inquisition
  • Sustained him during his long exile
  • And through his last most painful illness
  • William Sampson was born into an interesting family
RICHARD SAMPSON  became Bishop of Chichester after having given his support for the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon. His son
JAMES SAMPSON came to Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth 1.His son
RICHARD SAMPSON was a Major in the army of 1652. His son
MICHAEL SAMPSON  rose to the rank of Colonel, was attainted by King James II parliament in 1689 and killed whilst serving in King William's army at the Siege of Limerick in 1691. 
His son
WILLIAM SAMPSON also a Colonel, married in 1701, Anne eldest daughter of Colonel George Vaughan. Their son
REV. MICHAEL SAMPSOM was Vicar of Lambeg and Rector of Kilrea. He married Anne, daughter of Hill Wilson of Purdysburn. their son
REV. ARTHUR SAMPSON was the father of
COUNSELLOR WILLIAM SAMPSON whose self portrait is shown here.

Born in 1764 little is known about his early life. Dr. R.R, Madden who was biographer of many United Irishmen says:- "At the age of about four years, Mr. Sampson was taken under the charge of his father's aunt, an eccentric maiden lady, who seems to have adopted the Spartan system of education, at least in physical development. During his childhood he was distinguished for his skill and courage in boating, an amusement to which he continued partial during his entire life. 

It is not known where he received his early education. His brother George Vaughan Sampson attended the Rev. Saumarez DuBourdieu's Classical School in Bow Street, Lisburn and went from there to Trinity College, Dublin. It is possible that William also went to School in Lisburn. He certainly went to Trinity College where he did not graduate, but went on to London to study law at Lincoln's Inn.

In his early twenties he visited America; his memoirs state "In full ardour of youth I proceeded on my first voyage to America by the invitation of my uncle, Colonel Sampson, to that county of North Carolina which still bears his name". His eldest brother Michael became Colonel Sampson's heir.

On August, 1790 a notice appeared in the Belfast News Letter which said, "Married yesterday in Belfast Parish Church, William Sampson, Esq., student at Lincoln's Inn, to Miss Grace Clarke, eldest daughter of Mrs. Clarke, Castle Street, of this town".

William Sampson was admitted to the Irish Bar and was called to the North East Circuit, which also brought him to the Hillsborough Assizes and the Lisburn District. He is mentioned several times in the Downshire Papers; and by this time had become Junior Counsel to John Philpott Curran who defended many well known United Irishmen. 

He became a contributor to the 'Northern Star', the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast, and to 'The Press', the Dublin paper of the Society. One notable contribution was a poem about four young soldiers of the Monaghan Militia stationed at Blaris Camp, who were sentenced to be shot for being United Irishmen. Mr. Sampson witnessed the execution, and was very moved by it, as he hated violence. The soldiers were repeatedly offered their pardon and rewards if they would inform against their associates, which they would not do. Part of the poem reacts: 

"I saw a dismal Sight, I saw them brought 
Solemn and silent to the bed of death. 
From slavish hirelings they received the shot, 
And yielded up to Heaven their native breath."

"0 truth and honour where must ye be found?
Hot in the palace or glittering court.
You rather dwell within the lowly cott 
And with the simple and the poor resort."

I believe this poem expresses much of William Sampson's feelings about this time. He came from a fairly affluent well known family; but he had every sympathy with the poor and underprivileged, many of whom had taken the oath of the Society. Mr. Sampson felt so strongly that the oath was intended in the beginning to promote reform, rather than treason, that he recited it in open court, for all to hear, because he said he hated dissimulation.

He attended public meetings, one of which, in Belfast on December 3rd, 1796, was called treasonable. He sought reforms, and protested in court to defend many he thought were only guilty of folly. He wrote, "I had no other motive under Heaven than to assuage the violence of party, and prevent the impending massacre: and if possible to keep the door open to reconciliation, and prevent a civil war. If I am now less moderate it is because my personal feelings have been injured, for I am still willing to sacrifice what remains of my life and fortune to the advantage of my country."

Although Grace Sampson must have suffered some anxiety, their domestic life was happy; the only sadness being the death of their first son in infancy. Their second son was born in 1795 and named John Philpot after his sponsor John Philpot Curran. Two years later Catherine Anne was born. Their home was in High Street, Belfast, which on one occasion was searched for Samuel Neilson, editor of the 'Northern Star', by Lord Westmeath himself, who went into every room, closet and pantry, even returning to search a hayloft which he had overlooked. In some circles, for the rest of his life, Lord Westmeath was known as "Hayloft Westmeath", as he had been inadvertently locked in it.

In late 1797 or early 1798, Lord Moira, in consequence of some remarks made on Ireland in The English House of Lords, was challenged by Lord Clare to repeat them in the Irish House of Lords. Some of his friends thought that he should be able to prove his words, and a committee was formed for the purpose of obtaining authentic evidence of outrages by the Military in Ireland. William Sampson was a member of this committee. Attested copies of the evidence were made, and compared in the the presence of Lord Charlemont and Mr. Grattan and signed by them. Lord Moira took the copies to the King, but no one seems to know what happened to them.

The original papers remained in William Sampson's possession, until one morning, when Dr. Kirwan the philosopher, was going from his home in Cavendish Row to the Dublin Society, as he passed the end of Abbey Street, saw soldiers and yeomanry making 'domicilary visits'. He was a friend of Dr. Sampsons and thinking he would be visited as he had lodgings in that street during term time hurried to tell him what was going on; advising him if he had any compromising statements to destroy them instantly. William Sampson just had time to give the committee papers to his servant Russell, who went out by the garden into the stable lane and took them to Counsellor Orr. The visitors found nothing.

On February 12th, 1798, an abortive charge of High Treason was brought against William Sampson, in Dublin where he was defending Mr. Stockdale, printer of 'The Press'. Soon afterwards Lord Moira offered him shelter in England, which at first he refused, but was persuaded to leave the country with his servant John Russell on a collier bound for Whitehaven. On landing he was arrested because of a precautionary standing order and sent to Carlisle Gaol, his servant being detained in Whitehaven Workhouse. From Carlisle he was allowed to write to the Secretary of State, Lord Portland asking on what charge he had been arrested, with the result being that on May 5th he and his servant arrived back in Dublin under escort. He was taken to be questioned at the Castle Tavern, two soldiers always being in his room. On May 9th he was taken, without having been seen by any authorities, to Bridewell, and kept in solitary confinement, whilst his servant was allowed to seek out lodgings.

His family, worried for his safety, hurried to Dublin to try to arrange his release, as no charge had been made against him. Grace Sampson and the children were accompanied by his brother, the Rev. George Vaughan Sampson, and the Rev. John DuBourdieu, who had married his sister Margaret in Lisburn Cathedral in 1780.

They were informed by Lord Castlereagh's secretary that negotiations were being conducted, but William Sampson was allowed no visitors.

Eventually, in October he was released, and joined his family, only to have to prepare to leave the country for perpetual exile. He was given a pass which stated, "Permit William Sampson to take this passage from the port of Dublin to any port of the Kingdom of Portugal without hindrance or molestation." signed Castlereagh.

In his memoirs William Sampson said, "It is incredible how much I suffered during the greater part of October and November. Four different times I went to sea and was as often driven back by furious gales of wind. During all this season the weather was so tempestuous that our coasts were strewn with wrecks. There was an interval of some days before embarking on the "Mary", that I spent in peace in the bosom of my family, but the town-major was sent by Lord Castlereagh to inform me that I must go that evening, or return to Bridewell. I accordingly went to live on board the vessel, the weather so tempestuous it did not sail. I had no other means of conversing with my wife than by stealing up at night and returning before daylight, and this not without risk.

At length on October, 24th, the Captain was ordered, against his will, to put to sea; and on the 27th October they were shipwrecked off the coast of North Wales near the small port of Pullhelly. Due to the bravery of the local clergymen and some helpers, everyone landed safely and were taken to an Inn where the food was good, and they even had a harper to play to them at dinner.

As William Sampson's pass was for Portugal, he was at a loss to know what to do in Wales. He did nothing. Before many days had passed "a gentleman came out of breath from Caernarvon to assure himself I was in Pullhelly; for some travellers had been actually stopped upon suspicion that I was one of them, making my way through the country."

Lieutenant Colonel Edwards of the Caernarvon Militia was instructed to keep on eye on, but not to molest, William Sampson, which he did by inviting him frequently to his home, until the time came when he and his servant were given a pass to go direct to Falmouth and embark to Portugal.

On landing in Oporto, Mr. Sampson sought out a merchant, Mr. Thomas Nash, to whom he had letters of introduction and was hospitably received. Mr. Nosh suggested that he should find a house and send for his wife and children to join him, but plans for this had to be abandoned, when, on March 22nd, 1799, he was arrested by order of the English Minister, on suspicion of writing an article, "Argument for and against the Union". This was in fact written by Edward Cooke, the Irish Undersecretary.

There followed six months of imprisonment of varying severity. On being asked for his particulars he said in his limited Portugese he was "filho dum parde," son of a priest, and hoped his heresy in his nativity might have done him no harm. At first he was treated well and lodged in an airy, light room. It is known that he drew his self-portrait whilst he was incarcerated abroad, possible at this time. It shows his hair in the current fashion, copied by admirers of the French Jacobins, nicknamed "croppies", because of their cropped hair.

On the morning of April 1st he was told he was to be sent to Lisbon in preparation for his repatriation, and because he had suffered from chest pains was allowed to travel on a litter, his servant on a mule. When they approached the outskirts of Lisbon they stopped at Belem Gaol, being told they were to lodge there for the night. They were there for six weeks. "I was locked up with my servant in a little hole, foul beyond description. The space of it was scarcely more than the area of a coach. The walls were begrimed with filth, and for light there was only a small hole, through which a cat could not creep".

Eventually the Portuguese government, becoming weary of the promptings of the English authorities decided to send him out of the country, and so put the responsibility onto other shoulders. He and Russell were, without warning, taken aboard the vessel "Die Hoffning" bound for Bordeaux and sailed once more into exceptionally stormy seas, which carried the ship into the Atlantic. After a passage of forty three days, and suffering from malnutrition, they put into San Sebastian for supplies. There, William Sampson, with the help of the ship's Captain received permission to travel overland via Bayonne to Bordeaux where he was interrogated. When he said he was Irish he was asked to state what means he had, and replied that he had a small sum he had brought with him and what he could have sent from the disposable property which he had in Ireland. He explained that he could not return to Ireland as he had been sent into exile. He had been given letters of recommendation from a friend in Oporto, and was able to borrow fifty pounds from his friends father in Bayonne to contact his brother-in-law in Belfast. After signing statements that he and his servant only wished to live as private citizens, taking no part in politics, William Sampson and John Russell were given the status of prisoners of war, and permission to live in France. Wishing to find somewhere "economical", they found a house on the banks of the Dordogne near the village of St. Andre Cusac.

Towards the end of the summer the faithful John Russell died of fever, leaving William Sampson alone, and mourning the loss "of a dear friend", but in December, 1799 he had the consolation of a letter from his wife, telling him that she and the children were in good health.

Then began a tiring struggle with the Irish authorities to allow Mrs. Sampson and the children with their Abigail to join Mr. Sampson. In March 1802 the Peace Treaty between Britain and France, Spain and Holland was signed at Amiens, and when Lord Cornwallis the British plenipotentiary there was passing through Paris, William Sampson met him, to apply for help in returning to Ireland. His Lordship wrote to Dublin, and received a refusal to permit Mr. Sampson to go home, but offered to facilitate Mrs. Sampson's passage to France with her family. They were reunited in Paris in 1802, and spent three contented summers in the charming valley of Montmorency, to the North of Paris and as many winters in Paris - "to give our children the benefit of the best masters".

In 1805, the ill health of his son, certain family concerns, and the desire of Mrs. Sampson to see her much loved mother again, as well as his desire to be more active and resume his profession, made William Sampson apply for a passport and permission to accompany its family home. This he obtained from the French authorities not without difficulty and the journey back began. As he had to sail from a neutral port he was given a pass to Hamburg.

Of his stay in France he wrote:- "I did not like all I saw in France. I grieved to find that a great event which had bid fair, and as good men hoped, to extend the sphere of human happiness ......... should, after deluges of human blood serve to no other end, than to plunge mankind still deeper into the gulph of corruption and tyrany - but I held it as my duty to respect the power that protected me." 

Being delayed in Rotterdam where John Sampson developed a fever, they reached Hamburg in July 1805. In February 1806 they were still there having failed to obtain permission to enter Britain, and it seemed as though they were stranded. William Sampson's first appeal was rejected on the grounds that he showed insufficient contrition - He remarked "I had gone as low in humility as I could bring myself to go".

However, Prussian troops were marching with Napoleon into the city, and it became a matter of urgency to return to England. The British Minister, Mr. Thompson, taking pity on Mrs. Sampson and the children gave William Sampson a pass to Harwich and a letter to Mr. fox, the British Foreign Secretary, explaining the circumstances. A Man of War was sent to pick up the British for evacuation, and in company with Mr. Sparrow, a King's Messenger, in great haste with despatches from Vienna, they again in bad weather, set sail. It was April and several days of stormy sailing brought them to Harwich.

Mr. Sparrow went to London ahead of the Sampson family, promising to report to the foreign Office that Mr. Sampson was on his way with Mr. Thompson's passport, and intended to present himself on arrival to Mr. Fox.

This he did, only to be told that Mr. Fox was not there. Mr. Sampson returned the following day and was shown into Lord Spencer's Office, to be informed that he ought not to be in the country. He was placed under house arrest at the home of Mr. Sparrow, who had been so Helpful. Although he was allowed several days with his family, he was not allowed to wait until his wife's brother, who was also his agent, could reach them to escort his sister and her children back to Belfast. Mrs. Sampson stayed as a guest in Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow's home, until she was able to travel back to Ireland. 

Once more they had to say goodbye. William Sampson wrote:- "I saw in the eyes of this best woman that she had little hopes of seeing me again."

On July 4th, 1806, William Sampson landed in flew York. In 1807 he published his Memoirs, beginning with his exile, and published in the form of letters to Lord Spencer.

Dr. Madden says - "He was permitted to settle in New York, and attained in a short time a higher rank at the American Bar than he could probably have reached in Ireland".

He made notes of his first impressions of America Soldiers live in their own houses and sleep with their own wives

"I asked if there were no clergymen. They showed me a bishop, a mild venerable looking old gentleman, that would not know which end of a gun to put foremost. And they say clergy don't act as justices in this country. As far as I can learn, there is not a clergyman in all America that can lead a concert or play upon a fiddle or that dances or manages an assembly, or gets drunk, or rides in at the death of a fox, or that wears a ruffles shirt, or sings bawdy songs or keeps a mistress. All they do is marry the young people, christen their children, visit the sick, comfort the afflicted, go to church, preach twice or thrice on Sunday, teach the living how to live and the dying how to die, and they live in the midst of their congregations.

'Many Englishmen who visited New York were completely perplexed when they met any of the Irish exiles in general society. They could not comprehend how it happened that such men should have been stigmatized as rebels."

On October 29th, 1810, Grace Sampson with John aged sixteen and Catherine fourteen joined William Sampson in New York.

John followed his father's footsteps, becoming an attorney and by 1820 had become the head of the New Orleans Bar. He died on August 20th, 1820, of a fever and is buried in Louisiana.

In 1916 many French émigrés arrived in New York including William Tone, the Son of Wolfe Tone, who had served in the French army. He became a student in the office of William Sampson but when he was offered a commission in the American army he accepted it. In 1825 he married Catherine Sampson, and Mr. and Mrs. Sampson went to live in Georgetown to be near their daughter. In 1827 William Tone resigned his commission in order to have time to write the story of his father. On October 10th, 1828, he died of tuberculosis, and Catherine and her baby daughter returned to New York with her parents.

William Sampson became very active and took a prominent part in all meetings concerning Irish affairs held in America. In 1831 he was invited to Philadelphia to defend some of his countrymen charged with riot. He was an expert stenographer and well known for his reporting of cases that stirred public interest, and for his propagandist writings.

In 1813 he successfully took action in court to prevent a Catholic priest being required to disclose secrets told in confession, and, although a Protestant, wrote a treatise on the doctrine of confession. In 1823 he delivered an address before the New York Historical Society which attacked certain barbarities in the common law, and a recommendation that the American people discard its undesirable features and preserve the best by codification.

In 1833 he published a "History of Ireland".

By the autumn of 1835 Mr. Sampson's health began to deteriorate and he retired from public life. The serenity and fortitude with which he bore his last illness made a deep impression on all who knew him. He died on December 28th, 1836. His funeral was attended by many of the "first citizens", (who were also his friends) and was fixed at an early hour to allow everyone to be able to return home before dark.

The Belfast News Letter and Northern Whig both printed copies of his obituary - "In New York, on 28th December, 1836, died William Sampson, Esq., Counsellor at Law, aged 73. A man of great talent who was well known to many of the inhabitants of Belfast and who left his country in the memorable year of 1798".