Kelly, Samuel

Irish Methodist coal merchant, Unionist gun-runner and philanthropist born into a Methodist family in Belfast. His grandfather, Samuel Kelly I (d.1877), in 1852 established a coal merchant’s business in the city and his son, John Kelly (d1904), inherited it on his father’s death. John Kelly died at Harrogate on 15 September 1904, where he had gone to his daughter’s and possibly for health reasons. A member at Mountpottinger WM, Belfast, he was a benefactor to both the Belfast and North Belfast Central Missions, and in 1894 was a founder committee member of the Belfast Methodist Benevolent Fund. In 1911 Samuel Kelly II, and his mother held equally 50,000 £1 shares in Samuel Kelly Ltd and by the 1930s had a fleet of forty-six colliers. Before the First World War he began having difficulties dealing with trade union demands but took a cooperative approach, although he opposed syndicalism and socialism. A national coal strike in 1912 left Ulster especially vulnerable but his colliers restored Belfast’s coal supplies. Then in 1929 to increase access to coal supplies he acquired a mine at Workington. Then he turned his attention to an Irish coalfield, opening a colliery at Annagher, near Coalisland in 1924 but flooding resulted in its closure in 1928. At various times he held a total of fifteen directorships, including the Ulster Bank and Workington Electric Power Co. Nevertheless, some of his business dealings were questionable. Politically a Unionist, he briefly served on Bangor Urban Council but soon became a member of the Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council. When it was determined to arm the Ulster Voluntary Force he became a member of its secret Arms Committee and in April 1912 used some of his ships for gun-running. He was a considerable benefactor to Irish Methodism playing a similar role to Joseph Rank Rank family in Britain; this included Bangor Methodism. He further helped relieve the distress experienced by Irish Methodist supernumeraries. He was knighted in 1923 for being ‘a public benefactor… and general supporter to charitable objects’. Following his death on 2 February 1937, his estate was valued at £732,000 despite making severe financial losses on the Coalisland scheme estimated at £300,000. Offices held included that of Deputy Lieutenant of County Tyrone, Vice-President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and and being an active member of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. A memorial plaque was erected in Mountpottinger Meth. His wife continued his charitable work, including supporting the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.


Keith Haines, ‘Sir Samuel Kelly: coal merchant, gun-runner and Methodist benefactor’, Bulletin of the Methodist Historical Society of Ireland 26 (2021) pp.37-76.

Entry written by: DCD
Category: Person
Comment on this entry