Open Library logo
Together, let's build an Open Library for the World. Sponsor a Book
Last edited by Clean Up Bot
March 31, 2017 | History

Francis Neilson

1867 - 1961

The eldest of nine children, Francis Neilson was born in 1867 in Claugton Road, Birkenhead, England. Son of Francis Butters Turley(1841 Wellington, Shropshire) and Isabella Neilson Hume (Dundee, Scotland). Several accounts explain that because of his large family, Neilson left school at the age of fourteen and moved to the United States at the age of eighteen. Nevertheless, the British Census of 1881 records the Butters' household as one holding 12 people, including 8 children and two Irish maids, both under the name of Mary (Linley and O'Riley respectively).

Francis Neilson's siblings at that time were William N. Butters who moved to Peru where he married Ms. Hortensia Puccio and remained till his death), Jennie Butters, Sarah L. Butters, Alfred Butters, Margaret H. Butters (later to die on the RMS Lusitania), Isabella Butters (moved to Toronto, Canada and became Mrs. George MacDonald) and Richard Butters. During his days in Liverpool he attended the Liverpool Institute for Boys. The census also records Francis Butters (Neilson's father) as a restaurant keeper, and we know from his own account that he learned to play the piano at a young age. The same census records his grandparents Richard Butters (born in Market Dreyton, Shropshire) and Sarah Turley (born in Snedshill, Shropshire), living at Cemetery Road in Wellington, Shropshire.

[edit] Move to the United States

In the United States,after arriving to New York City, and paying the sum of fifteen dollars for a hansom cab ride from the docks to his guest house, Neilson worked several odd jobs which included a longshoreman, a labourer in Central Park(years later he lived at the Savoy-Plaza, overlooking that same park), and some clerical work. After meeting a man named Johnson, who because of his color worked as a porter despite of his college degree. Neilson became fascinated with education; and at times “…went hungry to buy books” This fascination led him to Henry George, of whom he became a devoted follower.

During his stay in the United States, he married Ms. Catherine O'Gorman and had two daughters Isabel and Marion. Isabel Neilson, an accomplished sculptor, married Prince Hermann Carl Bernhard Ferdinand Friedrich von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in 1932 and became princess Herman of Saxe-Weimar, and Marion Neilson married captain Hugh Melville.

[edit] Theatre and Opera Days

Neilson’s first success came in the following years after his discovery of Henry George’s teachings, where he became well known and respected for his writing, acting, and directing. The Internet Broadway Database, records him as a director of the play "The Little Princess" in January 1903, first at the Criterion Theatre and later at the Savoy Theatre; and as the playwright in "A Butterfly on The Wheel" in January 1912, at the 39th Street Theatre.

In New York, he befriended Director Anton Seidl who took him to Germany and introduced him to Richard Wagner´s family in Bayreuth. This led him out of the United States and back to London. He came back to London as a stage director for Charles Frohman (fate placed Mr. Frohman in the Lusitania where he died as well as Francis Neilson's sister, Margaret, who was returning to England to celebrate their parents 50th wedding anniversary) in the Duke of York Theater in London, and later was invited to direct the national opera at Covent Garden, which he remodelled completely in 1900. The first opera to be produced there was Puccini's, Tosca. Puccini himself was at the theater supervising the production. The encounter of the two men triggered an interest that took Neilson to invite Puccini to see a private performance of the play Madame Butterfly, playing then at the London's Duke of York Theater. His intention to interest Puccini in writing a libretto for opera, based in that play was crystallized later with the now very famous opera. Puccini later requested Neilson to direct the opera at La Scala in Milan; unfortunately this never happened because of other commitments.

[edit] 20th Century and Politics

In the early nineteen hundreds he began his pursuit of politics. His first bid for a parliamentary seat was an unsuccessful one for the Newport Division of Shropshire. He lost to the incumbent, Colonel Kenyon-Slancy, by a margin of 130 votes. He was elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hyde in Cheshire from 1910 to 1916. At his time in parliament, he was well acquainted with both Prime Ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George. Interested in radical politics he entered in the progress of the Land Values Movement. His multiple contributions to the liberal agenda made him frequent the Liberal Headquarters at Parliament Street, and tour the country giving speeches in support of Liberal candidates. He resigned from parliament when his pacifist beliefs conflicted with the First World War. From there he returned to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1921; and pursued what came to be the most prominent of his works, his writing career.

Back in the United States he met Helen Swift heiress of the Swift Meat Packing Business and widow of Edward Morris, President of Morris & Company, another meat packing company; and they got married in 1917.

Together, they endowed many charities, and contributed to many institutions, including the University of Chicago, Ripon College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Archaeological Institute of America, The Liverpool Cathedral, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, etc.

[edit] Resignation from Parliament and Writing Career

His first book, titled How Diplomats Make War, was dedicated only six weeks after his resignation from parliament; and went through several printings and translations. He went on to write over sixty books, along with many other forms of writing such as articles, plays, and an opera. Also, Neilson co-founded a journal of opinion and literary criticism, titled the Freeman.

During 1935 and as President of the Chicago Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America and in coordination with the University of Liverpool, he organized and endowed an archaeological expedition to the Near East, to research lands of biblical time. Archaeologist John Garstang, at the age of sixty, was enthusiastically in charge of the excavations, with much success at the site of the port of Mersin in southern Turkey.

A few years before his death, he lost his sight. He was assisted in writing his last book, Ur to Nazareth, by his literary secretary named K. Phyllis Evans. Neilson also wrote a two volume autobiography, titled My Life in Two Worlds. Roy Silver from the New York Times, reported on January 26, 1959, that at age 92 he was still pretty active, regardless of his lost of sight and hearing.

He was a benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which he donated several paintings like: A Winter Carnival in a Small Flemish Town, by Peeter Gysels (Flemish, 1621–1690/91); Portrait of a Man, Possibly George Frederick Handel (1685–1759), by an English painter, about 1720; The Pelkus Gate near Utrecht, 1646, by Jan Josephsz. van Goyen (Dutch, 1596–1656). His wife the late Helen Swift Neilson donated, the Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, by Rembrandt, which she bought for the astronomical sum of $250,000 in 1930, (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669); and the Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Pechell (Charlotte Clavering, died 1841), 1799, by John Hoppner (English, 1758–1810). The Boston Museum of Fine Arts also received in 1946 John Singer Seargent's painting , A Capriote. The Liverpool Cathedral, also received support from Neilson in the form of a collection or Organ and Choral Works which he sponsored. The organ at the Cathedral bears his name.

Francis Neilson died at the age of 95 on April 13, 1961 in Port Washington, Long Island, New York. He was cremated and his remains taken back to England. He rests in the Liverpool Cathedral.

29 works Add another?

Sorting by Most Editions | First Published | Most Recent

Photo of Francis Neilson


Links (outside Open Library)

Alternative names


Download catalog record: RDF / JSON
March 31, 2017 Edited by Clean Up Bot add VIAF and wikidata ID
April 21, 2012 Edited by Added new photo
April 21, 2012 Edited by Added new photo
April 12, 2010 Edited by Open Library Bot Added photos to author pages.
April 1, 2008 Created by an anonymous user initial import