Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nichols, John (1745-1826)

NICHOLS, JOHN (1745–1826), printer and author, was born at Islington on 2 Feb. 1745. His father, Edward Nichols, a baker, son of Bartholomew and Isabella Nichols of Piccadilly, was born on 18 Oct. 1719, and died at Islington on 29 Jan. 1779; and his mother, Anne, daughter of Thomas Wilmot of Beckingham, Gainsborough, was born in 1719, and died on 27 Dec. 1783. Besides John, only one child, Anne, survived; she married Edward Bentley, of the accountant's office of the Bank of England. Nichols was for eight years a favourite pupil of John Shield, who had a school at Islington, and it was proposed that he should enter the navy. This plan, however, fell through when his uncle, Thomas Wilmot, an officer and friend of Admiral Barrington, died in 1751; and in 1757 Nichols was apprenticed to William Bowyer the younger [q. v.], the printer. A ‘Report from the Committee appointed to enquire into the original Standard of Weights and Measures in this Kingdom’ (1758) was, Nichols says, one of the first works on which he was employed as a compositor. Bowyer was a man of education, and Nichols seems to have received a very fair classical training under his auspices. At sixteen he was writing verses at Bowyer's suggestion (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 37), and in 1763 he published two poems, which were followed in 1765 by verses in Dr. Perfect's ‘Laurel Wreath,’ and prose essays in Kelly's ‘Babbler’ and the ‘Westminster Journal,’ signed ‘The Cobbler of Alsatia’ (‘Life’ by A. Chalmers in Gent. Mag., 1826, ii. 489 seq.)

In 1765 Bowyer sent Nichols to Cambridge, to negotiate with the vice-chancellor for the management of the university press. The proposal came to nothing, because the university determined to keep the property in their own hands. Early in the following year Bowyer took Nichols into partnership, returning to his father half the apprentice fee (Lit. Anecd. iii. 286), and in 1767 they removed from Whitefriars to Red Lion Passage, Fleet Street. In 1774 they jointly edited ‘The Origin of Printing, in two Essays [by Dr. Middleton and Meerman]. With occasional Remarks and an Appendix.’

Nichols's important literary work began in 1775, when he edited an additional volume of Swift's ‘Works,’ which was followed by ‘A Supplement to Dr. Swift's Works, with Explanatory Notes,’ in two volumes, in 1776 and 1779. In 1776 he edited the ‘Original Works’ of William King, D.C.L. [q. v.], in three volumes. In these, as in several subsequent undertakings, Nichols received considerable assistance from Isaac Reed, who, like Richard Gough, Dr. Richard Farmer, Dr. Birch, Dr. Parsons, Warton, Sir John Pringle, and others, had already been attracted by the young man's antiquarian tastes. Bowyer died in 1777, and left to Nichols, who was an executor, the residue of his personal estate, after numerous bequests (ib. iii. 289). Nichols erected a monument to his ‘patron’ at Leyton (Lysons, Environs of London, iv. 169). In the same year (1778) he joined a friend, David Henry, in the management of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and from 1792 until his death he was solely responsible for that important periodical, and himself constantly wrote for it. In 1780 he published, with the assistance of Gough and Dr. Ducarel (Lit. Anecd. vi. 284, 391), ‘A Collection of Royal and Noble Wills, with Notes and a Glossary;’ a valuable ‘Select Collection of Miscellaneous Poems,’ in four volumes, followed by four more in 1782, in which he was aided by Joseph Warton and Bishops Percy and Lowth (ib. iii. 160, vi. 170); and the first numbers of the ‘Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica,’ which was completed, in eight volumes, in 1790, to be followed (1791–1800) by two supplementary volumes of ‘Miscellaneous Antiquities.’

Nichols had married, in July 1766, Anne, daughter of William Cradock. She died on 18 Feb. 1776, and in June 1778 he remarried Martha, daughter of William Green of Hinckley, Leicestershire, by whom he was father of John Bowyer Nichols [q. v.] In 1781 Bishop Percy was godfather to another of Nichols's sons, Thomas Cleiveland, who died on 2 April of the following year. Nichols was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London, and he became an honorary member of the Society of Antiquaries at Edinburgh in 1781, and received a similar honour from the Society of Antiquaries at Perth in 1785. In 1781–2 he was in correspondence with the Rev. William Cole on literary matters, and promised to visit Cole, in company with Steevens, in 1783 (Addit. MSS. 5831 f. 128 b, 5993 f. 71, 6401 f. 149). In 1782 he went with Gough on an antiquarian pilgrimage to Croyland and Spalding, and experienced great courtesy from the family of Maurice Johnson, founder of the Gentleman's Society at Spalding (Lit. Anecd. vi. 125). At this time, too, Nichols became an intimate friend of Dr. Johnson, whose ‘Lives of the English Poets’ were then passing through his press. Nichols often had to appeal for ‘copy,’ and Johnson frequently asked for books he required, and thanked his correspondent for information. On 20 Oct. 1784 Johnson wrote from field, ‘I hope we shall be much together;’ but in December Nichols was at Johnson's funeral (correspondence presented by Nichols to the British Museum, Addit. MS. 5159; Lit. Anecd. ii. 553–5). Murphy says that Nichols's attachment to Johnson was unwearied. They frequently met at the Essex Head Club (ib. vi. 434; Boswell, Johnson, ed. Croker, 1853, pp. 666–7, 674, 711, 789, 794).

In 1781 Nichols published his ‘Biographical Anecdotes of Mr. Hogarth, and a Catalogue of his Works, with occasional Remarks,’ in which he was much assisted by Steevens and Reed. Half a dozen copies of a portion of this book had been struck off in 1780, one of which is in the British Museum, and subsequent editions, considerably enlarged, appeared in 1782 and 1785. Walpole, who was a friend of Nichols (Lit. Anecd. i. 696), said that this account of Hogarth was more accurate and more satisfactory than that given in his ‘Anecdotes of Painting.’ A large quantity, but by no means all, of the original material is utilised in ‘Anecdotes of William Hogarth,’ issued by John Bowyer Nichols in 1833 (see notice by William Bates in Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 97). Afterwards Nichols and Steevens published ‘The Genuine Works of William Hogarth,’ in three volumes, 1808–17. A few copies of a slight ‘Life’ of Bowyer had been printed in 1778 for the use of friends; in 1782 appeared a large quarto volume, ‘Biographical and Literary Anecdotes of William Bowyer, Printer, F.S.A., and of many of his learned friends. By John Nichols, his apprentice, partner, and successor.’ Of this work, which was in its turn to be the nucleus of a much larger undertaking, Walpole wrote shrewdly: ‘I scarce ever saw a book so correct as Mr. Nichols's “Life of Mr. Bowyer.” I wish it deserved the pains he has bestowed on it every way, and that he would not dub so many men great. I have known several of his heroes, who were very little men’ (Letters, viii. 259). In the same year Nichols edited the third edition of Bowyer's ‘Critical Conjectures and Observations on the New Testament,’ with the assistance of Dr. Henry Owen and Jeremiah Markland (Lit. Anecd. iv. 299); and in 1783 he brought out, with a dedication to Owen, a second edition of Bowyer's ‘Novum Testamentum Græcum.’ In that year, too, Domesday Book was published on a plan projected by Nichols.

Nichols's edition of the ‘Epistolary Correspondence of the Right Rev. Francis Atterbury, D.D., with Historical Notes,’ was begun in 1783 and completed in 1787. An enlarged edition appeared in 1799, with an additional fifth volume, which contained a memoir of the bishop. In conjunction with the Rev. Ralph Heathcote, Nichols revised the second edition of the ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ 1784, adding some hundreds of new lives; and he afterwards greatly assisted Chalmers in the enlarged edition of 1812–17. In 1785 appeared ‘Miscellaneous Tracts by the late William Bowyer and several of his Learned Friends. Collected and illustrated, with Occasional Notes, by John Nichols.’ Bishop Percy was in correspondence with Nichols in 1782–3 respecting an annotated edition of the ‘British Essayists’ (Lit. Illustr. vi. 570–6), and the valuable six-volume edition of the ‘Tatler’ appeared in 1786, the principal merit of the work being due to Dr. John Calder, who had at his disposal the notes collected by Dr. Percy. The ‘Spectator’ and ‘Guardian,’ less fully annotated, in which Nichols had little share, followed in 1789, and between 1788 and 1791 Nichols published Steele's ‘Correspondence,’ and a number of his less-known periodicals and pamphlets, which will be more fully described below. In 1787 he edited the ‘Works, in Verse and Prose, of Leonard Welsted, esq., now first collected, with Notes and Memoirs of the Author.’

Nichols was elected, in December 1784, a common councillor for the ward of Farringdon Without, but he lost the seat in 1786 after a violent party collision. Next year, however, he was unanimously re-elected, and was appointed a deputy of the ward by John Wilkes, who was its alderman. When Wilkes died in 1797, Nichols withdrew from the common council, but in the following year he was induced again to accept a seat, which he retained until 1811. He was hardly suited for political life, as he detested party warfare. In 1786 he had joined Dr. John Warner and Dr. Lettsom in a scheme for the erection of a statue to John Howard in St. Paul's Cathedral (ib. iv. 673, 682), and in 1793 land for a sea-bathing infirmary at Margate was bought in the names of Nichols, Dr. Lettsom, and the Rev. John Pridden (Lit. Anecd. ix. 220). Nichols was much distressed in 1788 by the death (29 Feb.) of his second wife, in her thirty-third year, a few weeks after the birth of a daughter (Gent. Mag. 1788, i. 177, 274).

The ‘Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, illustrated with Historical Notes by John Nichols,’ was published, with Gough's assistance, in 1788. A third volume was added in 1805, and part i. of a fourth volume in 1821. A new edition of the whole work appeared in 1823, in three volumes. In 1790 Nichols published ‘The Plays of William Shakspeare, accurately printed from the Text of Mr. Malone's edition, with select explanatory Notes,’ in seven volumes; and in that year ‘Peter Pindar’ (Wolcot) satirised him in ‘A Benevolent Epistle to Sylvanus Urban, alias Master John Nichols, Printer,’ and in ‘A Rowland for an Oliver, or a Poetical Answer to the Benevolent Epistle of Mister Peter Pindar’ (Works of Peter Pindar, 1794, ii. 358, 367–89, 399–409). Wolcot suggested that Nichols was himself quite ignorant of antiquarian matters, and depended on Gough, Walpole, Hayley, Miss Seward, Miss Hannah More, and other contributors to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ His books were by hirelings, the blunders only being Nichols's, yet he was for ever speaking and dreaming of himself ‘and his own dear works.’

The first two parts of ‘The History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Leicester’ were published in 1795. This work, Nichols's most important effort, and considered by himself his ‘most durable monument,’ was completed in 1815, and forms eight folio volumes. Gough again rendered valuable assistance; Nichols and he made annual excursions together, and regularly visited Dr. Pegge at Whittington (Lit. Anecd. vi. 270, 301). Several of Nichols's earlier topographical writings had been essays towards the county history. The ‘Illustrations of the Manners and Expences of Ancient Times in England,’ a scarce volume, appeared in 1797 (ib. ix. 196). His next important undertaking, ‘The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, D.D., arranged by Thomas Sheridan, with Notes, Historical and Critical. A new edition, in nineteen volumes, corrected and revised by John Nichols, F.S.A.,’ was published in 1801, and was reprinted in 1803 and 1808. It had been in preparation as early as 1779 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. pt. x. p. 347). Nichols seems to have thought that rather free use was made of his work in Scott's edition of 1814 (Lit. Illustr. v. 396–7).

Nichols retired from business to a great extent in 1803, living with five of his daughters at his native village of Islington. In 1804 he ‘attained the summit of his ambition,’ when he was elected master of the Stationers' Company. He gave a bust of Bowyer and several paintings to the company, including portraits of Steele and Prior, which had belonged to the Earl of Oxford (Lit. Anecd. iii. 584, 603), and in 1817 he transferred to the company 500l. four per cent. annuities, to be added to money left by Bowyer for deserving compositors. On 8 Jan. 1807, through a fall in his printing office, he fractured his thigh (Gent. Mag. 1807, i. 79), and on 8 Feb. 1808 a calamitous fire occurred at the office, by which everything, except the dwelling-house, was destroyed (ib. 1808, i. 99). Nichols lost nearly 10,000l. by the fire beyond the insurance, and the entire stock of most of his books was destroyed.

Nichols did not, however, allow himself to be crushed by his misfortunes. He had already lost 5,000l. by the ‘History of Leicestershire,’ but he felt that he was in honour bound to complete the work (Lit. Illustr. vi. 588–90). In 1809 he edited, in two volumes, ‘Letters on various subjects to and from William Nicholson, D.D., successively Bishop of Carlisle and of Derry, and Archbishop of Cashel;’ published an enlarged edition of the ‘Epistolary Correspondence of Sir Richard Steele’ (afterwards giving the manuscript letters to the British Museum); edited Pegge's ‘Anonymiana, or Ten Centuries of Observations on various Authors and Subjects, compiled by a late very learned and reverend Divine;’ and wrote ‘Biographical Memoirs of Richard Gough, Esq.,’ which appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for March and April, and afterwards in pamphlet form. These were followed in 1811 by a new edition of Fuller's ‘History of the Worthies of England,’ in two quarto volumes, and in 1812–15 by the ‘Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century,’ an invaluable bibliographical and biographical storehouse of information, in nine volumes, being an expansion of the earlier ‘Memoirs of Bowyer.’ Six volumes of a supplementary work, ‘Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century,’ appeared between 1817 and 1831, two being published posthumously, and John Bowyer Nichols added two more volumes in 1848 and 1858. This work contains much of Nichols's correspondence, but is not so useful as the ‘Literary Anecdotes.’ In 1821 Nichols wrote a long preface to the general index to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1787–1818), in which he gave a history of the magazine. Though his sight was failing, much other work followed, including ‘The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First,’ in four quarto volumes, published posthumously in 1828.

Nichols died suddenly on Sunday, 26 Nov. 1826, after a day spent calmly with his family at his house in Highbury Place; he was buried in the neighbouring churchyard. He had enjoyed wonderful health and spirits throughout his long life. For many years he was registrar of the Royal Literary Fund. He was also a governor of the City of London Workhouse, a corporation governor of Christ's Hospital, and of Bridewell and Bethlehem Hospitals, and treasurer of St. Bride's Charity Schools. Among his numerous friends, not already mentioned, were Sir John Banks, Dr. Hurd, Sir John Fenn, Sir Herbert Croft, and Edward Gibbon. His old friend Gough, of whom Nichols wrote, ‘The loss of Mr. Gough was the loss of more than a brother—it was losing part of myself’ (Lit. Anecd. vi. 315, 331), left him 1,000l., with 100l. to each of his six daughters (see list in Lit. Illustr. viii. 74). Nichols was a great collector of manuscripts and antiquities left by other antiquaries; and his own library, with some books from another library, were sold by Mr. Sotheby on 16 April 1828 and the three following days, and realised 952l.

There are several portraits: (1) painted by Towne, 1782, engraved by Cook, and published in ‘Collections for Leicestershire,’ and ‘Brief Memoirs of John Nichols;’ (2) painted by V. D. Puyl, 1787; (3) drawn by Edridge, published in Cadell's ‘Contemporary Portraits;’ (4) drawn by J. Jackson, R.A., æt. 62, published by Britton, and given in ‘Literary Anecdotes, vol. iii.; (5) painted by Jackson, mezzotint by Meyer, published in ‘History of Leicestershire;’ (6) painted by Jackson, 1811, engraved by Basire, published in Timperley's ‘Encyclopædia of Literary and Topographical Anecdotes;’ (7) painted and engraved by Meyer, 1825, published in ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for December 1826. There is also (8) a bust by Giannelli.

The following are the principal works, not already mentioned: 1. ‘Islington; a Poem,’ 1763. 2. ‘The Birds of Parnassus,’ 1763 and 1764. 3. ‘Some Account of the Alien Priories’ (from manuscripts of John Warburton, revised by Gough and Ducarel), 1779. 4. ‘Biographical Memoirs of William Ged, including a particular Account of his Progress in the Art of Block-printing,’ 1781. 5. ‘The History and Antiquities of Hinckley in Leicestershire,’ 1782 and 1813. 6. ‘The History and Antiquities of Lambeth Parish’ (with Ducarel and Lort's aid), 1786. 7. ‘The History and Antiquities of Aston, Flamvile, and Burbach in Leicestershire,’ 1787. 8. ‘The History and Antiquities of Canonbury, with some Account of the Parish of Islington,’ 1788. 9. ‘The Lover and Reader, to which are prefixed the Whig Examiner,’ &c., 1789. 10. ‘The Lover, written in imitation of the Tatler, by Marmaduke Myrtle, gent., to which is added the Reader,’ 1789. 11. ‘Collections towards the History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Leicester,’ 2 vols. 1790. 12. ‘Chronological List of the Society of Antiquaries of London’ (in conjunction with Gough), 1798. 13. Jacob Schnebbelie's ‘The Antiquaries' Museum’ (completed by Gough and Nichols), 1800. 14. ‘Brief Memoirs of John Nichols,’ 1804. 15. ‘Some Account of the Abbey Church of St. Albans’ (by Gough and Nichols), 1813. Nichols was a constant contributor to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and some of his verses are in his ‘Select Collection of Poems;’ and he edited numerous works by Steele, Pegge, George Hardinge, White Kennett, Kennett Gibson, and many others.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecd. (especially vi. 626–37) and Lit. Illustrations, passim; Brief Memoirs of John Nichols (twelve copies printed by himself in 1804); Memoir by Alexander Chalmers in Gent. Mag. for December 1826 (reprinted as a pamphlet for private circulation); Lowndes's Bibl. Manual; Timperley's Encyclopædia of Literary and Typographical Anecdotes, 1842; Bigmore and Wyman's Bibliography of Printing, 1880; Nelson's History of the Parish of St. Mary, Islington, 1811, p. 343; Lewis's History and Topography of the Parish of St. Mary, Islington, 1842, pp. 130, 162, 176–80, 238, 239, 252, 383; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. i. 223, 4th ser. i. 97; Add. MSS. 5145 B f. 347, 5159, 5831 f. 128 b, 5993 f. 71, 6391 f. 103, 6401 ff. 149, 151, 24446 ff. 2–21, 27578 f. 118, 27996, 29747 f. 74, 33978 f. 98, 33979 ff. 120, 123.]

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