Nicholls, James Fawckner (DNB00)


NICHOLLS, JAMES FAWCKNER (1818–1883), antiquary and librarian, of Cornish ancestry, was born on 26 May 1818 at Sidmouth in Devonshire. His father was a builder at Sidmouth, and his mother a daughter of Captain James Fawkner of Plymouth. Nicholls was a precocious child, and is said to have committed to memory at the age of five the whole of the Book of Proverbs. In 1830 he went to sea with an uncle. Two years later he was sent to school at Kentisbeare for six months. He was then taken into the drapery business, and after a short time bought an establishment for himself at Benwick in the Isle of Ely. He next kept a school at Ramsey; and then removed to Manchester, where he became ‘traveller’ to a firm of paper-stainers. In 1860 he settled at Bristol, where he conducted for himself a paper-staining business for eight years. Finally in 1868 he was appointed city librarian of Bristol. Largely owing to his exertions the old city library, which had been founded in 1613, was reconstituted and extended into three free libraries, which he brought into a high state of efficiency.

Nicholls had from his earliest years devoted his leisure to antiquarian studies, and in 1876 was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In 1869 he published ‘The Remarkable Life, Adventures, and Discoveries of Sebastian Cabot.’ The book was well written, and was much quoted by Jules Verne in his ‘Explorations of the World;’ but was severely criticised by M. d'Avezac-Macaya, the ethnologist and traveller, and by H. Stevens, F.S.A., of Vermont, U.S.A. (‘Examen Critique’ in Revue Critique d'Histoire et de Littérature, 1870, and ‘Sebastian Cabot - John Cabot = 0’).

Nicholls next devoted himself to the history and antiquities of Bristol. In March 1870 he began the publication by subscription of a series of Bristol biographies. Only two appeared, viz. ‘Alderman John Whitson: his Life and Times,’ and ‘Captain Thomas James and George Thomas the Philanthropist.’ In 1874 he collected a series of articles originally contributed to Bristol papers, under the title ‘How to see Bristol: a Guide for the Excursionist, the Naturalist, the Archæologist, and the Man of Business;’ a second edition appeared in 1877. In 1881–2 appeared his magnum opus, ‘Bristol Past and Present, an illustrated History of Bristol and its Neighbourhood,’ two parts dealing with the civil history of the city being by Nicholls, and a third part treating of the ecclesiastical history by his colleague J. Taylor.

Nicholls died at Goodwick, Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, on 19 Sept. 1883. He was twice married, and left several children.

Besides the works mentioned above he published:

  1. ‘Old Deeds of All Hallow Church,’ 1875.
  2. ‘Bristol and its Environs,’ 1875, for the meeting of the British Association.
  3. ‘Penpark Hole, a Roman Lead Mine,’ 1879, and
  4. ‘The Old Hostelries of Bristol,’ 1882; papers reprinted from transactions of Bristol and Gloucestershire Archæological Society.
  5. ‘Description of a Find of Roman Coins at Filton, Bristol, 1880’ (from Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries).

[Biograph and Review, November 1881; Monthly Notes of Library Association, iv. 124; Academy, 6 Oct. 1883; Athenæum, 1 April 1882 and 29 Sept. 1883; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. Le G. N.