Biographical studies on Sir William R. Nicoll

Appendix 4: Biographical Sources concerning Sir William Robertson Nicoll

 

It is said that Newspapermen have their reputations written in sand/water and with their deaths, their names are no longer before people, and so they are forgotten. This may be compensated if there is a family that is justifiably proud of the achievements of their ancestor and have some opportunities of reminding the public of past events, personalities and glories. What follows are the major and significant references to the life and career of WRN.

 

In 1902, T.W.H. Crosland brought out a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ tirade against Scotsmen called The Unspeakable Scot.[1] “This is a book for Englishmen. It is also in the nature of a broad hint for Scotchmen.” Nicoll is one singled out for some humorous thrusts: “Let us give honour where honour is due. There are white marks even on the editor of the British Weekly. For quite two years past, his dropsical pennyworth has been our constant solace in times of darkness and difficulty. Each week it contains a lengthy and helpful letter by one ‘Claudius Clear’… and being a Scotchman, ‘Claudius’ is, of course, omniscient and infallible. That is where the absurd beauty of him comes in. That … is why one reads the British Weekly. Do you wish to know how to run the Times? Would you care to be instructed in ‘the art of conversation’? Are you anxious to learn what is really meant by ‘good manners’? … or indeed on any other matter under the sun – from ‘Vanity’ to ‘Samuel’ – why you just turn up ‘Claudius’ and there you are; two columns which settle the question swiftly and forever”.[2] Crosland makes use of Nicoll’s material, particularly his British Weekly article ‘English and Scotch’, but then he gives Nicoll his own chapter, ‘The Scot in Journalism’. Crosland informs his readers, “He is all for Nonconformity and the appraisement of healthy and improving literature. Each of his papers is a paper for the bosom of the family and the Minister’s Monday … on every issue of these handsome publications, Dr. Nicoll stamps the impress of his own engaging personality. I have heard it said by an admirer of his that he is three men – a Scotch divine, a judge of letters, and a journalist who never forgets that his main business in life is to sell papers. … Any author who is doing well – that is to say, any author whose record of sales entitles him to be considered a success – may always reckon on a large hospitality in Dr. Nicoll’s journals … I do not say that there is any terrific harm in this species of enterprise. That it pleases the mass of mankind and therefore sells papers goes without saying. On the other hand, it is quite subversive of the best interests of letters, and therefore I am inclined to think, and I set it down with great sorrow, which in spite of his devotional connections Dr. Nicoll is, if he has any force in letters at all, a distinctly dubious and undesirable force”.[3] What Nicoll thought of this assault on his work and dignity is not recorded, but doubtless, he took it in good part.

 

In 1903 Jane T. Stoddart, Nicoll’s assistant editor, published her account of Nicoll’s life in the ‘New Century Leaders Series:’ W Robertson Nicoll LLD (Editor and Preacher) and published by S W Partridge. This was, of course limited by date; it ended around 1902, and was limited in that it was heavily dependent on the lectures and talks that Nicoll had given, particularly about his early life. Nicoll’s later biographer used the broad outline and considerable detail of the book; however, the book retains considerable local colour and was obviously written when Nicoll was a force in the land to be reckoned with. His activities in opposing the then current Education Bill and his support for the Passive Resistance Movement are particularly prominent. It was a portrait that Nicoll himself would – and obviously did – approve; indeed, it seems to be clear that he was of ‘great help’ in the preparation of the volume.

Jane Stoddart was a loyal and tireless worker, like her chief. She later brought out, at the encouragement of R. Percy Hodder Williams ‘at whose kind suggestion this book was written,’ [dedication] her reminiscences as My Harvest of the Years.[4] Again, her chief is portrayed with loyalty and sympathy. She conveys her own genuine sense of privilege in working for him. This is touchingly put at the end of her book: “I am sure that they [her parents] would have shared my thankfulness that so great an Editor as William Robertson Nicoll not only introduced me to London journalism, but kept me with him to the end. I can say in all sincerity with Gustav Freytag’s veteran soldier in The Ancestors: ‘I shall carry to the dear angels this much at least of credit that I rode with the noblest lord in Thurgingia. To none was he untrue and no spear ever struck him from horseback. But I was his marshal.”[5]

On Nicoll’s death the British Weekly put out a Memorial Issue (May 10 1923), with Jane Stoddart writing ‘A personal biography of Sir William’ and the following weeks (May 17 & 24) there were many tributes for the man and his achievements. Some comments and reflections are, as one would expect at such a time, over blown and exaggerated, but also many touches of real insight and appreciation. Jane Stoddart was also responsible for the article on Nicoll in the National Dictionary of Biography.

Interestingly the republished National Dictionary of Biography has included an article on Jane Stoddart, in which the editor (H.C.G. Matthew) raises the possibility of ‘heart feelings’ for her chief. He writes, “Nicoll’s wife [1st wife] died in 1894, an episode very carefully related in Stoddart’s autobiography, but there is no direct mention of expectation of marriage on her part; Nicoll subsequently remarried, Stoddart remaining his constant assistant. She mentions no romances in her life.”[6] This is a wildly speculative insinuation, which the facts and his surviving family[7] would refute. Nicoll wanted a homemaker and Jane Stoddart, self-confessed that she could not cook, and invariably ate out.[8] It should also be added that Jane Stoddart was infinitely more valuable to Nicoll as his assistant at Hodder & Stoughton and his literary enterprises, than ever she would have been as his wife!

 

Nicoll’s friend the Rev. T.H. Darlow[9] successfully published the only complete, definitive and authorised biography in 1925. This was published as William Robertson Nicoll: Life and letters, by his old firm Hodder and Stoughton. He produced a fine biography, which manages to maintain a warm appreciative view of his subject with a degree of objectivity and candour that is surprising seeing that he produced the biography only two years after the death of his friend. Nicoll’s granddaughter[10] has remarked that initially it was felt to be wanting by the family, but soon became the settled text and interpretation of his life. He manfully sought to engage with Nicoll’s hand writing in his letters to his friends; however he did have Lady Nicoll to help him, and even his family maintain that she alone could ‘decipher’ his hand-writing. Such letters as he found from Nicoll he used, but Nicoll was never a good correspondent.[11]

It is the judgment of this study that Darlow was necessarily acquainted with the latter end of Nicoll’s life to such an extent that this has skewed his portrait in some important respects.

First, Darlow paid insufficient attention to the importance of preaching to Nicoll. This was an important element in what made Nicoll a success, and his commitment to encourage vibrant and real preaching was continually breaking out in his articles in the British Weekly. Nicoll was always a preacher. He had, in his early days wanted nothing else, than to be a successful popular preacher, in the mould of such pulpit performers as Spurgeon, Parker, or Whyte. Darlow came to know Nicoll only when he had become a force at Hodder & Stoughton – the last 25 years in particular – and it note worthy here to reflect on Darlow’s own statement about his writing the biography: “For six months I was fortunate enough to obtain the regular help of Miss Evelyn Smith, who had acted as Nicoll’s private secretary from October 1914 down to the end of his life. By her personal knowledge, her skill and accuracy, combined with her sympathetic insight and interest, she rendered invaluable service in the heavy preliminary work which the biography entailed”.[12] This possibly accounts for Nicoll’s early passion failing to get the emphasis and coverage it merited.

Second, Darlow was too close to his friend’s influence and the latter years eulogising estimates of Nicoll’s achievement, particularly those given immediately after his death in 1923, to be able to have much reflection and historical perspective and evaluation. That generation is long past, many of the significant names have gone and been forgotten, so that today there is needed a glossary to explain who they were. But Nicoll had full-blooded relationships with so many of the great personalities and leaders of his day.

Third, Darlow did not write a hagiography, but he was a close friend and he would be careful, rightly, not to be too incisive, particularly in deference to the family. However, though Darlow was not blind to some blemishes in his friend’s character and his attitudes, there is a need for closer look at his perceived faults. Nicoll could be controversial and was not above upsetting a number of people in his fields of journalism, politics and Church matters. Moreover, in considering Nicoll himself, it has been thought right to consider his personality and achievements in a fairly ‘no holds barred’ approach. It is the belief that this is the way that Nicoll approached his biographical subjects. He had an extraordinary range of inconsistencies, which baffled acquaintances and friends alike, and he had an extraordinary concern over what was written about him.[13]

Fourth, there is some information that has come into the public arena that Darlow just didn’t know about, and could not have the luxury to assess it, which a distance of time gives. The appreciation of Nicoll’s overall role in the progress of Hodder and Stoughton as a firm, Nicoll’s contribution to the success and perhaps ultimate failure of Lloyd George to return to power after 1922, these, and other elements of Nicoll’s career call for a wider appreciation of his life and times than Darlow could have hoped to give in 1925. Darlow, also, had to neglect any more systematic survey and appraisal of Nicoll’s writings. He does give some judicious quotes, and notes from an occasional address or lecture, but made no attempt to appraise the sweep of his publications, save to say that they were much appreciated. The truth is that most of his writing was ephemeral and have past into the archives, and are not seen as candidates for any republishing revival of interest.

Fifth, Darlow did not have time to examine Nicoll’s writings, save in a fairly general and anecdotal way. He is inclined to bring out, more often, things that folk remembered rather than statements Nicoll made. This tends to buy into the myth of ‘WRN’ rather than examine it closely, but in fairness, this would be what the family expected, and he did a good job. Darlow did not know or fully appreciate Nicoll, the ‘Scottish Evangelical Free Churchman’, and he had become somewhat awed by the ‘Golden Years’ of London (1897-1914). He tends to confuse Nicoll’s Free Church of Scotland status with ‘Free Church Nonconformity. Similarities there are, but they are very different and Nicoll would have made definite distinctions.

In 1926, two anthologies of Nicoll’s sayings: The Seen and the Unseen: From the religious writings of W. Robertson Nicoll, and People and Books: from the writings of W. Robertson Nicoll were published. Both were compiled by his wife and elder daughter [Constance Miles] and presented extracts from his body of writing arranged thematically. The pity for later researchers is that, although the extracts are grouped under theme headings, (‘The Christian Life’: ‘Preachers and Preaching’: ‘Immortality,’ etc) the extracts are just titled without any clue as to their origin. It must be doubtful as to whether the anthologies were a success, for though wit, insight, charm and style are evident, they only really work as the larger articles. Nicoll did not often write epigrammatically, he was ‘the master of the adequate word no more and no less’. These books neither help the researcher to appreciate the writer and his phenomenal success, nor give any insight into his motives for writing as he did.

 

The year 1927 saw the publication of Donald Carswell’s Brother Scots. This is a humorous biographical treatment of some contemporary Scottish worthies, all from the last fifty years. He writes on WRN as ‘Claudius Clear’, with Scottish incisiveness and down-to-earth comments on Nicoll’s achievement, “Willie pondered these things in his heart. He invariably wrote short sentences that always seemed to be clear and limpid, even when they were not”.[14] Yet there was a degree of insight and sincere warm appreciation, for Carswell wrote as a member of the liberal establishment, “He [Nicoll] died at Hampstead on May 4 1923, in his seventy-second year, the cleverest, shrewdest Scot of his generation”.[15]

 

Then in 1930, John Buchan published his Castle Gay and in it, he drew a portrait of a newspaper magnate Thomas Carlyle Craw. Buchan had a dislike for the kind of influence Nicoll had: Thomas Craw’s first journalistic success had been to find “a niche in a popular religious weekly, where under the signature of ‘Simon the Tanner’, he commented upon books, movements, and personalities.” “He must always be generalising, seeking for principles, philosophising; he loves a formula rather than fact; he is heavily weighted with unction; rhetoric is in every fibre. He has a mission to teach the world, and, as he walks the pavements, his head is full of profound aphorisms or moving perorations- not the least being the obituary which some day men will write of him”.[16] Buchan had his own disagreements with Nicoll, but his imagination produces much that does not fit Nicoll at all, however, there is, in the book, a satirical portrait of an influence, a presence and a style that many like Buchan disliked and resented.

 

The family remembered and celebrated a life rich in personal human contacts. Lady Nicoll published privately two volumes of her reminiscences as Catherine Robertson Nicoll: Bells of Memory (1933), and Under the Bay Tree (1934). The Bells of Memory was her personal life before her marriage to WRN: the volume ends: “When I told my old nurse, all she said was, ‘how can you with them children!’ It was partly ‘them children’ that had appealed to me. Devoted as the father was, his work seemed to keep him occupied all day and every day in his great library at the top of the house, while the children were either at school, or at play at the bottom of the house”.[17]

Lady Nicoll’s second volume, Under the Bay Tree, was a record of her life with WRN and covered the years from 1897 to 1923. It represented a homely view of the public man and editor in the relaxed environment of his family and home. The routine of the home was organised around Nicoll’s life style, with Lady Nicoll not only coping well, but also able to make notes on some of the interesting visitors, neighbours and friends. Personal letters, people, pets and places visited all add considerable colour to understanding the man, and particularly WRN the family man, but his character and achievements, in the broader sense, must be found elsewhere.

 

Some friends have given their personal reminiscences. Annie S. Swan wrote about WRN in 1933 as a biographical chapter in Great Christians, (edited by R.S. Forman). This included some insights and warm appreciation of his support and concern for herself and her family. Her assessment was, “It is certain that he enabled many to hold on to the faith, and confirmed many feeble knees by the richness and beauty of his religious writings, which were inspired by his own unassailable belief in immortality. Out of my own knowledge and experience of his life and work over a period of thirty years, I can testify”.[18] Annie Swan also made appreciative references to WRN in her autobiography.[19] She wrote as a friend, colleague and also the vantage point of being the wife of the Nicoll family’s personal doctor (James Burnett Smith). Her closeness to the Nicoll family was seen in the volume of her letters, which was edited by WRN’s daughter Mildred. The Letters of Annie S Swan[20] contained comments and appreciations of WRN, though the letters are personal and emphasise WRN’s involvement is with the Woman at Home magazine.

 

Then there was George H. Doran who included a warm, yet defining pen portrait of WRN, from the viewpoint of a publishing colleague from America. This was his autobiographical studies, Chronicles of Barabbas 1884-1934: “He never once disappointed my admirations – never could I find the slightest suggestion of feet of clay in my idol”.[21]

 A.S. Peake in Recollections and Appreciations, this was a collection of articles of autobiographical reminiscence written for the Holborn Review. For his article on WRN, he had been reading Darlow’s biography, which prompted him to write in 1927. Peake had many memories and insightful comments about WRN and his attitudes to people and events: “As editor of a religious newspaper, Nicoll had all the qualities essential to success … an indomitable worker … an instinct for what would interest the public … a fine literary taste”.[22]

In 1943 Carnegie Simpson, the biographer of Principal Rainy published some autobiographical comments in his book Reflections. There is relatively little on WRN, but some insightful remarks about colleagues and friends. “He [WRN] occasionally invited me to dine at the Devonshire Club to meet literary people; and it was amusing to hear his almost exaggeratedly Scotch voice along with their almost over-refined English accents”.[23]

For a time Anthony Deane had been neighbour and local vicar to the Nicolls. In Time Remembered he gives his memories, which included his time in Hampstead, where he “became intimate friends” with Nicoll. Deane took to task Denis Mackail, who had published a biography of J.M. Barrie, and wrote of Nicoll as ‘A very strange little clergyman indeed … He was fierce, autocratic, and delighted in his own power … Disagreement even from the highest quarters, he regarded as mutiny.’ Deane refutes this from his own knowledge and experience of WRN. “He was, indeed, great in friendship, and it is his friends who, as Sir James Barrie wrote, remember gratefully ‘his thousand kindnesses, his glorious enthusiasms, and the passion of his soul.”[24]

In 1947, Arthur Porritt referred to WRN in his book, More and More of Memories. He had known and worked for Nicoll and was always grateful for encouragement that he had received. He said that WRN “was three men in one – a mystic in religion, a litterateur with a shrewd eye for a best seller, and an ardent politician. This combination made him a successful editor, and, in the end, a powerful influence and a man to be feared. He had enemies and detractors.”[25]

 

On the Sixtieth Anniversary of the British Weekly [1946], Sir James Marchant wrote an appreciation of WRN. He remembered, “I met him on a number of occasions in his bedroom, where he did much of his work, with every window closed. … I liked to see him take a MS in his hands and seem to weigh it. Reading the preface, then the contents, turning to a chapter the subject, of which was familiar, then to the conclusion, and looking up from his glasses, [he said] ‘There is something in this, Marchant; take it home and give me a report how it can be improved’”.[26] In the same paper were some ‘Recollections of Sir William Robertson Nicoll’ by Rev. Dr. R.J. Campbell. This was a personal appreciation of Nicoll and the British Weekly: “Through the British Weekly he had profoundly and beneficially influenced British life at every vital point for a generation.”

Again in the same issue of the British Weekly, Nicoll’s elder daughter contributed a brief portrait of her father ‘The first editor of The British Weekly: A Pen Sketch by his Daughter’ – Constance Miles.[27] She wrote, “My father kept an unceasing watch on the health of the various religious denominations; took care to keep in touch with the innermost councils, and by his warm friendliness was a welcome guest when he was among the religious leaders of his day. … Looking back, I think I can see some of the causes, which made the British Weekly live and flourish for so long in the hands of a very delicate man. First, the perfect understanding he had with his publishers … [2] there was also a happy household background keeping away all possible worry from him. [3] His staff was intelligent and most loyal; he owed a great deal to his kind and clever secretaries. [4] He worked quickly. The religious leader had the most pains bestowed on it … He had a romantic life, singular power and authority, troops of friends, great success, and remained the most modest of men.”

 

On the 75th Anniversary of the British Weekly [1961], it was the turn of his younger daughter [Mildred Robertson Kirkcaldy] to give her tribute.[28] She wrote a simple personal appreciation of her father’s whole career, yet with several fresh touches. Such as, “He had the gift of being able to listen attentively to others, and of asking the right questions. After visiting Lord Fisher during the darker days of the Great War, he gave an account of the interview, remarkably dryly, ‘Fisher said he had never enjoyed a conversation more in his life. I think this is very likely. I could not have spoken more than a hundred words the whole time and he must have spoken considerably more than six thousand!” She concluded, “He did not expect, nor think it necessary, that every man of simple faith should be able to formulate an articulate system of theology but he believed that only through a great study of theology by leaders in all denominations could any constructive advance be made in ecumenical problems. To profess to substitute love for knowledge, ignoring Christian doctrines – which he called ‘the food of the soul’, was a temptation to be resisted: the more arduous way of learning to understand and assimilate the truths of revealed religion must be the starting point for any approach to real Christian union.”[29]

 

John Attenborough, with his personal experience and knowledge of Hodder and Stoughton, has not only written an informative history of the firm,[30] but he also deposited some archival material in the London’s Guild Hall Library. This gives many insights into WRN’s interaction with the firm’s founding fathers, with some analysis of Nicoll’s contribution to the firm’s overall success. Attenborough sought to sum up Nicoll’s influence on the firm, “Literary critic? Editor? Raconteur? Mystic? Preacher? Theologian? Publisher? He played all these roles in his life. But in the Hodder & Stoughton context, it must also be stressed that he was, au fond, a great teacher. It was the pupil-teacher relationship that was the basis of the lasting friendship between him and his one-time apprentice, Ernest Hodder-Williams.”[31]



[1] Crosland, T.W.H.: The Unspeakable Scot (Grant Richard, London 1902)

[2] Ibid 17-9

[3] Ibid 64-7

[4] Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1938 and serialised in the British Weekly in the same year

[5] Stoddart: Harvest of the Years op cit 279-280

[6] Matthew H.C.G.: ‘Jane Thompson Stoddart (1863-1944)’, New Dictionary of National Biography edited Professor H.C.G. Matthews (Oxford University Press, London 2000)

[7] Mrs Prudence Kennard, WRN’s granddaughter in conversations with the author

[8] Hine Sophie: ‘J.T.S. at play’, British Weekly Jan 4 1945: “Our J.T.S. could order a meal better than any woman I have ever met – or ever expect to meet. But she could not cook! And somehow she found out that I could, or she would always say so.”

[9] Thomas Herbert Darlow (1858-1927) Darlow had not only written many articles for the British Weekly, but was also a close personal friend, in fact one of that select group with whom Nicoll could enjoy a ‘twa some crack’. Lady Nicoll described Darlow as “another constant friend of my husband’s, [and] was minister at New College Chapel, Hampstead ... [he] came to Bay Tree Lodge at tea time every Thursday, my husband’s free day, and spent an hour or two with him. When in 1898, he became Literary Superintendent of the British and Foreign Bible Society and moved to Northwood he would come on Fridays at six o’clock and tea would be carried up to him in the library. It must have been these regular weekly talks extending over thirty years, which enabled him to accomplish ... the difficult task of compiling a comprehensive biography. Nicoll, C.R. Under the Bay Tree, op cit 79

[10] Mrs Prudence Kennard, WRN’s granddaughter in conversations with the author.

 

[11] Only some of Nicoll’s letters (72) to Marcus Dods are in the Nicoll Papers in Aberdeen University Archives (MS 3518/ 32)

[12] Darlow: op. cit. Preface vii

[13] This later concern can be demonstrated even to his gathering folders of newsprint, not only containing reviews or mere mentions of his books, but also any published reference to him!

[14] Carswell Donald: Brother Scots (Constable and Company Ltd London 1927) 220

[15] Ibid 237

[16] Buchan, John: Castle Gay (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1930) 31, 29-30

[17] Nicoll C.R.: Bells of Memory (for private circulation, 1933) 180-181

[18] Swan Annie: ‘Robertson Nicoll’, Great Christians, edited R. S. Forman (Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London 1933) 385

[19] Swan Annie: My Life: An Autobiography, (Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd London 1934)

[20] Nicoll, Mildred R. (editor): The Letters of Annie S. Swan (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1945) 20-1

[21] Doran George H.: Chronicles of Barabbas: 1884-1934 (Methuen & Co Ltd London 1935) 80

[22] Peake A. S.: Recollections and Appreciations, edited W. F. Howard (Epworth Press London 1938) 25-26

[23] Simpson P. Carnegie: Reflections: mainly ecclesiastical but sometimes human (Nisbet & Co. Ltd London 1943) 42

[24] Deane Anthony C.: Time Remembered (Faber & Faber Ltd London N/D [c1945]) 157

[25] Porritt, A.: More and more of Memories, op cit 74-5

[26] Marchant, Sir James: ‘Advance! The British Weekly’, British Weekly, Nov 7 1946

[27] Miles, Constance: ‘The first editor of The British Weekly: A Pen Sketch by his Daughter’, ibid

[28] Nicoll, Mildred Robertson: ‘A 75th Anniversary Tribute to our first Editor’, British Weekly, Nov 9 1961

[29]Ibid.

[30] Attenborough, J.: A Living Memory, Hodder & Stoughton Publishers 1868-1975, op cit

[31] Ibid.,  92


Extra pages to WRN
Webpage icon The Decline of Nonconformity at a time of dominance
Webpage icon Religious Newspapers in the Nineteenth Century
Webpage icon Part 6: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1919-1923)
Webpage icon Part 5: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1914-1918)
Webpage icon Part 4: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1909-1913)
Webpage icon Part 3: Inventory of leading articles of the British Weekly (1901-1908)
Webpage icon Part 2: Inventory of British Weekly leading articles (1896-1900)
Webpage icon An Inventory of the leading articles from the British Weekly (1886-1895)
Webpage icon W.R. Nicoll's main published books